Exclusive: Hannah Gadsby Explores “Life After Trauma” in New Show, “Douglas”

"I’m not defined by my trauma. It’s not at the center of who I am. It’s a process," Gadsby tells Michael Musto.

In her one-person show, Nanette—which Netflix aired last year to great acclaim—standup comic Hannah Gadsby talked about giving up comedy because so much of it is self-deprecating and the constant setup-punchline-release routine can be debilitating. Besides, as a lesbian who grew up in Tasmania, in what she calls “the Australian Bible Belt,” Gadsby already felt like a punchline enough. But the show was such a hit that the rising star is back on the boards, albeit in a somewhat different frame of mind.

Her new show, Douglas (named after one of her dogs), starts July 23 at New York’s Daryl Roth Theatre, and it’s already being called as much of a nontraditional high wire act as Nanette (named after a barista she casually met), though it’s decidedly more upbeat. In Nanette, Gadsby’s potent style was to sport black-rimmed glasses, a short coif, and a jacket, and veer between bemused observations (interspersed with her own grins and giggles) and dark revelations (sometimes about her experiences with homelessness, autism, and abuse). Having survived all of that, Gadsby admits she wants to come out as just plain tired, though she’d never want to be a straight white man. (“Not if you paid me—although the pay would be substantially better.”)

Fresh off her Emmy nomination for Outstanding Writing For a Variety Special, I just talked to Hannah about Nanette, Douglas, and Hannah.

Hi, Hannah. I’m a big fan. But while you said you were quitting comedy, was that a giant scam, like Cher’s farewell concert tours?

Everyone knew who Cher was. I said hello and goodbye in the same breath.

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And it was the fastest resuscitation in history.

It was a complicated premise. Most of it was to do with criticisms a show like mine would face. I thought if I quit comedy at the beginning of the show, they can’t accuse me me of not doing comedy because I already quit! The comedy I was working in—the lifestyle, the grind of it—I didn’t want to do that anymore. It’s not healthy physically, emotionally, and psychologically. Those things all went into that. But I didn’t say I’m going to quit being creative.

That’s true. Which trauma are you most tired of people asking you about?

People are fairly respectful about it all.

Douglas deals with your dog, art history and what other topics?

I use art history and the way it opens up topics from a different angle. The dog means about as much to the show as Nanette did to that show. It’s a much happier and joyful show than Nanette. I think it’s important to see there’s a life after trauma, particularly after what happened with Nanette—my story was heard, including the more poisonous parts of my experience with trauma. I’m not defined by my trauma. It’s not at the center of who I am. It’s a process, you know. I hope my work has some kind of positive effect on the minds of people who’ve faced similar traumas. You don’t really get to hear our traumas in a more complex way in popular culture. It’s one of the things I’m most proud of with Nanette, that it’s resonated with such a wide audience.

Speaking of pride, we just had WorldPride and there were so many corporations and celebrities caring. But now I’m starting to wonder, “Where have they gone?”

I don’t think I’m an expert in corporations and pride. I can see all the complexities, but I don’t think I know what the answer is. Do you drop corporations and run, or try to change them? All I can see is complexities.

I still have my activist anger from the 1990s.

I do too, but the lack of anger in the ’80s and ’90s is sort of why we are here. There was a certain amount of complacency. I’m not blaming, I’m including myself.

Do you think lesbians are called lesbians because the word “less” is in there and that’s how they’re treated?

[Laughs] I don’t know. I think it’s just what happens to women. We live in a deeply patriarchal, misogynistic culture. We don’t see there’s different flavors. Even straight white men experience it on some level.

Well, I know you don’t want to be one of those.

The age I’m at at the moment, I’m glad I’m not, because I’m glad to not be told at this age that I’ll get everything. Straight white men are told at an early age they get everything they want.

And they don’t?

Not everything.

But back to the gays. Freddie Mercury was always closety on the record, but some of the people promoting Bohemian Rhapsody made it sound like that was a plus because it showed how uncompromising he was. As someone who’s always been out, I was offended that we should applaud someone for not wanting to be called queer. I could see explaining his closeted approach, but certainly not praising it.

It’s not their job to praise that. That’s the biggest bit of bullshit I’ve ever heard. They should have expressed empathy for the position he was in. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong. It’s up to every individual to negotiate that minefield. Fame is such a weird beat. [With a closet case,] a person is hiding half their identity. There are people who are out, have always been out, or are now coming out publicly, and we can see how people negotiated their situation in the closet. It shows how complicated and difficult it is, and how there’s a huge amount of adversity to the experience of being in the closet. That’s what should be highlighted. It’s really hard. There’s no right or wrong answer—there’s trauma on both sides of the decision.

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You never doubted coming out publicly, right?

I was out before I started being a comedian. You don’t look at me and think, “She’s someone who could play on the straight part of the fence.” In the world of comedy, the audience has to believe you and think you’re authentic. I’m incapable of pretending. Being in the closet was impossible for me. In a weird way, I lack the imagination to be closeted.

How did you introduce your sexuality into your act?

When I was an unknown, I would start my act by talking about my family. People wouldn’t laugh because they thought, How do we think about this person? There was a question mark about how to categorize me. So then I would get my sexuality out of the way at the top and keep moving. The reaction was, Ooh, we understand you now.

Michael Musto is the long running, award-winning entertainment journalist and TV commentator.