Hannah Gadbsy and the Comedy of the History Lecture

Hannah Gadbsy and the Comedy of the History Lecture

She had me at Douglas’ Pouch. The Mary Toft reference was just a bonus.

I went to Hannah Gadsby’s stand up show Douglas expecting searing critique of the patriarchy, sharp commentary on trauma and sexism, a fresh perspective on gender and sexuality non-conformity, and the kind of cathartic laughter that makes everything possible. I didn’t expect the history of medicine lesson. I didn’t expect the rabbits.

I got all of them. And more. I got the sense, so crucial in today’s moment, that I am not alone.

Hannah Gadsby made sure we all felt un-alone, partly by making sure, in breathtakingly creative ways, that we got a glimpse into what it meant to be her. We — the audience — were primed for that. That’s why, as Gadsby pointed out early on, we showed up. We saw Nanette, Gasby’s groundbreaking standup special on Netflix. We laughed. We cried. We felt seen. (It was, for real, better than Cats. But honestly so is the lesser-known sitcom she’s in, Please Like Me. Watch it. You’ll thank me.) We wanted more. We wanted more trauma. We wanted more feminism. We wanted more deconstruction of comedy, in a way that was insightful, and brilliant, and very very funny. We wanted more Hannah.

And Hannah has given us more. She’s given us a TED talk and talk show visits and interviews and the Emmys (the Emmys!). She’s given us empowerment and a language and something we can point to in order to help others who just don’t get it, get it. See, we can say to the skeptics? See? It really is that hard, sometimes. The patriarchy really does suck. And see, we feminists can — and do — know how to laugh. Comedy doesn’t have to be sexist. There are other ways. Hannah Gadsby has invented one.

And now, she’s given us Douglas. And in Douglas, Hannah Gadsby has given us a whole new set of insights: into the history of science and medicine, into art history, into the experience of autism, and, of course, into the ways in which the patriarchy has shaped (and named!) them all. And, because she’s Hannah Gadsby, she has given us huge pieces of herself, while still insisting that she gets to draw the lines. She knows she’s become a resource for those who have experienced trauma. She is, as she quips wryly, “happy to help” the legions of fans who want to take a selfie with her and have just a quick chat about rape. She knows she has taken on this role of criticizing culture through her own brand of observational humor. She knows what we want from her, and she is willing to give it. Generously. To a point.

Hannah Gadsby has returned with a new live show, Douglas. (Courtesy Hannah Gadsby)

She’s a public voice, but she’s not a public resource. Drawing boundaries is feminist too.

Drawing boundaries — and redrawing them, and reorganizing them, and reshuffling them into perfectly interconnected maps where nothing is left hanging and no space abandoned — is, it turns out, a particular skill and pleasure of Hannah Gadsby’s. Her show is a masterclass in creating order, in making connections and tying them all together. That’s not how it usually goes during a comedy show, but Hannah Gadsby isn’t your father’s comedian. She’s doing it her way. And her way, she tells us, is structured (so very structured) by the diagnosis she got only recently, but which helped her make sense of her whole life. Hannah Gadsby has autism, which explains, in her words, why she has always felt like she is sober in a room full of drunks. Whom she did not know were drunk.

That’s one of the many autism jokes. But for Gadsby, autism isn’t just a topic; it’s an ordering mechanism. The whole show is structured by autism, with its interconnected pieces that leave no question unanswered, no quip unforeshadowed, no story unexpected. In probably a first for comedy, Hannah Gadsby opens with a roadmap. She tells us everything we are going to hear. She tells us what our reactions will be. She tells us that we will find the jokes even funnier for having been told about them in advance and then, just for a little bit, forgetting about them.

And, of course, she’s right. This comedic deconstruction is something she did in Nanette, diagramming the tension of the joke, but here she makes it even more structural. It’s an insight into the experience of autism, and it’s an insight into how comedy can grow and change, even as Gadsby’s haters (her words, and she’s right) tell her that she’s not doing standup but giving a lecture.

I’ll take it. I’ll take it because it’s damn interesting and damn funny, and I’ll take it because Gadsby’s show is both standup and lecture. For real. What she’s offering is a chance to laugh, to critique, and also — and this is crucially important — to learn. It is, in its way, an ode to art: quite literally, with a deep dive into a Gadsby-style art history lesson that is the funniest thing to hit Renaissance PowerPoints since, well, ever, and more figuratively, with Gadsby insisting that this project of hers, that comedy itself, is art. And as art, it evolves. As art, it reflects experience as it structures it. And as an artist, Gadsby gets to do that any way she damn well pleases. Which may well include a lecture or two, which aren’t specifically for the haters but are certainly a response to them.

The thing is, the lectures are good. They are super smart. The roadmap Gadsby gives at the outset of the show would fit right into a research paper, except it’s much funnier. The references aren’t just glib. They aren’t just accurate. They make profound and unexpected connections, tying Mary Toft to men’s control of women’s bodies, and Douglas’ Pouch to men’s proclivity to name and claim everything, even that which is not there. And these too are connected to Gadsby’s medical and diagnostic experiences, which, like all medical and diagnostic experiences, are deeply rooted in particular histories and traditions that make it unsurprising — especially to historians of medicine — how terrible some doctors (#notalldoctors) can be.

While I wasn’t expecting Mary Toft (but was thrilled by it: Philly, if you were at the show, I was the one who shouted out “rabbits”), I should have been. Because one of the things that Hannah Gadsby highlights is just how deeply interconnected the history of medicine and science, the depiction of those bodies in the history of art, and the names we have been given to identify them all, are rooted in the patriarchy’s control. Gadsby riffs a little on what these names might be if they were developed by women (I won’t ruin the joke, but balls would not be balls), and it’s funny, but there’s a bigger point. It’s that naming matters, but not just that. It’s that representation matters, but not just that. It’s that the authority of medicine and science has led to profound abuses and mistreatments, but not just that.

It’s also that art matters. Smart art matters. Smart art that sometimes feels like (and is!) a lecture may be the best way to communicate a person’s experience, and that experience matters, so, so much. Even and especially when that person — outside Hannah Gadsby’s show — is one who we-the-majority don’t truly see, and won’t even try to know and understand. Hannah Gadsby has generously insisted on giving us the tools to see and understand. And maybe even the tools (with or without the PowerPoint) to teach others.

Also: history of medicine lectures, it turns out, can be very funny. With or without the rabbits.

Featured image caption: Mary Toft and her infamous rabbits. (Courtesy Special Collections at the Library of the University of Glasgow)

Sharrona Pearl is an Associate Professor of Medical Ethics at Drexel University. A historian and theorist of the face and body, Pearl is the author of numerous articles, book chapters, and blogs regularly at and on other sites. Her most recent book _Face/On: Face Transplants and the Ethics of the Other_ was published by the University of Chicago Press in 2017.

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