More Lesbian Content Please
I was in college when I discovered The Indigo Girls. In many ways, the songs of Amy Ray and Emily Saliers formed the soundtrack that mapped those years of my life, and I remain a fan, buying every new album they release.
Not long after, I first heard k.d. lang—still a closeted country singer, but I’d never heard a voice more gorgeous. I discovered Lea DeLaria next; I loved her as a raunchy comic, but was absolutely floored the first time I heard her singing jazz standards with a three-piece combo. Seriously, if you only know Lea as Big Boo on Orange is the New Black, find her recorded music (start with “Play It Cool,” if you can) and thank me later.
Therefore, it came as no surprise when my friends Matt and Kyle came across some free tickets to see Melissa Etheridge perform with the National Symphony Orchestra a few weeks ago, that they thought of me. More than most of the gay men they knew, I was a fan of lesbian content.
That phrase—“lesbian content”—is a recurring theme in the most recent work by Australian comic Hannah Gadsby. The show is called Nanette, and it was filmed at the Sydney Opera House. I saw a clip on Facebook the other day (a very funny bit about Vincent van Gogh, mental illness, creative genius, and antidepressants, believe it or not) and it looked right up my alley. And it was. I watched it on Netflix that evening, and it was unlike any single piece of stand-up comedy I’ve ever seen in my life.
Early in the show, Gadsby recalls being stopped immediately after a set by a fan who had some feedback for her: not enough “lesbian content,” said this particular audience member. With expert timing, Gadsby allows us to feel how awkward it must have been to hear this, then simply states, “Um, I was on stage the entire time.”
That joke lands well, mostly due to Gadsby’s appearance. Throughout the show she tells stories of being mistaken for a man. She wears an androgynous outfit: pants, blazer, and t-shirt. Her hair is short, and she wears big glasses. Do people still say “soft butch”? If so, that’s the look…you get it.
Hannah Gadsby has a lot of jokes, about growing up gay on the tiny island of Tasmania, coming out to her mother, majoring in art history, not coming out to her grandmother, and most of the jokes land perfectly. She’s a gifted comic, better known in Australia than she is in the Northern Hemisphere, although that might change very soon.
Though we might have discovered her a bit too late. At several points throughout Nanette, Gadsby says she’s going to quit comedy altogether. “Not just now,” she jokes, and the audience laughs. But eventually, she tells us why she’s quitting. It has to do with the anatomy of a joke, which she explains has two parts: a set-up and a punchline. A story, on the other hand, has three parts: a beginning, a middle, and an end. Comics never really tell the end of their stories, she explains, and adds—in what will be an oft-repeated line in her show—“I’ve got to tell my story properly.”
And then…she does. She tells the whole story: beginning, middle, and end. The show, frankly, stops being funny when she evolves from comedian to storyteller—but I hope I’ve not discouraged you from watching. Because what she accomplishes as a storyteller is riveting.
Hannah Gadsby is amusing as a comic—very good at writing funny jokes and telling them with expert timing. But she’s devastating when she lays her soul bare in an enormous theatre or now—through the medium of streaming television—to anyone who will listen.
I laughed and chuckled often during the first half of her show. By the time the show was over, I was weeping. And in between, I learned quite a bit about Van Gogh, cubism, and why you cannot separate the artist from the art.
And, of course, there’s lots of “lesbian content.” In fact, it’s her queer story that she needs to tell “properly.” And while I would recommend this show to anyone, it’s her queer audience that really needs to hear it. Toward the very end of Nanette, she even sounds like a frightened child when she admits, “What I would have done to have heard a story like mine…to have felt less alone.”▼
Eric C. Peterson is a diversity and inclusion educator living in Washington D.C. and co-host of a weekly podcast about pop culture.