Screen Test

Comics take aim at harsh realities

Never has an hour of stand-up by a non-famous comic made a splash quite like Hannah Gadsby's Nanette, a new Netflix special inspiring rave reviews and celebrity tweets.

But her fierce, furious brilliance and the biting relevance of her show in the #MeToo era aren't obvious in the first 15 minutes.

The comedienne, who is gay, starts by sketching a somewhat conventional picture of growing up an outsider in Tasmania, Australia, where homosexuality was illegal until 1997.

Leavening this are wisecracks about watching the Sydney Mardi Gras and wondering "where the quiet gays are supposed to go" and how she identifies more as "tired" than as a lesbian.

But the tone shifts when she tells the story of a man "almost" beating her up because he thought she was male and hitting on his girlfriend.

Slowly, she then segues into a blistering takedown of patriarchal power and the horrors women systematically suffer at the hands of men.

Gay comedienne Hannah Gadsby (above) does a blistering takedown of patriarchal power and shows raw emotion in her Netflix special Nanette, while Sacha Baron Cohen (left) reveals divisions in modern America as three characters in Who Is America?.
Gay comedienne Hannah Gadsby does a blistering takedown of patriarchal power and shows raw emotion in her Netflix special Nanette, while Sacha Baron Cohen (above) reveals divisions in modern America as three characters in Who Is America?. PHOTO: SHOWTIME

Gay comedienne Hannah Gadsby (above) does a blistering takedown of patriarchal power and shows raw emotion in her Netflix special Nanette, while Sacha Baron Cohen (left) reveals divisions in modern America as three characters in Who Is America?.
Gay comedienne Hannah Gadsby (above) does a blistering takedown of patriarchal power and shows raw emotion in her Netflix special Nanette, while Sacha Baron Cohen reveals divisions in modern America as three characters in Who Is America?. PHOTO: NETFLIX

  • VIEW IT / HANNAH GADSBY: NANETTE

  • Netflix

    5 stars


    WHO IS AMERICA?

    FX (Singtel TV Channel 310 and StarHub TV Channel 507), Mondays, 11pm.

    Also streaming on Fox+

    3 stars

Especially straight white men, and especially women who, like Gadsby, don't conform to gender norms.

The comic takes every nasty male line dismissing a woman - "Lighten up/It's just jokes/Stop taking everything so seriously/If you hate men so much, why do you dress like one?" - and crafts pitch-perfect replies weaponising their own words against them.

Here and there, she pauses to dissect comedy itself, explaining the art of the "bulletproof joke", the butt of which (say, a "humourless" lesbian) is forced to laugh at or risk proving to be true.

But then she takes a hard left turn and tells you she's reassessing her comedy career - she no longer wants to do self-deprecating humour.

"Self-deprecation... when it comes from somebody in the margins, is not humility. It's humiliation,"she explains. "And I will not do that anymore to myself or anybody who identifies with me."

What follows is a tour de force of comedy as in-your-face truth-telling. And it moves well beyond the unwritten rules of the laugh-a-minute, observational and adolescent-inflected stand-up that has long dominated the form.

Some of her wordplay isn't as sharp as it could be, but the rest of her set is tight as drum. And this despite being cut with moments of raw emotion and fury that compel the audience to see the trauma behind some of her earlier jokes.

Another surprising turn is how she uses her art history degree to showcase the misogyny of Western art and adored figures such as Picasso.

Nanette may make for uncomfortable viewing at points - for Gadsby's male targets in particular. But by the time they realise it, she has snookered them with her own bulletproof joke: If they don't like it, it's just jokes, right? No need to be so sensitive.

If it's laugh-out-loud comedy you want instead, there is Who Is America?, a new satirical half-hour series from Sacha Baron Cohen.

It is in the vein of his previous appearances as Ali G, Borat and Bruno, the exaggerated and often incendiary creations he became to poke fun at both the personas themselves and the real people they interact with.

Using elaborate disguises and prosthetics, he created a bunch of new ones here, each designed to reveal the divisions in modern America - conservative versus liberal and various other identity-politics stalemates.

There is Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr, host of a lunatic right-wing website; Nira Cain-N'Degeocello, a liberal and self-hating cisgender white man trying to understand Trump voters; and Erran Morad, a hawkish Israeli terrorist expert who wants to teach toddlers how to shoot guns.

These alter egos dupe a host of people into sitting down with them and doing on-camera interviews that will ultimately embarrass them.

Morad gets high-profile gun rights' supporters to record segments for his fictional children's instructional video on using guns with sock puppets.

And he scores an audience with no less than former United States vice-president Dick Cheney, sneaking in a dozen plays on the latter's first name while gushing over his troubling record on war and torture.

Some segments and characters are less effective. Rick, an ex-convict trying to sell his faeces-smeared artwork to a fancy gallery, is only mildly amusing. The same goes for a fame-hungry reality star being prodded into lying about saving Ebola victims in Sierra Leone.

But one of the more memorable pranks in the two episodes provided for review is with a group of ordinary people who Cain-N'Degeocello gathers for a focus group in Arizona.

When he tells the all-white group that a massive mosque will be built in their town, they flip and the naked bigotry of their reactions is chilling.

Still, as inventive as Cohen's brand of comedy is - and you have to marvel at his sheer gumption, and the fact that he is still getting away with it - the show quickly starts to feel repetitive.

This is perhaps because it often reiterates the same underlying jokes about liberals and conservatives.

Or maybe Cohen is just the victim of his success. He has left so distinctive a stamp on this format that, after a while, he can't help but plagiarise himself.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 26, 2018, with the headline 'Comics take aim at harsh realities'. Print Edition | Subscribe