HUMOUR CAN’T DO IT ALL

May 22, 2017

Beatrix Payge

The night I went to Hannah Gadsby’s ‘Nanette’ it was sold out. As a first time comedy festival goer, all I hoped for was a funny show to break up the routine of uni, work and internship. Though I did get this, Gadsby’s show delivered something unexpected. Rather than just tackling difficult subjects with humour, Gadsby didn’t joke about them at certain points. Instead she left the audience to ponder what it was we were laughing at and whether we should even be laughing in the first place.

‘Nanette’, named after a grumpy woman who served her in a country town, is about Gadsby’s decision to stop doing stand up due to different events throughout her life.  As she talked about her life, she joked about growing up in a small town, where 70% of her home state (Tasmania) not wanting homosexuality decriminalized, how people have reacted to her physical appearance and on her role as a comedienne in the queer community whilst being more introverted.  Her humour is dry and sarcastic at times, and made for a brilliant show.

However, at times Gadsby was deadly serious about these same topics. She would build up the story, set it up for a joke and then undercut it with a serious statement to make us realise exactly what was being joked about: self-doubt, mental illness, homophobia and violent reactions to things created by fear of difference She said she no longer wants to joke about these things, because they are incredibly important and need to be treated as though they are important.

Mental illness is often tied to creativity. Gadsby cites Vincent Van Gogh as a prime example. Van Gogh was mentally unstable, suffering depression and psychotic episodes; cutting off part of his ear before committing suicide. Yet, society almost celebrates this because of the idea that he wouldn’t have created the works he did without having suffered because we think artists must suffer for their work. Gadsby points to the ridiculousness of this and made it a point to show that people should not be persecuted for aspects of their identity that they cannot control.

Gadsby’s delivery of the topics reflects how humour is used in wider society. We use it as a way to broach and deal with difficult topics, like at the SNL skits of Donald Trump or the cartoons that make fun of terrorists, and the crazy dictators (looking at you, North Korea) or TV shows making fun out of current events (Have You Been Paying Attention). I think this is a good thing, using humour to approach certain things is good. I use it myself when talking with family about topics we disagree on.

According to psychologists, this is a very natural thing. Victoria Ando, a psychologist from Oxford, says that ‘humour requires the ability for people to look outside of the box and make connections that other people don’t’. It allows us to reduce both stress and anxiety, and view our problems from a new angle. We need this kind of thinking to solve our problems. Humour can be so dangerous for society that the Nazis reportedly introduced a law banning anti-Nazi humour. It can at once empower the people treated badly, while challenging and threatening those in the wrong (or in modern times, those in power). Humour is an amazingly versatile tool.

But, there comes a point when humour doesn’t cut it. There comes a point, when as demonstrated by Gadsby, joking about mental illness and homophobia does more damage than good and needs to be stopped. Whilst humour is a great way to start the discussion, we need to recognise when this discussion needs to be serious. Humour, for all of its benefits, cannot take us all the way.

Beatrix Payge

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