Autism Spectrum Diagnosis Helped Comic Hannah Gadsby 'Be Kinder' To Herself Growing up, the comic — known for her Nanette stand-up special — struggled to read social cues. She says her 2016 diagnosis "shifted the way that I understood myself." Her latest special is Douglas.
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Autism Spectrum Diagnosis Helped Comic Hannah Gadsby 'Be Kinder' To Herself

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Autism Spectrum Diagnosis Helped Comic Hannah Gadsby 'Be Kinder' To Herself

Autism Spectrum Diagnosis Helped Comic Hannah Gadsby 'Be Kinder' To Herself

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. After Hannah Gadsby's breakout comedy special called "Nanette" premiered on Netflix in 2018, it won a Peabody Award, an Emmy Award and was described in The New York Times as, quote, "the most-talked-about, written-about, shared-about comedy act in years," unquote. What made the show especially provocative was her vow to give up comedy because she thought the requirements of jokes - setup, punchline, tension, release - were inadequate for describing her life and the anger she felt about how she was abused growing up gay and closeted in Tasmania, which she describes as the Bible Belt of Australia.

Gadsby illustrated her point about comedy by telling a funny story about a guy who thought she was a man hitting on this guy's girlfriend. Later in the set, she retold the story as it really happened. When this guy realized Gadsby was a woman and correctly assumed that she was a lesbian, he beat her badly, and no one stopped him. Here's Gadsby from "Nanette."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "NANETTE")

HANNAH GADSBY: This is why I must quit comedy because the only way I can tell my truth and put tension in the room is with anger. And I am angry. And I believe I've got every right to be angry, but what I don't have a right to do is to spread anger. I don't. Because anger, much like laughter, can connect a roomful of strangers like nothing else. But anger, even if it's connected to laughter, will not relieve tension because anger is a tension. It is a toxic, infectious tension, and it knows no other purpose than to spread blind hatred. And I want no part of it because I take my freedom of speech as a responsibility. And just because I can position myself as a victim does not make my anger constructive. It never is constructive.

Laughter is not our medicine. Stories hold our cure. Laughter is just the honey that sweetens the bitter medicine. I don't want to unite you with laughter or anger. I just needed my story heard, my story felt and understood by individuals with minds of their own.

GROSS: Gadsby did take a break from performing after touring with that show, but she hasn't given up comedy. And now she's back with a new comedy special called "Douglas," named after the first dog she had as an adult. It just started streaming on Netflix. Here's an excerpt from early in the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DOUGLAS")

GADSBY: If you here because of "Nanette," why? Like, don't get me wrong. It was a good show - solid bit of work. I'm quite fond. But it was a particular show of a very particular flavor. And if that is what has brought - what the [expletive] you expecting from this show? 'Cause I'm sorry, if it's more trauma, I'm fresh out. Had I known just how wildly popular trauma was going to be in the context of comedy, I might have budgeted my [expletive] a bit better. Honestly, I could have built quite the career out of it - at least a trilogy - but I went and put all my trauma eggs in one basket like a [expletive] idiot. And now, here we are.

GROSS: Hannah Gadsby, welcome to FRESH AIR.

GADSBY: Thank you.

GROSS: You're welcome. It's a pleasure to have you. So, you know, I guess you didn't give up comedy. I'm glad you did not. Were you surprised by the impact that had at the end of "Nanette" when so many comics in America started wondering, like, should I rethink comedy? Does comedy have limitations I haven't thought of? Were you surprised by all of that?

GADSBY: Look; I was surprised by the positive response all the way through performing it. Like, the first time I performed it, you know, I knew that I was putting something kind of electric out into the audience and sort of built and built and built. And I was just blown away by how positive the response was overall, like, you know, the impact of it. And, you know, I didn't think it would be so successful. I just thought, you know what? I have to say these things, and I'm willing to sacrifice my career for that. I can move on.

So I am surprised that it was so positive. But because it was so positive, it seems only natural that other comedians are going, hmm, perhaps I should rethink. And I think that's healthy. You know, I'm not saying that everyone should change the way they do things, but I think a bit of a shakeup is good.

GROSS: So you do not dwell on trauma in your new Netflix special, but you did talk about how in 2017, you were diagnosed with having autism spectrum disorder, and - another hilarious subject (laughter).

GADSBY: Oh, that was in 2016.

GROSS: 2016, thank you. But you were very positive about it. You say, no, that might sound like it was horrible to get the diagnosis, but it actually gave you a new way of understanding yourself. What are some of the things that made you feel really different that started to make sense after you got the diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder?

