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.