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With ‘Douglas,’ Hannah Gadsby Aces the ‘Difficult Second Album’ Problem

‘Nanette’ captured the zeitgeist and made the Australian comic a star. She follows it up brilliantly with a stand-up special that reflects on the last one’s success while charting a new path.

Hannah Gadsby knows she’ll never top Nanette, which she cops to at the start of her terrific new Netflix special Douglas. “Other than trauma, I have no way of telling what people are expecting from this show,” she admits from the stage of the Theatre at Ace Hotel in L.A. “But what I’ve decided is possible is for me to just tell you [what will happen in Douglas]. … That’s how I’m going to meet your expectations — by adjusting them for you now so they are exactly what you’re gonna get.” The crowd laughs, appreciating the bind she’s in. “Let’s face it,” Gadsby says, “this is my difficult second album … you know, it’s a lot of pressure.”  

Pressure was something the 42-year-old Australian comic didn’t experience when Nanette debuted on Netflix in the summer of 2018, a year or so after she started performing that show around the world. Prior to Nanette’s Netflix premiere, Gadsby had been doing stand-up for about a decade, although she was hardly an international name when she told the crowd at the Sydney Opera House that she was considering quitting comedy because of how her brand of self-deprecating humor diminished the trauma of her life story as a lesbian who’d been the victim of rape and, separately, a violent hate crime. 

Before most of us knew much about Gadsby, she informed us that she was walking away, leaving behind her brilliantly funny and moving scorched-earth dissection of the patriarchy, abusive powerful men like Harvey Weinstein and arrogant “geniuses” such as Pablo Picasso as her sign-off. Nanette was extraordinary, in part, because it wasn’t meant to be followed-up. Gadsby proved how great a writer and performer she was, and then she metaphorically dropped the mic. It was a hell of a show.

Worldwide acclaim came Gadsby’s way because of Nanette, which was richly deserved but painted her in a corner: So… now what? Anything she attempted after Nanette would undoubtedly be judged against it, and how often does someone capture the zeitgeist twice in a row? As Gadsby points out in Douglas, this isn’t actually her second show — she’d done several before Nanette — but the “difficult second album” problem (in other words, the sophomore slump after the critical/commercial breakthrough) is a challenge she’d now be facing. Like It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back or Nevermind or OK Computer — or, in the film world, Do the Right Thing or Moonlight Nanette profoundly changed the culture and, in the process, the person who made it. We’re no longer the same, and neither is she. What does the other side look like for either of us?

What’s exceptional about Douglas is that Gadsby has given the matter considerable thought, choosing to acknowledge the impossible task in front of her and, simultaneously, construct a set that both addresses and ignores Nanette’s long shadow. Douglas doesn’t “top” Nanette, but it’s a fairly dazzling piece of work — not as tear-jerking but just as funny, and also boasting a swagger and showmanship that wasn’t as evident last time out. Success has not spoiled Hannah Gadsby — she’s just as hilariously enraged at the dumb men she encounters in the present or throughout history. And she’s still willing to open up her life to us in order to find insights. If Nanette suggested a major talent, Douglas confirms it. 

In her opening, Gadsby lays out precisely how Douglas will be structured, offering a table of contents of the show we’re about to see. This preview of coming attractions is amusing on its own — I’m not going to spoil it for you here — but it has the added benefit, as she suggests, of keeping our expectations in check. From the start, we see what the scope of Douglas will be, and so we follow along, laughing each time she segues to a new segment: Oh, right, she told us she’d be doing this next

I’ve seen Douglas twice now — I saw it live at the Ace Hotel (on a different date than the Netflix taping) last summer — and both times, the skill of the jokes and the storytelling was such that I forgot the beat-by-beat preview she’d laid out. You’ll stop paying attention to the road map because you’ll want to focus on the journey.

Like filmmakers and musicians who suddenly blow up, successful comics can no longer sneak up on their audience as they once did when they were small-time, which is especially difficult because so much of stand-up depends on being relatable. It’s ironic, then, that Gadsby chose to record Douglas in L.A., a city symbolic with selling out, because she spends a good portion of her set going after American arrogance in the same way that she bulls-eyed straight-white-male privilege in Nanette. Lest anyone worry that she’s somehow gone Hollywood, the new special is mercifully free of celebrity name-dropping or red-carpet anecdotes. (In the Douglas show I saw last summer, there was a bit about the benefits of hiring a stylist, which didn’t make the Netflix special, but even that was sharp and endearing.)

