“Putting you through now.”
This triangle of telephone calls, where all points lead to the comedian, is but a tiny peek into the business of being Hannah Gadsby since she shot to international fame on the back of her 2018 Netflix special Nanette.
She now has an assistant (“my single entourage”) and a touring schedule that stretches from Reykjavik to Sydney, via Brighton, Toronto, Nashville and New York. There’s merchandise (delightful “I identify as tired” T-shirts), awards (a Barry, Helpmann, Emmy, Peabody and AACTA), talk show and Emmy spots and big-screen appearances (during U2’s recent tour of Australia she was featured in a montage of inspiring women that included Magda Szubanski, Cate Blanchett and Annette Kellerman).
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Nanette was supposed to be Gadsby’s farewell to comedy. Instead, Nanette made it impossible for Gadsby to quit.
After a long pause, Gadsby is on the line.
She is in Edinburgh for the UK leg of her new stand-up show, Douglas, and over our crackly phone line is as amusing and generous as you would hope, both with her answers and time, while politely staying silent at any of my attempts at humour.
Douglas is named ostensibly for her lagotto Romagnolo dog (she was two, but Jasper has yet to score a showbiz mention). It’s a jumping-off point for discussion about the pouch of Douglas, a small area in the female body between the uterus and the rectum, and a discussion about how men love to name and claim parts of a woman’s body (the pouch is named after 18th-century Scottish doctor James Douglas).
When she announced the show in February, she told The Hollywood Reporter “the humour will be back in” – a small jab at those who accused her of killing comedy with the rawness of Nanette.
But whereas Nanette was an examination of trauma and abuse, and how comedy deals with it, Douglas has been described as “an act of self-care”, with Gadsby taking aim at the negative attention she received after Nanette and the patriarchy, with the odd story about walking her dog.
So was she nervous about stepping into the spotlight again?
“After doing a show like Nanette, nerves don’t come into it,” she says. “That show was so traumatic to perform every night. If I was to walk out on stage and not make 2000 people laugh every night, I’d still be fine with it.
“Nanette gave me a very healthy perspective on things. Reliving trauma is the most dangerous thing we can do, particularly in a volatile thing like performance, so it gave me a really healthy perspective on that.”
When she started putting together Douglas, which she began trialling at a small club in Los Angeles in February, Gadsby was determined not to be encumbered by her previous success. It’s a hard thing to do when everyone has wanted a piece of you for the past 18 months.
“I have an approach to this where it’s not, ‘Oh gosh, I must protect what I’ve accidentally gained,’ ” she says with a small chuckle. “The success of Nanette, while I’m very proud of the show itself, insofar as the audience I had already built over the course of my career, beyond that – these new global audiences, new ideas and understandings of me – they’re not things that any sane person could go, ‘Oh, I meant that.’
“There’s a healthy dose of accident in that. And I don’t use that in a self-deprecating way, I think in both success and failure there is randomness in play. I worked hard to get where I was before Nanette and that’s what was put into Nanette, that sort of graft.
“And what’s happened afterwards, I approached Douglas going I can’t be concerned with keeping all of this, whatever this is, I need to play the same card, which is taking risks and not trying to second guess what people want, because that’s what I did with Nanette, I’d been second-guessing what people want and here’s what I want and it turns out, there’s a decent crossover.”
Douglas also allows Gadsby to talk openly about autism, something she only learnt she had in 2017.
“I didn’t declare it in Nanette for a couple of reasons,” she says. “One being that I’d been fairly recently diagnosed and I didn’t feel ready to share something I didn’t fully understand – not that it’s possible [to understand], you don’t get to decide where your autism ends and you begin – so it would have been dangerous and probably irresponsible for me to lay it out there at that stage.
“But the other reason was, I didn’t want what I was saying in Nanette to be seen through the prism of autism. For people watching to go, ‘Wow, this is because she is autistic’. I wanted it to be viewed, before people understood it, that this is a way of processing the world that could be valuable.
“It is valuable. I see things differently and I put things together differently, but it’s not just for me, I can make things accessible. So I wanted it to be a sneaky celebration of autism, so it made sense for me to lay it out on the table in Douglas.”
Has it been liberating to finally talk about it?
