What I would have done to have heard a story like mine. Not for blame, not for reputation, not for money, not for power. But to feel less alone. To feel connected.
—Hannah Gadsby, “Nanette”
For this post, I had planned to write about narrative nonfiction, specifically about one of my favorite recent books, David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon. Then I saw Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette, a comedy special on Netflix a few weeks ago, at the recommendation of SG editor Kim Kessler. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about Gadsby’s performance, her ideas, and the masterful way she structured her story, so I’m putting Grann on hold for a few weeks, and I’d like to take a look at what I’ve learned about writing from Nanette.
A few minutes after stepping onstage, in her trademark blazer, trousers, owlish glasses, and short haircut, Gadsby smiles and sets up a series of jokes by declaring that she is only a “man at a glance.” About a quarter of the way into the show, watching her hold the audience at the Sydney Opera House in the palm of her hand, I realized that Nanette is only stand-up comedy at a glance. By the end of the show, it was clear that I’d just experienced a 9,000-word big idea story dressed up in jokes.
I’d like to look at Nanette through the Story Grid lens, using our Editor’s Six Core Questions, and see what we can learn. Even if you haven’t seen it, you’ve probably heard the buzz about Nanette, which has become an almost universally praised piece of theater, and one that created so many evangelists on every social media platform and street corner that Gadsby retreated from the public eye for a little while to nap and process her new fame. The fact that the show resonated so widely makes it worth examining, especially because it’s a big idea story that’s different in form from any other I’ve read or seen. It’s a spoken performance that mixes comedy, tragedy, rage, and compassion in a way that few writers ever attempt.
What’s the Point of View?
This is a first-person story, like all stand-up comedy shows, but Gadsby also gives voice to other characters, including her mother, some unnamed people who’ve offered her “feedback” and opinions on her work, and men who have verbally and physically attacked her. Gadsby modulates her tone for each character, letting us know if it’s time to laugh or cry.
As writers, when we’re crafting opinion pieces, memoirs, or big idea stories in first person, bringing in a different tone or vocabulary to represent other people’s points of view can help bring those characters to life and add texture to our stories, even if we’re only using these characters as foils for our own arguments.
What’s the Global Genre?
All big Idea stories live and breathe in the Worldview Revelation genre, which editor Rachelle Ramirez has explained in detail. The author brings her audience along on a journey from ignorance to wisdom, the hallmark value shift of Worldview Revelation tales.
One of the things that makes Nanette so intriguing, though, is that in addition to the larger global shift from ignorance to wisdom, we also follow Gadsby as a complex protagonist who changes from the beginning to the end of the story. Gadsby shows us how she has moved from hidden to visible, from ashamed to proud, and from broken to strong. Story Grid podcaster Tim Grahl does something similar in his recent book, Running Down a Dream, tracing his own path out of shame and fear.
When we’re writing our own big idea stories, we need to examine ourselves as protagonists from several vantage points. Are there multiple value shifts taking place during the course of the story we’re trying to tell? Which ones should we highlight or bring forward? Which should be put in the background? The answer depends on which values serve to illuminate our big idea best. We always have to remember that everything in our story is there to serve our controlling idea, which is why Tim and Shawn spent so many weeks hammering out that idea for Running Down a Dream on the podcast, and why all big idea writers rewrite their first chapters dozens of times.
For Gadsby, Grahl, and a lot of other writers, there’s a fuzzy line between a big idea story and memoir. Marion Roach Smith, an expert on the art of memoir and author of my one of my favorite writer’s craft books, The Memoir Project , explains that a memoir is never about the writer, it’s about a specific universal idea that is expressed and illustrated through moments in the writer’s life.
I now have one of Smith’s quotes pinned to my bulletin board so I won’t forget, but I’ve crossed out the word “memoir” and replaced it with “writing.”
Memoir Writing is not about you, or me. It’s about something universal.
Gadsby’s incredible power as a writer comes from the universal ideas she expresses through the intimate details of her life used to illustrate those ideas. We can all draw on that same power if we’re brave enough to pay attention to—and write truthfully about—the details.
By the Way, Is There an External Genre in Nanette?
You bet there is. It’s about power and impotence, and an attempt at a revolution, so it’s clearly a Society story, another genre Rachelle Ramirez has unpacked beautifully. But I think I’d call Nanette Society-Gender, rather than the more common Society-Women subgenre. Misogyny, the hatred of and dehumanization of women, is front and center in Gadsby’s story, but what she’s proposing is not only that misogyny is wrong, but also that the way the world sets up the whole idea of gender, with boys and girls and men and women in opposition to each other from “day dot” is wrong. Telling people they’re different turns quickly into dehumanizing them, and starts when we assign everyone to different “teams” from the moment little girl babies are put in pink headbands.
Did you know that human men and human women have more in common than they don’t? I don’t think many people do know that, because we always focus on the difference. The difference between men and women: “They’re very different!” No. Dogs are heaps differenter.
