At Ace Hotel, being Hannah Gadsby has never been funnier
Comedian Hannah Gadsby calls "Body of Work" the feel-good show she owes her fans. At the Theatre at Ace Hotel, where she performed Friday and Saturday, Gadsby made good on the promise.
“Feel-good” is certainly not the way anyone would characterize her last two shows, “Nanette” and “Douglas,” both of which became Netflix comedy specials of a peculiarly dark and disquieting order. "Feel-uneasy” might be a more accurate label.
In "Nanette,” Gadsby announced that she was giving up comedy. She couldn't help being funny, but she wanted the world to understand how joke-telling can distort and censor reality. To prove the point, she brought in her personal history as a lesbian who had been sexually abused as a child, raped as a young adult and brutalized in a hate crime that she courageously made the center of her act.
In “Douglas,” Gadsby joked that she had put all her trauma eggs in one basket and now had nothing sensational left to offer her audience. But she was being modest. She had a diagnosis of autism to share, which again was not your typical stand-up fare.
“Body of Work” takes delight in being more lighthearted and innocent. Gadsby repeatedly assured her audience that there would be no dire revelations to make theatergoers question what they had signed up for.
But could anyone trust her? Gadsby posed the question herself with a mischievous grin.
The truth is that even when the Australian comic was demonstrating her skills as an observational humorist, she was simultaneously asking audience members to be conscious of what they were finding and not finding amusing. She wanted the crowd to think about the boundaries of comedy even when enjoying a seemingly innocuous laugh.
Occasionally, a lukewarm response to a joke elicited a wry apology from Gadsby, who took responsibility for the misfire while pointing out moments when audience members had erupted in hilarity for no reason or, worse, had failed to consider the serious implications of what she had just been talking about.
At the start of Friday's show, Gadsby said that "stand-up" was technically inaccurate because she had broken her leg in an accident on a patch of ice in Iceland, an incident that left her moaning on her side, doubting her will to live. Standing remains a wobbly affair for Gadsby, and a stool was required for support.
Agony somehow became something to chuckle about even when Gadsby gruesomely described the extent of her injury. She said she was glad the fracture happened in a medically civilized country like Iceland and not in America, where she would have been wheeled out of the hospital without a cent to her name.
Politics were not front and center, though she did propose that, if Roe vs. Wade is overturned, Viagra should be made illegal and masturbators should be pursued by the long arm of the law, so to speak. Doctors were another target — or, more specifically, the patriarchal nature of medicine, which would have happily locked her into a peri-menopausal box for the crime of having a vagina of a certain age.
But most of “Body of Work” is about Gadsby becoming more comfortable in her own skin. With as much candor as comfort, she talked about her recent marriage to Jenney Shamash (one of her producers), the roller coaster rider of fame that came with “Nanette” (which earned Gadsby a writing Emmy) and the deepening understanding of herself as someone on the spectrum.
Romantic partnerships can be tricky when you perceive the world in atypical ways, but Gadsby let slip that she was a bit of a player before tying the knot. (For a delicious instant, her uncertain gait gave way to a strut.) Marriage, however, agrees with her. Having someone there who can point out the “gaping” holes in her social awareness turns out to be invaluable, though miscues provide endless fodder for her act.
One relationship that kept going despite Gadsby having declared it over introduced a main theme of the night: dead rabbits. This isn’t code for pregnancy. Mangled bunnies figure prominently in a show that somehow managed to keep it light while not being afraid to talk about gristle and blood.
Not conforming to expectations is par for the course. Yes, she and Jenno (Gadsby’s Aussie-style nickname for her wife) had a novelty wedding cake in the shape of a shark, but the impetus was to get a Christian baker to commit a sin by designing a cake for a same-sex union. (Gadsby said seeing the offending pâtissier in hell would get her through the fires of eternity.)
Celebrity banter doesn’t come naturally to Gadsby. When she was introduced to Jodie Foster, she was first nonplussed that the Oscar-winning actress had a birthday gift for her, then loudly dismayed that the thoughtful gift (Bananagrams) was one she already owned. And guess which genre of moviemaking she told romantic comedy maestro Richard Curtis she deplored. Yes, the same one that includes "Notting Hill" and "Bridget Jones's Diary."
Gadsby briefly mentioned Oscar Wilde, and though she dismissed any connection, a chief source of her wit is the Wildean inversion of social norms. Her paradoxes may not be as honed as the Irish master's, but there’s a sharp literary sensibility behind her humor, a care with linguistic precision and a delight in shifting between outsider and insider perspectives.
There were at least two audiences at the Ace, where "Douglas" was filmed. The first was a hardcore contingent of LGBTQ+ fans, a good many of whom were in hysterics before a punchline was even delivered. The other group seemed to take pleasure in a breezier form of stand-up.
“Body of Work" has higher joke density than either “Nanette” or “Douglas,” but the show has a strolling rhythm. The humor doesn't so much pop as gad about. For those not on automatic guffaw, the laughter builds upon reflection. Gadsby’s jokes have an impressive tail.
Mostly, though, the show provides an opportunity for fans to hang out with someone they’ve come to know unusually well in the last few years. Gadsby has told us quite a bit about herself. Having unburdened herself, she has freed herself to get on with the drollery of living. Being Hannah Gadsby has never been funnier — or more heartening.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times .