I am not a media critic. Nor am I an avid comedy fan. But sometimes you watch something that grips you to the core and yanks you back and all you can think is I need to write about this. I need to share this. And Hannah Gadsby's latest stand-up did that for me.

Netflix special Nanette has been making headlines for being an uncomfortable watch. But what makes Nanette difficult to watch is what makes it hugely significant: Gadsby uses her identity – the reality of her physical presence, and the discrimination of her body – to deconstruct what it means to be a comedian who has been in a toxic relationship with comedy.

It starts slow, with jokes that make you wonder wait can I laugh at this?

The first 16 minutes shows Gadsby telling the sort of self-deprecating jokes that brought her to prominence as a comedian in Australia: she pokes fun at growing up as a lesbian in rural Tasmania (where homosexuality was a crime until 1997), expresses her private distaste for the Pride flag and then, referencing to an audience member who didn't think she had enough "lesbian content" in her previous show, she upfronts the impossibility of extricating herself from comedy by responding, "I was onstage the whole time."

But it's not until she abruptly announces, 16 minutes in, that she has decided to quit being a comedian altogether that the audience begins to grasp that this deconstruction of comedy isn't just part of the act. It's a shame, because those first 16 minutes are pretty hysterical. But what Nanette evolves into is something different than any stand up special before it.

"I identify as tired", she says. This is when the tone of the show starts to change. "Just jokes", she says repeatedly, to make the point that jokes about identity are never just jokes. "Just locker room talk," she adds at one point, to really drive it home. The art of a joke, Gadsby explains, is to infuse a room with tension, then provide a “surprise answer,” a punchline, a relief. “Punchlines need trauma because punchlines need tension, and tension feeds trauma” she tells us. What is remarkable about much of the early part of her set is how she sets the audience up to fall into this trap. By laughing, the audience becomes complicit in the trauma.


"I've built a career out of self-deprecating humour... and I don't want to do that anymore. Because do you understand what self-deprecation means to someone who already exists within the margins? It's not humility. It's humiliation. I put myself down in order to speak. In order to seek permission to speak. And I simply will not do that anymore. Not to myself, and not to anyone who identifies with me."


When we rely on jokes for our perception of identity – as comedy requires – we marginalize ourselves. When talking about her old coming-out routine, Gadsby speaks of freezing her experience at a "trauma point" in order to blur it out for comedy, and notes that the "joke" version of her experience "was not nearly sophisticated enough to help me undo the damage done to me in reality." Gadsby lays out everything about her that a self-deprecating comic would use to garner a laugh: her relationship with her mum, her art history degree, her hometown, coming out – all the way down to a confrontation in which a man thought she was a guy hitting on his girlfriend.

And we laugh at every joke, because they're funny and devoid of any reason to feel guilty for laughing. Then she turns her entire set on its head.

Only by drawing the audience in with humour and grace and her quiet queerness is she able to accomplish what she does so beautifully in the last half of her special: she implicates herself and all comedy for playing on stereotypes and tropes of marginalized audiences. She explains that a joke is comprised of a beginning and a middle, with the end almost always eliminated for the sake for a laugh from the audience. But a story? That always had an end – and she uses the rest of her stand-up to tell her own story, often elaborating on jokes she's told in previous shows.

Recalling the story of the man who thought she was a man, Gadsby talks of the part of the story that she always leaves out. The end. Upon realizing that of her sexuality, the man proceeded to beat her to a pulp so badly that she should have been hospitalized. "That is what happens when you soak one child in shame and give permission to another to hate." She goes on to explain the level of trauma she endured at the hands of a society that punishes people for being different. She fleshes her jokes into stories and shines a light on something larger than whatever your definition of comedy might be. You could hear a pin drop in the Sydney Opera House.

No longer making an attempt to be funny, Gadsby's final moments are a plea to humanity, particularly to the straight, white men in the audience. Be better. "Laughter is not our medicine. Stories hold our cure." Hannah Gadsby's perfect concoction of expertise and wit and pain is what makes Nanette worth experiencing. It is a reflection of what it means to exist as a lesbian, butch woman in a social hierarchy that has always made you the punchline to the joke.

And even more, it's a powerful rejection to comedy itself.