Among the many questions we ask of our entertainment, perhaps the most common, and annoying, one is this: “Can we separate the art from the artist?” It is especially prominent in the conversations that follow a massive revelation, like the sexual assault allegations levied against Harvey Weinstein and Louis C.K., and the resulting #MeToo and Time’s Up movements. Can we watch Pulp Fiction and Shakespeare in Love, or laugh at Hilarious and Live at the Beacon Theater, without remembering what we now know about these two men? Should we even try?
“We all have an instinct to instantly try to figure out how to redeem all these people and still be able to enjoy all this work, and it’s a very selfish instinct,” Judd Apatow told The New York Times in November. “All our energy should be with the victims. What happened to them? How did people handle this? What could we do going forward to support them in a productive way?”
No single person or article can adequately address these questions. We cannot determine whether we can separate artists like Weinstein and C.K. (or Bill Cosby, Woody Allen, Roman Polanski and countless others) from their art in a single go. Yet some are beginning to grapple with these questions in productive and meaningful ways, especially in comedy. On Tuesday, Australian comic Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette, a critically acclaimed show in which the “new voice in comedy… also attacks comedy,” debuted on Netflix. And, frankly, comedy will never be the same — even though Nanette is technically Gadsby’s last hurrah.
“I do think I have to quit comedy,” she declares. “I know it’s probably not the forum to make such an announcement, is it? In the middle of a comedy show.” The subject has dominated many of the interviews she’s given to promote the hour. “I’m quite prepared to step off,” she explained, noting her departure initially began as a stage device before becoming something more. “But wait,” you’re probably thinking. “If she’s quitting, then how is comedy going to change?”
Obviously, the context Nanette finds itself inhabiting is a major factor. Gadsby is a brilliant comedian and storyteller, capable of interweaving both forms into a well-constructed special that was well on its way to global relevance before the NYT and The New Yorker published their Weinstein and C.K. exposés. But the ensuing #MeToo and Time’s Up conversations have raised the platform significantly. Or as NYT comedy critic Jason Zinoman writes, “It was only a matter of time before a stand-up comedian channeled the righteous rage of the current feminist moment.”