The Visual TV

What Hannah Gadsby’s “Douglas” Teaches Us About the Art of the Essay

In "Douglas," comedian Hannah Gadsby uses an essayistic technique as social commentary, opening the door to stand-up that feels both personal and grounding.

Hannah Gadsby’s second stand-up comedy special, Douglas, wasn’t supposed to happen. When her debut special Nanette premiered in 2018, Gadsby vowed to quit comedy because the structure of a joke forbade her from telling her story properly. Comedy, she explained, depends on the release of tension, and because her material drew largely on her life as a lesbian growing up in 1990s Tasmania, Gadsby had been unjustly diffusing the tension inherent in her traumatic experiences. Nanette put an end to that. What began as a more conventional comedy special transformed into a scathing critique of the patriarchal forces that had shaped Gadsby’s life, setting the stage for a reinvention of the genre: the comedy special as social criticism.

While many of Gadsby’s predecessors have used the form as a method of social commentary, few have managed to sustain focused criticism of a prominent social issue for the entirety of their hour-long sets. This hesitation isn’t at all unsurprising. After Nanette premiered, hundreds of comedians and internet trolls — only men, Gadsby reminds us — rebuked the special, calling it a “lecture” and “not comedy.” Returning to the stage, Gadsby doubles down on these critiques (Douglas does, in fact, include two lectures on art history), but nevertheless, Gadsby still manages to situate the show in the lineage of the essay, employing a structure and other narrative techniques commonly found in creative or literary social criticism.

At its best, social criticism operates on several layers of “aboutness.” That is to say, the answer to the question “What is Douglas about?” should be extensive and range from concrete examples to abstract thoughts. This is, in part, what distinguishes the essay from the op-ed, commentary, academic articles, and other more directly argumentative forms of nonfiction. The ideas aren’t delivered as a lecture or a sermon. Rather than being plainly stated and logically ordered, these ideas are packaged inside personal anecdotes, historical contexts, pop culture references, and various other avenues that connect the author’s ideas, creating a portrait of their broader social critique, which the audience then sees at the end (as opposed to being told throughout). This means that Gadsby’s ideas cannot merely be compartmentalized into sections, as if organized neatly under their own subheadings. What makes Douglas feel more like a work of art than a lecture is the story. By threading her critiques through a narrative, Gadsby layers her ideas about language, status, art, autism, and misogyny so effectively that every bite of the story seems to include a taste of each idea.

In doing so, Gadsby cracks open a form that, for as long as it’s been held predominantly in the hands of white men, has seemed resistant to earnest social criticism. Perhaps this is because comics feared their audiences wouldn’t want to listen to anything “serious” during a stand-up routine. Or maybe, for the few that might have wanted to engage in sustained social criticism, they couldn’t recognize how to do so effectively. To be clear, many comics have used the stage as a platform for a variety of social, cultural, and political commentary. Certainly George Carlin championed the form, and more recently, comics like Jim Jeffries and Trevor Noah have followed suit. But these men typically couch their commentary in one-liners or punchlines to isolated incidents, often to point out contradictions in political platforms or tease certain politicians and media pundits. What Gadsby has experienced is not, as she anticipates men will claim, an isolated incident. Her social criticism differs from other comics in that it situates her ideas and experiences within many threads of the fabric of our society and means to critique these threads, broadly speaking, that weave our society together.

On the page, essayists often achieve this layering effect by using something material and concrete, such as an item or event, in which to package their critiques of broader, more abstract concepts like the patriarchy. Because narrative is so central to how this form of criticism operates, audiences require a “vehicle” to transport them along their journey, helping to bridge the gap between the ideas we can consider stops along the way. We find an “idea vehicle” in almost every literary essay that ventures into social criticism: swimming pools in Aisha Sabatini Sloan’s critique of racism in “A Clear Presence,” pecans in Robin Wall Kimmerer’s poignant reminder of the consequences of stealing Native American land in “The Council of Pecans,” home ownership in Eula Biss’s portrait of whiteness in “White Debt.” Each works in the same fashion, critiquing a macro-level issue using a micro-level device. In Douglas, Gadsby uses the title word itself as this vehicle that journeys us seamlessly through her myriad ideas, all of which constitute a “gentle and very good-natured needling of the patriarchy.”


Much like an anecdote at the top of an essay, Gadsby opens the show with a bit of observational comedy focused on some of the linguistic differences between Australia and the United States. The word “fanny,” for instance, refers to cis women’s genitalia in Australia, whereas it refers to your bum in America. Instead of shortening the word “petroleum” to “petro,” as they do down under, Americans call it “gas” — a frustrating misnomer since petroleum is a liquid and gas is, well, not. But Americans aren’t stupid, Gadsby says. We’re culturally confident, like the “straight white man of culture,” and it’s our confidence that makes us stupid. Here, Gadsby articulates the show’s major claim: men’s historical stranglehold on power has crafted our understanding of reality, determined by the fact that they have “named all the things.”

