Hannah Gadsby’s third comedy show on Netflix, «Something Special,» opens with happy news: «I’m married!» says the Australian comedian, who uses they/them pronouns.
The crowd cheers and Gadsby proudly displays his wedding ring and says, “I know! It is nice. I like it.»
“That’s what this show is going to be about,” Gadsby tells the audience. “Yeah, it’s going to be a feel-good show, because I think I owe you one. I’ve dragged you through quite a bit of my s— over the years, and you’ve stayed with me. Much appreciated, but it’s time for a reward.
Gadsby’s first two comedy specials weren’t exactly «feel good.» The first, «Nanette», went viral after its debut in 2017, being described by critics as «an international sensation” and a show that “completely changed what could be a comedy special.” In it, Gadsby jokes about his upbringing, accepting of his sexuality and even Pablo Picasso (they majored in art history in college), but then they deliver an emotional indictment of homophobia, gender violence and traditional comedy.
Gadsby’s sophomore special, «Douglas,» was noticeably less focused on trauma, but the comedian continued his critiques of sexism while also opening up about his autism diagnosis.
Filmed at the Sydney Opera House last year as part of a world tour and released Tuesday on Netflix, «Something Special» focuses on queer joy as it tells the story of Gadsby’s engagement and marriage to Jenney Shamash, who is also its producer. .
That was an intentional choice, Gadsby told NBC News in a video interview Thursday, because they were on tour last year, still largely during the pandemic, and they could tell people were nervous and «thirsty for joy,» in particular LGBTQ people, who in the United States have seen a flurry of legislation targeting their rights in the last three years.
“That anxious feeling in the room was what really drove me,” Gadsby said. “The only thing that doesn’t help anxiety is more anxiety. I felt like going on stage and just pouring what we already know into the room again isn’t going to help at that point. I really made a conscious decision to say, ‘I want a pardon for my people.’ Other people who are not in the community, it is not for them, they can enjoy it, it is possible, but this is for us”.
At the beginning of «Something Special,» after revealing that they married Shamash, whom they affectionately call «Jenno» in her Australian accent, Gadsby jokes about how the couple had a «very steep learning curve for the two of us to put together an engagement.» because «straight people have a lot of feelings about weddings.»
Gadsby said the couple made many «mistakes» at their wedding, including choosing a novelty «shark cake» for the reception. While straight couples often have wedding figurines on top of their wedding cakes, Gadsby and Shamash chose two otters swimming on their backs holding hands, right in front of a shark emerging from the icing with its mouth open, showing two rows of sharp teeth.
“But we had a good reason to have a novelty cake,” Gadsby explained on the comedy special. “We wanted to trick a Christian baker into making a gay wedding cake, and it worked. I was like, ‘No dude, that’s not a wedding cake. I’m going to be 10.’ Easy, so gullible, they will believe anything, Christians”.
Gadsby shared a photo of the cake on Instagram on Wednesday, a day after «Something Special» premiered on Netflix.
The running gag captures a theme throughout the show: a celebration of Gadsby’s relationship with Shamash through stories about his past, peppered with jokes about sexism and straight relationships. (Gadsby unabashedly follows up on her straight quips with, «I didn’t say who this was a feel-good show for.»)
While touring the United States, Gadsby recalled Thursday, they realized the audience was «shocked» by the tense political environment. They were in the country during the annulment of Roe v. Wade, which they accidentally called «Ouch vs. Raid» and later quipped, «Though that feels like what it is now, doesn’t it?»
“It feels really oppressive here. It feels pretty scary,» Gadsby said of the US being.»
Gadsby said they had new material related to the American political climate, but instead chose to focus the show largely on his relationship with Shamash to allow people to take a break from the news and because, as someone who is autistic, they like to talk about their “special interest topics”.
«I want people to love what I love, and that’s what this special is,» Gadsby told NBC News. “I want people to love what I love, and that’s this moment in my life, that’s Jenno, and that’s my ability to handle an interpersonal relationship. And it’s also my ability to experience joy, which is not something I’ve been able to do historically.»
Gadsby has said in other interviews that «Something Special» was not the original name of the show. When they were on tour, it was called «Body of Work» to reflect how her work has evolved from «Nanette» to where she is now, but Netflix didn’t like that name. Frustrated, they jokingly said, “I’ll just call it ‘Something.’ ‘Something special,'» they told them.
Some critics have criticized that evolution and how «Something Special» fails to engage in cultural criticism at a time when US state lawmakers care for gender-affirming trans youth and ban LGBTQ and race-related books in the schools, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
But Gadsby said they believe the expectation that they continue to deal with trauma and social and political controversy is limiting.
“I think being a queer person expressing joy on stage is a subversive political act in this current climate,” they said.
Gadsby added that it’s unfair for people to expect them, someone who has experienced trauma, to continue to be the comedian who gets involved in traumatic events.
«It’s almost like they’re expecting traumatic porn,» they said. “That’s not who I am. I am an individual whose work expresses where I am at a given moment.”
“The fact that he has been able to overcome the trauma is significant,” they added. “In this climate right now, what is happening to our community is traumatic. People are going through trauma. This mirrors very closely what I experienced as a kid, and I’m trying the other side of that, and I think that’s constructive.»
In addition to «Something Special,» Gadsby has been working with Netflix on a comedy special that will feature a group of gender-diverse comedians. Gadsby also collaborated with the Brooklyn Museum for an upcoming exhibition titled “It’s Pablo-matic: Picasso after Hannah Gadsby”, which will “examine the artist’s complicated legacy through a critical, contemporary and feminist lens”. The exhibition opens on June 2.