Life's So Sad, It's Funny: Netflix Is Leading a Comedy Gold Rush

The powerful message of Hannah Gadsby's 'Nanette' on Netflix: This is my truth, tell me yours

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Hannah Gadsby.
Hannah Gadsby.Credit: Scott Campbell / Getty Images IL

“Perhaps I know best why it is man alone who laughs; he alone suffers so deeply that he had to invent laughter”– Friedrich Nietzsche

“From there to here, from here to there, funny things are everywhere”– Dr. Seuss

It always makes me laugh when my kids come home from school and tell me the exact same joke I heard in another playground some 40 years earlier. For example, whenever either is learning about the Holocaust, they don’t rush home and tell me about Nazi death camps or Josef Mengele. Instead, each recites that old punch line about why Hitler really committed suicide.

Yet while there’s no doubt comedy is an essential defense mechanism for the mind, there’s also a good reason they weren’t rushing to build comedy clubs in Sderot when the rockets started coming over from Gaza a decade ago – and why you won’t find many Gazans trotting out the cliché that comedy is the best medicine, even if it is the only one available to many of them.

It was 18th-century British writer Horace Walpole who famously declared that the world is a tragedy to those that feel, but a comedy to those that think. I’ve had that quote lodged in my mind as a coping strategy pretty much my entire life, but it’s hard to believe in its validity any more. The world’s horrors are too accessible on our television screens, laptops and smartphones to allow ourselves the luxury of only thinking these days.

Clearly, though, a troubled world is good news for comedians, as witnessed by the resurrection of the late-night shows of Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel et al. in the age of Trump. Comedians are everywhere – especially on Netflix, where you can’t scroll without encountering a comedy special or some standup format.

Comedians always deliver the set-up first and then the punch line, but I’ll save you that and give you the funniest five jokes I’ve heard this past week on television:

“I wouldn’t want to be a straight white man, not if you paid me – though the pay would be substantially better” – Hannah Gadsby

“In the last five years, parents have been naming their kids gun names. Things like Pistol, Shooter, Magnum, Remington. This is sick! Liberals don’t do this. Liberals don’t name their kids Prius and Juicer” – Bill Maher

“I want a dope-ass funeral, multicultural. I want it to look like the audience for ‘Hamilton the Musical’” – Michelle Buteau

“I’ll have you know, in bed I am a wild animal way more afraid of you than you are of me” – Taylor Tomlinson

“It’s such a Western privilege to be able to enjoy something like a scary movie. I mean, how comfortable is your life that you have the time, expendable income and desire to pay money to feel fear, for fun? Like, no one in Syria saw ‘The Babadook’” – Phil Wang

The most powerful comedy I have seen recently was “Hannah Gadsby: Nanette” on Netflix, but not because of the laughter: At a certain point, it stops becoming standup routine and becomes instead a comedian using a Netflix special to deliver her resignation speech as a comedian.

Gadsby is an Australian comic who looks like former “Great British Bake Off” host Sue Perkins on steroids, and in truth I’d never heard of her before stumbling across her show. But what a discovery. Her routine starts off as an affable affair, a witty, gentle foray into a lesbian’s experiences in the Australian Bible Belt of northern Tasmania in the 1990s and her struggles with the gay scene (“Do you know what I reckon my problem is? I don’t lesbian enough I mean, I keep my hand in”). She also discusses her art history education (something she has in common with Walpole) and offers brilliant dissections of the lives and work of Vincent van Gogh and Pablo Picasso.

But the mood changes about two-thirds in when the jokes stop and Gadsby talks about why she must quit standup (“Comedy has suspended me in a perpetual state of adolescence”). What follows is a shocking, tragic story by someone who refuses to see herself as a victim. The laughs are a distant memory by the time the curtain falls, and you are left with an incredibly powerful message: This is my truth, tell me yours. Whatever Gadsby does next in her career, I will be avidly watching.

There was no chance of a surprise retirement announcement on “Bill Maher: Live from Oklahoma” (showing on both Hot and Yes on VOD), the liberal comedian’s 11th-such special for HBO. The hour-long show was basically a collection of Maher’s greatest hits about President Donald Trump and his administration, culled from Maher’s own HBO show, plus a roundup of some other old classics (the absurdity of religion; the loathsomeness of children; how political correctness could cost the Democrats the next election, and the one after it, and).

So while there was little new for a “Real Time” devotee like myself to feast upon, there were still pockets of genius, like Maher’s description of how Donald Trump Jr.’s preelection meeting to allegedly collect dirt on Hillary Clinton morphed from there being no Russians to “eight Russians at the meeting. And the Bolshoi Ballet. And Doctor Zhivago. And the crew of the Red October. I mean, you’d have to hold the meeting in a steam room to have more Russians involved.”

Maher is off air until August 3 (when one of his guests will be Democratic giant-slayer Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez). If we can survive a Trump presidency, I’m confident we can also just about survive a month without descriptions such as Scott Pruitt being “three raccoons underneath a raincoat” and the ethos of Vice President Mike Pence: “Life begins at erection.”

Comedy hub

Netflix has established itself as a real comedy hub in the past couple of years (I’m not including Adam Sandler in that description, obviously), but its latest standup show, “The Comedy Lineup,” is an interesting departure from its usual high-profile comedy specials.

The eight-part series clearly believes that brevity is the soul of wit, since each episode only runs for 15 minutes and features a set by an up-and-coming comedian. It’s basically a comedy tasting board in which a broad selection of comedians hit you with their best shots. Out of the eight comedians, there were a couple I took an active dislike to, a couple that made me smile, a couple that made me chuckle and a couple that had me laughing very hard indeed.

I’m not going to recommend particular comedians, since the subjectivity of comedy would make that a complete waste of time. Suffice it to say that twentysomething Taylor Tomlinson will be seen on far bigger stages in the future. When someone tells her that these are the best years of her life, she deadpans: “I just used a Taco Bell napkin as toilet paper – this gets worse?”

Finally, if you need your comedy in slightly longer bursts, there’s Netflix’s imaginatively titled “The Standups,” which offers 30-minute sets with slightly better-known comedians. Again, it’s all subjective, but the set by Joe List would have had me ROFLing if I weren’t quite so indolent.

The real beauty of these short sets is that, if nothing else, they will allow you to recall the best joke of all time, by (whisper it) Woody Allen, using two elderly Jewish women kvetching in the Catskills to describe how he sees life: “Boy, the food in this place is really terrible.” “Yeah, I know. And such small portions.”