If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, or they will kill you, Oscar Wilde said.
Hannah Gadsby has a space in the comedic pantheon that only she occupies.
Her searing wit and commentary are one thing. But the juxtaposition with sexual violence, abuse, ignorance, ADHD, autism, and the fact she is gay makes it even more compelling because how can you be horrified and laughing at the same time?
Other comedians have done this, but they are few and far between, George Carlin and Lenny Bruce spring to mind, but Ms Gadsby, who grew up in Tasmania, puts it fairly and squarely in the crosshairs, taking precise aim at the patriarchal hegemony.
Her career started in the mid-2000s, winning several prizes for her stand-up work, and she became a fan favourite at the Edinburgh Fringe.
In 2017 her career exploded when she performed the stand-up show Nanette, the precursor of both Douglas and today’s review subject, Something Special.
Gadsby explains that growing up in conservative Tasmania around extreme prejudice made her particularly uncomfortable. She resorted to self-deprecating humour, which had the knock-on effect of almost siding with the abusers and it’s a hard thing to escape.
But escape she does, and in that first show and others since, makes it all painfully relatable.
Her stories are infused with family, love, and the experiences of someone out of step with what many people call reality. These observations aren’t cruel but unique and spectacularly funny.
An outsider’s point of view I’m sometimes reminded of is John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, but she isn’t as vicious.
During Nanette, Hannah said she can no longer do stand-up comedy because the structures around it don’t allow for her kind of stories, which she has just told; the Queen is dead, long live the Queen.
For many fans, at that moment, she almost reinvented the genre. It went ballistic, garnered a whole new audience and created many more conversations around gender fluidity and the complex nature of people – she describes herself as “gender not normal”.
These themes were expanded, and further nuance was brought to bear in her follow-up special, Douglas.
But here we are now with her latest special, also on Netflix (in fact, all three are there and I’d highly recommend all of them), called Something Special.
She starts the show with, “I got married – this show is what this is going to be about, it’s going to be a romantic comedy … it’s going to be a feel-good show because I believe I owe you one.” The tone is perfect and sharp.
She talks about her and Jenny’s wedding cake, which had a shark’s head coming out of it and two otters holding hands in its mouth because they wanted to trick a Christian baker.
“Easy, so gullible, believe anything Christians.”
From there, she explores what it is to be married, how her relationship blossomed, how her wife is bisexual (which she loves because it upsets a certain type of man).
In this parallel universe, she explores the absurdity of what many people take for granted in life. Things that when we are forced to think about them, such as a proposal, organising a wedding, reception etc, do, in fact, seem ridiculously absurd.
You don’t get to see a lot of queer observational humour, but Hannah Gadsby drills down into all the strangeness of both gay and hetero relationships with startling clarity and a view that teeters on a sort of malevolence.
And yes, she wanted to show audiences a lighter shade of Hannah Gadsby, but there are plenty of stings and nettles.
Something Special isn’t as brutal as Nanette, but it is so delicious and funny. It’s streaming now on Netflix. Four stars out of five.
Marcus Kelson is a Canberra writer and critic.