Ahead of the world premiere of her new show Nanette, Comedian Hannah Gadsby talks giving up comedy, making bogans laugh and coming to terms with identity, with Maxim Boon.
Comedian and writer Hannah Gadsby has never been one to conform. It's not that she's an anti-establishment rebel, stickin' it to Charlie Big Potatoes. Nor does she style herself as a bold, cultural iconoclast - although many of her fans no doubt see the queer comedy trailblazer as one. For Gadsby, being different is a question of nature, rather than nurture. "I've always known I wasn't normal. It's only recently that I've had the realisation that I'm never going to not be," she shares. "It was like, 'Ohhhh, this doesn't end'."
But what exactly is it that makes Gadsby one of a kind? "I waste a lot of time on useless tasks. Even when I have a moment and think, 'People don't do this, do they?' I still do them," she chuckles. "Like right now, I'm converting the cubby house out the back of my rental into this proto-Renaissance church. And I just keep thinking, 'Hmmm, I don't think this has been done before.' Not in a 'I'm so fucking original' kind of way. It's more of a 'shiiiiiieeeet! This is fucking unusual' kind of way. Apparently it's called individuality, and it's something I'm told people strive for. But it's not all that fun being unique - it's quite lonely out here."
It's hardly surprising that the lonesome life is on Gadsby's mind. While developing her latest show, Nanette, she's indulged in a fair bit of solitary self-reflection. It's led her to some charmingly twee arts and crafts hobbies - jam making, knitting and painting with egg tempera among them - but in typically cerebral style, she's also pondered some big philosophical questions. The knotty complexities of the identity conundrum has been one of the thoughts weighing heaviest on Gadsby.
"I've come to realise I don't like the word "queer", for myself at least. Because it takes that concept of identity beyond sexuality, in my mind. I guess I was born under the star of Nanna. I realise at the moment there's quite a lot of pressure to declare how you identify, particularly in the LGBT community, so to be totally honest, I probably identify as 'Grandma'," she reveals. "The idea of Queerness - with a capital Q - is about making a statement, so I don't identify as that because I never set out to go, 'Oh I want to be different.' When I was a kid, being not normal was incredibly dangerous and unsafe, but I was powerless to change that, so I was just, y'know, not normal, in a sort of generic, none specified way. I desperately didn't want to stand out. I think that's why I've always been friends with old ladies - even though I'm not that old."
Since Gadsby's formative years, flying under the discrimination radar in her native rural Tasmania, times have changed and attitudes have softened, although the spectre of the marriage equality debate and the prospect of a plebiscite prove Australia still has a long way to go. It is at least a little heartening that a vanguard of LGBTQ comedians have brought queer stories into the mainstream, as Gadsby's appearance in Josh Thomas's wildly successful sitcom Please Like Me can attest. Ironically, it's this prime time recognition that Gadsby sees as her most anarchic contribution to queer culture. "It really amuses me that I'm viewed as accessible. People in the mainstream find me incredibly accessible, even though I don't at all attempt to pander," she notes. "I reckon that's pretty damn cutting edge, isn't it? I mean, even bogans like me!"
With a solid gold track record, a celebrated TV turn and a nationally recognised profile as a comedy stalwart under her belt, Gadsby kicks off this comedy festival season at the top of her game. So it will no doubt be gutting for her fans to learn this will be her swansong tour. Whether or not this means a total retirement from the stand-up stage is yet to be seen, but for Gadsby, reaching a career peak, with all the validation that comes with it, has been the signal for her to step out of the spotlight.
"I've never gone, 'Phwoar, I can't wait to get out on stage again.' That's not a thing I say. Don't get me wrong, I really do love performing, but I've had to hang out with a lot of straight white men over the years. I don't mind them at all, but it's not my safe space. It's not that I've ever thought, 'Fuck men. I hate 'em.' I don't! But I am tired of the scene, and I'm not desperate for the attention anymore," she candidly offers. "I just feel more content these days and that just doesn't belong in comedy, does it? I'm like, 'Gosh, I really need to nurture my miserable side, because that's what people want to hear.' But surely, that's not healthy? People don't want to pay to hear me talking about how I've found inner peace. They'd just tell me to fuck off."
First published 3 March 2017, for The Music