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‘Nanette,’ ‘Rape Jokes,’ and What Happens When a Comedy Critique Goes Viral

At Montreal’s Just for Laughs festival, Hannah Gadsby and Cameron Esposito came face to face with the success of their deeply personal comedy specials. What does that mean for them, and for their art?

Cameron Esposito and Hannah Gadsby Netflix/Cameron Esposito/Ringer illustration

I have never seen an audience as excited for a live performance as was the crowd for Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette. At a sold-out theater during July’s Just for Laughs Festival in Montreal, the Australian comic was set to deliver her one-woman show, which had blown up after Netflix distributed a filmed version globally in June. It would be the very last time Gadsby would do so in person, and one of the first after Nanette had crossed over from an experimental piece of theater into a cultural phenomenon.

JFL, as it’s known, is a massive affair, gathering hundreds of comics and thousands of fans for two densely scheduled weeks in July. The highlights of the festival tend to cluster around industry coronations, like the annual New Faces list and showcase. But Gadsby’s ecstatic crowd was there to witness something they were already familiar with, on a subject that doesn’t naturally lend itself to either laughter or upbeat enthusiasm: homophobia, marginalization, and an alternately cerebral and emotional dissection of how stand-up comedy might be an inadequate means to address their lasting impact. The audience didn’t care. Before Gadsby had even said a word, they’d risen for a standing ovation.

The gap between Nanette’s heavy themes and the venue’s buoyant mood made for an instant, awkward juxtaposition. Gadsby seemed to know it, too. Surveying the room, the bespectacled, 40-year-old entertainer cracked a smirk: “This should be a cinch!”

Over the past year, narratives about sexual assault and gendered violence have exploded into the mainstream. These stories have been both factual (The New York Times Harvey Weinstein exposé) and fictional (a recent GLOW episode about sexual harassment), personal and precisely calibrated. Stand-up comedy, as it happens, is a form that often oscillates between these different modes. And at Just for Laughs, the sheer concentration of stand-up also occasioned a knotty, uncomfortable question: As #MeToo gains steam and works of art inspired by it turn into viral successes, what effect do these stories have on their storytellers? And as they evolve from intimate accounts to popular pieces of entertainment, how do those stories change?

“It’s just been more raw than I thought it was going to be,” Cameron Esposito said, speaking at the bar at the Hyatt Regency, the informal epicenter of all things JFL. Esposito wasn’t at the festival to perform Rape Jokes, the sharply titled comedy special she uploaded to her website in June. Instead, she had discussed its fallout with IndieWire’s Liz Shannon Miller in a wide-ranging conversation that touched on subjects ranging from industry pigeonholing to choice of language. A common theme, however, was the toll that crafting an hour that peaks in recounting her own sexual assault had taken on Esposito, particularly the promotional aspect. “I forgot that I was gonna have to say the word ‘rape’ a thousand times a day,” she’d told Miller. Just as Gadsby’s Nanette set would be her last of over 200, Esposito told me that our meeting would be her final interview on Rape Jokes.

There are plenty of superficial similarities between Rape Jokes and Nanette. Esposito’s special was released just eight days before Gadsby’s; both Esposito and Gadsby are queer women, and both dedicated significant portions of their specials to describing their own harrowing experiences with assault. But the connection between the two works goes beyond mere demographics, or even parallel subject matter. Nanette and Rape Jokes form an inadvertent yet fascinating conversation with each other, because they present opposite points of view on whether comedy is a useful way to address weighty subjects like persecution. Nanette, infamously and provocatively, is presented as Gadsby’s kiss-off to comedy, which she depicts as a reductive, constricting way to talk about events that don’t always end in a punch line.

Rape Jokes doesn’t make its counterargument explicitly, but it nonetheless serves as a rebuttal. The show is not uncritical of comedy, yet it also sets out to reclaim the term that doubles as its deliberately arresting title from the lazy jabs that “rape jokes” typically describes. With swagger and passion, Esposito makes a statement that still never stops being funny, apart from the 30 or so seconds when she outlines her assault. “I don’t think I was worried about tone,” Esposito said when I asked her whether the balance between humor and hard truth was difficult to strike. “I was worried about trying to have a moment that’s designed to not get laughs, and be comfortable with that.”

Esposito also had to reckon with something she hadn’t fully accounted for in advance: the material’s impact on herself. “Stand-up is always emotion,” she said. “When you do material for a long time, you lose the feeling, and you keep the emotion as a piece of writing. You’re speaking the words, but it starts to run almost like a program. You’re disconnected from it.” And disconnecting from something as visceral as one’s rape risks becoming “unhelpful and possibly gross” for the listener, and just plain unhealthy for the artist. “I wanna heal from that, as a person. But I don’t need to heal from that as a performer. I should go to therapy and talk to friends and have that be what helps me, not that I have talked about it on stage so much that I’ve whittled it down to a series of words that have no meaning for me.”

To preserve that immediacy, Rape Jokes was produced at astonishing speed for a template that typically takes shape over months of tweaking on the road. Esposito came up with the title first, in what she describes as a literal, wake-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night light bulb moment in January. She then wrote out the broad strokes on paper, contrary to the stand-up’s typical process of working out sets onstage. “It was just exorcised out of me,” she said. “It was just done. Just cooked. It was just ready.” After a few weeks of workshopping, the special itself was filmed at Los Angeles’s tiny, close-quartered Upright Citizens Brigade theater for a budget of just $2,800, with some elements, like Esposito’s walk-on music, donated by friends. Rather than sell the special to a distributor like Netflix or Comedy Central, Esposito posted it to a site constructed in just nine days to allow for a pay-what-you-want structure. Viewers can access Rape Jokes for free, but they can also donate an amount of their choosing to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. Esposito puts the proceeds at around $65,000 and growing.