At this point, Gadsby then introduces the idea vehicle that we’ll use in order to visit all the stops that prove her point. Initially, she claims the word “Douglas” is slang in Australia for a kangaroo’s uterus — a joke, we quickly learn, as “not even Australians are that Australian.” Actually, Gadsby tells us, the title takes its name from her dog, a young Lagotto Romagnolo, a model replica of whom sits in the corner throughout the show. In that sense, the idea vehicle first represents a literal, physical item, one we can not only see and mentally interact with but also one that’s personal to Gadsby that we can hear stories about. This allows her to share with us a memory of an interaction she’d had with a man at a dog park during one of Douglas’s visits.

Initiated by a comment many women know all too well, their conversation begins when the man tells Gadsby, “It takes less muscles to smile than frown.” This particular manifestation of misogyny illustrates just another way the patriarchy polices and regulates women’s bodies.  So repulsed are men by an expression of anything but a smile on a woman’s face that they have, like everything else, named it: resting bitch face. There is no male equivalent, though, since women have been denied the power to name one. “Men,” Gadsby says, “simply have very important thoughts you best not interrupt them having.” By packaging this story inside an idea vehicle, rather than simply introducing it as an example of her claim, Gadsby tricks us into perceiving it as an extension of the kind of anecdotes with which she began the show. If we never feel like we’re being lectured to, it’s because the idea vehicle disguised when the lecture actually began.

Next, the man asks Gadsby about her dog’s name. Disgruntled by the entire experience thus far, Gadsby lies and tells the man that she named the dog after the Pouch of Douglas, an empty space between a woman’s uterus and rectum that can expand or contract depending on the body’s need for space. Named after 18th-century Scottish midwife Dr. James Douglas, this example further supports Gadsby’s idea that men have named everything (including, and especially, women’s bodies). And because the Pouch of Douglas is quite literally nothing, it’s also a reminder of “how little men have to do in order to be remembered.” With that, the idea vehicle takes a new form. Instead of “Douglas” representing the dog (a visible, physical presence with a personal connection, filled with memories), we begin to feel how the idea vehicle acts as a metaphor. “Douglas” now represents the medical and the historical, reminding us of the show’s central claim that men have named everything.

Like each of the aforementioned essayists, Gadsby continues using the idea vehicle throughout the show to connect stories with ideas, pop culture references with commentary, all without losing the viewer or making us wonder why we’re hearing about this particular thing at this particular moment. In the next iteration of the idea vehicle, Gadsby transitions to a story about her experience with a male doctor, whom she saw due to issues with her “Douglas environment.” The appointment devolved into a yelling match between her and the doctor after he scolded her for rejecting his advice to go on “the pill,” which she had already tried but gave her suicidal ideations. When Gadsby begins to cry, the doctor calls her “hormonal,” as if she’s proven his point. Building on the power of men to “name” things, including women and their behaviors, and to police the female body, the idea vehicle moves us out of a historical intersection between medicine and misogyny into a modern one.

It should be noted, though, that idea vehicles use a manual transmission. Shifting gears still requires much practice, but in the right hands, the passenger will never feel the shift. Importantly, this isn’t achieved exclusively by the ability to transition between thoughts. Transitions, when connecting two seemingly disparate ideas, can often feel forced. Indeed, there are a few examples in Douglas. But from the work’s inception, a well-established idea vehicle can lay the groundwork for effective, more fluid transitions throughout the piece. Its many facets, from the metaphorical to the material to the abstract, mean that its presence constantly engages us in each (even though we may be more focused on one particular aspect than another). Consequently, when Gadsby wants to shift directions or pivot to a new topic, she brings us back into the idea vehicle, where new thoughts that may have before appeared too distant by foot are now easily within our grasp.

In the show’s final segment, one last PowerPoint presentation of Renaissance paintings, Gadsby fulfills the ultimate purpose of the idea vehicle: demonstrating the unnecessariness of its existence. In a series of jokes, delivered at rapid-fire speed, Gadsby connects each work of art to the idea vehicle and the show’s central claim. She begins with St. Bernard’s journey to sainthood, depicted in dozens of paintings as Bernard’s vision of the Virgin Mary lactating on his face. This “wet dream,” as Gadsby calls it, was all it took to declare Bernard a saint (“how little men have to do…”). In another, a woman is depicted having given birth to an unrealistically large baby. “She would have had to pull a ripcord on the Pouch of Douglas to fit that,” Gadsby remarks. And finally, at the bottom of the frame of a much larger painting, a young boy is shown, fallen off a box, grabbing ahold of his genitals, which Gadsby says, as her final line, is “the first known portrait of Louis C.K.”

With that, Gadsby leaves us having proven that misogyny is firmly entrenched in our society. In part, it is a product of men’s power to write the narrative, to name everything, particularly with the intent of controlling women’s bodies. Misogyny is not a relic of history, nor an isolated incident. What the Renaissance paintings prove is that the narrative remains unchanged, only differently manifested, rendering the idea vehicle unnecessary. We now clearly see how those once seemingly disparate ideas were always intertwined. In other words, if we had known then what we know by the time we reach the end, we wouldn’t have needed the idea vehicle at all.


Therin Alrik is currently an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas where he teaches composition and works as an editorial assistant for The Believer. His work has appeared in Gen and the Southern Quill, among others.