Frequently critics of American policy when charged with “hating America” will retort “I love America and I criticize it so it can be better.” I don’t know that I would ever say that about comedy, as the phrase “I love comedy” even with those qualifiers has this connotation that I enjoy on even a low level the vast majority of comedy, but that sentiment is very much present in my views of stand up comedy. At it’s best, I will listen to it over and over again for years but at its worst I will turn it off within five minutes of putting it on.
None of this is terribly relevant to the themes, motifs, or subjects of Hannah Gadsby’s new special Douglas but I feel it’s important to state to underscore how much innovation Gadsby has been able to bring to the table and how much she stands out from the vast majority of comedy. Stand up has been more prominent and accessible lately than it has been in a long time. In ye olden days of stand up comedy only true titans would get airtime on television. George Carlin and Rodney Dangerfield could be reliable guests on talk shows, but people who are now legends like Lenny Bruce or Richard Pryor would either spend their whole careers out of the limelight or gain wide popularity through ventures that weren’t stand up but leveraged their album sales. With the rise of On Demand programming now exacerbated by streaming services like Netflix, stand up is now more recorded and available than ever before, but it’s still mostly garbage. Shock humor as popularized in the 90s is still the dominant form of comedy on Netflix, although the added element of “you should be mad that people don’t want me to say this” is getting even more absurd 50 years after Rudy Ray Moore made his name by being absurd and gross without content, and Eddie Murphy’s biopic of him should have drawn more attention to how old this schtick is.
With this backdrop Hannah Gadsby’s innovations are notable beyond the insane ingenuity of them, but also because the current environment of stand up comedy is adverse to new ideas. Politically liberal or largely apolitical comedians like Patton Oswald or John Mulaney find new premises and contexts for mostly old jokes, and I’m being charitable to them by picking the ones who are good at it as examples. To put it into a music analogy, popular comedians for the last 30 years have been, at their best, Creedence Clearwater Revival types: very good at reframing and rebranding elements that came before but unable to add any new leaps. Comedians who try to dramatically change things akin to Louis Armstrong or Jimi Hendrix struggle to find success unless they’re Richard Pryor.
With that in mind Hannah Gadsby is likely the next huge leap in stand up comedy comparable in seismic change as Richard Pryor was in 1974 with his first hit album whose name will not be typed by me. While Pryor made stand up comedy a story based medium, making way for the 15 minute routines we take for granted today, Gadsby is using that story based format and the hour length now standard for these performances and finding new ways to underscore themes and motifs across the hour while only explicitly stating it when that will get a laugh.
These subtleties and structural shifts sound very inaccessible, and to people who aren’t familiar with conventions for hour long comedy it may be, but Gadsby puts the whole spectacle of this up front by spending the first fifteen minutes outlining her own special. This serves the dual purposes of explaining how every part of the special ties back to a central thesis and setting up numerous callbacks to make jokes later in the routine will hit harder, and in a few cases make something that wouldn’t have been funny into comic genius.
Gadsby’s success as a comedian — the crowd she’s playing to in this special is that of an arena comic like Jim Gaffigan — boggled my mind at first, since my takeaways from both this special and her breakthrough Nanette were focused on her being arthouse comedy, a kind of comedy that plays with the standards and coding of the artform, and arthouse films are mostly known as being unsuccessful. Rewatching the special, however, I better appreciated that all the amazing innovations coexist with jokes that are far from anything cliche or hack but are still very accessible. It’s rare that someone in any medium can balance groundbreaking and accessibility and it’s even more rare in comedy than most other mediums, and it is vital for everyone to watch Hannah Gadsby’s Douglas because it is stand up history in the making.
Elizabeth von Teig is a musician and author living in Brighton, Massachusetts. Her expertise is classic rock, folk punk, and the blues.