Review: Is Hannah Gadsby’s ‘Douglas’ Stand-Up? Theater? Yes, Please.

Even among non-troglodytes, “Nanette” was polarizing. A kind of self-canceling stand-up, it questioned the capacity of comedy to encompass traumas like the very one it was built on. Some critics thus doubted it was comedy at all, calling it theater or monologue or lecture, none of those words meant as praise.

In “Douglas,” Ms. Gadsby says she doesn’t care what terminology you use; that fight is a waste of time, giving too much power to those who make the categories and not enough to those who make the art. Nor will she let others define her as a failure because she’s a woman, a lesbian, “heavy of the hoof” or a person with autism.

“I no longer believe that I am falling short of expectations,” she says. “I believe it is those expectations that are falling short of my humanity.”

The unusual brilliance of “Douglas” is in its long-game strategy to prove this. Making expectations both her subject and method, Ms. Gadsby begins by telling us everything she will be doing in the 95-minute set and exactly what effects she intends to achieve.

When she later collects double on the gambit — scoring for both her laughs and her prediction of them — you are struck by the daring that went into setting such a high bar. And you believe, as she suggests, that her ability to think through and execute such a plan is proof of a mind that is beautiful, not defective.

The specific content is largely successful too. Some of it, as she has promised, is relatively ordinary (though still funny) comic material built on easy targets (golfers, anti-vaxxers) and formulaic punch lines and puns. “The word ‘arugula’ sounds like a clown-car horn.” “Waldo should have to find himself like the rest of us do.”

But those are palate cleansers, lowering the audience’s defenses before the main course arrives. Acknowledging that the success of “Nanette” is “why everyone’s here — including myself,” she at first insists she’s “fresh out” of trauma to turn into material. “Had I known, I might have budgeted mine better, gotten at least a trilogy out of it.” Even so, it wouldn’t be for us: “My grief is not your train. Get off.”


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