Editor’s Note: This story, including the headline, has been updated to reflect that the Sackler family is not directly connected with Hannah Gadsby’s “It’s Pablo-matic: Picasso According to Hannah Gadsby” exhibit.
Hannah Gadsby isn’t a one-trick-pony, and that point is driven home with their latest standup performance on Netflix, titled “Something Special.”
The comedian is proving they’ve grown, revealing that this show is meant to show them “changing as life changes them.” Instead of the scrutinizing takes on celebrity culture for which they’ve become known, in “Something Special,” Gadsby offers a more positive outlook on life as they share personal stories about their new marriage to their partner, Jenney Shamash, and family anecdotes.
But Gadsby’s growth hasn’t happened without controversy. After publicly criticizing Netflix and CEO Ted Sarandos for comedian Dave Chappelle’s anti-trans comments made in his 2021 special, “The Closer,” Gadsby went on to sign a multi-year deal with the streamer in the hopes that they would inspire positive change.
“In a notoriously transphobic industry, I am looking to broaden the scope of opportunities for genderqueer performers from around the globe, as well as expand the diversity of offerings to audiences on one of comedy’s biggest platforms,” Gadsby said in a statement at the time.
In addition to this special, they’ve also taken part in organizing an exhibition exploring the complicated and problematic legacy of Pablo Picasso, which has earned a fair amount of push back from fans. In addition to Gadsby, “It’s Pablo-matic: Picasso According to Hannah Gadsby” is also curated by Catherine Morris, Sackler Senior Curator, Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art; and Lisa Small, Senior Curator, European Art; with Talia Shiroma, Curatorial Assistant, Arts of the Americas and Europe, Brooklyn Museum.
Unlike the numbers of museums that have since denounced the Sackler name upon the discovery of brothers Arthur, Mortimer and Raymond Sackler’s roles in the opioid crisis, the Brooklyn Museum is one of the few galleries that continues to hold the name. Arthur Sackler purchased the already existing pharmaceutical company Purdue in 1952. After he died in 1987, his stake in the company was sold to his brothers, and the business became Purdue Pharma. In 1996, Purdue Pharma released Oxycontin.
Arthur’s daughter, Elizabeth Sackler, became the benefactor of the Brooklyn Museum’s gallery, and has claimed not to have financially benefited from the invention of oxycontin, going so far as to call her family’s involvement “morally abhorrent.” The exhibition will open on June 2, and will run through September 24. On Tuesday, a spokesperson for the Brooklyn Museum contacted Variety to emphasize that Elizabeth Sackler retired from its board of trustees in 2018 and currently has Trustee Emeriti status, and is not an active board member.
In a conversation with Variety, Gadsby opens up about the upcoming exhibit, their feelings on Dave Chappelle, and their latest standup, “Something Special,” which is currently available for streaming on Netflix.
How have you been enjoying touring since we’re now “post-pandemic?”
I found it difficult, to say the least. I started early 2021 — it was an 18 months tour when it first started. It was a rude shock, and I felt it with the audiences too. People were like, very, very unhappy about being in a room full of people. It was both exciting and stressful at once.
But the biggest problem for me on this last tour was I had two rather catastrophic dramatic leg injuries to navigate. So that just pulled in some extra woe onto the touring experience, but I feel like there’s extra anxiety generally in the world post-pandemic. I don’t think I’m being a rocket scientist for observing that, though.
While watching “Something Special,” I noticed that you didn’t focus too much on the pandemic at all. Why is that?
It’s sort of part of the structure, having gotten married in the pandemic and there’s a few references to it. Look, honestly, what I was feeling in the first part of it is everyone’s experience of the pandemic was very different, and I don’t think I had a particularly difficult pandemic in the scheme of things.
The further I got into the tour, the less people wanted to hear about pandemic topics. I really took the lead from the audience, and I noticed that if anything, people are looking for a framing that wasn’t beginning from lockdown jokes. I think there was also a fatigue around the subject that perhaps meant I didn’t have a fresh take on it — or perhaps people didn’t want to hear about it. And I think we’re still collectively trying to work out what that pandemic was.
For this to be your first stand up coming out of the pandemic, it’s much more joyful. There’s a lot of happiness compared to your other work, and different from the doom and gloom that other standups have opted for when discussing the pandemic — so I’m assuming your time in the pandemic was also happy?
You know, when you have the means — which I do, for the first time in my life — you can suck a bit more up. Generally, I find disappointing that a lot of celebrities weren’t able to suck it up. Successful people don’t have the problems that most people have.
I’ve been on the struggle bus, and I understand when I’m not on the struggle bus. And I made a conscious decision. I feel like there’s a lot of anxiety — I don’t not have anxiety; I have an incredible amount of anxiety. It’s really one of my calling cards.
But I feel like I didn’t want to add to that. I didn’t want people to come out, particularly to the first one, because I created that show on the road, and leave the auditorium feeling more anxious than they came in. I actually genuinely wanted to have a reprieve from from that, and that was the seed of the show.
As you’ve said in the past, people have referred to your specials as sort of “lectures.” Did that also inform some of your creative process behind “Something Special?”
I don’t really tend to begin from a point of defensiveness, but I do like to surprise people. “Nanette” was the one that most people came to know me for, but in the context of creating it, I was creating for an audience that already knew my work.