GADSBY: I found out, and things started to make sense because it shifted the way that I understood myself. I was always operating on the false premise that everyone saw the world like I did, so I was just getting it wrong. I was getting a lot of things wrong. And the most difficult was my interpersonal sort of life because, you know, on stage, in interviews - good day (laughter) - the boundaries and the rules of engagement are very clear. But once you step out of these things and, you know, you're talking to people, you're building relationships with people at the - there's so much more uncertainty, and I don't read the room nearly as well.

So in many ways, I appear very good at being social, but it's an incredibly exhausting process for me. So when I was diagnosed, it just gave me permission to be kinder to myself and to not always take responsibility for being, you know, a bit clumsy around other people and allowed me to sort of start to tell people, you know, I'm clumsy, but I don't mean to be and being more open about I need you to tell me when I did wrong (laughter), and then we can move on from there. Whereas, you know, I would just get in a lot of trouble from my friends and whatnot for being insensitive. And, you know, and it was kind of a double bind because I'm very sensitive, and I'm very thoughtful, but I miss things that other people sort of go, well, that's - you should just know that.

GROSS: Like what?

GADSBY: Do, you know, I - I'm very blunt, and I'm very honest. So there's that - there is this sort of - it's almost a hack joke where, you know - and the irony is the gendered old bit (ph) where a woman will say to a man, does my bum look big in this? And the man will go, yes. You know, it's an old joke. And I've done that, not the bum thing 'cause, you know, I probably have a larger bum, so I never think anyone's bum is big.

But, you know, I remember an ex-girlfriend's asked me if I liked her new haircut, and I absolutely didn't. And I can't lie, so I said I'm not fond, and that was a week-long recovery mission. And that was before I was diagnosed. And it wasn't even a bad haircut. I (laughter) - I mean, it just was wrong for her face. And I - you know, I studied art history. And I was going on from, you know, that point of view. And, you know, I have bad hair. So I really had no place. And I can undo it in hindsight. But hindsight is not a great gift in the moment.

GROSS: How are you about people being honest with you when they're critical?

GADSBY: Pretty good. I think...

GROSS: As a performer, that's a good skill to have (laughter), a good trait to have.

GADSBY: Well, I mean, I was trained by the best. You know, I don't think I had a particularly sensitive mother. And she always celebrated our successes through the metaphor of our failures. So you know, I was trained well (laughter).

GROSS: Right. So we've been talking about being diagnosed with autism. And I'm wondering if that contributes to how you work as a comic or where you see comedy as a comic. Because when you perceive the world, you have to be able, obviously, to find the comedy in it. So I could see ways in which autism could work on either side of that, as being helpful or not.

GADSBY: It's incredibly helpful in the perspective I have because it's sort of not - you know, I don't see things, obviously, and process it in the same way as, say, a neurotypical person. So there is an off-kilter angle to it. And, you know, my entire life, I've made people laugh. And I've not always meant to. Often, I don't.

You know, yesterday I was walking my dogs. And a couple stopped me from a safe distance and asked me, oh, what kind of dogs are they? And I said, they're Lagottos. And they said, oh. I've never heard of that. And I said, neither have they. And it was the truth. And I wasn't trying to be funny. I was just sort of, you know, well, my dogs haven't heard of their breed either. And I just said it out loud. They laughed a lot. And I had to just sort of backtrack and go over the conversation. Then I go, yeah, that was funny, wasn't it?

So this is (laughter) - so often, I'm sort of travelling down the path of my own logic, which is not always sort of immediately accessible so that it comes across as funny. So I retroactively fill it out. And that's often where my humor comes from. I'm a genuinely serious person. And, you know, people who don't like my comedy are quick to point that out. And I can't argue with them.

GROSS: But I'm going to interrupt you because it sounds like, from what you said, that you sometimes don't even recognize what's funny about what you've said, which sounds like it would make it difficult to put together a comedy set.

GADSBY: But, you know, hindsight is my gift. I'm not unable to see other people's perspective. I just don't see it at the same time they see it. So you know, and I'm getting better as I get older, you know? I have a more complex idea of things. And I have, you know, a more mature ability to engage with other people. So you know, there was a time when I would just assume that I was stupid.

But, you know, now it's sort of like, oh, both can be true. And that's where humor lives, in that sort of mess between possibilities, you know? Both things are true. So in that way, I find it a great advantage. Where my autism is a real disadvantage is the actual lifestyle that you have to lead in order to participate in comedy. It's late night. It's a lot of travel. It's a lot of disruption. I really - I don't just love routine, I need it. I need...

GROSS: Yeah.

