During a recent performance of her newest show, Douglas, Hannah Gadsby stopped mid-sentence. “What is that red light?” she asked. She squinted out into the audience, trying to figure out where the light was coming from and who was holding it. A pause. “I’ve lost my train of thought,” she said, running her hand through her hair. This wasn’t part of the show. It was a by-product of Gadsby’s experience as a person on the autism spectrum; she was diagnosed before her hit standup special Nanette (still available on Netflix), but she’s finally talking about it publicly in Douglas.
That moment with the red light, “knocked my words,” she says candidly during an interview before another Douglas performance (it runs Off-Broadway at the Daryl Roth Theatre through Sept. 14*, part of a global tour through 2020, after which the show will be released on Netflix). Gadsby explains that, ironically, she doesn’t think in words. “Words aren’t the first thing. I’m shaking my understanding and my meaning with images. So it is quite easy for me to be distracted.”
As a follow-up to Nanette—which dealt with #MeToo and homophobia, with some art history thrown in for good measure—Douglas is a few shades more lighthearted. For one, the title is Gadsby’s dog’s name. And it’s also named after the pouch of Douglas, a part of the female anatomy that takes its name from the man who “discovered” it. From there, Gadsby explores how men have, throughout history, remade the world in their own image, including claiming ownership over parts of women’s bodies. It’s probing and funny as hell.
Gadsby was just nominated for two Emmy Awards for Nanette and her memoir, Ten Steps to Nanette, will be released in early 2020. Below, she talks about crafting Douglas and how spoiling a joke can sometimes make it funnier.
DIEP TRAN: So I saw the show last night.
HANNAH GADSBY: Oh, hope you liked it.
I did! I liked it a lot. I also have a degree in art history, so whenever you got into art historian lecture mode, it felt like being back in college, except more fun.
I always feel a little weird about doing that because I know academia’s moved on. But I just don’t feel like popular understanding about history has moved on. I know what I’m saying is not academically revolutionary. But sometimes I can see how art history is reflected in popular culture and I’m just like, “Oh, God, really? Still?” [Laughs]
And I think it takes a long time to undo the influences, because I remember when I was in college, we did a course on Orientalism.
Oh, just the worst.
That’s where all the bad Asian stereotypes come from, and we’re still dismantling them.
That was an excuse to get a woman in the nude in the 18th, 19th century. “Oh, she’s from Turkey and she’s off her face on opium, just spread her on a futon, with a hookah.”
Art history is always taught with this smug self-satisfaction of, “We get it now, they were wrong then.” That’s the one I always don’t get, is how smug we are about where we are right now when we look back in history, “Look how stupid history people were.” It’s like, yeah, guys, we are currently history people, we’re probably doing a few things wrong.
I want to talk to you about craft, about creating the show. There’s that bit in the beginning where you basically spoil the whole show for the audience and give us a summary of what’s in Douglas.
It’s so fun. [Laughs]
It is! But that’s one of those things people tell you never to do, and so how did you figure out that would actually make the jokes funnier?
Well, there were several ideas going on. It wasn’t the conceit of the show. The show was written and being performed for a while before that became a part of it. So, I’m trying a little thing out with this show called a “call-forward,” where I say phrases that seem innocuous and I say them again and again in a different context and sometimes they’re funnier.
You know when people review comedy, they’re just like, “I went and saw the show. Here’s a list of all the jokes I liked.” And I’m like, “That’s a lovely review. Gosh, they just ruined quite a chunk of the show there.” And that’s what started to make me think, “What if I just did that? What if I just spoiled the show?” And so I just experimented, and it worked immediately.
Then what I realized for myself was, because the show is about autism, I bury that lede at the end of the show because I honestly didn’t want to teach people. It’s difficult to do a show that’s, “Hey, I’m an older woman on the spectrum. I have to teach because it’s not common, there’s so much bullshit out there that is wrong.” I didn’t want to teach, so what I did is: I just laced the show with improvisational comedy about having autism, without saying it. And then revealing it. So my thought was: People would watch it and then perhaps they’ll get a sense of how my mind works.
But what that [spoiling the show] essentially does is it helps people playfully pick up the pieces as I’m laying them out through the show. It works to make people feel like it’s an in-joke between me and the audience that I’m talking to. And I think they’re the funniest jokes: those jokes you have with friends where you get a whole world of people who don’t understand and it’s delightful—that shared joke.
It fosters intimacy then.
Yeah, I guess so. I forget about that.
The Daryl Roth Theatre is 300 seats, so I don’t think you can hide there.
No, but that is a lovely thing for me. Because alienation is kind of a strong part of my experience on the spectrum, when I perform I feel like there’s a crowd of people that I get to share myself with and I do actually feel like it is intimate in a weird way.
Social interactions can be quite confusing for me, and it takes me a long time to understand new things, and that’s just my lot. But the standup stage is a really wonderful way for me to share and be seen and heard, and also in a way that’s playful. I don’t think people know that people on the spectrum can be quite playful.
I know after Nanette you talked about not wanting to share another big traumatic thing, but I feel like in Douglas there is something very serious that happens to you three quarters of the way through. [Which we won’t spoil here—you’re welcome.]
