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?
Out of anyone in my family, I felt the most akin to my grandmother. I mean, we share the most traits in common. Not so much these days. Death really changes people.
But that is my grandmother’s sense of humor. But the person I felt most akin to in the world was a mother, a grandmother, a great-grandmother, a great-great-grandmother. Me? I represented the very end of my branch of the family tree. And I wasn’t entirely sure I was still connected to the trunk.
What was the purpose of my human?
The year after my grandmother’s death was the most intensely creative of my life. And I suppose that’s because, at an end, my thoughts gather more than they scatter. My thought process is not linear. I’m a visual thinker. I see my thoughts. I don’t have a photographic memory, and nor is my head a static gallery of sensibly collected think pieces.
It’s more that I’ve got this ever-evolving language of hieroglyphics that I’ve developed and can understand fluently and think deeply with but I struggle to translate. I can’t paint, draw, sculpt, or even haberdash, and as for the written word, I’m OK at it but it’s a tortuous process of translation, and I don’t feel it does the job.
And as far as speaking my own mind, like I said, I’m not great at it. Speech has always felt like an inadequate freeze-frame for the life inside of me. All this to say, I’ve always understood far more than I’ve ever been able to communicate.
Now, about a year before Grandma died, I was formally diagnosed with autism. Now for me, that was mostly good news. I always thought that I couldn’t sort my life out like a normal person because I was depressed and anxious.
But it turns out I was depressed and anxious because I couldn’t sort my life out like a normal person, because I was not a normal person, and I didn’t know it.
Now, this is not to say I still don’t struggle. Every day is a bit of a struggle, to be honest. But at least now I know what my struggle is, and getting to the starting line of normal is not it. My struggle is not to escape the storm. My struggle is to find the eye of the storm as best I can.
Now, apart from the usual way us spectrum types find our calm — repetitive behaviors, routine and obsessive thinking — I have another surprising doorway into the eye of the storm: stand-up comedy.
And if you need any more proof I’m neurodivergent, yes, I am calm doing a thing that scares the hell out of most people. I’m almost dead inside up here.
Diagnosis gave me a framework on which to hang bits of me I could never understand. My misfit suddenly had a fit, and for a while, I got giddy with a newfound confidence I had in my thinking.
But after Grandma died, that confidence took a dive, because thinking is how I grieve. And in that grief of thought, I could suddenly see with so much clarity just how profoundly isolated I was and always had been.
What was the purpose of my human?
I began to think a lot about how autism and PTSD have so much in common. And I started to worry, because I had both. Could I ever untangle them? I’d always been told that the way out of trauma was through a cohesive narrative. I had a cohesive narrative, but I was still at the mercy of my traumas. They’re all part of my soup, but the onions still stung.
And at that point, I realized that I’d been telling my stories for laughs. I’d been trimming away the darkness, cutting away the pain and holding on to my trauma for the comfort of my audience. I was connecting other people through laughs, yet I remained profoundly disconnected.
What was the purpose of my human?
I did not have an answer, but I had an idea. I had an idea to tell my truth, all of it, not to share laughs but to share the literal, visceral pain of my trauma. And I thought the best way to do that would be through a comedy show. And that is what I did.
I wrote a comedy show that did not respect the punchline, that line where comedians are expected and trusted to pull their punches and turn them into tickles. I did not stop.
I punched through that line into the metaphorical guts of my audience. I did not want to make them laugh. I wanted to take their breath away, to shock them, so they could listen to my story and hold my pain as individuals, not as a mindless, laughing mob. And that’s what I did, and I called that show “Nanette.”
Now, many —
Now, many have argued that “Nanette” is not a comedy show. And while I can agree “Nanette” is definitely not a comedy show, those people are still wrong because they have framed their argument as a way of saying I failed to do comedy. I did not fail to do comedy. I took everything I knew about comedy — all the tricks, the tools, the know-how — I took all that, and with it, I broke comedy. You cannot break comedy with comedy if you fail at comedy.
Flaccid be thy hammer.
That was not my point. The point was not simply to break comedy. The point was to break comedy so I could rebuild it and reshape it, reform it into something that could better hold everything I needed to share, and that is what I meant when I said I quit comedy.
Now, it’s probably at this point where you’re going, “Yeah, cool, but what are the three ideas, exactly? It’s a bit vague.”
I’m glad I pretended you asked.
Now, I’m sure there’s quite a few of you who have already identified three ideas. A smart crowd, by all accounts, so I wouldn’t be surprised at all.
But you might be surprised to find out that I don’t have three ideas. I told you I had three ideas, and that was a lie. That was pure misdirection — I’m very funny.
What I’ve done instead is I’ve taken whole handfuls of my ideas as seeds, and I’ve scattered them all throughout my talk.
And why did I do that? Well, apart from shits and giggles, it comes down to something my grandma always used to say. “It’s not the garden, it’s the gardening that counts.”
And “Nanette” taught me the truth to that truism. I fully expected by breaking the contract of comedy and telling my story in all its truth and pain that that would push me further into the margins of both life and art. I expected that, and I was willing to pay that cost in order to tell my truth.
But that is not what happened. The world did not push me away. It pulled me closer. Through an act of disconnection, I found connection. And it took me a long time to understand that what is at the heart of that contradiction is also at the heart of the contradiction as to why I can be so good at something I am so bad at.
You see, in the real world, I struggle to talk to people because my neurodiversity makes it difficult for me to think, listen, speak and process new information all at the same time.
But onstage, I don’t have to think. I prepare my thinks well in advance. I don’t have to listen. That is your job.
And I don’t really have to talk, because, strictly speaking, I’m reciting. So all that is left is for me to do my best to make a genuine connection with my audience.
And if the experience of “Nanette” taught me anything, it’s that connection depends not just on me. You play a part. “Nanette” may have begun in me, but she now lives and grows in a whole world of other minds, minds I do not share.
But I trust I am connected. And in that, she is so much bigger than me, just like the purpose of being human is so much bigger than all of us. Make of that what you will.
Thank you, and hello.