What Are Nanette’s Conventions and Obligatory Scenes?
In a big idea story:
- The author uses evidence (stories, anecdotes, case studies, data) to back up the big idea, and compelling or entertaining anecdotes make the story more memorable.
- Ethos, Logos, and Pathos persuade the reader.
- Narrative cliffhangers tease the reader and help drive the story.
- The overarching Big Idea is both surprising and inevitable.
- There is a big reveal in which the reader discovers what she believed about the topic is wrong.
- There is a how-to prescription for applying knowledge.
If you haven’t seen Nanette, you’ll have to trust me: All the conventions and obligatory scenes are there, but I’ll describe just a few here. Gadsby’s evidence includes personal experiences, art history, and sociological data related to Australia’s recent national debate over same sex marriage. Gadsby is an endearing performer and much of the hour is incredibly entertaining— full of funny faces and voices, and jokes that are clever, profane, and hilarious, which makes the turn toward raw emotion near the end all the more compelling.
Her Ethos—her legitimacy as the one who has the expertise to tell these stories—rests on, as she calls it, “this lesbian situation,” her lived experience as a queer “gender-not-normal” woman from Tasmania, Australia’s version of Hicksville.
And we discover by the end of the show that she’s got Logos in spades. She’s an intellectual—someone who can use politics and art history to tear apart conventional wisdom about Vincent Van Gogh and Pablo Picasso and then toss in jokes about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to make it all easier for her audience to swallow.
Gadsby’s Pathos, her use of personal, funny, touching, and heartbreaking stories that connect all of us to the universal emotional truth she’s revealing is one of Nanette’s greatest strengths.
Part of the reason all the stories weave together so well is that Gadsby uses narrative cliffhangers that we don’t really know are cliffhangers until more than halfway through the show. It’s a shock when we realize that she’s suddenly finishing stories that began a half hour earlier as jokes. One story—about her mother—ends in overwhelming love and compassion, while the other—about a stranger at a bus stop—ends in overwhelming hate and brutality. And both of those stories support her big idea.
What About the Beginning Hook, Middle Build, and Ending Payoff?
Because of the particularly quirky form of a comedy routine, Gadsby doesn’t present her big idea loud and clear up front, as most big idea writers do. It’s there, in the first 10 percent of the tale, just like it’s supposed to be—but it’s hiding in plain sight, much like Hannah herself was hiding during her adolescence.
Instead of telling us her theme in the first 1,000 words, Gadsby shows us her life with an absence of connection, with no one who wants to listen to her story. She doesn’t belong in her home town in Tasmania among the people she loves, she doesn’t belong in the gay community in Sydney, where she finds things just a little too loud.
Where are the quiet gays supposed to go? . . . .The pressure on my people to express our identity and pride through the metaphor of “party” is very intense!
The whole beginning hook of the show is about how disconnected she is.
Fellow writers, I wonder if we can learn from this that it’s okay to innovate on the standard big idea structure if we do it carefully and intentionally. Instead of clearly and concisely stating our theme on page 1, can we use a story or two or three to demonstrate the idea, without spelling it out?
The middle build of Nanette is about 5,000 words of evidence in the form of stories that begin as jokes, and in the ending payoff, those jokes . . . well, they pay off. Her mother. Her grandmother. A man at a bus stop. Being mistaken for a man. Pink and Blue. High Art as Misogyny. Genius as Mental Illness. She pays off each story in such a surprising and satisfying way that it took my breath away the first time I watched her. And the second. And the third.
What’s Nanette’s Controlling Idea or Theme (aka the Big Idea)?
Like all great works of art, Nanette gives us more than one idea to chew on. I see two secondary themes and one overarching controlling idea that all weave together.
I’d love to know what others see, because I think a lot depends on the audience’s point of view. I’m a Story Grid nerd, a white, middle-aged, cisgender, heterosexual woman from an American version of Hicksville, with a 17-year-old daughter, living in the #metoo moment in a Trumpified world. Every bit of that colors how I take in and take to heart what Gadsby is saying.
We Are Blind to Our Shared Humanity When We Focus on Our Differences
Early in the show, Gadsby, a lesbian comedian, slyly trots out what she calls a “classic” joke about lesbians having no sense of humor and then builds on that joke over the course of the next hour. As a final little flourish, her last joke is another “classic” about lesbians having no fashion sense.
The “lesbians have no sense of humor” joke becomes the jumping off point for one big idea woven through the show: Focusing on our differences cuts us off from our shared humanity.
The obsession we have with “normal” vs. “different” separates people and makes them take sides based on gender and sexuality (and by extension lots of other categories), and this is dehumanizing and abusive to anyone who falls into the category of “different” or “not normal.” It leads to violence. It creates self-hate that can destroy people.
