“Don’t quit your day job” is the extremely clever advice hecklers yell at comedians they judge to be not very funny. (As if 99% of performers – or writers or other artists – could ever afford not to have day jobs.) Australian standup comic Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix special “Nanette” isn’t especially funny, but that’s part of its point. In the middle of the special, she announces she’s quitting comedy because she can no longer tolerate the professional demand that she be amusingly self-deprecating in the face of the misogyny and violent homophobia she’s endured her whole life — and which, in her career, she has up until now laughed off.
Gadsby’s rationale for quitting comedy made me think about how we consume any of the vast number of products made out of others’ pain – not just comedy, but pro football, cat food (slaves make it), medical care, consumer electronics, you name it. “Nanette” should also make us reconsider the work we do. After all, just about every line of work causes some kind of physical or moral injury, from blown-out knees to post-traumatic stress to burnout. In the culture of American capitalism, we all do, and ask others to do, work that’s built on pain.
Gadsby is calling standup as an ethical enterprise into question. In “Nanette” she explores show she’s quitting a line of work in which she had to divide herself against herself, suppressing the violent endings to stories from her life in order to get people to laugh at her. Much of Gadsby’s self-deprecating humor had to do with being, in her words, “gender not-normal.” Onstage, she had joked about a man’s threat to beat her up for (he thought) hitting on his girlfriend. What she had never previously said in public was that he actually did it.
Other comics have shown us the cost of work that depends on self-humiliation. Dave Chappelle, for instance, abruptly quit his Comedy Central show after a white guy on set couldn’t stop laughing at Chappelle in a minstrel getup. As comedians’ audience, we’re complicit in their debasement. They make themselves laughingstocks because we keep laughing. (Think of John Belushi, Chris Farley, Robin Williams, etc. etc.)
In questioning comedy, Gadsby is calling out all of work. Her central point – that suffering is not inherent to being an artist – is true in a way. It’s inherent to work, artistic or otherwise. In rare instances like “Nanette,” entertainers make that fact visible, because their work is so visible. Athletes are on our iPhone screens, suffering before our very eyes. We see them carried off the field on a spine-immobilizing backboard. The suffering of the worker who made the screen barely exists as far as we’re concerned.
We’re complicit in those conditions, too. So much of workers’ suffering is hidden in plain sight. Your doctor hides her burnout and depression behind a veil of professionalism, for instance. (And as a recent Stanford study indicates, the burnout epidemic among physicians costs 100,000 – 200,000 patients’ lives per year.)
I certainly hid my burnout from the college students I taught, only explaining on the last day of class that I was quitting, and why: that I had bought into the idea that I needed to bring my whole self to work, but my self couldn’t handle the burden of that exposure. At least, not in the working conditions of present-day academia.
Work takes something out of all of us. We mine our strength and intellect and skill, our beauty and charm and wit, our bones and joints and gray matter, our race and religion and sexual identity, and we offer it up for sale. We all have reason to quit our day jobs. Though, of course, hardly any of us feels like we can.
Gadsby’s demand that she be seen as dignified is a call to see the humanity in all workers, including ourselves.
I’m a writer and a former professor and parking lot attendant. I cover work, religion, and education, and I’m currently writing a book about the spiritual costs of the American work ethic.This post is reprinted from my newsletter. Subscribe here! Image: Wikimedia.