NEW YORK — Two comedians who caused a stir this year took very different approaches: One stood in a sold-out Australian opera house, speaking into a traditional microphone on a stand. The other paced a darkened American studio without an audience or mic, drifting in and out of the shadows to address the camera.
While stylistically very different, Hannah Gadsby’s first stand-up special for Netflix and Drew Michael’s debut one for HBO both managed to shake up the stand-up comedy world by the time they finished their hour-long sets.
Absent was predictable material or traditional rat-a-tat joke style. What was heard was very personal — uncomfortable even. A lot of it — discussions of violent homophobia from Australia and suicide in the USA — was sometimes deeply unfunny. Together, they represented, from either side of the world, twin ferocious attacks on comedy itself.
“I’m very glad that people are recognizing that comedy can do more than make you laugh,” says comedian Adam Conover, whose TruTV show “Adam Ruins Everything ” mines a rich vein of fact-based, instructional comedy.
Gadsby begins her show “Nanette ” on an autobiographical note, talking about coming out in small-town Tasmania, where homosexuality was outlawed until 1997. “For a long time, I knew more facts about unicorns than I did about lesbians,” she says. But Gadsby soon builds into a heartfelt attack on bigotry, the nature of creativity and how comedians mine their own trauma to get laughs.
“I sat soaking in shame in the closet for 10 years,” she says onstage. “This is bigger than homosexuality. This is about how we conduct debate in public about sensitive things.” She adds that she’s quitting comedy: “I need to tell my story properly.”
Like Gadsby, Michael’s self-titled show , which came out a few months later, is certainly his story — it’s a free-wheeling rumination on his own hearing loss, herpes, Brussel sprouts, good abs, sweet potatoes and taboo subjects. “Suicidal people love suicide jokes,” he says.
Large portions of the special capture a moody Michael looking disinterested into the camera or even wandering out of its frame. He drops a 9-11 joke and muses that life might be easier if he could just date his mother (“She’s single too, not that it matters”). He enlists actress Suki Waterhouse to appear at the end to declare: “None of this has been funny.”
Critics have lauded both comedians for pumping oxygen into an often formulaic genre. Their sets have been called everything from “subversive” to “polarizing” and “self-analytical.” Gadsby and Michael somehow stretched stand-up into performance art, taking down the form itself. (Gadsby, virtually unheard of outside Australia before this year, translated her new fame into becoming an Emmy presenter and was even lampooned on last week’s “Saturday Night Live.”)
One fan is Wayne Federman , a 30-year comic veteran who tours nationally and teaches stand-up at the University of Southern California. While applauding Gadsby and Michael, he’s not quite ready to declare traditional comedy dead.
“Everyone’s like, ‘Oh, this changes comedy.’ My point that I always tell my class is that comedy is always changing and is always a reaction to what came before it,” he said.
Federman sees the creators of “Nanette” and “Drew Michael” as descendants of such pioneers as Mort Sahl, who offered sharp political satire experimental icon Andy Kaufman, who famously read from “The Great Gatsby” onstage and Dick Gregory, who used comedy to talk about racism and social issues.
Naturally, Gadsby and Michael weren’t alone in pushing the boundaries of what was funny in 2018. Ali Wong graphically joked about motherhood and pregnancy in “Hard Knock Wife,” Sacha Baron Cohen made politicians very uncomfortable and Cameron Esposito went after sexual harassment in “Rape Jokes.”
Conover credits the recent attention on such edgy comedians as a product of the explosion in new places to have their work heard. He points to what happened to TV over the last 20 years as streaming and cable options scrambled what a typical program had to be.
“The constraints of the medium have changed and, as a result, there’s a huge amount of experimentation, with people saying, ‘Hey, what can these show be?”’ he said. “The same thing has been happening to stand-up.”
That means you can invite an audience or ditch them, ignore the need for commercial breaks, tackle dangerous topics, create dense sets or bizarre ones.
“If you create your own way of doing it, then you have more power, you can get a new audience and you have more artistic choices available to you,” Conover said. “You’re not stuck in a little box.”
Chris Mazzilli, owner of the influential Gotham Comedy Club , said Gadsby and Michael can thank the internet for its ability to build fan bases with clips, subscribers and shares, as well as attracting viewers who ordinarily wouldn’t check out comedy sets.
For decades, a comedian’s best hope of a long career was landing a spot on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.” But only few unconventional voices — like Kaufman or Steven Wright — actually made it.
“A lot of these avant garde or alt or New Wave comedians wouldn’t get on ‘Carson.’ It was rare that someone like that would break though,” said Mazzilli. “It all changed with the internet.”