Hannah Gadsby has notes.
On a scorching May afternoon in Manhattan, the comedian is staying in the Gramercy Park Hotel between stops on her first U.S. tour for her new special, “Douglas.” Smartly dressed in a suit and pink enamel octopus pin (“my flourish”), Gadsby settles into a booth at the ground floor’s upscale Italian restaurant and notices something profoundly irritating about her surroundings.
“I had breakfast here this morning and I noticed a lot of men taking up space,” Gadsby muses, peering through her glasses at the many business lunches around her. “And I’m like, ‘Is that a thing I want?’ I watch these men — you know the men, who sit with their legs unnecessarily wide apart, there’s a table of them over there — and I just don’t know if that’s a thing I aspire to.”
She says it with a cascading laugh, a frequent mode of punctuation for her. But this idea of “taking up space” – who has the right, who should do it more, how it’s even possible – is one Gadsby has been thinking about a lot since her Netflix special “Nanette” launched her into the comedy stratosphere last summer.
On the one hand, Gadsby recognizes that her overnight success story puts her in a unique position to take up space like never before. “I went from extreme invisibility to extreme visibility,” Gadsby says. “I got the psychological bends — but I’ve been through worse.” She again unfurls a wide grin, but make no mistake: she’s quite serious. As “Nanette” reveals in hilarious and often excruciating detail, Gadsby is a masculine-of-center lesbian who grew up in a place where homosexuality was illegal (Australia’s Tasmania); she has been homeless; she is a survivor of physical and sexual assault. Marginalized all her life, she’s not used to being looked to at all, either as the role model or lightning rod of controversy as she has simultaneously become. As she said in “Nanette,” she mostly just identifies “as tired.”
“I think when you’re in a position where you’re visible you have to be [louder] for the little guys,” Gadsby allows. “I deal with the responsibility of being out and proud and even loud as much as I possibly can, because there are people who need to see me. I don’t need to see me,” she adds, wryly. “I see me every day. But I understand the importance of being a public person who can be representative of a minority.”
Particularly resonant with audiences was Gadsby’s stark retelling of her fraught coming out story, which she once mined for laughs before taking the pain of it seriously. “I didn’t set out to speak about anybody else’s experience other than my own and feel incredibly humbled to think that I may have articulated an experience felt by so many others all over the world,” Gadsby says. “Humbled and saddened, I guess.” This uneasy position translates, too, to her feelings about the idea of Pride as a celebration and state of being. “I think what I have, and it’s something I’ve had to work really hard at, is an absence of shame. That feels more important to me than an active position of pride.”
Gadsby’s somber meditations on these points made for some of “Nanette’s” most powerful moments – or, depending on whom you ask, its most controversial. A wave of righteous anger from some comedy fans, overwhelmingly men, contended that “Nanette” shouldn’t count as standup comedy at all. This reaction, Gadsby shrugs, doesn’t faze her. “What I find so funny about these men getting so angry about comedy is, for starters, it’s all made up,” she says. “Laughter is biological, human — and I’m not a straight white man, so that culture can f— off. I’m just not interested!”
Other things that can f— off, or at least deeply reconsider their choices, according to Gadsby: “A Star Is Born” (“If I woke up and someone I met yesterday was just watching me, they would not have a straight nose”); colonization (“‘manspreading’ is the definition of civilization”); “Game of Thrones” (“It’s a fantasy. There are dragons. Why are women getting raped?!”); Twitter founder Jack Dorsey (“Grow up! Talk to other people, take their opinions. No one knows everything, least of all you”). She freely dispenses pointed opinions on everything from Christianity’s interpretation of Adam and Eve (“a misogynistic horror story”) to Taylor Swift (“a can of Coke”). But Gadsby also values doing so with an informed opinion. “I don’t think you’re ever right to instinctively dislike something,” she maintains. “I don’t think it’s a valid opinion to just resist someone.”
One point of informed resistance is Louis C.K., the formerly acclaimed comedian whose propensity for masturbating at unconsenting women triggered a swift fall from grace. Gadsby’s done her research and finds his anger “fascinating,” but when told he has a new show, she scoffs. “Is it that new?” she posits. “I’ve known what’s coming with Louis C.K. for a long time. It’s him! That’s all he does. Him coming.”
Still, Gadsby maintains that she would never condone censoring him. “If I didn’t know Louis CK still had an audience and a voice, I’d probably happily retire,” she says. “But I can’t, can I?” She raises her eyebrows. “Let him go out there, let him do what he does. We have to know that there is a large audience for that, and that they’re allowed to vote.” As far as she’s concerned, C.K. and his fans’ dismissal of women’s safety is a crucial piece of the increasingly horrifying puzzle that is today’s political reality.
It’s no coincidence that our conversation soon turns to Alabama, which signed a prohibitively restrictive anti-abortion law into reality just a few days before our conversation. “They’re getting away with it because they’ve got into the branding really well. It’s not ‘pro-life,’” she sighs. “What a stupid f—ing statement! I’m ‘pro-life,’ but I had an abortion. That sits very comfortably in my head as a duality.”
Gadsby pauses. She shared many deeply personal stories in “Nanette,” but this wasn’t one of them. “Had I been in that state, under these laws, under these politics at that time in my life, I would be dead. It’s as simple as that.” There’s no trace of her affable chuckle as she locks eyes to emphasize this point. “I was assaulted, raped, and very, very vulnerable. How was I going to raise a child? I would have ended up dead. How is that pro-life? You can’t say women can’t have abortions and then provide absolutely no infrastructure to help them.”
Gadsby’s transparency and even defiant willingness to bare uncomfortable truths is – as millions discovered during “Nanette” — as jarring as it is breathtaking. For as forthright as she is on just about any subject that comes up, being a public figure doesn’t exactly come easily to her.
All Gadsby’s life, she’d felt “a little off.” She was often uncomfortable in social situations, overwhelmed by an ability to “feel sounds,” and prone to sharp mood swings. Having no reason to believe otherwise, she figured she was just bad at being a person. “I think sometimes people find me endearingly odd, and that’s fine,” she says. “But it is troubling when you don’t know what it is.” Then, shortly before the release of “Nanette,” Gadsby learned that she’s autistic — and was relieved beyond words.
Her entire life came into focus. Knowing her limits, she learned how to advocate for herself and be aware of potentially destructive environments. On a recent tour stop in Portland, Oregon, Gadsby was writing when she found herself furious and didn’t know why. It was a familiar feeling, except this time, she knew to gauge her surroundings and realized that her discomfort stemmed from a train blaring its horn outside. After years not understanding her relationship to the world, Gadsby has learned how to live a life that works for her.
“I used to really be guarded about my brain thoughts,” she says. “But I realized that what’s interesting about me is my brain. That’s why I wear a little octopus.” As she taps her pin, she revels in the fact that an octopus has nine brains, located all over its body. “I kind of feel like that with autism, because of my sensitivity to my environment. So I identify not only as ‘tired,’ but as ‘octopi.’”
Gadsby is already laughing at her own digression. “Where am I going with this? Oh, yeah…” she says, and it’s only a matter of moments before we’re off to the next singular brain thought, one that could only come from a tired octopus like Gadsby.