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Review: In ‘Douglas’, Hannah Gadsby Deconstructs The Antiquated Engines of Standup Comedy

By Aditya Mani Jha 16 June 2020

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There are many ways to explain the concept of metafiction, but the one I like best is straightforward: it’s a text that teaches you how to read it as you go along. In the novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, the footnotes are narrated by Oscar’s friend Yunior, who lets us know that he’ll be stepping in whenever Oscar (i.e the ‘main’ text) gets too boring or self-absorbed. One of the first things Mark Haddon does in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime is explain to his readers why there’s no chapter 1 or chapter 4—the chapters are marked by prime numbers; 2, 3, 5, 7 and so on.

Hannah Gadsby does precisely this in the opening gambit of her new Netflix special Douglas, the follow-up to her smash hit 2018 ‘anti-comedy’ show Nanette. She gives us a blow-by-blow breakdown of what the show is going to look like, complete with the intended targets for some of her jokes. It’s equal parts power move and avant-garde stylistic choice—and straight off the bat, she alludes to Haddon’s novel (“I’m going to tell you a curious incident involving my dog in the daytime”).

Because like the 15-year-old boy who narrates that book, Gadsby is autistic; her 2015 diagnosis to that effect is the crux of Douglas, her “difficult second album that’s also my tenth”. Douglas marks another formal triumph for the 42-year-old Tasmanian comedian who’s now the medium’s pre-eminent antihero. She blows up the antiquated engines of standup comedy and holds up the nuts and bolts for the audience to examine.

And so the extended bit about her dog in the daytime segues into one of Gadsby’s pet themes, namely the astounding confidence of straight white men—which in turn transforms into a routine about America’s cultural confidence (“America’s the straight white man of cultures”). A tragicomic joke about children’s board games becomes an altogether more intriguing meditation on the existentialism of ‘Where’s Waldo?’ “Why should generations of children spend hundreds and thousands of hours finding him?” Gadsby asks. “He should have to find himself—you know, like the rest of us!” The name ‘Douglas’ itself ties in with Gadsby’s riff about straight white men naming everything—in this case, it’s the ‘pouch of Douglas’, a small void in the female body between the rectum and the uterus, named after the Scottish doctor who discovered it. (“How’d you like it, men, if your balls were called Karen’s handful?” )

Like Nanette’s famous Picasso segment, the standalone jokes in Douglas, too, often use her knowledge of art history. This time, her ire is focused on the so-called ‘old masters’ who seemed to have hyper-specific ideas about how women spent their time—hanging out naked in groups of three (Rubens, Brueghel and Raphael’s versions of The Three Graces; Gadsby rolls out all three of ‘em here), getting stuck to rocks (Perseus and Andromeda, Rembrandt’s Andromeda Chained to the Rocks) and so on.

Douglas marks another formal triumph for the 42-year-old Tasmanian comedian who’s now the medium’s pre-eminent antihero.

There’s a fair bit of Harry Potter humour flying around as well. Gadsby even squeezes in a solid JK Rowling diss: “Fuck Hermione, she’s a terf!” TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist), of course, is a pejorative used for transphobic feminists who feel threatened by trans rights and claim that somehow, equal rights for trans women will threaten the rights and safety of cisgendered women. As the events of the last month have proved, Rowling is exactly that (and she has always maintained that Hermione is an alter ego for her younger self).

The centerpiece of Douglas, however, is Gadsby’s story of how she discovered she was autistic—like all major late-stage diagnoses, it was both a surprise and not. The remarkable achievement here is the way she uses all of the other strands of Douglas as ballast to prop this important story up, soften its rough edges. She also points towards the preponderance of ‘boy wonder’ narratives around autism (including The Curious Incident) — if you were to go by these stories alone, Gadsby says, “you’d think being autistic is what happens when you’re a boy who just loves math too much, and I knew neither of those things was going to happen to me!”

That little touch, using the fact of Haddon’s novel to communicate several parallel truths about her condition, is another example of how Gadsby’s work displays elements of ‘textuality’—the text-like qualities often found in other media like cinema. At the beginning of Douglas, Gadsby confesses that her current American popularity is because a couple of years ago, “I wrote a show called Nanette”. Not did a show, not made a show, not even performed a show—she wrote it. It’s clear that she views her work in this way, as discrete little islands of symbolism, each embodying a specific mood. Nanette was a tragicomic work written in the polemic mode; a work of ‘anti-comedy’ if you will. Douglas, as she spells out at the beginning, is a romantic comedy, especially for neuro-atypicals like herself.

Pride and Prejudice, Play It As It Lays, Fahrenheit 451 and Midnight’s Children were all second novels — but even when the results aren’t as spectacular, the second novel is a reassuring sign that a novelist’s promising debut wasn’t just a flash in the pan, that they’re likely to create even better things in the future. Douglas does something similar for Gadsby, and her legion of fans have every reason to be thrilled.                          

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