Hannah Gadsby Continues Comedy Career In Reverse With 'Something Special'
“I got married!”
That’s the triumphant first line of Something Special, the intriguing third special from Peabody Award-winning comic Hannah Gadsby. (It drops next Tuesday, May 9th, on Netflix.) The new show is a self-described romantic comedy, which is not necessarily what we’d expect from the comic who brought us Nanette and Douglas. “This is going to be a feel-good show,” they say, “because I believe I owe you one.”
Gadsby seems to be following the career trajectory of many of our biggest comedians — Robin Williams, George Carlin, Tig Notaro, Chris Rock — but doing it in reverse. Most comedy career arcs go something like this: Comedian breaks onto the scene with hilarious jokes, bits and characters. Something gets in the way — the trials of success, personal tragedy, self-destructive behavior — and the routines take on a darker tone. Maybe the comedy becomes more contemplative and less punch-line-driven, like with Notaro and Williams. Maybe the jokes get more pointed and political like they did with Rock and Carlin. The comedy gets more honest as goofy exteriors are peeled away to reveal the tearful onion truths inside.
Gadsby, on the other hand, is going about it all backwards. After all, their first special, Nanette, was the one where they quit comedy. (Usually, quitting comes last.) But resigning from the job wasn’t the only thing inverted about Nanette. Gadsby used a comedy special to take comedy to task, pulling apart the very fabric of self-deprecating humor. “It’s not humility,” they decided. “It’s humiliation.”
Nanette “completely upended what a comedy special could be in the process,” wrote Wired. “Everything (they were) saying — about art, about the tools of comedy, about the strength of broken people who rebuild themselves — hit like a locomotive.”
“Gadsby has perhaps pointed the art form of stand-up in an altogether new direction,” added The New York Times, “even as (they have) repeatedly vowed, onstage, to quit the business.”
The angry truths and painful self-revelations of Nanette felt like the final mic drop, the culmination of a comedy career. But it was only the beginning. After all, Nanette’s runaway success made quitting the business improbable. So in 2020, Gadsby followed up with Douglas. Not so much trauma, they promised, even though follow-up specials generally start taking things more seriously, not less. Once more, they went to work deconstructing the form — not the hidden cruelties of comedy this time but the structure of stand-up shows themselves.
“I’m going to give you a very detailed, blow-by-blow description of exactly how the show is going to unfold,” they promised — and then they revealed all of the show’s biggest revelations and punch lines before the show had truly begun. “I have autism” is thrown out to the audience without build-up or context, then Gadsby tells the story of a brutal misdiagnosis. They tell us upfront that they’re going to end the show with a killer Louis C.K. joke. It’s Gadsby working backward to defy expectations.
Which brings us to Something Special, which on content alone feels like it should be Gadsby’s first Netflix show. The anger and despair that drove Nanette are gone, replaced with lines like, “I do want to acknowledge that the world is ending. But the thing is, I don’t think I can solve it. Not tonight, not in the time allocated. So I’m just going to ignore it.” Instead, they promise to give us an hour of feeling good: “I’ve dragged you through a bit of my shit over the years, but it’s time for some payoff.”
That all sounds pretty healthy for Gadsby. The comic spins funny tales about tricking a Christian baker into baking a lesbian wedding cake, Gadsby’s mom’s dysfunctional relationship with all things dental and their father’s inability to tell a decent story. Like a lot of people who find themselves suddenly famous, Gadsby is jarred by the celebrity experience, meeting Jodie Foster and inelegantly reacting to her Bananagrams birthday gift.
The jokes are well-crafted, the delivery confident and the audience eats it up. But if Nanette redefined stand-up comedy, Something Special reinforces all of its traditions. Feel-good humor about love and family is nothing to sneeze at, but this time, Gadsby isn’t breaking new ground. Or are they?
“I feel like, in a comedy show, there’s no room for the best part of the story, which is the ending,” Gadsby explained in Nanette. “To finish on a laugh, you have to end with punch lines. Like, take my coming-out story, for example. The best part of that story is the fact that mum and I have a wonderful relationship now. More than mother and daughter, we’re friends, we trust each other. Look what I did to the room. No tension. You’re just going, ‘Good on you. Got a good relationship with your mum, have you? Can you go back to the tension? That was hilarious.’”
To Gadsby, jokes have two parts: Set-up and punch line. Stories, on the other hand, have three — a beginning, a middle and an end. Something Special feels like the start of a comedy career, but the end of a story. It’s a happy ending — marital bliss, a healthy relationship with parents and relative inner peace. Contentment is rarely an ingredient in hilarious comedy, but as Gadsby says, they’ve shared enough trauma for now. Again, instead, it’s a feel-good show “because I believe I owe you one.”
After Nanette and Douglas, maybe it’s what Gadsby owes themself.