But in the course of the hour-long set, which was filmed at the Sydney Opera House (Gadsby has also been performing at the SoHo Playhouse, in New York), “Nanette” transforms into a commentary on comedy itself-on what it conceals, and on how it can force the marginalized to partake in their own humiliation. Gadsby, who once considered Bill Cosby her favorite comedian, now plans to quit comedy altogether, she says, because she can’t bring herself to participate in that humiliation anymore. Onstage, Gadsby typically speaks in a shy, almost surprised tone, playing jokes off of an unassuming, nebbishy demeanor. She clutches the mic with two fists and speaks softly, forcing audiences to listen closely to hear her. In “Nanette,” she seems to slowly shed that persona, becoming increasingly assertive and, at times, deadly serious. Her set builds to include more and more disturbing accounts of her own experiences with homophobia and sexual assault, and broader themes of violence against women and male impunity. But for every moment of tension, Gadsby gives her crowd release in a punch line-until she doesn’t. When the jokes stop, the audience is forced to linger in its unease. “This tension? It’s yours,” she says at one particularly upsetting moment, toward the end of the show. “I am not helping you anymore.”
Watching Gadsby, it was impossible not to think of the many women who’ve come forward in recent months with stories of abuse that were years or even decades old. You could consider the #MeToo moment itself as a kind of callback, a collective return to stories that women have been telling one way-to others, to themselves-with a new, emboldened understanding that those past tellings had been inadequate.