“I was shamed by a world that didnt see me. . . . Your shame was public property,” comedian Hannah Gadsby told Monica Lewinsky during a captivating conversation at the Vanity Fair New Establishment Summit on Tuesday.
Gadsby grew up in a small town on the island of Tasmania, and burst into American consciousness with a huge clatter in June when her magnificent, self-deconstructing stand-up special Nanette dropped on Netflix, and then again when she slayed the crowd with her sly delivery at this years Emmy Awards. Lewinsky involuntarily became a household name 20 years ago, thanks to the attentions of President Bill Clinton and then independent counsel Kenneth Starr.
Yet they have a surprising amount in common: both women have learned to live with shame, and then to turn it into fuel. In Nanette, Gadsby critiqued the culture that made a punch line of Lewinsky for so many years. “Perhaps if comedians had done their job properly and made fun of the man who abused his power, then perhaps we might have a middle-aged woman with an appropriate amount of experience in the White House—instead of, as we do, a man who openly admitted to sexually assaulting vulnerable young women because he could!” Gadsby said in her act, a clip of which Lewinsky played for the audience.
Sitting onstage a few feet apart the comedian, Lewinsky admitted that when she saw Gadsby in Nanette, “I have never gone to a stand-up comedy show and bawled my eyes out. . . . And knowing my history, that was surprising,” Lewinsky quipped, proving that she can throw a punch line as well as take them. She said that in the wake of Nanette, shes seen lots of people “referencing their regret” at having mocked her.
Gadsby said talking about Lewinsky in her act “was a genuine attempt to extend an apology from an art form that profited off hurting you.” It connected to Gadsbys critique of comedians who wring cheap laughs by punching down on others, or using traumatic experiences like rape as a shock tactic. “As soon as you make people tense, its easy to make people laugh,” Gadsby said, adding that laughter at rape jokes skitters over “unacknowledged damage it causes in our communities. . . . I happen to believe that just because an audience laughs doesnt mean its funny.”
In Nanette she told a story of a physical assault in two separate ways: as a self-deprecating joke, and as a horrifying trauma. “I was raised to believe that I was less than the person who beat me up,” she told Lewinsky. “[He and I] were both infected by the same story. We were both damaged by that. He was let down as well. He was taught that his hate was justified.”
Gadsby said it was important to her to create a story for her act that could hold her trauma. “When the world you live in shares your pain, you feel safe,” she said. Her new approach represents her determination to create a more humane kind of stand-up comedy, one that makes invisible people feel seen and finds new ways to talk about experiences beyond the cheap laughs.
In a lighter moment in the conversation, Lewinsky asked Gadsby if she would be willing to host S.N.L., as a way of doing more light comedic work. “Its not a real question, because I wont be asked,” Gadsby responded quickly. “Theyre not fans of my work. . . . Plus, Im too slow for network television. Its O.K., well cope.” (Maybe she was referring to this?)
At one point in the conversation, Lewinsky coined the phrase “Hannah Hangover”: “For at least a week after I saw your show, I would find myself zoning out, reliving this moment of transformation you created onstage.”
Get Vanity Fairs HWD NewsletterSign up for essential industry and award news from Hollywood.Joy PressJoy Press is a T.V. Correspondent for Vanity Fair. Her book, Stealing the Show: How Women Are Revolutionizing Television, was released in February.