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The Not-So-Great Gadsby: How PC Rage Devoured Stand-Up Comedy

Poor stand-up comedy. For a few decades there, it was on a roll. It was a growth industry. Comedy clubs sprung up everywhere. Comedians proliferated. Most were lousy, but some were terrific. If it wasn't a golden age, it was silver, at least. The range of humor broadened and deepened. Comedians crossed all kinds of lines that hadn't been crossed before. Some comics were highly personal, some were dirtier than anyone a few years earlier could ever have imagined, others kept things relatively clean. Some were obsessed with politics, but their political views weren't always predictable. In any event, there were people in all these categories who were top-notch. A few of the best comedians went on to star in sitcoms -- Seinfeld, Roseanne, Everybody Loves Raymond, King of Queens -- that were among the best TV series of their time.

Then the Zeitgeist underwent a revolutionary shift. Top comics stopped performing at universities -- which had once been profitable venues that welcomed edgy humor -- because students had been taught to take offense at, well, almost anything. Before long, this mentality infected the mainstream culture, too.

Only the day before yesterday, a whole raft of female comedians, inspired by Joan Rivers and others, had made a name for themselves by being outrageous. But suddenly those women -- think Sarah Silverman, Amy Schumer, Chelsea Handler -- got infected with the political-correctness bug and stopped being funny. Instead of telling jokes, they lectured their audiences about identity politics and victim grievances.

When hosting jobs began opening up on the late-night talk shows, they didn't go to the wittiest comics out there; they went to staggeringly bland personalities like Jimmy Fallon and James Corden and the tiresomely left-wing Stephen Colbert. Others were tamed: the once wild and risible Jimmy Kimmel became a reliable PC mouthpiece. HBO, Netflix, and Comedy Central, aiming largely at millennial viewers (many of whom have never had any idea what funny is), filled their schedules with the mediocre likes of Trevor Noah and Larry Wilmore.

A lot of male comics -- the lousier ones -- went with the flow, filling their shows with virtue signaling. The lamer they were -- one thinks of Patton Oswalt and Aziz Ansari -- the more they seemed likely to graduate to stadium-audience status. The better male comics just kept plugging away, dealing with the groans at certain gags from audience members who weren't really offended but who, in the current culture, have been brainwashed into signaling offense at the mere mention of certain words. Some of the most brilliant comics -- such as Greg Giraldo and Patrice O’Neal -- actually kicked the bucket before the worst of this nonsense took off. Meanwhile, other first-class (and underappreciated) practitioners of the art -- Doug Stanhope, Norm MacDonald, Dave Attell -- somehow manage to keep their careers afloat, overshadowed by no-talents like Michelle Wolf, who has rocketed to fame of late because of her thoroughly unamusing material about the joys of abortion.

Then along came Hannah Gadsby. Until the other day I had never heard of her. She is a Tasmanian lesbian, she seems to be about forty, and for the last decade or so she's enjoyed a decent stand-up career in her homeland and at the occasional international comedy festival. But it's fair to say that she was relatively unknown to non-Aussie audiences until a few weeks ago, when her special Nanette was put up on Netflix. Now she's a superstar. Vox says that Nanette is “so meta and so thoughtful about the issues inherent to standup comedy as a genre that it seems to break through [the genre's] boundaries.” The Australian calls it “the hour of stand-up that has taken the world by storm.”

Well, it's definitely a storm of some kind. Even after all the hectoring and scolding by women comics to which TV viewers have been subjected in recent years, Nanette is a workout. It's seatbelt time. Gadsby herself admits as much in a piece she wrote for Elle: “I don’t think of Nanette as being a comedy show -- I see it as a sledgehammer.”

