Hannah Gadsby’s third Netflix comedy show, “Something Special,” starts off with happy news: “I got married!” the Australian comedian, who uses they/them pronouns, says.
The crowd cheers, and Gadsby proudly shows their wedding band and says, “I know! It's nice. I like it.”
“That’s what this show is going to be about,” Gadsby tells the audience. “Yes, it’s going to be a feel-good show, because I believe I owe you one. I have dragged you through a bit of my s--- over the years, and you’ve stuck with me. Much obliged, but it’s time for some payoff.”
Gadsby’s first two comedy specials weren’t exactly “feel good.” The first, “Nanette,” went viral after it debuted in 2017, with critics describing it as “an international sensation” and a show that “completely upended what a comedy special could be.” In it, Gadsby jokes about their upbringing, coming to terms with their sexuality and even Pablo Picasso (they were an art history major in college), but then they deliver an emotional indictment of homophobia, gendered violence and traditional comedy.
Gadsby's sophomore special, “Douglas,” was notably less focused on trauma, but the comedian continued their criticisms of sexism while also talking about their autism diagnosis.
“Something Special,” which was filmed at the Sydney Opera House last year as part of a worldwide tour and debuted Tuesday on Netflix, is focused on queer joy by telling the story of Gadsby’s engagement and marriage to Jenney Shamash, who is also their producer.
That was an intentional choice, Gadsby told NBC News in a video interview Thursday, because they were touring last year, still largely during the pandemic, and they could tell people were nervous and “thirsty for joy” — particularly LGBTQ people, who in the U.S. have seen a surge of legislation targeting their rights over the past three years.
“That sense of anxiety in the room was what really drove me,” Gadsby said. “The one thing that doesn’t help anxiety is more anxiety. I felt like coming onto stage and just pouring what we already know into the room again is not going to help in that moment. I really made a conscious decision to say, ‘I want reprieve for my people.’ Other people who aren’t in the community, it’s not for them — they can enjoy it, it is possible — but this is for us.”
At the start of “Something Special,” after revealing they got married to Shamash — whom they affectionately call “Jenno” in their Australian accent — Gadsby jokes about how the couple had a “very steep learning curve for the pair of us to organize a betrothal,” because “straight people have a lot of feelings about weddings.”
Gadsby said the couple made a lot of “mistakes” in their wedding, like choosing a novelty “shark cake” for the reception. While heterosexual couples typically have bride and groom figurines atop their wedding cakes, Gadsby and Shamash chose two otters swimming on their backs and holding hands — right in front of a shark emerging from the icing with its mouth open, displaying two rows of sharp teeth.
“But we had a good reason for having a novelty cake,” Gadsby explained in the comedy special. “We wanted to trick a Christian baker into making a gay wedding cake, and it worked. I was like, ‘Nah, mate, that’s not a wedding cake. I’m turning 10.’ Easy, so gullible, will believe anything, Christians.”
Gadsby shared a photo of the cake on Instagram on Wednesday, a day after “Something Special” premiered on Netflix.
The joke captures a theme throughout the show: a celebration of Gadsby’s relationship with Shamash through stories about their past, peppered with jokes about sexism and heterosexual relationships. (Gadsby cheekily follows their hetero jokes with, “I didn’t say who this was going to be a feel-good show for.”)
While they were touring the U.S., Gadsby recalled Thursday, they could tell audiences were “shell shocked” due to the fraught political environment. They were in the country during the overturning of Roe v. Wade, which they accidentally called “Woe versus Raid” and then joked, “Although that feels like what it is now, doesn’t it?”
“It feels really oppressive here. It feels quite frightening,” Gadsby said of the U.S. “It feels like our hard-foughts are being rolled back, and it’s made me hyper aware that, although it’s not like this in Australia, I’m operating under the assumption that it will be.”
Gadsby said they had new material related to the American political climate, but they instead chose to focus the show largely on their relationship with Shamash to allow people 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 said. “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 navigate 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” wasn’t the original name of the show. When they were touring, it was called “Body of Work” to reflect how their work has evolved from “Nanette” to where it is now, but Netflix didn’t like that name. In frustration, they said, jokingly, “I’ll just call it ‘Something.’ ‘Something Special,’” Gadsby told the media outlet Them.
Some reviewers have criticized that evolution and how “Something Special” doesn’t engage in cultural criticism at a time when state lawmakers in the U.S. have introduced more than 450 bills targeting LGBTQ rights, including legislation that bans drag performances in front of minors, prohibits gender-affirming care for trans youths and bars LGBTQ- and race-related books in schools, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
But Gadsby said they think the expectation that they continue to engage 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 of people to expect them, someone who has experienced trauma, to continue being the comedian who engages with traumatic events.
“It’s almost like they expect trauma porn,” they said. “That’s not who I am. I’m an individual whose work expresses where I am at at any given moment in time.”
“The fact that I’ve been able to overcome trauma is significant,” they added. “In this climate at the moment, what is happening to our community is traumatic. People are going through trauma. This reflects very closely to what I experienced when I was growing up, 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 showcase a group of gender diverse comedians. Gadsby also collaborated with the Brooklyn Museum for an upcoming exhibition titled “It’s Pablo-matic: Picasso According to Hannah Gadsby,” which will “examine the artist’s complicated legacy through a critical, contemporary, and feminist lens.” The exhibition debuts June 2.