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Hannah Gadsby on the Real ‘Nanette’ and Whether She’s Really Quitting Comedy After Her Netflix Special

For an artist who is wowing audiences with her eloquence, Hannah Gadsby finds herself at a loss for words when talking about the reaction to her Netflix special, “Nanette.”

“It’s a bit much,” she admits with a laugh. “I’ve had to go into hiding.”

The show, named after a judgmental barista the self-described “butch” lesbian Gadbsy encountered, hit Netflix in late June. It became an instant viral sensation, prompting praise on social media from everyone from Jon Favreau to Kathy Griffin to Roxanne Gay. Startlingly frank and personal, it blends standup with art history and incisive commentary on the very nature of what comedy is. It also features the Tasmania native declaring she is quitting comedy, something her legions of new fans are sure to take issue with.

The special hit while Gadsby was still in New York, touring with the show, and she admits she could feel an immediate change. “To get recognized in New York is weird because that’s definitely a place you shouldn’t be recognized,” she notes. “I don’t quite know what to make of it.”

Gadsby sounds overwhelmed, stunned and grateful for the reception and is looking forward to some needed time off. “It’s really a wonderful moment,” she says. “I have been dipping in to see what people are saying, but it’s like a river. The only thing you need to know about a river is that it’s flowing.”

The show will flow one more time at the Just for Laughs Comedy Festival in Montreal, where she’ll perform on July 26.

The response to your show has been so overwhelming; could you ever have anticipated such an impact?
No. No. And what I couldn’t have anticipated is twofold. First, it seems incredible that such a difficult subject matter would get a wide reception. Secondly, being the person I am, I don’t dream like that. I always kept my expectations in life very tame. Someone asked me the other day if I’ve pinched myself and I said, ‘No, I’m too scared to. Because if I really did wake up and this was all a dream…what an asshole!’”

You knew the show was affecting people as you’ve performed it live many times. But now, you’re on a worldwide platform like Netflix — how does that change things?
It means that I don’t have to keep doing it, which is an enormous relief. But it’s staggering. In a room, I’m there and it’s hard for people to resist in the moment. It’s hard to be disrespectful when you’re in the same space as a person. But now I’m in people’s private spaces and homes and breaking the contract essentially of what stand-up comedy should be – light entertainment. So I am astounded and grateful.

Why do you think it has resonated so much with people?
It’s hard for me to know because so much of myself is poured into this and I have been living it for the last 18 months. I think it’s going to take some time for me to understand. I think it may have something to do with being so honest and vulnerable and taking risks. And it’s bigger than me and I’m not sure I comprehend it completely.

Did you find that performing it over and over was helpful in healing? Did you find it sometimes got difficult to perform things you’ve done times before?
Every day’s a new day and it always comes from the audience. The mood, what I bring to it from my day, it’s a surprising beast. There are times I’ve been surprised by how emotional I can be on stage. I can be performing it up to a point and feeling fine and something will happen in the room and I feel a real sucker punch from my own words. When I started performing it, I was a lot angrier. I think it was part of the grieving process, for a while I was genuinely distressed. Near the end I’ve learned to be emotional without being distressed. I think I reached a point of emotional maturity near the end of it.

But have you ultimately found it cathartic to tell your story?
Yes. I do believe so. Like I said, I need to rest. I need to take stock before I can understand it but I definitely feel more connected to the world in a way that sort of made me realize how disconnected I was. How unseen and unheard I felt I was. And it’s now got a life of its own so I think I need to step away and learn how I feel about it without thinking too much about what other people are making of it. It’s time to let it have a life beyond me and let it go.

Everyone wants to know: are you really quitting comedy? It seems bittersweet that you would perform a show about leaving comedy and find so much success with it.
I don’t think I would have found the success if I hadn’t taken my place in the world apart. So in order to find this success, I really did need to declare I was quitting comedy and mean it. But you know, everyone’s allowed to change their mind.

People have commented on how you’re changing the standup game. Do you agree?
I don’t know. The idea that standup is a thing with defined boundaries is kind of ludicrous. How old is standup comedy? 40 years? I’m 40 years old, I haven’t stopped changing. And I hope I have a bit more growth in me. All I know is, I have a great deal of respect of anyone standing in front of a live audience and demanding and maintaining their attention.

Your show is named after a barista who made you uncomfortable and you thought you might build a whole show around, then realized you couldn’t. I’m just curious, do you know whatever became of the real Nanette? Did you ever see her again?
It’s interesting, because in the live show I talk about her but in the film version it was cut for time. I’ve never seen her since, I assume she’s still kicking about somewhere. She was just an older lady who I would normally love to talk to, but because of what I represented, we didn’t.

So you never spoke to Nanette?
No, there were no words. You know when someone looks at you like you’re scum of the earth. And no offense to Nanette, she might have just had a tough day. I was purely projecting.  I feel pretty bad because she was just getting on with her life. It’s one thing for me to open up this viral sensation upon myself but she’s just doing her thing.

There have been so many amazing people coming forth with praise. What’s been one of your favorite encounters?
One of the loveliest moments was when Monica Lewinsky came to the show and made an effort to come and thank me afterwards. I felt really good, I felt like I’d done something constructive. She’s one strong human, that one.

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