Hannah Gadsby and humourlessness

Hannah Gadsby, known primarily for her 2018 Netflix special, Nanette, has created another show which has just started touring. In The New Yorker, Hilton Als wrote a less than glowing review. Rather unfairly, given I haven’t seen the second show myself, his response has distilled some of my own suspicions. Justly commended for her attempts in Nanette to produce work that gets beyond the specifically feminine tendency to comic self-deprecation and which instead acknowledges, and stays with, her own trauma; for me, there was also a lingering sense of self-righteousness.  Als’s review suggests that this is more strongly in play in the new show, given that she has now secured an audience for her brand of enlightenment. Indeed it sounds like one way of describing her approach is as a kind of steadfast humourlessness, a mode which Lauren Berlant describes as ‘a fundamental intractability in oneself or others.’ While it’s important to remember that humorlessness should not always be seen as the counterpart to the ‘whatever appears as the generosity of humour’ and moreover, that distinguishing ‘foolish righteousness from principled commitment’ (Berlant 314) can be hard; the ‘radical cramping of mobility’ (308) at the heart of the humourless encounter should be noted. Gadsby might argue that this is a necessary correction – after too much mobility, too much accommodation – all perhaps typically feminine responses – now she refuses to budge.  And that refusal is hard to stomach.

Berlant, Lauren, ‘Humorlessness (Three Monologues and a Hairpiece)’. Comedy, an issue, special issue of Critical Inquiry, vol.43, no.2, 2017, pp. 305-340. University of Chicago Press Journals, doi-org.ezproxy.is.ed.ac.uk/10.1086/689657

© Emma Sullivan 2019.

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