Any budding screenwriter will tell you that the best sequels bring their protagonists into new, larger conflicts while staying true to the identity and flavor of the original. Rather than retelling the first story with slightly different beats, the hero's next adventure should pivot to something bigger that allows her to gain new insight.
It may be slightly more complicated to try and apply the rules of fiction to stand-up comedy specials, but then again, Hannah Gadsby's breakthrough hit, Nanette, wasn't strictly a stand-up comedy special. While certainly full of laugh-out-loud moments, the 2018 special also combined long-form storytelling, a TED talk, and, curiously enough, an art history lecture, among other genres. In fact, midway through the special, Gadsby declared she was quitting stand-up comedy entirely, noting that stand-up's reliance on self-deprecation felt like too much to ask of her in a world where society already marginalizes her.
This direct challenge to the norms of comedy formed the most coherent and civilized critiques of Nanette — some comics bristled at what they perceived as being told what to do, while others noted that Nanette shouldn't have been labeled stand-up in the first place. Others were apparently offended by the way Gadsby spoke truth to power. That she dared to occupy a traditionally straight-male-dominated space as a queer woman, let alone one with strong opinions, obviously wasn't going to sit well with a certain subset of the population.
That backlash, and her reaction to it, forms the centerpiece of Douglas, Gadsby's latest special, which premieres on Netflix today.
Gadsby opens Douglas by catching us up on everything that's happened since Nanette, breaking down what's changed now that she's had a taste of mainstream success, including all of the pros and cons that come with the added scrutiny. Of course she has a larger platform, but she's also drawn the ire of a veritable army of trolls who seem offended by her failure to conform to not just the norms of comedy, but of gender, queerness, and neurotypicality (shortly before Nanette was released, Gadsby was diagnosed with high-functioning autism, a topic she explores in depth in Douglas).
But it's obviously not on-brand for Gadsby to dwell on whether, or how, the backlash has damaged her. Besides, she argues, she's “fresh out” of trauma to exploit for laughs. Instead, she goes on the defensive, expertly reducing most of the more visible critiques to the absurdities that they are. Noting the large numbers of people whose most coherent critique of her was that she was fat and ugly, she muses on why those labels are considered the height of insult in certain circles. From there, she pivots to a larger examination of misogyny, homophobia, and ableism in modern culture, viewed through both macro and micro lenses.
Douglas also wanders away from Gadsby's lived experiences and into at least one strange, obscure history lesson, including one right there in the title itself. Nanette's namesake was a barista Gadsby was trying to woo. Douglas's name origins are twofold: Douglas is the name of one of Gadsby's dogs, but it also references an obscure part of the female anatomy and the male doctor it was named after. Mid-set, Gadsby recalls that her first special was disparaged as a “lecture” and leans into that indictment, launching into an actual lecture, complete with slides.
It's unlikely that this will win over any of Gadsby's detractors, but for fans who were hoping for a second, equally fresh dose of the unique not-quite-comedy they got with Nanette, it seems likely that they won't be disappointed. And, as an added bonus, any of the trolls who told her to shut up during the peak of Nanette's popularity will have to contend with the fact that she has not.
Hannah Gadsby: Douglas is now streaming on Netflix.
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Jessica Liese has been writing and podcasting about TV since 2012. Follow her on Twitter at @HaymakerHattie.