By Sarah Bricker Hunt
Photos: Jess Gleeson/Netflix
A lot has changed since Hannah Gadsby first took audiences on the unexpected journey that was “Nanette,” their 2018 career-making Netflix special. Yes, there was that whole Trump presidency situation and, oh, that global pandemic hiccup, but also, Gadsby got new glasses, an additional dog, created two more specials, put out a New York Times bestselling memoir (“Ten Steps to Nanette”), opened an art show in Brooklyn focused on Picasso’s alleged misogyny (“It’s Pablo-matic: Picasso According to Hannah Gadsby”), and picked up a new descriptor along the way: beloved wife.
It’s that latter detail that Gadsby explores in depth in their latest Netflix endeavor, “Something Special.” Spoiler alert: A wild rabbit pays the ultimate price for Gadsby’s wedded bliss, but it’s totally not the rabbit’s fault. It’s just that, sometimes, the journey is exactly the opposite of what you’re expecting, and maybe that’s the point of, well, everything.
The newly released special is a departure from Gadsby’s work on stage so far, which has focused on topics like neurodivergency (Gadsby is autistic), family dysfunction, mental health and other heavy topics. The comedian teases the audience that all the chatter about how this special would be more lighthearted than “Nanette” and “Douglas,” released in 2020, could be an elaborate ruse. Is existentialism and social reckoning right around the corner? Nah. Gadsby, as they remind us in example after example, is not a good liar.
This special, like the others, is about where Gadsby is at this moment in time. And, happily, this moment is a good one. “I didn’t expect to get married,” Gadsby tells Pride Source in a recent Zoom interview. “So I thought that was an interesting enough place to begin. Also, I believe my audience has invested in me. I shared my pain and my trauma and my difficulties, and I think it would be weird to hide my current state of joy. That would feel like a disingenuous approach. So I really wanted to share that.”
Gadsby’s marriage to producer Jenney Shamash, who the comedian calls “Jenno,” has been surprising in one way, the comedian says. “Being surrounded by straight, unhappy married people my whole life, I’m mostly surprised that it’s not so miserable. Like, you hear comedians talk about it: ‘My wife’s this. My wife’s that.’ Why did you marry that horrible person you keep complaining about?” they joke.
Gadsby says that as they toured with the new material, audiences responded in a way that made it clear this was a show they wanted and, in many ways, needed. “It’s going to be a feel-good show because I believe I owe you one,” they say in the special. “I have dragged you through a bit of my shit over the years, and you’ve stuck with me. Much obliged! But it’s time for some payoff.”
Still, Gadsby is happy to dig into the heavy stuff during our time together, acknowledging the deeply disturbing culture wars happening in the U.S. with the LGBTQ+ community at the center — especially LGBTQ+ kids and young adults. “I was a young person during a very similar time, but without the internet — so it wasn’t that similar,” Gadsby says. “But the anti-gay rhetoric that I grew up with — the discourse surrounding me when I was growing up — was frighteningly similar to that which we’re experiencing now.”
Coming of age in tiny Tasmania, an Australian island state some 150 miles south of the mainland, Gadsby said they felt isolated, a struggle in and of itself. But today’s younger generation is experiencing an anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment “everywhere all at once.”
“So it’s incredibly difficult, particularly, to be a young queer person in this moment,” they add. “And I can’t speak to that experience. I’m not queer… That is a joke. I’m not young. But, I wanted to lead with the fact that I’ve overcome the trauma of this kind of environment.”
Gadsby is frustrated that the world is experiencing a new wave of anti-queer sentiment. “Part of the rage in ‘Nanette’ was the fact that we don’t learn,” they say. “Why aren’t we learning? Why can’t we learn? And I still have that rage. There’s still a fight to be fought, but there’ll be time for that. I just felt like we need a break also because we’re fighting for our right to exist.”
Gadsby notes that people trying to oppress the queer community don’t actually have skin in the game. “They’re not going home and wondering if they’ll be safe. They’re already safe. That’s what we have to remember as a community. It’s like we have to look after ourselves and each other, on a very personal level.”
Looking after each other can be challenging for people experiencing trauma — the tendency can be to retreat into isolation. “Yeah, that’s what trauma does,” Gadsby says. “And what’s going on at the moment is incredibly traumatic. We’re in a new place, and it’s frightening, but I think it’s horrible to think that I’m an ‘elder’ and I’m only 45, but we have to do our bit to help relieve the pressure.”
In many ways, Gadsby’s presence on stage is a billboard for intersectionality. They are frank about their identity as a genderqueer lesbian and their 2017 autism diagnosis, aspects of Gadsby’s personhood that has made it challenging for the entertainment world to figure out where they belong.
“Before I even began my career, I was difficult to categorize my entire life, and not for a lack of trying,” Gadsby says. “But I think that’s where my comedy begins — it’s me trying to be what people would prefer I be, and my persistent failure is what has gotten me here. I think I’m… close. I’m always close, but just always fall short. But I think that’s where comedy lives, so it’s not a problem.” Neurodiversity has been a central topic in all three Netflix specials. “And I’m really keen not to tell autism, and rather to show it. That’s what this show really is. It’s showing autism.”
At one point in “Something Special,” Gadsby recounts two separate stories involving awkward encounters with Jodie Foster. In one, Gadsby crumples up a bit of cardboard where Foster had written down her phone number, right in front of Foster (one of Gadsby’s sensory issues relates to feeling “very irritated” when they have to hold small and irregular-shaped objects against their palms). In another, Gadsby responds to a birthday gift from Foster by saying “I’ve already got Bananagrams!” and then chucks the present to the side. The stories are universal on one hand — virtually everyone can conjure up encounters they’d like to do over — but resonate strongly with the neurodiverse community.
Foster, Gadsby says, was gracious about the incidents. “She was there with a wife and they just kept on being amazing, kind, generous people,” they remember. “She’s very competitive at charades, though. I will give her that,” Gadsby adds.
Throughout the special, Gadsby stresses how important it has been to have Jenno by their side as both their romantic partner and producer of their shows, describing their relationship like the sport of curling. “I’m the giant puck,” they say in the show. “And every morning, we have a little team meeting and go, ‘This is where you need to go, this is how fast you’re gonna go there, this is the line you’re gonna take,’ and then we send me out, and there’s not a fucking thing I can do about it.” Perhaps neurodiversity is Gadsby’s secret super power? “Maybe. Although we’ve just told everyone, so, rats!”
“But, no. You’ve always got to keep trying to make connections. That’s what we are as humans, and it’s a particularly difficult time to do that. All I can say is hang in there, and it’s not your fault.”