Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby’s groundbreaking special “Nanette” broke comedy. In a talk about truth and purpose, she shares three ideas and three contradictions. Or not.
Hannah Gadsby – TED Talk TRANSCRIPT
My name is Hannah. And that is a palindrome. That is a word you can spell the same forwards and backwards, if you can spell.
But the thing is — my entire family have palindromic names. It’s a bit of a tradition. We’ve got Mum, Dad, Nan, Pop. And my brother, Kayak.
There you go. That’s just a bit of a joke, there. I like to kick things off with a joke because I’m a comedian.
Now there’s two things you know about me already: my name’s Hannah and I’m a comedian. I’m wasting no time.
Here’s a third thing you can know about me: I don’t think I’m qualified to speak my own mind. Bold way to begin a talk, yes, but it’s true.
I’ve always had a great deal of difficulty turning my thinking into the talking. So it seems a bit of a contradiction, then, that someone like me, who is so bad at the chat, could be something like a stand-up comedian.
But there you go. There you go. It’s what it is. I first tried my hand at stand-up comedi — comedie … See? See? See?
I first tried my hand at stand-up comedy in my late 20s, and despite being a pathologically shy virtual mute with low self-esteem who’d never held a microphone before, I knew as soon as I walked and stood in front of the audience, I knew, before I’d even landed my first joke, I knew that I really liked stand-up, and stand-up really liked me.
But for the life of me, I couldn’t work out why. Why is it I could be so good at doing something I was so bad at? I just couldn’t work it out, I could not understand it. That is, until I could.
Now, before I explain to you why it is that I can be good at something I’m so bad at, let me throw another spanner of contradiction into the work by telling you that not long after I worked out why that was, I decided to quit comedy.
And before I explain that little oppositional cat I just threw amongst the thinking pigeons, let me also tell you this: quitting launched my comedy career. Like, really launched it, to the point where after quitting comedy, I became the most talked-about comedian on the planet, because apparently, I’m even worse at making retirement plans than I am at speaking my own mind.
Now, all I’ve done up until this point apart from giving over a spattering of biographical detail is to tell you indirectly that I have three ideas that I want to share with you today.
And I’ve done that by way of sharing three contradictions: one, I am bad at talking, I am good at talking; I quit, I did not quit. Three ideas, three contradictions.
Now, if you’re wondering why there’s only two things on my so-called list of three — I remind you it is literally a list of contradictions. Keep up.
Now, the folks at TED advised me that with a talk of this length, it’s best to stick with just sharing one idea. I said no. What would they know?
To explain why I have chosen to ignore what is clearly very good advice, I want to take you back to the beginning of this talk, specifically, my palindrome joke.
Now that joke uses my favorite trick of the comedian trade, the rule of three, whereby you make a statement and then back that statement up with a list. My entire family have palindromic names: Mum, Dad, Nan, Pop.
The first two ideas on that list create a pattern, and that pattern creates expectation.
And then the third thing — bam! — Kayak. What? That’s the rule of three. One, two, surprise! Ha ha.
Now, the rule of three is not only fundamental to the way I do my craft, it is also fundamental to the way I communicate. So I won’t be changing anything for nobody, not even TED, which, I will point out, stands for three ideas: technology, entertainment and dickheads.
Works every time, doesn’t it?
But you need more than just jokes to be able to cut it as a professional comedian. You need to be able to walk that fine line between being charming and disarming.
And I discovered the most effective way to generate the amount of charm I needed to offset my disarming personality was through not jokes but stories. So my stand-up routines are filled with stories: stories about growing up, my coming out story, stories about the abuse I’ve copped for being not only a woman but a big woman and a masculine-of-center woman.
If you watch my work online, check the comments out below for examples of abuse. It’s that time in the talk where I shift into second gear, and I’m going to tell you a story about everything I’ve just said.
In the last few days of her life, my grandma was surrounded by people, a lot of people, because my grandma was the loving matriarch of a large and loving family.
Now, if you haven’t made the connection already, I am a member of that family. I was lucky enough to be able to say goodbye to my grandma on the day she died.
But as she was already cocooned within herself by then, it was something of a one-sided goodbye. So I thought about a lot of things, things I hadn’t thought about in a long time, like the letters I used to write to my grandma when I first started university, letters I filled with funny stories and anecdotes that I embellished for her amusement.
And I remembered how I couldn’t articulate the anxiety and fear that filled me as I tried to carve my tiny little life into a world that felt far too big for me.
But I remembered finding comfort in those letters, because I wrote them with my grandma in mind. But as the world got more and more overwhelming and my ability to negotiate it got worse, not better, I stopped writing those letters. I just didn’t think I had the life that Grandma would want to read about.
Grandma did not know I was gay, and about six months before she died, out of nowhere, she asked me if I had a boyfriend.
Now, I remember making a conscious decision in that moment not to come out to my grandmother. And I did that because I knew her life was drawing to an end, and my time with her was finite, and I did not want to talk about the ways we were different. I wanted to talk about the ways where we connected. So I changed the subject.
And at the time, it felt like the right decision. But as I sat witness to my grandmother’s life as it tapered to its inevitable end, I couldn’t help but feel I’d made a mistake not to share such a significant part of my life.
But I also knew that I’d missed my opportunity, and as Grandma always used to say, “Ah, well, it’s all part of the soup. Too late to take the onions out now.”
And I thought about that, and I thought about how I had to deal with too many onions as a kid, growing up gay in a state where homosexuality was illegal. And with that thought, I could see how tightly wrapped in the tendrils of my own internalized shame I was.
And with that, I thought about all my traumas: the violence, the abuse, my rape. And with all that cluster of thinking, a thought, a question, kept popping into my mind to which I had no answer: What is the purpose of my human?