“It’s kind of an odd mix because I’m an incredibly private person but I also don’t like to hide things,” she says. “It’s part of autism as well, it does like attention – it’s ‘[shouts] Here’s a thing I know!’ Here’s a thing that’s a reality.’ ”
Her diagnosis is one of the reasons Gadsby says her brother describes her as a cat (“I need a lot of alone time and when I’m ready, I’m right there – ‘Here I am!’”), whereas she sees herself as more of a dog.
“I’m always better after a walk. I’ve very food-focused,” she says. “You’ve got to feed, water and walk me, and then I’m a happy little camper. But I’m essentially a dog and I say that with quite a lot of pride. I think we over celebrate complicated people and I think people unnecessarily over-complicate their needs.”
Attention is something Gadsby has had to get used to as her fame grew in the wake of Nanette. Almost overnight she went from being a comedian you probably recognised if you watched the ABC – where she appeared on Adams Hills Tonight, Agony Aunts and Please Like Me – to name a few, to someone who is papped on the streets of New York, while her rumoured relationship with Transparent creator Jill Soloway was breathlessly reported by celebrity gossip column Page Six (she says she lives alone).
For someone who has said she even finds walking into a shop a nerve-racking experience, it’s a lot. “I do get recognised now and I sometimes forget why that would be,” she says. “But also, it’s worth acknowledging that if you don’t want to be seen, you don’t have to be seen.
“I’m fairly quiet, I go quite low key, so it’s fairly easy to go under the radar. You do get recognised from time to time but people are quite respectful about that. If they spend a couple of minutes with me, people realise I don’t get any less awkward, it happens quite naturally.”
When Nanette was launched on Netflix (Gadsby has also signed on with the streaming giant to broadcast Douglas), it took her beyond being the Next Big Thing and instead turned her into a pop culture icon – the Second (or third, fourth or fifth) Coming of comedy, the salve to the clutch of male comedians who had been brought undone by their own #MeToo scandals.
Gadsby, however, is keenly aware this isn’t the reality for many in comedy and if it wasn’t for the “wonderful bit of alchemy” that was Netflix taking a risk on her and the resulting audience-led popularity, she wouldn’t be in this position.
“It’s a complicated industry that’s going through a transition,” she says. “I’m a success story, but I just know of a lot of mid-career comedians who are really, really struggling.
“Everyone’s looking for the next new fresh face, but what they’ve got sitting there is a goldmine of really quality, professional, experienced comedians who have got anywhere between five and 10 years’ experience. They’re just ripe and ready to go.
“I also think that’s a time when people are ready to forget, they just go, ‘Well, you’ve had your chance.’ But it’s no, these people are ready to go now and then there’s a danger they become bitter, so you’ve got to get them in that sweet spot.”
Did she ever become bitter?
“There’s the beauty when you occupy enough marginal identities, you’re really taught from an early age not to expect a f—ing thing. So you can’t get bitter, because life never promised you anything.”
If you want to make Gadsby laugh – well, have a better crack at it than I did – you can’t go past a simple pun.
“There are people who make me think and whatnot, and push the boundaries on certain levels but then I also just love a pun,” she says. “I was just remembering with this friend of mine this joke that I used to use all the time as a kid and it’s some sort of variation on, ‘There’s an Englishman, an Irishman and an Australian,’ or something like that – I can’t remember what it was – but the punchline was something like, ‘Pass the sugar, sugar. Pass the honey, honey.’ And then the poor Irishman just goes, ‘Pass the tea, bag.’ I just still find silly little things like that so funny. Out of proportion.”
When Gadsby arrives home in Melbourne – she had an “open-ended inquiry” with the US, but still calls Australia home despite her “Greta guilt” about travel – she will be greeted by two very happy dogs: Douglas and Jasper.
“They stay in Melbourne,” she says. “I really love dogs and because I really love dogs, I treat them like dogs and I don’t drag them around in a very human-centric lifestyle. It would be a very cruel lifestyle to take a dog on. I’m borderline a dog, so I just know it would be tough.”
Does she ever Skype them when she’s away?
“No, no, no, they’re dogs. They’re fine. They are very well looked after. They don’t have a sense of time, they probably think I just went down the shops.”
Hannah Gadsby performs in Melbourne on December 7; Hobart on December 11-12; Canberra on December 14; Sydney on December 17-21; and Brisbane on January 29-30.
Louise is Editor of S and TV Liftout at The Sun-Herald