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Hannah Gadsby Returns to Netflix With a Burst of Joyous Comedy

With Something Special, they turn happiness into a political act.
  • Hannah Gadsby in Something Special (Photo: Netflix)
    Hannah Gadsby in Something Special (Photo: Netflix)

    It might seem like Hannah Gadsby has toned things down. After dismantling stand-up itself with the comedy special Nanette and using the follow-up Douglas to tell another batch of raw and personal stories, their new outing Something Special delivers nothing but upbeat jokes in a conventionally structured hour. What’s more, it’s on Netflix, even though Gadsby criticized the streamer for its support of Dave Chappelle. Superficially, this smacks of selling out.

    But Hannah Gadsby remains bold as ever. For one thing, as part of their Netflix deal, they’ll produce a show that features up-and-coming, gender-diverse comics, which is a nice way of forcing the company to make good on its inclusive promises. For another, Something Special masterfully harnesses the power of happiness. The show was filmed in Australia after Gadsby toured it for several months, workshopping and eventually removing tirades about transphobia, Chappelle, and other infuriating issues. Now, they begin by telling the audience that while the world outside is as terrifying as ever, they’re going to take a break from all that. “Just for the next hour, we’re gonna feel good together, and then we can head back out there and be the mass extinction event that we are,” they say. “Are you ready for that?”

    It’s one thing to deny society’s problems. It’s quite another to purposefully ignore them for a while — to acknowledge the darkness and then turn away. Gadsby’s joy is an act of resistance, a way to prove the oppressors don’t always get to live inside our minds. This is what writers like Audre Lorde are talking about when they discuss where communities get the energy for change. Sometimes, the surest way to transform the world is to revel in the parts of it that make us feel whole.

    And there’s so much reveling in Something Special. Gadsby expresses their amazement that they’ve lucked into such a good life, despite saying and doing so many embarrassing things. There’s a bit about an awkward encounter with Jodie Foster that’s both a tribute to the Oscar-winning star and a reflection on the mortifying difficulty of small talk. There’s a tale about an ex-girlfriend and a dead rabbit that’s both wonderfully absurd and instantly recognizable to anyone who’s been at the end of a bad relationship. Through it all, Gadsby maintains their impish comic timing, grinning at the audience at the end of a bit to indicate they’re relishing the silliness as much as we are. Their enjoyment of these stories makes them even more infectious.

    It’s easier to laugh at Gadsby’s cringeworthy yarns because we know things have worked out fine. They frequently reference their marriage to producer Jenney Shamash, who directs the special, and the final minutes unite several story threads into a satisfying payoff about their relationship. It’s an elegant bit of dramaturgy that says “love wins” more effectively than any bumper sticker ever could, and it more than delivers on the opening promise to make us feel good.

    Fans of the comedian’s earlier work can appreciate how bold this happy ending really is. Gadsby shot to fame by being incredibly frank about their troubles, telling stories about physical and sexual assault, depression, and the struggle to understand their autism spectrum disorder. It’s a risk to upend that “brand,” because there may very well be audiences who expect pathos whenever Gadsby’s on stage. From that perspective, Something Special isn’t just a pleasant little show. It’s an act of reinvention. It’s a step-by-step description of how Gadsby has learned to embrace their neurodivergence, their queerness, their relationship with their family, and their place in the world. It’s quite daring in its own, sunny way.

    Something Special premieres May 9 on Netflix. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Mark Blankenship has been writing about arts and culture for twenty years, with bylines in The New York Times, Variety, Vulture, Fortune, and many others. You can hear him on the pop music podcast Mark and Sarah Talk About Songs.

    TOPICS: Hannah Gadsby, Netflix, Hannah Gadsby: Something Special, Dave Chappelle