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Hannah Gadsby Read by Jenny Hagel

Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby took the world by storm in 2018 with their groundbreaking comedy special Nanette. Today, they continue to challenge and amuse audiences around the globe with their thought-provoking comedy and sensational storytelling.

Get to Know Jenny Hagel

Jenny Hagel is a comedy writer and performer. Jenny narrated the story about Australian comedian and storyteller Hannah Gadsby. In this interview, Jenny shares her thoughts about what it takes to be good at comedy and the importance of focusing on the things you can control.

This podcast is a production of Rebel Girls. It’s based on the book series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. This story was produced by Deborah Goldstein with sound design and mixing by Mumble Media. It was written by Alexis Stratton and edited by Abby Sher. Fact-checking by Joe Rhatigan. Narration by Jenny Hagel. Original theme music was composed and performed by Elettra Bargiacchi. Our executive producers are Joy Smith and Jes Wolfe. Thank you to the whole Rebel Girls team who make this podcast possible. Stay rebel!

Transcript

In their wildest dreams, Hannah Gadsby never imagined that they’d be standing on Sydney Opera House’s stage in front of thousands of people. By this time, they could perform their solo comedy show Nanette with their eyes closed; but still, butterflies danced in their stomach. The spotlights made them feel like their skin was on fire as they looked out at all of those expectant faces, just waiting for them to speak. 

This was the chance of a lifetime. 

This was their moment to shine. 

This was just the beginning…

I’m Jenny Hagel. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.

A fairy tale podcast about the real-life rebel women who inspire us. 

On this episode, Hannah Gadsby: a barrier-breaking comedian and storyteller who is changing the world of comedy.

Hannah grew up in a small coastal town called Smithton in Tasmania, Australia. In the 1980s, when Hannah was young, Smithton felt like a forgotten world, surrounded by rolling farmlands and the briny smell of fisheries.

Smithton was quiet, but the Gadsbys’ home was filled with noise and bustle; like Hannah’s four older siblings playing and bickering, their sharp-witted mom shouting, their father puttering about with a hammer and playing Mr. Fixit.

Whenever Mr. Gadsby brought home the rare treat of takeaway fish-and-chips, Hannah enjoyed scrabbling with their siblings for their fair share of the golden fried potato wedges. They also loved their pretend game they called “Towns”. While their siblings pretended to be bus drivers or police officers, Hannah almost always asked to be a dog. (they really wanted to be a dog when they grew up.)

But as much as Hannah loved spending time with their family, sometimes the hubbub was just too much. To find some solitude, Hannah would crawl into cupboards or hide in the hedge, wrapping the dark and quiet around them like a blanket. And in public, they were often so quiet that when they did speak, grownups had to lean down to even hear them.

Even when Hannah stayed quiet though, they often couldn’t shut out the commotion inside their head.

Hannah knew they weren’t really like the other kids at school. They were overwhelmed by crowds and loud noises. They had trouble making friends. And when their sister chatted about the crushes she had on boys, Hannah always fell silent. 

Hannah only had crushes on girls—and where they lived, loving someone of the same gender was illegal!

When Hannah closed their eyes at night, they imagined that they must be an alien—a strange being from another planet who was left on Earth to muddle through.

As Hannah got older, though, they learned they had a special skill—one that could possibly help them navigate this bewildering world. 

Hannah was great at making people laugh.

Hannah’s mom was quite funny, and Hannah studied how their mom made people laugh. Hannah also picked up a lot of their skills from trial-and-error.

For example, Hannah sometimes tried to jump into conversations with an interesting fact. But people laughed even if they weren’t trying to be funny. The more this happened, the more they worked at landing these laughs on purpose.

And whenever Hannah did something embarrassing, they made a funny story out of it—before anyone else could make fun of them.

Yes, a lot of the jokes were at their own expense. Hannah talked about their weight or how odd they were. Sometimes it really hurt inside — to make jokes about their own body or to share such personal stories. But Hannah felt like it was worth it. They were willing to sacrifice their pride to get a laugh. It was their only way of connecting with other people.

Being funny got Hannah through a lot of challenging times. Still, they could never figure out how or where they fit in. Hannah tried all kinds of jobs: After college, they worked at a bookshop, as a projectionist in a movie theater, and on a farm. But nothing stuck.

They were really struggling to understand what they wanted to do and who they wanted to be. By this time, Hannah had embraced their sexuality, but they had a very difficult time telling their mom that they were queer. More and more, Hannah felt like they were all alone.

Then, Hannah heard a radio ad about a national comedy competition sponsored by the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. Each year, everyday people from all over Australia stood on a big stage and told stories and jokes, hoping to be judged the funniest and win a prize. Hannah decided to enter the competition to see if they could make people laugh on a bigger scale.

