A triumphant debut is a tough act to follow. Harder still when you suggested that debut would serve as your final bow.
Hannah Gadsby, relatively unknown in the United States before her groundbreaking Netflix special “Nanette” aired last year, managed to overcome both hurdles Wednesday night in the first of three Minneapolis shows at Pantages Theatre. Less fueled by the raw anger of “Nanette,” but still guided by a focused rage, her second effort, “Douglas,” offered fans more of Gadsby’s singular insight, humor and an answer to one pressing question: Did she mean it when she said she was quitting comedy?
No, said the tickets in our hands. But then why had she insisted throughout “Nanette” that she had to stop?
“Comedy is a club, it has rules,” Gadsby told the crowd by way of explanation. “I know what I do onstage falls outside the rules of comedy.”
Those rules, according to an iconoclastic Gadsby, have largely been dictated by the genre’s dominant practitioners: white heterosexual men. Many of whom, she said, wrote in after watching “Nanette” to inform Gadsby that what she’d created wasn’t comedy, it was monologue.
“It’s not important what you call what I do,” she said on Wednesday. “Blame the men who named all the things and forgot to name this thing.”
Defining things, and the power that confers, was a dominant theme of Gadsby’s performance Wednesday. Her critiques ranged from lighthearted to serious: quibbling with the naming of Donatello in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles gang in one moment, while lamenting in the next that “our understanding of feminine beauty has absolutely nothing to do with the actual experience of living in a non-masculine body.” For “Nanette” fans, this chiaroscuro is exactly what they came to see.
Gadsby’s “thing” is part stand-up, part monologue, part lecture. It shifts fluidly from personal anecdote to piercing social commentary to art history lesson, getting laughs while defying the expectations of typical stand-up comedy.
In “Nanette,” Gadsby demonstrates how a comedian can put a feel-good veneer on trauma, by creating tension and defusing it with a well-placed punchline. This is the defining characteristic of comedy that she swears off with “Douglas.” If naming things gives power to the namer, stepping beyond the bounds of what we have names for reclaims that power.
“Douglas” deals less with Gadsby’s “not-normal” gender identity, the primary focus of “Nanette,” and more with her autism spectrum diagnosis. As someone with “high-functioning” autism, Gadsby describes feeling like the “one sober person in a room full of drunks.” She delights in spending time away from people — “my best friend is a dog and my second best friend is also a dog” — and is prone to asocial behaviors like abruptly walking away mid-conversation. “There’s beauty in the way I think,” she said.
Nor is her perspective nearly as isolated as her autism might have her believe. The steady laughter on Wednesday proved Gadsby always found a relatable note to land on — from complaining about the way wooden spoons never truly get clean to eviscerating the white male privilege of the beloved children’s book “Where’s Waldo?” (“Waldo should have to find himself like everybody else”).
“I don’t care what you call my art form,” she said to the full theater on Wednesday. The audience, answering with enthusiastic applause, clearly didn’t either.