Hannah Gadsby is the Michael Jordan of standup in one way — her stated plans to retire shouldn’t be taken seriously.
“Nanette,” her performance that toured widely and was released on Netflix in 2018, was premised on the idea — not, seemingly, meant literally even in the moment — that Gadsby was walking away from stand-up. It made for a sentiment easy to get caught up in, one that bolstered Gadsby’s larger case that stand-up was built on the self-deprecation of the vulnerable. (That this is not universally true for all comics who are not straight white men was a fact that became easy to forget in the face of Gadsby’s clarifying certainty.) It was a system in which she would no longer willingly play a part, and thus, her “stand-up” career has ended, even as she now continues to perform comedy to audiences.
“Douglas,” her new special on Netflix, explicitly situates itself as post-”Nanette,” which means it must, among other things, justify its existence as the work of someone who said she was done — both good enough to bring Gadsby back and post-stand-up enough to distinguish itself as part of a project that is of comedy and apart from it. It succeeds in this, in the main. But watching “Douglas” onscreen (as opposed to, perhaps, being in the audience as it happens) has a somewhat distancing effect: Gadsby tends, more than ever, to generate more powerful applause lines than audience laughs, and to generate admiration more from her ability to plainly state her beliefs than through the comic sleight-of-hand at which she’s adept.
This isn’t new, exactly. But “Nanette” was a vehicle for a sort of bottled-up desire for change that felt — aided by its dropping at a moment defined by righteous anger following the revelation of various men’s sexual offenses — like it “needed to be said,” whatever that means. That special was, necessarily, a once-in-a-career thing, but there’s something of a lack of motivation to “Douglas”; Gadsby’s artful toggling between verbal trickery and blunt statements of her political project seems done more for its own sake than to change hearts or minds.
Which is fine! It is not Gadsby’s job, any more than it is any comedian’s, to convince. But Gadsby is so widely read by her fandom as an emissary from a more enlightened future that it can grow somewhat exhausting to face down her rightness as the jokes fall away. (In her preamble, Gadsby anticipates the complaint that she is not funny, a roundabout way of calling her shot and preemptively getting forgiveness.) Gadsby’s debate-champ ability to slide into a topic before the audience realizes where they’re headed works against her at times: Even an audience member convinced that vaccinations work and that getting vaccinated is the responsibility of each citizen could be forgiven for wondering how it happened as Gadsby declares “Polio is bad! And that is a fact, not a feeling!”
Her point, ultimately, is that the anti-vaxx fears of autism (said, erroneously, to bloom from the pediatrician’s syringe) are offensive to her, a person with autism. “I would much prefer,” she says, “to have autism than be a sociopath like you.” She describes the idea that vaccinations cause autism as a “toxic myth” and tells anyone who believes it that “your confidence is making you stupid. That’s how closed minds work: They don’t work. They’re closed for business.”
All of this comes after a legitimately funny joke about vaccinations not causing autism that made that exact point, without any of the throat-clearing or the vitriol. The vitriol, perhaps, is the point — Gadsby is angry, somewhat omnidirectionally, and the anti-vaccine movement is one that will make her no enemies among her audience for attacking; so too is the sexism of long-dead artists (a topic familiar from “Nanette”), which she takes on again through a slideshow depicting the male gaze in Renaissance art. All of this, too, has been preemptively defended against criticism by Gadsby situating the entire act before it began, instructing us that “in the middle of the show, I’m going to give a big old lecture.” The twist, she says, is that “it’s funny.”
Gadsby isn’t really over stand-up at all, not really. She still wants to make us laugh, between the moments when she’s getting us to think about loftier things. But “Douglas” indicates the limits of her humor in covering over the limits of her project when it comes to redressing all the ills she wants to fix. The applause ringing through “Douglas” suggests that what one comes to Gadsby for is the humor, but what one leaves with, by the artist’s own design, is a sense of having done activism simply by agreeing with her.