Each week, Benjamin Law asks public figures to discuss the subjects we’re told to keep private by getting them to roll a die. The numbers they land on are the topics they’re given. This week, he talks to Hannah Gadsby. The comedian, 44, sold out her 2017 stand-up show Nanette in Australia, the UK and the US, and its resulting Netflix special won an Emmy. Her latest show is Body of Work and her memoir is titled Ten Steps to Nanette.
You grew up in north-western Tasmania’s Bible belt. Tell me about your relationship with religion. My mum is a lapsed Catholic – all of the guilt, none of the holidays. I’ve fallen into this space where I am curious, but I just don’t think it’s possible to be truly religious if you haven’t been dunked [in religion] early in life.
What are you curious about? I’m spiritual. I believe religion is important. There are things we will never understand, so we need to fill in those spaces to create a cohesive life and not be awful. I’m not an atheist who thinks it’s important to make believers feel stupid. I really dislike that kind of atheism because we don’t have all the facts. Trying to out-fact someone who’s religious is absurd – and kind of cruel.
Your book starts with the epigraph: Art is restoration. The idea is to repair the damages that are inflicted in life to make something that is fragmented – which is what fear and anxiety do to a person – into something whole. Why? It’s by Louise Bourgeois [1911-2010], one of my favourite artists. I felt like that’s what Nanette was for me: revisiting the same story and trying to use art to make sense of something.
Do you have any pre-show rituals? If there’s a piano backstage, I play Bach’s Prelude in C Major over and over and over again.
Where do you get your sense of community? My family. The queer community. Although I do stand at arm’s length, being, you know, on the antisocial end of the spectrum.
So you’ll watch the Mardi Gras … but on television. [Nods] With the volume down.
You’re the youngest of five kids. What was money like growing up in Smithton, population just over 3000? There wasn’t a great deal of it. I made money in the pub car park on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Back in the day, people used to drink-drive without a problem. So when they stumbled out, they’d pull their car keys out and all their spare change. I used to earn a lot of money. There’s something dark about that. But it’s also deeply industrious and I respect it. I’m a hustler in my own way.
You started doing stand-up around the same period you were homeless. How do you reflect on that now? At the time, I didn’t really understand it as that. Homelessness felt eternal and temporary at the same time. I had no actual plan to get out of it. There was no reason to believe that comedy was going to end up being a way out; in fact, logically, it was probably the least likely. So when I started doing comedy, I would never talk about that part of my life because I felt very ashamed: I couldn’t make sense of why I was so bad at life.
But you eventually established a really solid career in comedy. Nanette went stratospheric. Are you rich now? I’m in showbusiness, so there’s no guarantee this will last. But I now have a feeling of stability and security, and I’m able to buy time.
What do you mean by buy time? When you don’t have any money and you’re on the [autism] spectrum, you don’t get that extra time you need to decompress from intense situations. When I used to tour, I’d have periods of acute depression – imploding, shutting down. I don’t have those anymore because I can build in protections ahead of time. They’re the sort of things that should be available to everyone.
Nanette was supposed to be your swansong. What was your plan B, career-wise? I thought, Maybe I’ll go on the bloody corporate circuit. But imagine me with all these fluorescent lights, talking to people while they’re trying to eat. I made a very conscious decision to be fine with asking my brother for shifts at his fruit and vegetable shop. I was prepared to lose my access to my craft.
Outside money, define what success means to you. Not being a prisoner to trauma as much as I used to be. I’m able to enjoy moments and think about the future. That’s something I was never able to do.
You say in Nanette, I don’t identify as transgender, but I’m clearly gender-not-normal. I don’t even think ‘lesbian’ is the right identity for me. The punchline is that you identify as tired! Do any labels feel right for you, or are they inherently unhelpful? Labels are helpful because people want to know. Most people would like to treat other people with respect; we’re just in this awkward place where I was just given an honorary doctorate, so I’m happy with doctor; I was relieved to have something other than she and her. I’m definitely gender-queer; I don’t, on a philosophical level, believe in the binary. I’m not going to police how anybody sees me, though. It’s other people’s problem as far as I’m concerned. I actually feel like I’m happy to be confusing.
You got married during the pandemic. What attracted you to your wife, Jenney Shamash? I won’t be crass … but I want to be. We worked together for a while and had an incredible working relationship. Jenney is one of the few people I’ve ever met who never took my faux pas personally. She always approached me from a position of trust – that I have good intentions.
What has marriage changed, if anything? It’s streamlined a lot of the bureaucracy around travel and visas, but I was surprised by how happy it made other people for us. That hit home: how cruel the denying of it was. It struck me on a profound, spiritual level I didn’t expect. I thought it was all about the paperwork.
I love that you were blindsided and sideswiped by it. By emotions! They always surprise me.
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