I’ll tell you the difference between this and Nanette. Nanette was exhausting because I was punching through an hour section with trauma, where we make light of it because we think we’ve dealt with it and it turns out, No, if you haven’t dealt with it, it’s not funny. People go to comedy shows all the time where there’s throwaway rape gags and they’re not funny, they’re traumatizing. So that’s a point where it’s, like, we need to just sit here as a group of people with empathy and not mock others.
But with Douglas, I’m in what you’d call a high-status position. I know that the people who are coming to see me know who I am. So I’ve been able to process [the events in Douglas] reasonably quickly. But I wanted to offer context, the sociocultural framework that allows that to happen: This is how people think about people with autism. Like it’s a really misunderstood experience; it’s still called a disorder.
What do you think pop culture gets wrong about people on the spectrum?
The irony of the spectrum is that it’s a spectrum. [Chuckles] A lot of representations are very singular. It’s still seen as science-nerd men, idiot savants, asexual. They’re getting it wrong because they think it’s one idea, and I think that’s problematic. There is a spectrum. It’s really a complicated thing. The whole brain is a spectrum on the neurotypical side, so you wouldn’t dare say everyone’s experience is the same.
And that’s where a lot of people like to misdiagnose you because they’re like, “I had this understanding that you’re not bad enough for me to believe you’ve got this bad condition.” And I’m like, “A, the fuck? B, the fuck?”
We are still learning. I would not call myself an expert. But other people’s certainty made my uncertainty feel more painful. I’m trying to learn and understand how my brain works, what part of my experience is to do with trauma, what part of my experience is to do with my neurobiology. Trauma alters neurobiology. So there’s a really, really complex situation going on in the head. And you know what? That’s the brain, it’s complex, and we don’t understand the brain. Nobody does. So all we’ve got to go on is people going, “Hey, this is my experience,” and that’s what I’m trying to do in the show.
Usually in comedy you test out small bits of material and you put them together to make an hour-long special. But I feel like for Nanette and Douglas, those were hour-long narratives. There’s a beginning, middle, and end. So how did you test out the material for Douglas?
This process suits the way my brain works. I can do a 10-minute bit, that’s how I cut my teeth back in the day. But the way my brain works is: As I’m trying to understand the world and how it fits together, and I’m obviously going at it from a different angle than most people, I find connections between things that other people don’t see. And they can be at once really silly and funny, and other times sort of profound insights that can help shift other people’s thinking.
So I have a whole that has been a lot of moving parts, like the inside of a watch. But those cogs can go in all sorts of different ways. I really love it, I really love tinkering around with it. But it doesn’t work if I was to have 10-minute spots, because once you’ve cemented down a 10-minute spot you can’t put that 10-minute spot anywhere else. Because once you’ve cemented a 10-minute spot, then it’s a bit without any flexibility. Whereas, you know, some bits in my show can go in other places, but in order to put it in other places it had to have a different end and a different arc. A different emphasis.
And I come from a different standup comedy culture. I come from a festival scene where it was, like, standup comedy at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival—they were the two main points of my working years. I would write a whole new hour every year and I would start it out somewhere like the Adelaide Fringe, do some trial shows. So, I built my shows as hour-long situations, and from those hour-long situations I would then extract my 10-minute spots that I would do in clubs.
So it seems you wrote it like a play.
It is and it isn’t. Think about it in this way. A play is like a basketball game, and standup comedy in a 10-minute spot is a running sprint. What I’m doing is a marathon. So I’m still running. I’m not playing. Why am I using a sports metaphor? But you know what I mean? I’m still using the same mechanics, it’s just a longer form. But a play is not long-form comedy.
But a solo show can be.
Yeah, but you’ve got to do a lot of running around on the basketball court too.
With other people, yeah.
The thing is I’m not acting. I can’t act. That’s part of the autism thing. I’m unable to filter who I am. There’s a really complex intellectual part of who I am, but there’s also, like, a child—there’s an innocence to me where I’m just like, “Yeah, this is who I am right now. I’m not pretending. I’m not acting.” So that performative aspect through a one-woman show or a monologue, that’s missing. I’m still very much in standup mode where I’m interacting directly with the audience. They feel like a person.
So I bought a Pouch of Douglas fanny pack at your show.
Oh, did you? Aren’t they great? They’re a good size too, aren’t they?
I love all the pockets. How did you find out that that was an actual thing? Because I’m a woman and the pouch of Douglas is a part of my anatomy I didn’t even know existed.
So that’s a thing with autism. You have special interests, right? One of mine’s clearly art, and it always has been. But I went through an anatomy phase for a couple of years where I just went full Leonardo da Vinci, and I was interested in the gender spectrum and how wrong we had it between the male and the female physiology. And because all medicine was based on the male form, blah blah blah blah blah, so it was all part of that. So basically, that little bag of Douglas comes from two years of me obsessing about something. And it’s too obsessive for conversation. So I worked really hard to make my obsessions interesting to the outside world, but it’s fun in my head.
*Douglas‘s run in NYC has been extended (again) so we’ve changed the date to reflect that.