GADSBY: ...Routines. And comedy is - (laughter) even though it's literally doing routines. It's...

(LAUGHTER)

GADSBY: It's almost impossible until you're successful. And what "Nanette" did was gave me a level of success where I could take control of my environment and put together a tour on terms that weren't so, I'm going to say, dangerous, you know, puts me in, you know, vulnerable places. And, you know, so I wouldn't perform on the same day as I travel and things like that, you know? So I'm incredibly mindful that, you know, success has given me this sort of power to take control of my environment. I'm not sure I could have lasted much longer. The older I got, the less easy it was for me to navigate.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is comic Hannah Gadsby. And her 2018 Netflix comedy special "Nanette" won a Peabody Award and an Emmy. Now she's back with a new comedy special on Netflix called "Douglas." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE MOUNTAIN GOATS SONG, "PEACOCKS")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Hannah Gadsby. She's a comic who had a breakout comedy special in 2018 called "Nanette" that was on Netflix. And although she said she was giving up comedy at the end of that, she is, thankfully, back with a new comedy special on Netflix called "Douglas."

You know, in "Nanette," you talk about that you didn't want to do self-deprecating humor anymore because when you're a marginalized group and you've grown up in a group where you've been hated and abused that self-deprecating humor isn't humility, it's more like humiliation. I'm curious, if you're willing to share, what some of your self-deprecating humor was like back when you were still doing it.

GADSBY: I used to do a lot of material about my body. So one of them would be sort of, you know, I didn't get a visit from the breast fairy. I got a visit from the thigh fairy, and she had a trigger finger, you know? Like, just little throwaway lines like that and a lot around my body, a lot about - you know, I'd rewrap all the stereotypes about being, you know, a fat, depressed lesbian, you know, and all the things like that. And particularly, about my body is the one I don't make fun of anymore because, like, I have a reasonably healthy body image. So it's not that I want to - I can't laugh at myself, I just think it's unhelpful for a bigger-than-average woman to use her body as, like, a point of mockery because it's so well-established in the world, you know. It's like, of course your body is a joke. And it's not. My body's been through a lot of trauma. My body is a strong unit. And so I've just decided to go, you know what? I'm not going to do that anymore.

GROSS: Let's talk about growing up in Tasmania. So homosexuality was illegal until 1997. How old were you when that law was overturned?

GADSBY: That's - I have to do the math. (Laughter) I was born in '78. What does that make, 17? No, 19. Gosh, my dad was a math teacher (laughter).

GROSS: Nineteen, OK. So was that law actually enforced? Like, were people fined or put in jail if they were gay, if they were caught, like, in a gay bar or something? I guess there weren't gay bars in Tasmania if it was illegal.

GADSBY: Not really. Like, the action of the - like, it became a thing when people tried to change the law. And so there was, like, a 10-year debate around it. So that became this sort of flashpoint. I think before that, it was basically, don't tell anyone, then it's fine. But it also meant - it was permission for violence.

GROSS: I was thinking of that because you were - you know, you were beaten. You were raped. You were sexually abused. And I was wondering if the men who did that to you felt entitled to harm you because your sexuality made you a criminal, and your religion made you a sinner.

GADSBY: No. Well, it wasn't my religion. And I think that's more to do with misogyny than, like, anything else. Like, I think that's just, you know, men having ownership over women's bodies more than anything. The being beaten, you know, certainly was because that was at the height of the, you know, debate. So the debate was being pushed into the media. And, you know, that's what happens when there's a - there's these things that happen. You know, the media tends to amplify the most extreme voices. And so what people don't see is the ramification of that on the ground. And I saw it firsthand.

GROSS: So you think the debate was empowering people to be violent...

GADSBY: Absolutely.

GROSS: ...To be cruel?

GADSBY: Absolutely. Absolutely. And you see that happen - play out in any of these kinds of debates, you know?

GROSS: Yeah, yeah. Do you think that if neighbors knew that you were a lesbian that they might have, like, turned you in to the police or something?

GADSBY: No, no.

GROSS: Like, did it ever get to that point where people thought, like...

GADSBY: No.

GROSS: ...This is illegal, and I have to take action against it?

GADSBY: Well, first of all, the law pertained to sodomy. So being a lesbian...

GROSS: OK. So - right (laughter).

GADSBY: ...Was just a complete invisibility. Like, we don't even exist.

GROSS: Yes. Right. Right.

GADSBY: But you couldn't be out and proud by any stretch. But no, the - generally it was about, you know, gay men. And...

GROSS: And did you have friends who were gay men who were more...

GADSBY: No, I didn't have any friends.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Do you mean that literally?