That was a surprising show. So if anything, this is kind of a return to the kind of shows that I was creating before, and also, it’s meant to be thought of in the context of “Nanette” and “Douglas,” and as a way of showing a human being living a life, and changing as life changes them. I don’t want to circle the drain of trauma. I don’t want to be a one note comic. I want to have freedom of expression, and in order to do that, I need to train my audiences to not expect stuff from me.
You didn’t mention Dave Chappelle in this recent special. Given your past comments about him, why did you purposefully leave him out?
For a start, it’s boring. There was a time in the tour when it was certainly in front of my mind, and then it very quickly receded. My audience likes me because they don’t like the usual toxic perspective, and to talk about him would be to center his conversation — and I just don’t want that voice to be dictating how I approach my work. I didn’t think he said anything that I was interested in, and that’s what I would have to do in order to talk about Dave Chappelle — I would have to begin with Dave Chappelle, and I don’t want to.
I’m a genderqueer, autistic, vagina-wielding white person. There could be a really interesting conversation between us, but I don’t think that’s going to happen. I don’t think there’s good faith on his part. He’s done three specials grinding down on the same points without any change in nuance, so I just think he’s on his track. Good on him. That is not my track. And I’m not going to go out of my way to engage with that. And I think there’s something also quite political about a genderqueer performer expressing joy on stage.
Would you be open to having that conversation with him?
Apparently, I have to do it on his terms. So, no. I just think it’s a toxic place. I don’t think he’s open. I just don’t think it’s constructive. There’s just so much cruelty going on, and we both represent communities that are experiencing that cruelty, and I don’t want to stand in direct opposition to that. There is nuance, and there is intersectionality at play here. But he’s not engaging in that yet, and I’m not gonna make him. But I’m not also going to be drawn in on his terms.
I do think conversations are at a point where we’re not listening to people with lived experience anymore. We’re listening to people who have really hostile reactive views, and that it’s caught up in a moral panic, which also has a very, very strong right-wing online presence that is stirring up the debate, and it’s fairly unacknowledged. I want to come from a more constructive point of view, like I am genderqueer. I have a life, and it doesn’t revolve around trying to justify my existence.
I know you previously made statements about Netflix and Dave Chappelle, but how do you feel about Netflix and its stance as a home for comedians with these varying opinions after signing a deal last year?
If you want to change the conversation, you still have to be a part of the conversation. So that was really what informed me to keep trying with this relationship. Part of that is that I have this second special that we’re working on now, where I’m curating a lineup of fairly new genderqueer performers from around the world, trying to break it out of the American-centric idea. You know, everyone around the world has a humor, and I’m trying to do something constructive — trying to create more content.
It doesn’t sit easy all of the time. But like I said, if you want to change the conversation, you really do have to step into the murky waters, don’t you? As much as you wish that life is black and white, we should, I guess, given Karl Lagerfeld, be thankful that it isn’t black and white.
The Met Gala was very monochromatic, wasn’t it? What vision.
That was his thing. He only ever wore black and white. Misogyny was also his thing, but they don’t want to talk about that.
I think we’ve been seeing some of that conversation online, but you’re right. I don’t believe the fashion world is acknowledging this.
I think what we’re seeing is a generation where people didn’t care about behavior. And now with all that, there’s so many problematic people that have been championed for so long. It’s just a really difficult conversation that no one wants to have.
That leads me into my next question — I’ve learned that you’re doing a show with a connection to the Sackler family. Given the family’s reputation in the art world, and in general, how did that come about?
I’m doing a show at the Brooklyn Museum. There’s one Sackler on the board. We vetted this. Apparently, they’ve separated their earning streams from the problematic one. I mean, take that with a grain of salt. Doesn’t matter what cultural institution you work with in America, you’re going to be working with billionaires and there’s not a billionaire on this planet that is not fucked up. It is just morally reprehensible.
This is the world we’ve built, particularly in the U.S. and it’s like, how do you do anything here without corrupting yourself? I feel like it’s impossible. I feel sick about it. Not just this particularly — but you go through the motions. Again, if you want to change the conversation, do you take yourself out of the conversation to change the conversation? It’s murky, isn’t it? I don’t have an answer. But also the exhibition is about Picasso and I really, really want to stick one up him.
So, to be clear, you’re saying you didn’t jump into this lightly?
I was assured that they’d separated from the opioids strain. That’s where it lands. I don’t see it as a clean win-win. That’s for sure, but I’m not sure how to navigate this world.
Had you been receiving feedback about the show after it was first announced?
Not yet. I mean, if people don’t like what I say, then perhaps that’s what they’ll attack. This is a new world for me — the art world in the U.S. — and I’m pretty sure it won’t be a world I will keep participating in. There’s some elitism there that I don’t understand. People with money are everywhere.
It’s not a conversation I want to shut down. This is a problem. This is a problem in cultural institutions. These places are where problematic people funnel their money so they can look back and they can have a better front facing. This is the structure that American institutions operate off of.
Is it fair to say that the Sacklers are not safe in this show that you’ll be doing, and you’re open to addressing the elephant in the room about it?
There’s an elephant in the room, yeah. There’s a problem with money in the art world, generally. That also is part of my perspective on Picasso. Like, is he a hero, or is he just worth a lot of money?
This interview has been edited and condensed.