Hannah Gadsby knows she’s made a liar out of herself. At the end of her powerful 2018 special Nanette, the comedian publicly declared she was quitting comedy. But Gatsby’s hourlong dissection of her internalized homophobia and mental health struggles did something the Australia native never saw coming: It became a cultural phenomenon. Almost instantly, Gadsby took a page out of Cher’s handbook and started walking back her claim of retirement. And thank God she did.
Two years after first breaking what she calls “the contract” establishing what an audience expects from a comedy show, Gadsby is back with a new Netflix special, Douglas. And right off the bat, Gadsby is clear that Douglas—named after her dog—is decidedly not a continuation of the themes discussed in Nanette. “If you’re here because of Nanette, why?” she asks at the top of her set. “What the fuck are you expecting from this show? Because I’m sorry, if it’s more trauma, I’m fresh out. Had I known just how wildly popular trauma was going to be in the context of comedy, I might have budgeted my shit a bit better.” Gadsby spends the next ten minutes of Douglas laying out exactly what is to come: some observational humor about her time spent in the United States, a story that takes place in a dog park, a story about a misdiagnosis she blames “squarely on misogyny,” a section she calls “hater-bating,” then a “lecture” that transitions into a section on her autism before ending on a Louis CK joke. None of this is a spoiler because Gadsby literally spells it all out before formally starting her set: “That’s how I’m going to meet your expectations, by adjusting them for you.” If Nanette was about breaking the contract, Douglas is about reestablishing trust under Gadsby’s new terms.
And she delivers on everything she promises. Gadsby transitions from section to section of her 10th comedy tour with an ease that seems almost stream of consciousness. It’s evident that she’s meticulously worked out every word choice and carefully crafted unexpected callbacks of jokes from a half hour earlier, but she also remains flexible, feeding off the crowd’s reactions and even establishing a running joke out of one audience member’s overzealous laughter. Over the course of the hour, Gadsby manages to riff on Taylor Swift, Where’s Waldo, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles—all in the context of the larger themes around which Douglas is centered.
In many ways, Gadsby’s special has more in common with John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight than a traditional stand-up show. She starts with the laughs coming a mile a minute, teeing up jokes and then knocking them out the park (or whatever mixed sports metaphor you prefer). But two-thirds of the way through Douglas, Gadsby makes it clear that class is in session. And she doesn’t care that her critics on social media (mostly men who use the hashtag #NotAllMen, she points out) have insisted Nanette was not comedy but rather a “monologue,” “lecture,” “one-woman show,” or “glorified TED Talk.” She doesn’t care what you call Douglas, as long as you listen to what she has to say.
In addition to highlighting the patriarchal nonsense of Renaissance art, the meat of the Douglas “lecture” is pointed at anti-vaxxers. Gadsby welcomes the hate that her pro-vaccinations stance will get her online, though her frustration with the movement seems legitimate rather than a ploy for headlines. As someone who was diagnosed with autism four years ago, she feels uniquely qualified to tell people who don’t believe in vaccinating their children—even those in the audience—to fuck off. Watching this section, even from the safety of your couch, can be uncomfortable, as you know there are definitely anti-vaxxers squirming in their seats somewhere out of frame. (In fact, there are no audience reaction shots at all during Douglas.) But all that is what we’ll likely come to know as signature Gadsby: make ’em laugh, make ’em uneasy, make ’em think, then send them off with a good dig at Louis CK.
Gatsby makes no new declaration of quitting comedy at the end of Douglas, but her special concludes with her placing the mic on the floor and walking offstage. As the credits start to roll, the camera zooms in on the mic alone under a cold blue spotlight. Let’s all just hope she chooses to pick it up again soon.