Seventy percent of the people who raised me, who loved me, who I trusted, believed that homosexuality was a sin, that homosexuals were heinous subhuman pedophiles. Seventy percent. By the time I identified as being gay, it was too late. I was already homophobic, and you do not get to just flick a switch on that. No, what you do is you internalize that homophobia, and you learn to hate yourself. Hate yourself to the core.
Comedy Is Failing Hannah and Us. Let’s Quit.
Lots of critics and comedians see Nanette as a full-on assault on stand-up comedy. Over the course of the hour, Gadsby repeatedly tells us she has to give up comedy.
In questioning the inherent value of comedy, she’s telling us that when it comes to understanding our world—especially issues of gender, sexuality, and power—comedy failed her and is failing us.
She opens the conversation about comedy by explaining that it’s simply time to “reassess.” Bill Cosby used to be her favorite comedian. Not any more. At this moment when so many powerful men are being forced to reckon with the consequences of their actions, she wonders how the world might have been different if comedians in the 1990s had aimed their sharp-edged, humiliating jokes at Bill Clinton more often than at Monica Lewinsky.
Part of the “how-to” of Nanette is a lesson in comedy and storytelling: Gadsby explains that a joke has only two parts: 1) a set-up, which creates tension, and 2) a punch line, which releases tension. Comedians, including Gadsby herself, create and release tension over and over, but the need for a laugh requires that they stop before completing any story. Only a complete story, with a beginning, middle, and an end can bring us any real understanding, she says.
I’m sure Shawn would agree.
I’m not sure what I think of this particular theme in Nanette, because I do think jokes have a lot of power to take down the mighty and to change the way people look at the world. But I’m now watching and listening to comedy in a different way.
In a recent interview Gadsby explained how the announcement that she would be quitting comedy, repeated over and over in the show, gave her freedom she wasn’t expecting:
But then I realised [quitting comedy] was a really good theatrical device that gave me the freedom to say what I really thought because it meant I’m not worrying about a career, I’m not worrying about my persona.
The big lesson I took away from Gadsby’s riff on quitting comedy is that maybe we should all write as if it’s our last book, even if it’s our first. Part of the reason Gadsby said exactly what she wanted to say, with no holding back, was the belief that she was giving it her all in her last comedy show ever. That freedom is something we should all strive for when we write, saying what we have to say and taking no prisoners.
The Biggest Idea
After leading us through jokes, quirky observations about the rainbow flag and the color blue, art history lessons, and devastating trauma, Gadsby states her big idea with so much clarity that it silences an audience that had been laughing, applauding, and crying moments earlier. She circles back around to the problem with jokes, proposing something more powerful to take their place to bring people together and to help us understand each other:
Laughter is not our medicine. Stories hold our cure. Laughter is just the honey that sweetens the bitter medicine. I don’t want to unite you with laughter or anger. I just needed my story heard, my story felt and understood by individuals with minds of their own. Because like it or not, your story is my story, and my story is your story.
Gadsby proves beyond a shadow of a doubt how important stories and heroes are by completing the story of her relationship with her mother, who is an iconic hero because of the way she changed. After a journey full of trials and mistakes, she grew to understand and accept her daughter for who she was and is.
Gadsby ends her show by completing a story about Vincent Van Gogh, whose work endured because he had the unconditional love of his brother, just as Hannah now has the unconditional love of her mother.
Do you know why we have the sunflowers? It’s not because Vincent Van Gogh suffered. It’s because Vincent Van Gogh had a brother who loved him. Through all the pain, he had a tether, a connection to the world, and that is the focus of the story we need: Connection.
The final word of Nanette is its universal theme and biggest big idea: Connection.
What’s Hannah’s Object of Desire?
What I would have done to have heard a story like mine. Not for blame, not for reputation, not for money, not for power. But to feel less alone. To feel connected.
So Nanette’s most important lesson for writers is one we’ve heard before, but always bears repeating: We’re writing—whether it’s fiction or nonfiction—in order to connect and help someone else feel less alone.
At the same time, writing changes us too, as we examine ourselves and reach out to connect, even if we don’t quite register the change until later.
The point is to keep telling our stories and to keep listening to everyone else’s.
I have become a different person. I think it’s the reception of the show that has changed me. The show, my story, has always lived within me, so on its own, it was never going to change me. I think what’s changed is that my plea—for my story to be heard, felt, and understood—the fact that it has, is what has changed me. . . .
The more I think about it, what I’m asking for in the show is perhaps for people to learn how to listen. Just to be heard is such a wonderful thing. Listening is an actual gift you can give really easily in your everyday life. You don’t have to offer a solution, apologize, abuse, build a defense, or retaliate—just listen.
It’s time to just relax and let people tell their own stories. I think I’ve done my bit.
—Hannah Gadsby, as quoted in “Nanette Isn’t a Comedy Show. It’s a Sledgehammer,” Elle magazine online, July 26, 2018
Note: This is my second article breaking down a big idea nonfiction story. If you’re interested in this type of nonfiction, the previous article includes some helpful items to download and more links.