Review: Hannah Gadsby’s ‘Douglas’ at the Kennedy Center

You know that Hannah Gadsby’s new show, Douglas is different from anything you’ve seen before, even before you enter the theatre, when the ushers inform you that your cell phone must be placed inside a magnetic bag that the staff will unlock at the end of the show. Hannah Gadsby doesn’t allow electronic devices in her shows, so she sacks them. That’s how this pioneer in feminist comedy works. There are no rules other than her rules. 

Hannah Gadsby. Photo courtesy of the Kennedy Center.

Catapulted off of her wildly successful Netflix debut, entitled Nanette, Gadsby opens the show by explaining that the current title is named for her dog, Douglas, a name she chose and yet doesn’t like. Nanette hit a mass audience between the eyes with its comedy/rants against the patriarchy, admission of sexual assault, and severe depression. Douglas, she explains, is not going to be the same show as Nanette, and she proceeds to tell the audience exactly what to expect for her entire show. She spends 15 minutes telling the audience what she will do in the show, which in itself is a mini comedy special. Topics include but are not limited to the odd rules of American language, Renaissance art, autism (with which the comedian was diagnosed as an adult), and an absolutely hilarious bit about the unnecessary lie she told someone at a dog park about why she named her dog Douglas. To give away that punchline would be criminal. 

Douglas is thematic, as was Nanette, and this theme is the patriarchy and misogyny. Barrel of laughs, you’re thinking? Actually, yes, but more than laughs. Gadsby has a unique take on the world that one cannot learn in any school of comedy, and her autism diagnosis may actually be the key to her comic genius. She laments social norms that befuddle her, and unapologetically complains about small talk and bland people, blaming the latter for being so uninteresting.

Gadsby has a way of packaging a joke with the staccato brilliance of Robin Williams, planned yet unplanned, and with an understanding of the idiocy of humanity that will make everyone in the audience nod with a solid “that is SO true” flair. Gadsby can rail against anyone and everyone and remain chronically likeable by tucking self deprecation into a brutally honest diatribe like a nice blue shirt – the only color Gadsby will wear. 

It wouldn’t be a Hannah Gadsby production without a lengthy explanation of how oppressive it is to live as a hated person. She talks about taking a bite out of hate with a “nomnomnom” because, as she says, “the gap between me and the rest of the world is hate, so if I can’t cross over hate, I have to isolate from the rest of the world.” She staunchly refuses to ignore haters, instead embracing them for fueling her fire and teaching her more about humanity, and lack thereof, in society. Her relishment of being hated is the anti-millennial, with the trophies for participation, so no one feels hurt. Gadbsy explores the relationship between hate and empowerment, greeting hate without embracing it.  Her ability to playfully turn it on its head and greet it with a kind yet critical eye leaves the audience both stronger and more tender.

Gadsby’s finest moment comes in the form of comedy through the eyes of a woman. Her contention is that comedy was labeled a certain way by men, so any deviation from that format is “wrong.” Her empowered speech about women creating their own rules about their comedy drew rapt applause from the audience both for its verity and bluntness. Gadsby beautifully takes up the baton in Douglas and continues the run she began in Nanette, with grace, dignity, and a style beyond compare.

Gadsby’s feminist rants will not appeal to all, and those with an aversion to foul language need not apply. But if you want to spend a 90-minute evening watching a brilliant mind unfold itself before your eyes, see Hannah Gadsby’s Douglas, be it in the DC area or beyond. 

Running Time:  90 minutes with no intermission 

Hannah Gadsby – Douglas plays through Thursday, June 27, 2019 at the Eisenhower Theatre at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets and information, call (202) 467-4600 or go online