Comedy with the Structure of Drama

In June 2018, the comedian Hannah Gadsby debuted her show Nanette, causing an immediate sensation. For a time, it was hard to turn left or right without someone quoting her words or reacting to what was said.

Exactly two years on, with all the hype gone, I listened to the show with the intention of making up my own mind about it. I knew some of the gags in advance, and I knew that during the gig, she announces she’s quitting comedy.

By the end, there was a lot to chew over. I liked the content: I thought the gags were observations were spot-on, and I that Gadsby’s reasoning for quitting was a sound one, but I found it difficult to formulate a comment about it. I felt utterly indifferent.

It took more than a week to figure out what was so jarring: it was the structure of the show.

There isn’t a standard structure to stand-up comedy. As a general rule, however, a show will begin with more tried-and-tested gags, and any unifying theme or narrative will be introduced. Between the halfway and three-quarters points, you’ll often find more experimental or riskier material, which will build up to a climax near the end, often referring back to earlier in the show.

In drama, the action will usually begin with a major event, slow down a little, perhaps include some comedic elements, then the plot will thicken and thicken until the climax near the end.

What Nanette did was to switch to a drama-style structure at around the three-quarters mark.

It’s not in question this was deliberate. At one point, Gadsby actually tells the audience, ‘That was your last joke,’ before finishing her monologue, so they don’t hear the payoff they were expecting. It takes confidence to carry this off, or a sense there’s nothing to lose

Despite working through my feelings about Gadsby’s routine, I still have that indifferent reaction. It’s not dramatic enough for drama, it’s not comedic enough for comedy.

As such, I’m also hitting a wall as I try to end this entry. At least if I’d hated every minute, I’d have some kind of conclusion to draw.

A Big Hand for the Bland Brand

A casual look at my archive suggests I’ve made a reference to the supermarket Asda in at least three different pieces. I’ve been figuring out why I love mentioning this supermarket so much.

If a brand is worth talking about, it’s usually because it’s either iconic or notorious. You’re likely to hear a stand-up comic talking about Lidl for its unthemed selection of goods, or Tesco for its dominance. But Asda fits between the two on the spectrum. It is, in a word: bland.

There are several brands that fit in the bracket of blandness. BBC One might be iconic and Channel 4 notorious, but ITV fits squarely in the middle. Microsoft is iconic, Apple is notorious, but who cares about Linux?

I care about it, at least for the purposes of my writing. I find that a bland reference deployed in the right place allows me to illustrate a point without having the brand overshadow it.

One poem talks about a narrator’s hypothetical plan for euthenasia if their health deteriorates too much. It sounds like a serious subject, and it is, but it’s treated in a light tone by the narrator.

There’s a reference to an Asda bag in the text that fits nicely into that tone. The same reference might work with Lidl or Tesco, but Asda adds a little drop of the absurdity into the piece that might be missing with an iconic or notorious supermarket.

Surprise, Surprise

On Tuesday of last week, I came home to a parcel. I was only stopping for a brief time before heading out again. I didn’t pay much attention to it, as I was expecting a USB cable.

Just before leaving, I opened the parcel to check I’d received the correct equipment. So imagine my surprise when I found it actually contained the following:

Picture of Good Omens with a personalised gift note

Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. There was no sender’s name, only a cat’s face made up with punctuation marks. However, it didn’t take long to trace it to an American friend. Around a week before, she’d heard the BBC radio adaptation from 2014. I’d casually mentioned I’d heard this, but hadn’t read the full novel, so she’d jumped at the chance to send it.

It was an incredibly thoughtful gift, and I’m making good progress with reading it. I’m working on what to send back as I have National Book Tokens that need to be spent before the balance expires.