Admittedly, the show, which she has performed about 250 times around the world during the last couple of years, is not a sledgehammer from the start. The first three-quarters or so of this hour-long performance, filmed at the Sydney Opera House, are something just short of that. Like countless other comics, Gadsby wanders through her life so far, mining it for humor at her own expense. But she goes beyond the jokes, repeatedly getting the laugh and then pulling back and criticizing herself -- and, implicitly, her audience -- for having been satisfied, in the past, with her constant self-deprecation.

Why, she wonders aloud, is she so driven to put herself down? And why are people entertained by this? After telling a story that gets a laugh, she explains that there's more to it: in real life, she ended up getting badly beaten up. In addition, as she goes on to reveal, she's been raped not once but twice.

Even at this point, Gadsby goes back and forth between stopping her audience dead with something terribly serious and then cracking a joke to relieve the tension. She's excellent at this. The jokes themselves aren't great, but because the tension they're intended to relieve is so great, they do the job. It should also be said that Gadsby, line by line, is a master of timing. She's a genius at manipulating her audience emotionally and knows how to sell a joke. Plus, the arc of the whole show is impressive: it builds toward its close like a classic one-act dark comedy. To be sure, being with her, even during the more mirthful part of the show, is like being locked in a room with somebody who has a severe case of borderline personality disorder. Still, for most of its length, the thing is watchable -- and bearable.

But when it does reach its crescendo in the last ten or fifteen minutes, Nanette leaves comedy far behind. Suddenly there are no jokes to relieve the tension. The chummy woman who, thus far, has made it clear that she's full of rage about her past but has who's also given the impression that she's come to some kind of terms with it and certainly doesn't blame her audience for any of it, is suddenly an angry lesbian from Central Casting. She is suddenly the personification of the furthest man-hating extremes of the #metoo movement, an utterly humorless virago with a total lack of perspective (or at least the appearance thereof).

In an unsettling, unremitting j'accuse, she hurls all her fury -- not just over her rapes and beating, but over the years it took to come to terms with being gay, and over her continued inability to entirely quash her shame over being gay -- at the men in the audience. Especially, she specifies, the straight white men. Naturally, these being the times we live in, the more she savages them, the more they applaud. And after having promised that she's one comedian who's not going to make any Trump jokes, she lights into Trump -- not with anything remotely resembling a joke, but as part of a livid litany of famous men who've been accused of molesting women.

She insists that she's giving up comedy. She's giving it up because comedy isn't true, or true enough, to human suffering. You always have to excise the painful part and insert a punchline. She's done with that, she insists. She wants to bare her guts. She's sick of eliciting laughs by putting herself down. In that regard, she's the natural culmination of the whole process of shutting down stand-up in the name of PC. (By the way, she has since clarified that she's not really giving up comedy. Apparently it was just a useful trope.) And it's this that has won Nanette so many plaudits: it is the ultimate anti-standup act, a defining work of this stupid era.

Let me say this: the 250-odd performances of Nanette that Gadsby gave before finally putting it on film obviously didn't go to waste. If you regard Nanette as a one-woman drama -- in the same category, for example, as Vanessa Redgrave playing Joan Didion on Broadway -- you'd have to give her pretty high marks, not only for her performance but for her endurance. One imagines that doing this show regularly over a period of a couple of years is an emotional workout comparable to starring in a matinee of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? every day of those two years followed by Long Day's Journey into Night every evening.

In fact the whole thing seems like an exercise in masochism. She talks about wanting to stop putting herself down, but what is this show but an epic display of self-punishment? In her act, Gadsby insists she's not embracing the role of victim. Sorry, but that's exactly what she's doing. In any event, it's not comedy. “I think comedy needs to step up and grow up,” Gadsby told Elle. Well, for my part, I think Gadsby needs serious help. I'd add that part of growing up, if you've had a devastatingly difficult childhood or youth, is trying to build a civilized adult life atop its ruins. It's also important to realize that a great many other people, too, have endured torments as horrible as -- or, perhaps, believe it or not, even worse -- than you have. And that's what's at the heart of all art, high and low: identification, not accusation.