Hannah Gadsby’s ‘Douglas’ Is a Defiant, Frustrating Stroke of Genius
In her new special, the ‘Nanette’ comedian switches gears in a show that intentionally disappoints before it pays off. But will it work?
If Nanette was Hannah Gadsby’s attempt to, as the Tasmanain comedian put it in the show itself, “tell her story properly,” her new set, Douglas, finds her processing its aftereffects—and expanding it even further. It’s also, perhaps, her best troll yet.
In the special, which premiered on Netflix Tuesday, Gadsby wonders aloud why her audience is there—and what they’re expecting after she purged herself of some of her darkest experiences in Nanette. “Because I’m sorry, if it’s more trauma, I am fresh out!” She rails against (mostly male) comedians who spent months after Nanette’s release arguing that her show was not, in fact, comedy, but more of a “lecture,” a “glorified TED Talk,” or a “one-woman show.” (To that last accusation, she sputters, “No shit, Sherlock!”) And toward the end, Gadsby unspools one facet of her identity she had not previously explored on stage: her recently diagnosed autism.
Multiple times throughout Douglas, Gadsby says she’s performing a romantic comedy—implying that if you stick with her, you’ll fall in love with what she’s doing by the end. Getting there can be a little rough—but that is, as she points out early on, completely by design.
“You’re probably wondering why wouldn’t I start with my best foot forward,” Gadsby says in the special. “Why would I start off being a bit unlikable? Because this is a show about autism. And people with autism rarely make a good first impression. And most people tend to write us off because of that. So this is a show that rewards people who persevere—who go beyond their discomfort just to see what’s on the other side of the spectrum.”
It’s this structural decision that makes Douglas an even more ambitious and risky venture than Nanette. This show will almost certainly be less universally loved than its predecessor—but then again, that might also be part of Gadsby’s point.
At the top of Douglas, Gadsby removes one of the key elements of any stand-up special: suspense. As she noted in Nanette, a joke is basically a question with a surprise answer. But here she details, bullet point by bullet point, how the entire show will unfold. Even as she peppers in her usual humorous digressions, the summary is a slog. Before the set even begins in earnest, one can almost feel it hemorrhaging energy. It almost seems like she’s given her entire game away before the show begins—almost.
Those who loved Nanette will likely be willing to grant Gadsby the patience she requests at the start of her show—though it’s hard to predict what those who found that show underwhelming and inadequate will make of this new entry. Once again, Gadsby flexes her credentials as an art history nerd, ranting about everything from the puzzling trend of painting naked ladies dancing in random forests, to the historical inaccuracies endemic to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ nomenclature. She also continues to make hay of her less-than-stellar interactions with straight white men—including an obnoxious gynecologist, Waldo from “Where’s Waldo,” and all golfers ever.
And, in another telling moment, Gadsby addresses Nanette’s “haters.” Gadsby seems to enjoy taking her critics to task from the stage; she did it in Nanette, too, when she tweaked those who said her previous shows did not contain enough “lesbian content.” (“I was on stage the whole time,” she deadpanned back then.) Gadsby acknowledges that the practice is a bit self indulgent—but when it comes to online hatred, she says, “I like to snack on it.”
And for those who argued Nanette wasn’t really stand-up, Gadsby once again hints at how both that show and Douglas intentionally play with the form in ways that will anger purists. “I know better than anyone that what I did with Nanette was not technically comedy, but I’m also not a fucking idiot,” she says. “I wanted that show to have an audience, and a broad audience, and if that meant I had to ‘trick’ people by calling it ‘comedy’... that’s technically a joke!”
But Douglas’s gravitational center comes later, as Gadsby discusses her autism diagnosis. This is where the rom-com twist begins in earnest—starting with a charming and actually hilarious account of a grade school preposition lesson gone awry. (As a bonus, this anecdote even includes some “lesbian content”!) Gadsby also handily takes anti-vaxxers to task—a risky move, she acknowledges, given that “my core demographic is rich, white, entitled women, and that is a Venn Diagram with a lot of crossover!”
Ultimately, Douglas is a quieter show than Nanette; its mission feels more specific, and even a little experimental. Upon first watch, I’ll admit I did not fully grasp its joke. But this is a show that not only rewards patience, but also re-examination. It’s a paradoxical, at times vexing set—one that, in some ways, works better on a macro-level than it does on a moment-to-moment basis. But as Gadsby makes clear, Douglas also isn’t entirely about what her audience, particularly its neurotypical members, will make of it; it’s a statement of confidence—a defiant love letter to her own mind. “I’m not here to collect your pity,” she says. “I’m here to disrupt your confidence.” Consider it disrupted.