Human in its critique and poignantly hilarious, Emmy and Peabody award winning comedian Hannah Gadsby's latest Netflix special, Douglas is expertly constructed comedy that only further affirms her mastery of her craft. The most wholesome hour-fifteen of mirth floating around the world wide web right now!
While Hannah Gadsby’s 2018 comedy special Nanette was named after a random barista, Douglas is a very specific dog. The only one, Gadsby believes, who can help her follow up on the trail blazed by Nanette. And there he is, by her side on stage, in the body of a statue made entirely of pink and white crayons; Douglas, her “gold toilet” helping the Australian comic punch her way up through America (despite the shortening window) in what can only be described as a torched trail of a tour.
If with Nanette, she redefined what audiences could expect from a ‘comedy’ show, in Douglas, Gadsby’s second Netflix special which dropped this week, she spells it out for us, act by act. In this ‘preface’ in which she lays out the entire show - highlights, punch lines et al, right at the start, she makes jokes that don’t make sense at all at that point. But in the capable hands of Hannah Gadsby, fuelled by her inventive mind, this unusual structural choice elevates the show to an immersive experience unlike any we’ve seen in comedy! Using a wicked narrative device she calls 'call forwards,’ Gadsby then builds those pegs, layer by layer into bigger and braver and more brilliant insights about humanity, delivered in the guise of refreshingly clever, endearing yet hard hitting gags.
“Silliness was the main motivator,” said Gadsby in an interview with Entertainment Weekly. “My idea was to take particularly heavy subjects and turn them over with a much lighter hand — without undermining them.” True to her word, in Douglas she traipses through awkward encounters in the dog park, having, what in a master stroke she calls “puffer-fish moments” in a callous world designed not to laugh with, but at them, what it means to be diagnosed with autism and live with a brain that takes you places where no-one else lives, and even a hilarious art history lecture that results in “a gentle and very good-natured needling of the patriarchy.” All really silly stuff, really.
But it is in this almost childlike approach to the very serious social imbalances which Gadsby addresses in Douglas, that the show’s heart truly lies. You connect with the 42 year old comedian somewhat like how you would to a cheeky young pre-teen - because they speak universal truths in a language that doesn’t rely on provocation, but still pierces through the flesh and bones and emotional obtuseness we are taught to hold up like a shield against those very truths. It's refreshing (and a privilege!) to be privy to a view of the world that despite experiencing some of the world's most horrific injustices is willing to tear down that shield and approach humanity's problems once again with that curious, enquiring, almost untarnished starting point. And by using it, reminding us all, that we have it in us too.
In Nanette we saw her take the plunge and lay bare her story. For the first time in comedy, audiences were made privy to personal anguish, but not at the expense of it. In Douglas, the comedian no longer appeals to our sense of empathy but instead, seems confident that ‘empathetic’ is the only way for an audience to be. And this assumption, brave on her part, is why watching Gadsby’s brand of comedy is such a deeply rewarding experience - by resting upon our shoulders her belief in our empathy, she does not burden the audience as popular wisdom would have you think, but in fact enables us to participate more actively and honestly in her performance, and if that results in nobody laughing at certain sequences, or someone crying in another, then so be it. Isn’t that the truth of the human experience after all? That it is varied, shared yet unique to each one of us?
Laudably, the Netflix special too mirrors this approach. Unlike in other taped comedy, there are barely any audience close up shots through the entire length of the show. Acutely aware of how differently Netflix audiences and a live audience would get to experience her show, this too was a premeditated move. “I personally get really annoyed when a comedian says something and it cuts to someone laughing. If I’m laughing, it’s kind of okay. But if I'm not laughing, it’s shaming me,” she reveals. Gadsby also feels that audience shots encourage those watching at home to respond to and take the lead from the people in the room, sometimes before they can form an opinion on how they feel about a certain line. Try watching all of Friends without the laugh track, or consider Trevor Noah’s in-isolation editions of The Daily Show - we love Trevor, but it's been a fairly unsettling experience watching him without his live audience! Suddenly your opinion is left to its own devices.
Such meticulous and inclusive design isn’t just rare thinking on Gadsby’s part by the standards of her profession though, it is indicative of a true empath. Ironically, it is probably also why Hannah Gadsby’s shows, particularly Nannette, have garnered such divisive public opinion in the past - not all audiences are ready to be held accountable for their feelings to such degree, least of all by a gay woman comedian. Surely, that would take away from the privileged collective lethargy we, 'the audience' have inherited from history? It could even make that piece of art feel 'unfulfilling' or 'preachy' or like an 'attack.'
But it begs the question - are we truly fulfilled by the passive internalisation of a clever punch-line? Or is that just us distracting ourselves from the solace we actually seek when we buy a ticket to be ‘entertained’? Shouldn't art - including comedy - exist in a format where the artist takes us along in their search for that light at the end of the tunnel? In Douglas, like in Nannette before it, Hannah Gadsby does exactly that - she empowers people to see and arrive at a new light in themselves, in different colours or lumens as it may be, all the while filling the journey not just with funny laughs (it is a comedy show after all!), but also with some incredibly wholesome and moving moments along the way.
Available to watch on Netflix along with Gadsby's award winning debut special Nanette.