There is no mistaking Hannah Gadsby’s acquired status on the first of two evenings in which she performs her latest performance Body of Work plays in Carré. The Australian stand-up comedian has become a beloved star in just a few years, receiving an ovation of the most delirious kind when all that can be seen on stage is a purple-lit string of lights – the glow of a cozy garden party. When the loud music stops and the show is about to start, that applause is like a warm blanket that is already thrown over the woman in the wings, with cheers full of admiration and sense.
‘This will be a feel-good show,’ says Hannah Gadsby (44) right away, ‘because I owe you that.’ With some comedians you know that you can expect the opposite after such a statement, but Gadsby keeps his word. The few times they come in Body of Work threatens to turn towards world misery, she jokingly calls herself to order: ho, feel-good show!
Very anti-Nanette, in short. With that smashing breakthrough show, a huge Netflix hit in 2018, Gadsby made it understandable what certain humor mechanisms meant to her, a portly lesbian from a conservative environment, a female comedian too, in a male-dominated world.
She put the stand-up genre to the test in form and content by seriously questioning whether comedy is really suitable for telling her story about traumas – sexism, homophobia, abuse. Isn’t humour, with its eternal build-up to a punch line, primarily an effective means of laughing away tension and pain? The most frequently quoted sentence from Nanette: ‘Do you know what self-mockery means when it comes from someone who is already on the margins of society? Then it’s self-abasement.’
She recently published a book about the creative process, which was also translated into Dutch: Ten steps to Nanette. After Nanette she toured with Douglasan equally critically acclaimed, lighter show about her autism diagnosis, and now it’s here Body of Work. After the world tour, this performance will also be on Netflix, sometime next year.
Self-esteem and self-confidence
Body of Work is often hilarious, but in terms of material and form also a lot less exciting and surprising than Nanette and Douglas. It’s most about her love for Jenney Shamash, the producer of her shows whom she consistently calls “Jenno” and whom she married last year.
“Self-mockery is and remains important, because you are not always a winner in life,” Gadsby said in an interview this summer in de Volkskrant. Because weaknesses are human. But I now allow myself to show more confidence on stage. I’m also okay with the fact that there are people who don’t like a confident woman on stage. They don’t want anything to do with me, and that’s fine. There are plenty of other comedians for that kind of visitor.’
Indeed, she now combines self-mockery and self-confidence in a modestly boastful way when it comes to bungling encounters with global stars – anecdotes that should illustrate how ill-prepared she was for post-stardom. Nanette. For example, she told Richard Curtis, director and screenwriter of the most famous romantic comedies, that she hates romantic comedies.
See Body of Work as a welcome embrace of that bland, painless genre, the type of story she actually hates, and with which she is not particularly familiar given her personal (love) history. There is wonderfully clever and witty mockery involved, but she also truly presents Jenno as her ‘better half’. Their relationship is actually a kind of curling, she says, with her being the rock that needs to be swept in the right direction.
This is not a show to think about for a long time, with a message that makes you look at things in a different way. But that Gadsby is a fantastic storyteller, one who eventually makes a bigger picture from asides, is beyond dispute. Also as Body of Work starting to get a little stretchy at two thirds.
She didn’t really owe us anything, of course. There is the blanket of applause again: the fact that this performance consists of pure happiness and pleasure is especially granted to her.
“I understand better than most people that Nanette is not ‘formally’ a comedy show,” writes Hannah Gadsby in her book Ten steps to Nanette,” but, here it comes, she’s not a comedy in the way that Frankenstein’s monster isn’t human. I didn’t write a lecture and then call it comedy. I took everything I knew about comedy, then ripped it apart and built a monster from the carcass. Nanette wouldn’t have worked if it was simply a theater show storming onto a comedy stage uninvited. People can see that difference. I brought it the same way I do stand-up.’
Body of work
Stand up comedy
By Hannah Gadsby
20/11, Carré, Amsterdam. To be seen on Netflix in 2023.