Rape Jokes success has come with a personal cost. In the past month, Esposito has deleted social media from her phone, putting at least a partial barrier between herself and feedback, even the positive kind. “I have to do some things to protect myself as a person,” she said. “It’s a little too hard to just hear from people all the time. It’s kind, but I’m a person, you know? I feel like there’s a level of engagement with this that could push me over the deep end.” When Miller asked Esposito why she chose stand-up comedy as a forum for parsing out Rape Jokes’ difficult subjects, her initial answer — “It’s the art I do, so I was like, ‘This is the best art!’” — was tongue-in-cheek, but she also added that stand-up is a fundamentally first-person form. In this case, that elision between art and artist proved a mixed blessing.

“I’m glad I love the art still, and it’s out there, and so I feel like it speaks for itself,” Esposito said at the close of our interview. “I don’t regret it. I’m really proud, [but] also — it’s somebody else’s now. Somebody else take it. I said what I wanted to say.”

“I’ve told that story 200 times by now, and it never gets any easier,” Gadsby told the crowd mid-performance. She’d just reached one of Nanette’s crucial inflection points, when a previously lighthearted story about getting mistaken for a gay man at a Tasmanian bus stop gets retold with its true, tragic ending: Her assailant identified her as a “lady fag,” resolved to “beat the shit out of you,” and did. Gadsby uses the story to express her fundamental objection to comedy, which incentivizes the comedian to tie off with a laugh situations that didn’t necessarily end that way in real life.

But at Just for Laughs, the baseline conditions under which Nanette makes this controversial case were skewed. It’s not common for comedians to perform a full hour once its contents have been so highly publicized; often, releasing a special is referred to “burning” material, since it removes the sense of suspense and surprise that so many jokes use to make their impact. JFL, however, was a special case. Gadsby was set to retire the show regardless, and delivered it for the last time to a crowd whose awareness of what was to come clearly shaped their reactions — and more intriguingly, the show itself.

Nanette operates on a fundamental bait-and-switch. Gadsby’s points hit so forcefully because they’re made not just rhetorically, but structurally: For its first 20 minutes, Nanette is a straightforward stand-up comedy set, riffing on Gadsby’s rural island upbringing and lesbian identity. (In Montreal, Gadsby added more detail about the hour’s barista namesake than she included in the special.) Then, gradually, Gadsby shifts gears, criticizing comedy in general by unpacking her own jokes in specific. The pivot is designed with a comedy audience in mind, lured by the promise of laughter and suddenly confronted by their desire for a tidy payoff. “Punch lines need trauma, because punch lines need tension and tension feeds trauma,” Gadsby says at one point, explaining that stand-up is “an abusive relationship” that relies on a comic resolving tension they artificially produced in the first place. Later, she loops back: “This tension is yours. I am not helping you anymore. You need to learn what this feels like.”

But at JFL, there was neither tension nor an expectation of pure comedy, because the people in attendance were already familiar with Gadsby’s case and agreed with it — at least enough to pay for tickets. When Gadsby launched into the argumentative portion of Nanette, the audience broke out into thunderous applause, breaking the rhythm of laughter and silence that typically punctuates a stand-up set. (One of the most remarkable aspects of Nanette’s taped version is how the audience goes dead quiet for significant portions of time.) A friend who attended the show with me likened the effect to a political rally. Gadsby had a different comparison in mind: “That’s more of a TED Talk than stand-up comedy,” she chided, echoing word-for-word one of Nanette’s most common critiques.

As a critic, I’d been sympathetic to that line of attack before seeing Nanette in person. Though I disagreed with Nanette’s broadside against the joke as a form, I was certainly engaged by it; I just hadn’t laughed, and thus wasn’t affected much emotionally by the hairpin turn to the dramatic. But in Montreal, as is often the case when stand-up is experienced as a collective rather than alone in one’s living room, Gadsby’s jokes were killing. It was the more sober-minded part that was undercut, and by factors outside her control. When a work of art’s reception is as uniformly favorable as Nanette’s was inside those four walls, its ability to come off as subversive, or even challenging, is handicapped. Success had spread Nanette’s ideas, but it had also warped the mechanisms that made it a success in the first place.

Toward the end of Gadsby’s performance, during a particularly intense moment, an audience member shouted from the front row: “Do you want a hug?” Heckling is a universal plague at comedy shows, but this was the first heckle I’d ever witnessed that came in the form of a sympathetic gesture. Gadsby, understandably, bristled. “I’m fine,” she snapped back. “I wouldn’t be able to do this if I wasn’t.” Confessional art, particularly from women, often comes with the assumption that it’s presented to the viewer unfiltered, without intentionality or emotional remove. Running through Nanette hundreds of times had clearly taken something out of Gadsby, just as Rape Jokes had from Esposito, but it was also something Gadsby had labored over enough to control — and thus resent that control being taken away from her by an errant fan. Thanks to the Netflix version, Nanette was now something that existed outside of Gadsby herself, a circumstance that’s simultaneously surreal and allows her to move on with her life.

“I just wanted to do something constructive,” Gadsby said, by way of a closer. “And I think I did.” Then she walked offstage, to whatever’s coming next.