What’s there to lose? they thought.

When Hannah stepped onto the stage at the comedy competition, they were greeted by 1,500 people applauding. It was like a wall of sound. It almost knocked the breath out of them. 

A camera whizzed by on a wire, and they practically jumped out of their skin. They stood there, not knowing what to do.

And then, they heard it: Laughter. 

The audience thought their stunned look was part of the act. As the laughter bubbled up around Hannah, their shoulders softened; their brain calmed. It felt good. Being on stage felt good. People laughing felt good.

Hannah stepped up to the microphone and took a deep breath. Then, they told stories about their family, about their childhood, even about their old dog. The audience laughed at all the right places. And with each roar of laughter, Hannah felt lighter and brighter.

Afterward, Hannah nervously awaited the results, and when they announced the winners—their heart leapt. Hannah won first place!

From that day on, Hannah devoted themself to the art of comedy. They learned how to move around the stage with ease instead of hiding behind a microphone stand. They began to layer jokes throughout a story, building up tension and releasing it. They practiced their rhythm and timing, and felt themself become more and more confident.

Soon, Hannah was traveling the globe performing comedy shows. They even earned enough money to move into their own house and adopt a dog.

But even though Hannah’s career was taking off, their personal struggles only seemed to grow.

On stage, Hannah was receiving standing ovations. But off stage, they felt lost. Dishes piled up in the sink, they had mountains of junk in their house, and they felt like they couldn’t talk to anyone. Some days, Hannah felt so isolated and sad, it was challenging to get out of bed.

As relationship after relationship fell apart, Hannah realized they needed help. They went to several doctors and therapists and got medicine to help with their depression. They were diagnosed with ADHD, and they were able to finally tell someone about traumatic events from their childhood—painful memories they had pushed away for decades.

But still, a piece of the puzzle was missing. Hannah just seemed to move through the world differently than other people. And Hannah couldn’t understand why that was.

One day, a psychiatrist suggested Hannah might be on the autism spectrum.

Initially, Hannah didn’t believe him. But as they sat next to their dog scouring the Internet for information about autism, the world seemed to make sense. People born with autism can have a difficult time communicating with others, calming themselves when stressed, or dealing with loud noises and big changes.

Hannah felt a wave of relief wash over them. Until this moment, they’d always blamed themself for all their difficulties managing relationships and emotions. But now Hannah saw that it wasn’t their fault—they simply had a mind that worked differently from the people around them.

When Hannah started creating their new show, Nanette, they were determined to do something that only a person with their unique mind could do.

At first, Hannah worked as if they were in a fever dream. They scribbled ideas on notecards and piled them up, shuffled them around and  paced through the house, mumbling to themself. They tore some cards to shreds. Others they pulled out of the big stack to build the bones of them show—touch points they would return to for each performance.

Finally, Hannah felt like they had all the parts they needed. They saw the connections between every moment of their new show. But would the audience see these connections too?

Standing onstage at the Sydney Opera House, Hannah knew they were doing something different—and something that mattered.

First, Hannah told them stories like they normally would—highlighting all the funniest parts. The audience roared with laughter. 

But then, Hannah did something unexpected. They went back and told the same stories, only this time, they included scary or sad details they’d left out before. They took apart the jokes they had made earlier, talked about how they made them, and showed the vulnerable parts of themself they had hidden behind them.

Hannah’s sharp eyes darted around the auditorium as they held onto the microphone stand. The audience stared at Hannah—almost hypnotized—as they stood rooted in the spotlight. 

Most people had never seen or felt comedy like this!

By the time Hannah was finished, the audience wasn’t just laughing—there was a lot of crying, too. Because sharing these deep secrets connected Hannah to every person in that theater.

Video of Hannah’s performance at the Sydney Opera House was viewed in homes across the world, and soon, rave reviews poured in.

Some critics said they “broke comedy” by turning it inside out.

Others praised Hannah’s brilliant storytelling.

Hannah had worried that their big risk in making this show might mean the end of their career. They had even joked that they were “quitting comedy.”

But instead, Hannah showed the world a new way to be a comedian.

From performing new comedy specials to publishing a bestselling book, Hannah continues to inspire people all over the globe with their creative mind, powerful voice, and sharp wit.

It’s still scary sometimes—to share their stories and vulnerabilities with the world. But these days, they surround themself with a supportive community and have found someone with whom they want to spend the rest of their life. Whenever Hannah gets nervous before a show, their wife Jenney looks them in the eyes and says, “Don’t panic. Who do you want to be?”

And Hannah? They just want to be true to themself.