Nanette and the Discomfort of Comedy

Sara Blog 2 Comments

Last year, I had a unique opportunity to listen to Gavin Crawford share about his experiences, living as an openly gay man.

I’d never heard of Gavin before this event, so I looked him up. If you (also) have no idea who he is, Wikipedia tells me that Gavin Crawford is a Canadian comedian and actor, who was born and raised in Lethbridge, Alberta and currently resides in Toronto. He is best known for his time on “This Hour Has 22 Minutes.” He’s had guest appearances on Murdoch Mysteries, Heartland, the Red Green Show and Corner Gas. Currently, he is the host of Because News on CBC Radio One.

Anyways, back to the night in question. I don’t think Gavin was given much direction in what to talk about. I’m betting the thought process went a little like this: “he’s gay, he’s Canadian, it’s Pride month, he’s funny…let’s hire him.” Sometimes, I think this sets people up for disaster, but I think in this case, it allowed for a entertaining, yet poignant dialogue.

Gavin shared some stories about his childhood. When he shared that he too was raised in a Mormon family, I immediately identify with him and automatically had a deeper understanding of his roots and his internal struggle, particularly around coming out as gay.

He shared a story about his dad, who had come across Gavin’s childhood journals while cleaning out the basement. Upon discovering these journals, Gavin’s dad read through the journals and then, over the phone, read one of the entries to Gavin. This journal entry, written by a 12 year old Gaven talked about how he had wanted to wear rainbow suspenders to work but couldn’t because his dad had told him that if he did, people would think he was gay and he most assuredly was NOT gay.

Gavin’s dad read this entry to him, years after Gavin had come out as gay and once he finish reading that entry out loud to Gavin, said “nailed it!”

Everyone in the room around me snickered at the punchline while my heart sank. It made me uncomfortable because coming out (in whatever way we come out) is still painful. It is still breaking up families. It is still stigmatized. And here it is, a punchline.

I couldn’t quite understand why it bothered me so much. Even when he went on to share the rest of that story (the part that isn’t funny) about how his dad apologized after reading the entry to Gavin. How he shared with Gavin that he knew that Gavin was gay long before he came out. How he was sorry that he didn’t make it easier for Gavin to share his truths with his family, that he didn’t make room for Gavin to express himself in whatever way was best for Gavin.

Coincidently, later that same week, I watched Nanette on Netflix, which is a one hour special with comedian Hannah Gatsby. If you haven’t watched it, you should. Hannah is outstanding comedian but this show was one of the most heart wrenching things I’ve ever watched and while watching, it became painfully clear why I had been so uncomfortable listening to Gavin’s story.

In Nanette, Hannah talks about the structure of stories and jokes. Stories have a beginning, a middle and an end, while jokes only employ the beginning and the middle of a story. A joke needs a punchline, a punchline needs trauma and trauma is fed by tension. We cut off a story at its trauma point to make it funny.

At the beginning of her set, Hannah relates a story about how she had been hitting up a woman one night and the woman’s angry boyfriend confronted Hannah because he had mistaken her for a man hitting on his girlfriend. “Good thing I won’t hit a woman” or something along those lines was the punchline. Laughter. Yet near the end of her set, when I had more tears than laughs, she shared that that wasn’t the way the story actually ended. The truth was, that man had beaten the shit out of her. But no one wants to talk about that part of the story because it’s not funny.

However, it was what Hannah said about self deprecating humour that really clarified my discomfort with Gavin’s story. She said that when self deprecating humour comes from the marginalized, it is not humility, it is humiliation.

Our entire stories matter. We do not need to delete the pain from our stories to make them palatable to others. We are not a punchline.

Comments 2

  1. Thanks Sara for this thoughtful take on self-deprecating humour. I’d always thought of it as the best kind, the opposite of mean-spirited, but this adds a dimension to it that I hadn’t considered.

  2. Sorry, was logged into the wrong WordPress account so the “notify of followups” failed! Logged in correctly now and re-submitting just to ensure I see the followups. Thanks! — Adam

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