Hannah Gadsby and Comedy’s Toxic Masculinity Problem


About midway through Hannah Gadsby’s final performance of Nanette, at Montreal’s Just for Laughs festival on Friday, the comic recruited an audience member in the front row. Pointing to a man with his arms crossed, Gadsby asked for his name. “David,” he replied. “Of course it is,” Gadsby shot back, to a roomful of laughter. Before continuing with the bit, which required a little of poor David’s participation, Gadsby asked, “Are you ready, David? I’m asking for your consent.”

David may not have been too pleased at Gadsby’s flippancy, but the sold-out crowd at L’Olympia theater, in Montreal’s “Gay Village,” howled. To be fair, they hooted and cheered through the whole evening, which had the electric charge of a political rally. It’s easy to understand why: Nanette, a stand-up special that premiered on Netflix last month and catapulted the forty-year-old Australian comedian to mainstream fame, has tapped into a mounting sense of rage and exhaustion among women and minorities. And it’s done so at the risk of alienating a demographic that has for so long been considered, as Gadsby put it, “human neutral” — that is, straight white men.

It was particularly powerful to witness such an ecstatic reception for Gadsby at Just for Laughs, the comedy industry’s biggest event, which this year — its 36th — played host to nearly 500 artists at more than 174 shows over two and a half weeks. Its producers have done an admirable job in recent years of booking diverse showcases, and there wasn’t a straight white man among this year’s annual Just for Laughs Awards (Gadsby herself won “Comedy Special of the Year”). Still, the whole thing carries a whiff of Eau de Bro; you can practically smell the Axe when you step off the elevator at the Hyatt Regency Montreal, where the festival is headquartered and where behemoths like Comedy Central, Funny or Die, and, more recently, Netflix, throw nightly parties during which performers and industry players take advantage of a surging open bar.

Drunk men are everywhere at Just for Laughs, encouraged by an open-air street festival dotted with beer kiosks, and a general party vibe. (For its bash, Netflix hired a bevy of bartender vixens dressed in extremely low-cut, skin-tight red dresses. Gazing helplessly down the front of one such dress as its wearer poured me a head-spinningly strong drink, I considered how the spectacle hinted at that “human neutral” that most art caters to — whose pleasure matters most.) It’s the kind of place where you might overhear, as I did, two very young men talk about how the totally awesome-sounding HBO series Confederate has gotten a lot of people “triggered,” before one of them launches into a description of the upcoming Netflix original series Insatiable, already the subject of an intense backlash: It’s about this fat chick who gets punched in the face and has to have her jaw wired shut so she loses, like, a hundred pounds, and then she comes back to school and gets revenge on everyone. Some people are just hotter than others, and what’s so bad about admitting it? I’m sorry, it’s true.

As the comedian and podcast host Erin Gibson pointed out in a long Facebook post, this year in particular, Just for Laughs served as a “tiny little laboratory where we could witness the melting down of toxic male comedy all in one place.” If you can believe it, more than a few male comics are struggling to come to terms with the new paradigm Gadsby is helping to usher into the comedy world. At one showcase Gibson attended, a male comic repeatedly picked on a woman in the audience who, it had been established, was there by herself, “aggressively” asking her out, twice (“Don’t do that at 11 p.m. in a major city with a bunch of people who’ve been drinking,” Gibson wrote). Then, after Gadsby got up and performed a short routine from Nanette, an unnamed male comedian got onstage and “twirled into a toxic tantrum of jealousy and rage,” launching into a set-long complaint that straight white men are suddenly the brunt of so much criticism. I was reminded of a joke from Andy Kindler’s annual State of the Industry address, in reference to the #MeToo movement: “Oh, because I do the terrible things, I’m the bad guy?”

Into this overall atmosphere of douchebaggery stepped Gadsby, in a navy blazer and dark pants, for an audience at L’Olympia that was on their feet before she even said a word. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a crowd so fired up. Most people had likely seen the show on Netflix already, and anticipated many of the special’s greatest hits (“I identify as tired”; “There is nothing stronger than a broken woman who has rebuilt herself” — that one got a deafening, sustained applause). It was like being in the boomer-heavy crowd of a classic-rock revival concert, but with fewer ponytailed men. When Gadsby paraphrased Picasso, who once remarked, “Every time I change wives I should burn the last one,” a woman in the audience yelled, “Fuck that!”

Still, Gadsby added new riffs, like an extended one on the woman she named the show after, whom she met at a café in a small town — the kind of place where a queer person is eager to seek out her “people.” When she elaborated that her people were, of course, “the lesbians,” the crowd roared. She was among her people that night.

That probably made it easier for Gadsby to pick on poor David, and to use him to flip the all-too-usual script at a comedy show — straight man with microphone picks on woman or minority in the crowd; gets easy laugh. Here, though, it was a presumably straight man who was getting picked on, and a theater full of women and queer people who were easily laughing. Perhaps at this moment in time, Gadsby pointed out, men are dealing with the kind of public critique that people like Gadsby have grown hardened to. “I am pleasantly dead inside,” she joked, while they’re still “fresh.” “They’re just jokes, fellas,” Gadsby quipped, aping the kind of justification we so often hear from male comics who delight in punching down. “They’re just jokes.”

It’s never just a joke, though, is it? Not when we live in a world that continues to stack the deck in favor of straight white men. Before the show began, I’d sat in my seat scrolling through Twitter. Ronan Farrow’s reporting on decades-long sexual assault allegations against CBS head Les Moonves had just hit the New Yorker’s website. I thumbed through the article; I’d like to say I was shaking with rage and shock, but it was a familiar story. That the man in charge of a multibillion-dollar entertainment conglomerate that puts out TV shows, movies, and books is a serial sexual harasser was, sadly, no surprise. I watch TV shows and movies and I read books, and I’ve long been receiving the message that some people’s pain and pleasure and joy and fear matters more than others.

But a little over an hour later, I sat in that same seat, practically bawling as Gadsby wrapped up her triumphant show and the audience once again leapt to their feet. “I just wanted to do something constructive,” Gadsby finished. “And I think I might have.”