September 13, 2018KR BlogBlog

The Structure of Nanette

Much has been written in recent months of Nanette, comedian Hannah Gadsby’s groundbreaking Netflix standup special. The New York Times labeled it “comedy-destroying” and “soul-affirming,” Vox called it a “tour de force in confrontation,” and the New Yorker dubbed it a “moving anti-comedy.” When I first watched Nanette several months ago, I went into it knowing three things: it was somehow a comedy show about Gadsby contemplating quitting comedy, scores of viewers found it profoundly moving, and, if I was anything like my friends who watched it before me, it would probably make me cry.

Nanette delivered on all three fronts. But even as I sat in a kind of heartbroken trance in the final act of the show, I couldn’t entirely shut off my writer’s brain, which reveled in the sophisticated structure of Gadsby’s performance. As I watched Gadsby dissect the anatomy of a joke, disarm her audience, and masterfully subvert the callback (“to devastating effect,” as the New Yorker put it), I understood I was experiencing a layered, complex work. Gadsby might have joked that comedy is lowbrow (“We’re just rolling around in our own shit here, people”), but what she accomplished on that stage was nothing short of brilliant.

And so, a few months after my first viewing, I sat down to watch Nanette again. This time, because I could anticipate the emotional havoc coming my way, I could try to grasp just how Gadsby did it. I took notes, creating a timeline of Gadsby’s jokes and callbacks, and then looked for patterns and an overarching structure. I’m sharing an edited and abbreviated version of that timeline here.

If you’re reading this post, I have to assume you’ve already watched Nanette. But if for some reason you haven’t, stop reading right now and go watch it—not only because this post is effectively one big spoiler, but because you really need to see it for yourself.

Condensed Nanette Timeline

10:09: After spending the opening ten minutes joking about her appearance, her homeland Tasmania, the pride flag, and being a “quiet gay” whose favorite sound is that of a teacup meeting its saucer, Gadsby tells the story of an angry young man confronting her at a bus stop—and ends it on a funny note.

12:45: Gadsby shares how her grandmother asked, just last year, if she had a boyfriend, and jokes about how she deflected the question.

17:00: At this point, about seventeen minutes into the show, Gadsby assumes a serious tone and announces, for the first time, that she thinks she has to quit comedy.

28:54: This is Gadsby’s first mention of tension. She explains how laughter releases tension, and how holding in tension is harmful. “Tension isolates us,” she says, “and laughter connects us.”

29:55: Here, Gadsby explains the structure of a joke by reducing it to two components, the setup and the punchline, and how tension (and tension diffusion) plays a role in the process. She moves on to talk about how she’s tired of tension and, again, that she needs to quit comedy.

36:47: Gadsby laments how comedy omits the best part of the story—the ending.

38:55: By comparing stories to jokes (stories have three parts—a beginning, a middle, and ending—while jokes only have the first two), she shares how she froze her own coming-out story at its “trauma point” and “sealed it off into jokes.” She says punchlines need tension, but tension feeds trauma.

40:55: Here, Gadsby returns to the story about her grandmother, reframing it to admit that shame kept her from coming out. “I need to tell my story properly,” she says. Only minutes later (at 43:57), she echoes that sentiment: “I need to tell my story properly because you learn from the part of the story you focus on.” She transitions to discussing Van Gogh, mental illness, and the history of western art.

58:56: Only minutes from the end of her show, Gadsby returns to the story of the young man at the bus stop. This time, she refuses to “balance the tension” as comedy requires and instead tells the full, true story—that he physically assaulted her while bystanders did nothing.

1:00:21: She tells the audience this tension is theirs to handle, refusing to continue to diffuse it through comedy. She goes on to reference additional abuse she suffered when she was younger.

1:06:52: She stresses the importance of having her story heard, of being understood, and how our stories are often connected. She brings it back to Van Gogh, and how we have Sunflowers not because Van Gogh suffered, but because he had a brother who loved him—because of connection.

1:08:13: Gadsby’s set ends. After the closing credits, the final sound in the special is that of a teacup meeting its saucer.

During my first viewing of Nanette, it was her return to the bus stop story—when she finally told it wholly and truthfully—that most pierced me. Now, when I look back at my notes, what I notice most about this performance overall is exactly what Gadsby most advocates: connection. She loops back multiple times to discuss her homeland, her family, tension, her thoughts about leaving comedy, and an interaction at a bus stop by adding new layers each time. As a result, the stories grow fuller, richer, more complex, and more honest with each telling.

I never expected to turn on a Netflix comedy special and absorb lessons about structure, tension, and repetition that I could apply to my own writing, but that’s exactly what happened. Nanette has me thinking about ways to get at the heart of a story, to be brave in its telling, and to be willing to reveal real emotion. Most of all, Nanette reminds me that the stories most worth telling are honest, fully realized, and true. If we can tell stories this way, whether in our writing or just in our everyday lives, we have the best chance of achieving something meaningful: making a connection.