As a warning, there will be spoilers. I cannot explain why Hannah Gadsby is wrong otherwise.
This summer, I’ve been listening to comedians from Vice’s list of best 11 stand-up comedy specials on Netflix and from the streaming service’s “the Stand-Ups” to pass the time during the numerous road trips I’ve taken. Yesterday, after finishing the last episode of “Stand-Up” during my drive home from Hinesville, I decided to listen to Hannah Gadsby’s “Nanette.” Man, do I have some things to say.
Let me start off by saying Gadsby’s comedic performance turned speech was intriguing, controversial, and heartfelt. It deserves the attention it’s getting for that twist alone. As for her talking points, there were some I agreed with (“It’s dangerous to be different”) and some I disagreed with greatly (agreeing with her mother being proud she “raised them without religion” so they could “think for themselves,” I mean, look at me). However, the one I disagreed with the most is Gadsby’s statement that “comedy isn’t high art.”
That simply isn’t true.
Comedy in its purest form is as high an art as any other art form. Comedy has been practiced practically since the dawn on man, with the earliest recorded practiced form being in the plays of the Greeks, and arguably, in the sarcasm used by early biblical prophets. Back then, as is now, comedy has had similar goals: to lighten the mood, to build a connection, and/or make a harsh reality more digestible. The best comedy is funny and thought-provoking.
There are many examples I can give where this is the case. “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” is a great example of absurd humor being used to make people laugh while making legitimate points about the absurdity of society at times. Political satires like “Dr. Strangelove” are black comedy at its best, making points about how absurdly irresponsible governments can be. The “Portal” series, one of my favorite video game franchises of all times, is darkly funny to make its dark world more palatable, and “Undertale” uses humor to effectively endear their monster characters to the audience.
All of these works are high art and their use of comedy is part of what makes them so. Comedy is an art form and a difficult one to pull off well, at that. It is not always agreeable, but it can be elevating to others when it is used effectively.
Gadsby is right in saying that comedy can humiliate people instead of elevating minds but being abusable does not make any art form any less legitimate. She would not say that about movies, books, music, or paintings in general, so why should we believe that about comedy?
For the record, other comedians agree with me.