Critics going after Critics going after Critics: Baffler and Nanette

This is a response to this myopic review by Soraya Roberts about Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette.  The whole purpose of the review seems to be diagnosing and questioning the “near-unanimous critical praise” that Nanette has received but the arguments mustered seem to be dismissive rather than introspective and rely on unnecessarily harsh readings of the work.

First, there is some parts that I do agree with. Like Marx, Gadsby is way better at diagnosis than cure. As Roberts rightly says, when she claims that comedy relies on trauma but stories are our salvation – that’s little more than a platitude. But Roberts doesn’t just single out the simplistic platitudes for criticism, she goes much, much further than that. A taste:

In terms of overall quality, Nanette is mediocre. While other high profile comedians take a break from standup to give TED Talks, Gadsby’s special erodes the separation between the two, down to the oversized, antiseptic set and the comic’s persistently neutral affect, physically restrained, with a voice that often sounds like a soothingly patronizing life coach.

TED Talk, patronizing life coach. Okay, so Roberts clearly doesn’t like the delivery or the (lack of) stage design. Also she criticizes any critic that would refer to it as novel. (Which is fine because novelty is truly overrated.) She quotes a New Yorker review that says Gadsby “bends the bounds of standup to accommodate” her anger and then writes.

Except she doesn’t. Gadsby doesn’t bend the medium, she abandons it. “This is why I must quit comedy, because the only way I can tell my truth and put tension in the room is with anger,” she says. This is not revolution, it is surrender.

If someone called Nanette a revolution, they were being dumb. Typical pop-culture hyperbole. But Roberts goes the other way. Gadsby has abandoned the medium? She has surrendered to anger? For someone who literally claims that by claiming to be doing something new Gadsby “elides the long, complicated history of standup comedy”, calling a comedian out for being angry sounds a tad ridiculous and ahistoric. Roberts rightly places Nanette in historical context but then goes further. It’s not that she thinks the reception is overblown but rather that she thinks any reception would be overblown because Nanette has no redeeming characteristics. Not even the content. 

She calls the material “familiar” and says its breathless reception is because of a trend towards “cultural tokenism” where art is measured only by its socio-political content and “political representation”. This is probably the most egregious part of the entire essay. And the most obvious sign that the piece is a response to media coverage and not the work itself. It’s important to note that Soraya Roberts doesn’t disagree with any of the content, she just think its old hat. She literally quotes Gadsby’s Monica Lewinsky line and points out that it came three months after a ” culture-wide reassessment of her treatment”. A whole three months after a culture-wide reassessment. Does any of this sound a little extreme to you?

Here is my unique and new Alternate Hypothesis: Nanette was received so well by its audience because it was powerful, moving and timely. It had jokes, narrative and timing. It made people laugh and cry and a la Kafka cut through the frozen sea inside of them.

…. today’s politically charged climate of art consumption, in which a socially “necessary” work needn’t concern itself with any of the standards by which we’ve traditionally judged art—say, by whether your standup routine is funny.

Does Roberts really believe that Gadsby abandons comedy mid-way through the set and begins some kind of humorless, hysterical lecture? There are jokes throughout the set. People are laughing throughout the set or rather, whenever Gadsby wants them to. Did Roberts really not laugh at all? Okay, I believe her but forget Nanette being a bad special, it seems like Roberts thinks that it would be bad as a TEDTalk. If the entire crux of this piece was this wasn’t as much a comedy special as it was a one-woman show, it would be so much more understandable if a little boring.

So to recap, she doesn’t like the delivery, stage design, content and reception. She also thinks Gadsby is a hypocrite for not actually quitting comedy after the special’s success. It’s hard to articulate just how much of a complete disservice the review does to Nanette. Soraya Roberts seems to have heard Gadsby talk about how she used her own assault as a punchline for years by twisting the ending so that it didn’t tell the entire story and instead of being moved and hurt and emotional and complicit as a viewer of comedy, she sees another sign of art not having standards. This isn’t being a good critic; This isn’t what Susan Sontag meant in Against Interpretation. This just sounds hipster-y and curmudgeon-ly.

(Thanks to Madhusudan Raman for the fruitful email exchange and giving me the needed impetus to write this.)