Hannah Gadsby: Douglas is a worthy successor to Nanette

Full of laugh-out loud moments, Douglas is a fitting follow-up to its predecessor’s somber tone and Hannah Gadsby has never been better.

Douglas review — Grade: A

It is fairly impossible to lay out anything resembling reasonable expectations for a follow-up to Nanette. Hannah Gadsby’s 2017 Netflix special shook the comedy world with a genre-defying delivery that placed little emphasis on humor. Nanette was a rallying cry for women to be heard, and now Douglas has to occupy the space created through the success of its predecessor’s objective.

Gadsby faces the issue of expectations head on in Douglas’ opening minutes, pondering what her audience was thinking in choosing to attend her follow-up performance. Trauma is not on the menu, for Douglas exists as a follow-up largely as a result of her heightened public profile. It is less of a sequel than another chapter of her storied career.

To manage expectations, Gadsby spends the first twenty minutes laying out the entire special, removing any semblance of suspense for what’s to come. It is both amusing and peculiar to watch, an approach that does wonders for the sense of dramatic tension that Gadsby wields so effectively. She essentially creates an easy onboarding process for the audience to follow along with her often rapid-fire changes in tempo.

Douglas has plenty of observational humor, a terrain that Gadsby is quite skilled at traversing despite efforts to claim the contrary. Comparisons between Australian and American terminology touch on a broader theme of the optimism of language. Gadsby includes bits of LGBTQ comedy in broader sequences. An extended bit on the Harry Potter fandom includes an absolutely hilarious transgender-themed joke that might sail over the heads of a general audience.

Gadsby continues to carve out a niche for her brand of humor. She spends a lot of time examining old paintings, hardly the kind of analysis one would expect from a comedy special. Anyone who’s been bewildered in a museum can relate to Gadsby’s efforts to peel back the layers of these creative decisions.

Douglas strengthens the thesis of Nanette through its embodiment of the latter’s theme.

The special doesn’t just build on the foundation of its predecessor. Douglas strengthens the thesis of Nanette through its embodiment of the latter’s theme. The catharsis is visible in real time. Confidence is an expected trait for an established comedian, but Gadsby commands the stage with a liberating sense of energy. The trauma and the self-deprecating humor are firmly left in the past. What remains is a master of her craft eager to share her truth with an audience that proved it would follow her no matter where she wanted to go.

Which isn’t to say that Gadsby avoids heavy topics. She talks at length about her late autism diagnosis from a few years ago, which helped her cope with lifelong feelings of isolation. The fairly intimate subject matter is delivered in a light-hearted fashion, as Gadsby pokes fun at the process that led her to understand this part of herself. Constantly aware of Nanette’s reception as a lecture or a TED Talk, Gadsby shrugs off the absurdities of the criticism while continuing to share her truths.

Gadsby also dedicates a fair chunk of time to exploring the sexism of irrationality, appropriate for a special named for an obscure region of the female anatomy. She describes her own “puffer fish moments,” where she just wants to explode, a common human sensation handled very differently for men and women. There are plenty of things we don’t know about the nature of emotion. Douglas embraces the unknown and does its best to think through it regardless of the outcome.

With minimal references to the MeToo movement, Douglas is a breath of fresh air amidst a sea of other comedy specials, many by men, that seek to pontificate on the subject. It’s quite refreshing to see a comedian talk about gender imbalance without mentioning the loathsome “cancel culture” phrase that’s needled its way into the American lexicon. Gadsby approaches longstanding power imbalances with grace and sensibility, with little concern for the egos of the male bodies who might take to Twitter to complain about women having agency.

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If there’s one element of Gadsby’s delivery that could still use a bit of work, it’s her approach to punchlines. Many of her jokes end in screaming, a method that works a lot of the time but gets deployed a little more than it should. For a comedian seemingly often at odds with the genre, the delivery does work in a weird way.

Increased humor aside, Douglas will likely do little to sway those who weren’t fans of Nanette. Gadsby herself approaches this subject within the special, touching on the tidal wave of men who took it upon themselves to message her on Twitter to let her know how they’d never heard of her. Popular culture is rarely meant to be universal. Just because Hannah Gadsby is a unique kind of comedian does not mean that she exists outside the genre.

Douglas carries the aura of a victory lap, a fitting counterbalance to its predecessor’s heavier ambitions. Hannah Gadsby is an inspirational figure to watch, a person who faced decades of trauma head on and conquered her demons. To be able to laugh after all of that is incredibly uplifting, an important message for all of us in these uncertain times. No matter what happens, there can always be another chapter in your story.

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