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How Hannah Gadsby’s ‘Nanette’ made it to Netflix

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Netflix, as a platform, is as good at breaking things as it is at building them. 

Early on, their DVD subscription service broke Blockbuster and built a base of customers for what would become the world’s biggest streaming platform. Then they broke the traditional movie and television release cycle and reshaped the viewing habits of an entire generation. 

Now, with the wild success of Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette, Netflix has broken the rules of stand-up comedy. Nanette is such a major departure from the conventions of comedy specials that to see its thumbnail — innocently hovering next to Ali Wong and Dave Chappelle — feels off. Gadsby’s performance is radical; Netflix bringing it to our living rooms is practically revolutionary. So how did it happen? Who thought to bring this raw, subversive work to Netflix’s growing comedy lineup?

Turns out it was the same person who brought on Wong and Chappelle. But more on him later. 

Nanette‘s journey to Netflix

Nanette — which, at the time of its filming, was a touring special performed live by Gadsby each night — is a welcome anomaly in the world of comedy, for reasons Hannah Gadsby outlines on stage. She identifies comedy as the creation and dissipation of tension and goes on to create a trauma-driven, truth-telling narrative drawn from real-world injustice. Since society has yet to bring a resolution to the narrative of injustice, she ends the special by leaving the stage without resolving her own narrative.

Hannah Gadsby’s first live show was in 2007, titled Hannah Gadsby Is Wrong and Broken. She was also well-known for a series of comedic art history tours and lectures she gave at the National Gallery of Victoria. Fast-forward to January of 2017, when Nanette made its debut, and we find Gadsby zeroing in on these very subjects.

Nanette arose out of Gadsby’s desire to quit comedy (which she has ), and for over 250 nights in various locations across the world she told hundreds of people exactly why. To Gadsby, the medium of standup is fundamentally wrong, in that the self-deprecation required of her as a comic had begun to feel less like a joke and more of an affirmation of the homophobic attitudes that damaged her both physically and psychologically. 

Fitting with the comedy world’s love of irony, Gadsby’s declaration that Nanette represented her quitting standup led to her show getting more attention in her field. Producers at Guesswork Television, an Australian production company that’s part of the same corporate entity that represents Gadsby as an artist, saw the live show and immediately saw its potential as a recorded special.

Fitting with the comedy’s love of irony, Gadsby’s declaration that Nanette was her quitting standup led to even more attention in her field.

Frank Bruzzese, the Director of Production at Guesswork, spoke about the process of getting Nanette to Netflix. Bruzzese said there were plans to record the show “well before Netflix was on board” and credited Guesswork’s Managing Director Kevin Whyte with pitching the show to Robbie Praw, Netflix’s Vice President of Original Standup Comedy Programming. 

Whyte has a background in the comedy festival circuit, having been influential in expanding the Melbourne International Comedy Festival; Praw came to Netflix from a previous job as the Vice President of Programming at Montreal’s Just For Laughs comedy festival. The two knew each other before Nanette, and Whyte’s pitch was a successful sell.

As a trusted figure in live stand up, Praw’s influence on Netflix’s comedy acquisitions cannot be overstated. It was Praw who cajoled Dave Chappelle out of his nearly decade-long retirement to play the Just for Laughs festival in 2013; he later produced Dave Chappelle: Equanimity for Netflix. He booked Amy Schumer for the festival as early as 2011 and brought Amy Schumer: The Leather Special to Netflix in 2017. 

It was also Praw’s influence that brought Seth Rogen, W. Kamau Bell, Aparna Nancherla, Marc Maron to Netflix (as well as Just for Laughs). Gadsby, whose own Nanette tour will end at Just for Laughs this year, could not have been in better company.

How Nanette got its unique look

But as anyone who’s seen Nanette can attest, it’s not just the show’s subject matter that makes for a unique viewing experience — it’s the visual style, too.

In Nanette, the camera rarely pans over the audience, as it does in many other comedy productions. As Gadsby transitions from her more traditionally comedic material to the righteous anger of the show’s latter half, the frame draws in ever tighter, the camera intensifying its focus on her face, keeping pace with her escalating emotions.

That visual tension was the work of director Madeleine Parry, who Bruzzese tapped for the project after she proved to have the right vision for the recording. 

“I remember speaking with [Parry] in passing about Nanette, and she had all of these brilliant ideas for capturing the tension and stillness of the recording. It just made so much sense that we would introduce her to Hannah,” wrote Bruzzese. 

“It’s not like other stand up specials.”

Parry also had worked with Guesswork Television before, most recently on the comedy miniseries Corey White’s Roadmap to Paradise. Parry’s approach to directing the special once Whyte had successfully pitched it to Praw at Netflix is part of the reason Nanette looks as special as it feels. 

“It was part of a conversation with the producer recognizing that this show isn’t like other shows,” said Parry. 

“We were filming at the Sydney Opera House, this iconic beautiful space in Australia, but the concert hall is designed for shooting orchestras, which means that the camera boxes and the angles are all set up a little bit ugly. Also, Hannah is brilliant but she’s incredibly sensitive and unlike some other stand up specials that you see where the camera can float with the comedian and they interact with it — Hannah didn’t really want to be distracted by cameras at all. So we had to try and create intimacy while staying far away from her.”

Even the technical aspects of the show, which co-director and frequent Guesswork collaborator Jon Olb assisted with, add shades of intimacy and value to the direction. One of Gadsby’s requests was that no cameras be in her face during the show, so Parry and Olb worked to keep her comfortable and preserve as much of her live energy as possible. 

“It’s not like other stand up specials,” said Parry. “Because I’d seen it, I suggested perhaps there’s a way to focus on the space between her and the audience, maybe a bird’s-eye shot to make that space between her and the audience, which is her strength, her vulnerability up there.”

Any televised (or on Netflix’s case, streamed) production requires a certain amount of effort. A production that manages to be a comedy special, game-changer, and clearly needed work of social commentary requires quite significantly more. 

To bring the show from a sold-out live event to the year’s most talked-about Netflix special took a production team of Australian comedy enthusiasts, two producers with dovetailing festival experience, two sensitive directors who knew how to create claustrophobia onstage at the Sydney Opera House, and one very fed-up woman in a navy blue suit — all working together to break comedy. 

It will be fascinating to see what they build next.

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