What we have, instead, is a show loosely organized around Gadsby’s autism diagnosis about four years ago. Douglas doesn’t build to a feverish emotional peak the way Nanette did, but it is infused with her prickly relationship with her condition. We hear about the fraught, entertaining childhood exchange she had with a teacher after being confused by the idea of a penguin being behind a box. And she explains what it’s like to be on a different wavelength than everyone else, all the time, which sounds both heartbreaking and exhausting.

The Netflix special doesn’t include another segment about autism that she did during my show, where she related a hurtful story about an ex who maligned her condition, and I missed its absence. Nevertheless, Douglas feels aptly complementary to Nanette — the earlier special was about the sexism and homophobia that come at her from the outside, while the new set is about the inner neurological challenges that can be just as daunting.

Not that Nanette cured those external ills. It’s both depressing and hilarious that Gadsby still finds plenty of comedic targets when she lays waste to the men who make her life hell: arrogant doctors, clueless dudes at the dog park, the online randos who tweet at her to let her know that they’ve never heard of her. In Douglas, she recounts all the guys who accused her last show of “not being comedy” — demeaning it by calling it a monologue, a one-woman show or a lecture — but, aside from the death threats, Gadsby doesn’t care. “Look,” she says as she hits the microphone with her hand to demonstrate that it’s working. “I’ve still got the loud stick. I don’t feel threatened.” (As always, her sly, understated manner helps sell the joke. You laugh in part because she underplays her punchlines, as if they’re humorous asides that only you and she are privy to.) 

And when she brings up the accusation that Nanette was merely “a lecture,” she gets faux-incensed, her voice rising. “It wasn’t a fucking lecture. You want a lecture? I’ll give you a fucking lecture!” — and then proceeds to, literally, present the audience with a lecture, utilizing her art-history education for an informative slide-show presentation on the prevalence of misogyny in fine art across the centuries.

If insecure men watching Douglas won’t feel as attacked as they did during Nanette, they’ll still come out of the experience properly bruised — but maybe not as much as anti-vaxxers, who are taken down with such force that it’s cathartic, especially because the audience is clearly uncomfortable. Gadsby expected the reaction, and she relishes it. “There will be anti-vaxxers in this room, make no mistake,” she says, “because my core demographic is rich, white, entitled women, and that is a Venn diagram with a lot of crossover.” 

Enlightened Americans may have embraced Gadsby — especially women — because of her progressive, feminist perspective on a still largely male-driven art form, but she’s nonetheless very happy to bite that hand, refusing to congratulate her audience for liking her. Earlier in the show, Gadsby lights into our ignorance of other countries’ language or customs, although she marvels to discover that so many of us aren’t as stupid as our public reputation suggests. In some ways, Douglas feels like a wake for American exceptionalism in the age of Trump. “Sorry,” she mockingly warns us, “but making fun of Americans is still technically punching up — although that window is closing.”

Douglas was filmed February 22nd, just a few weeks before L.A. went into quarantine, and the special’s balance of societal commentary and personal history feels like it’s from another time, before everything was focused on the pandemic and its myriad deaths. (One can only imagine what hay Gadsby would have made of America’s collective resistance to social distancing as an affront to our “liberty.”) But what emerges strongest in this new special is a gifted comic who has decided to take her unexpected post-Nanette rebirth and make the most of it. Where other stand-ups seem wary of or disinterested in #MeToo, she continues to twist the knife, even delivering a snide Louis C.K. joke that’s great because it’s so cheap. Nanette was an exorcism; this feels like a victory lap.

And she seems to be having a blast. Relating her misadventures at the dog park — Douglas gets its name from her Lagotto Romagnolo — Gadsby mentions that a stranger once walked up to her, informing her that it takes more muscles to frown than to grin. It’s a clichéd bit of sexist patter that women hear all the time — the dude’s essentially saying that she’d look prettier if she smiled more. But while watching Douglas, I noticed something about her smile, which she wields often during this special and her last. Sure, yes, it does make her look happier, but it’s also a bit of a trick.

When Hannah Gadsby smiles, it’s because she’s deeply tickled that she’s getting away with the broadsides she’s delivering against men. She’s smiling because she’s making fun of Americans to their face, practically daring them to be thick-skinned enough to take her put-downs in stride. And most of all, she’s smiling because you — the dumb male, the selfish anti-vaxxer, the online troll — can think whatever you want, but she knows she’s actually smarter. In Nanette, she talked about jokes having a beginning and a middle — the difficult part of life, the ending, is what usually gets left out. Nanette was the ending. Douglas proves that there’s more to come. Her smile means she can’t wait to see what happens next.