Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette is available on Netflix. Cameron Esposito’s Rape Jokes is available on her website.
Six years ago, at the Largo in L.A., comedian Daniel Tosh declared that jokes about rape were inherently hilarious. When a woman in the audience called out that, actually, rape isn’t funny at all, Tosh reportedly responded, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, five guys right now?”
Comedy fans are used to funny men (and Tosh) taking a combative stance toward their audiences, especially women; we’re used to being the punching bags, and many of us have learned to take it in good stride lest we be labeled frigid, humorless bitches. In her new stand-up special Nanette, out on Netflix, Australian comic Hannah Gadsby quips that back in the old days, a lesbian was simply any woman who didn’t laugh at a man’s joke.
But Nanette finds Gadsby, who is gay, adjusting the goalposts — reorienting our view of who gets to be angry and make people uncomfortable, of who gets to dish it and who has to sit there and take it. Nanette, which Gadsby is performing through June 30 at the Soho Playhouse in New York, is very funny, but it seems almost inaccurate to call it a comedy show. It’s more like a humorous yet serious treatise on comedy and how it can, intentionally or not, normalize the status quo. What do all those angry white male comics have to be so upset about, anyway? If they’re having a tough time, Gadsby jokes, the rest of us are screwed.
The relationship between a comedian and her audience, Gadsby posits, is an “abusive” one — making a crowd laugh is simply releasing them from a tension that the comic herself has created. Born in a small town in Tasmania, where homosexuality was a crime until 1997, Gadsby describes her sense of humor as inseparable from her identity. “Do you know why I’m such a funny fucker?” she asks. Because laughter in real life is also all about releasing tension and, as a child, she “was the tension.” So she became a master diffuser, learning to lighten the mood and shift the focus off her difference by cracking a joke.
There’s sometimes a slightly didactic tenor to sets by LGBTQ comics, or at least those who use their gender identity as fodder for material. These performers aren’t just telling jokes but explaining, to often unforgiving club audiences, how the world looks from behind rainbow-tinted glasses. It’s an extra hurdle on top of the challenge of making people laugh, one that Gadsby leaps over with gusto. So does Cameron Esposito in her own new special, which she has pointedly titled Rape Jokes, and which the comedian released independently on her website last week, along with a request for donations to the anti-sexual violence organization RAINN.
Esposito’s new set continues her public examination of the presumption of comics like Tosh. In one memorable episode of Take My Wife, the 2016 series Esposito created for NBC’s now-defunct Seeso with her wife, fellow comic Rhea Butcher, the two who play versions of themselves have to follow a more famous male comedian whose set includes a rape joke. Afterward, he apologizes to Butcher, explaining that he didn’t know she was a survivor of sexual assault. “I am, too,” Esposito mentions. “I am, too,” a random woman on the street chimes in. And another, touching up her makeup in the bathroom. And a male comic in the club’s green room. And a woman sitting in bed with headphones plugged into her laptop. The scene is basically a pre-hashtag MeToo moment.
Which is to say, this is a topic that Esposito has been marinating in for some time. Like Nanette, Rape Jokes is in part a deconstruction of comedy itself, particularly the debates in recent years over what should, or shouldn’t, be acceptable in a stand-up set. “I don't know how familiar you are with stand-up comedy,” Esposito says early in the new special, launching into a bit about comics who complain about “P.C. culture.” “I’m pretty familiar with it.”
Just as Gadsby questions a white male comic’s onstage anger, Esposito dismisses the right of a comedian to say certain words that audiences — especially women and minorities — will likely find offensive. She doesn’t stop there: She suggests that if such a comic really needs those words to do his job, well, then, “I am a better stand-up comic than you.” And she’s careful to make the distinction between the right to say offensive things and the expectation that it’s somehow un-American to be criticized — or to lose favor, or even your job — for saying offensive things. Comics who cry “censorship” in the case of the latter, Esposito says, are using the wrong word: “Feedback. You’re getting feedback.”
In ways both implicit and explicit, Rape Jokes and Nanette lay bare the extent to which men have written the rules — of stand-up comedy, of sexism, of the behaviors we deem criminal and those we chuckle at as if it’s all in good fun. We talk about sexual assault in such an unsophisticated way, Esposito says, because the conversation has for so long been driven by men who insist that if they, say, can’t comment on their female coworker’s appearance, “My balls will fall off.”
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Both Gadsby and Esposito want to flip this script — to create a new definition of normal that isn’t just shorthand for straight, white and male. A man in a dress isn’t weird, Gadsby insists. “You know what’s weird? Pink headbands on bald babies.” Esposito jokes. “We talk about consent like it’s a very slippery boulder that we’re rolling up a very slippery mountain while we’re covered in butter,” recommending straight people treat sex more like gay people do. With gay sex, she says, there is no “standard sex act” and no bases to hit: “You’re just running through an open field.” Now, doesn’t that sound nice?
It does when Esposito says it, anyway, in part because of her patient, mollifying tone. Minorities in America are all too used to having to go high when others go low, and Esposito embodies the frustration and resignation of having to be the bigger person.
For Gadsby, though, that approach has its limits. Both comics end their specials with earnest pleas delivered especially to the men in the audience to get it together — to be, as Esposito puts it, a “person of consequence,” someone who gets in the way to help those who are more vulnerable. While Rape Jokes is a more standard hour of joke-telling, in Nanette, Gadsby strains against the impulse to end every joke with a punchline. To diffuse the tension as such would be a cop-out. She wants the audience to sit with it. Early on, she confesses that she’s been questioning her own commitment to comedy. She’s built her career on self-deprecating humor, but when the person speaking is already on the margins, “It’s not humility; it’s humiliation. I put myself down in order to speak, in order to seek permission to speak. And I simply will not do that anymore.”
By the end of Nanette, Gadsby follows through on her threat. She’s the one with the microphone, and she wants us to hear what she has to say — even if it most certainly won’t make you laugh. In this stand-up special, there is no salvation in laughter; the early jokes are simply the grease she uses to pry open the door to her confession, and her outrage. And when she does, it’s powerful, uncomfortable and searingly angry. It is, in other words, the appropriate response to life in America in 2018. There are too many people who are all too happy to treat the pain of marginalized people as a joke. It’s time we stopped laughing it off.