All of the good things you have heard about Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette (transcript) are correct. It is very funny, very moving, and very challenging. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
I do take issue with one point Gadsby makes in her conclusion. She builds the show around the relief theory of humour — that jokes work by building tension and then offering a release. And she notes that her show has used anger to build that tension:
The only way I can tell my truth and put tension in the room is with anger. And I am angry, and I believe I’ve got every right to be angry! But what I don’t have a right to do is to spread anger. I don’t. Because anger, much like laughter, can connect a room full of strangers like nothing else. But anger, even if it’s connected to laughter, will not relieve tension. Because anger is a tension. It is a toxic, infectious tension. And it knows no other purpose than to spread blind hatred, and I want no part of it.
I don’t think she’s right about this. Anger is tension, but it can have other purposes. There are different ways to relieve that tension.
Where anger is caused by a fundamental injustice, any release that fails to address that injustice will be ineffective, and will only cause more anger (or worse, despair). But anger that is relieved by something constructive, something that improves the world and removes the cause of the anger, is righteous anger.
Mahtma Ghandi expressed this powerfully in a speech to the Indian National Congress in 1920:
I have learnt through bitter experience the one supreme lesson to conserve my anger, and as heat conserved is transmuted into energy, even so our anger controlled can be transmuted into a power which can move the world.
Paradoxically, Gadsby’s masterful performance in Nanette is an example of such powerful, controlled anger. She gradually builds empathetic anger in her audience, and then demands they take action to relieve that tension.
Yes, there is the immediate release of the laughter — but she demands longer-term action to address discrimination, to address male violence, to address the lack of diversity in the stories we hear in art and popular culture.
Time will tell whether her call to action will move the world. But it wouldn’t stand a chance if she hadn’t been willing to spread her anger, and I’m glad she had the courage and the strength to do so.