GADSBY: Yeah.

GROSS: Oh.

GADSBY: I mean, I had an - my elderly - I had neighbors. My best friends when I was growing up were my elderly, next-door neighbors. And I used to go over to their house every day after school and have a cup of tea and a biscuit and a bit of quiet time, because I was the youngest of quite a large family and it was very loud. And school was a lot for me. And so I'd just go over. And we'd just sit and have a quiet chat and a nap. And I'd get a bit of quiet. And they were my best friends.

But, you know, they were sort of on the brethren branch of religion. So it was all fire and brimstone. So there was always this - you know, the older I got - this sort of anxiety about that. So it was never on the surface. But there was this increasing anxiety. You know, I adored this couple. And they meant the world to me. But as I got older, it was like, I can't share that. So you begin to cleave off these large parts of your emotional landscape and reality from the people you spend the most time with. And that's the real painful thing.

GROSS: Yeah, because it was probably like, not only can't I share this, but if they only knew, they might not be so nice to me.

GADSBY: Yeah. And you can't share it in that vulnerable time when you're like, I'm trying to work something out about myself. And, you know, so you're left on your own at a time in your life when, really, you need to be guided by adults.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is comic Hannah Gadsby. And her follow-up to her really popular Netflix special "Nanette" is now streaming on Netflix. It's called "Douglas." And it's named after the first dog she had as an adult. We'll talk more after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is comic Hannah Gadsby. And although she vowed to give up comedy in her previous Netflix special "Nanette," fortunately she's back with a new comedy special, which is called "Douglas." And her first comedy special, "Nanette," was in part about growing up in Tasmania, which she describes as the Bible Belt of Australia. And she was growing up gay in not only an area where other people who were gay were not out, so she had no one to talk to about that, but also, it was illegal to be homosexual until 1997.

You know, you said that you came from a really large, loud family. And I'm thinking, wow, you're, like, so sensitive to loud noise. It must have been hard.

GADSBY: Yeah. But I used to spend a lot of time under the hedge (laughter). The beauty of being in a large family for someone on the spectrum, though, is the sense of place, a sense of belonging and a sense of community is automatic. So in many ways, I was in an advantage because I never had to - I had fully formed relationships structures, you know? I had more difficulty once I went out in the world. But, you know, in a family, you have these things.

And so the - yeah, there was, you know, noise and chaos. But there's also - you know, when you have a large family, there's routine by necessity and structure by necessity to wrangle so many kids. And we're in a small town, so there wasn't much flux in our existence. And so there was a lot of advantages to it, and it was of a time when a kid could just leave the house and be a bit feral (laughter), just sort of, you know, spend time outside and talk to myself and you know what. So I was able to negotiate that.

GROSS: You were homeless for a while. What period of your life was that, and why were you homeless?

GADSBY: Once I finished my degree - it was a three-year degree that took me five years (laughter) - I didn't know what to do then. Once I left the beats that you supposed to hit, you know, and then they're like, OK, you're off into the world, I was unable to navigate that without any sort of external structures and scaffolding as I like to say. You know, I struggled to fill in forms. I've never been able to apply for a job in the traditional form. I've always just picked up sort of casual entry-level work. And, you know, the older you get, the less easy that is. You know, when you pop your resume into a place, and they're like, why are you so old and have done so little?

So I sort of began to drift really badly. You know, I worked in a bookshop for a little while, and then I was a cinema projectionist. And then I travelled up to the north of Australia. I was going to work at an outdoor cinema because I, you know, I had an actual skill that is no longer an actual skill, but at the time - and from there, I found I couldn't actually hold down a job. I was unable to, you know, earn enough money and also navigate just the basic administration of life. I look back on that time, I feel quite sad. It's like I didn't understand that I genuinely needed help. I needed assistance.

GROSS: Do you attribute that to autism?

GADSBY: Yeah. And so I became a farm laborer, and I lived in, you know, a tent. And then, you know, basically no fixed address for a couple of years.

GROSS: Were you sleeping on the street at all?

GADSBY: Well, no, because I was in the country. So there's no need to be on the street. I had a tent (laughter). And, you know, and then I'd drift in and, you know, work on farms. And then - but I had no safety net. I had no backup. And, I mean, I certainly slept rough, but it was just not on a street. I'm taking that really literally...

GROSS: Right.

GADSBY: ...That, you know, did you sleep on the streets. And I'm like, yes, I guess. But basically, I just - you know...

GROSS: There weren't a lot of streets is what you're saying (laughter).

GADSBY: Yeah. I walked out of town and found a nice spot and pitched a tent and...

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah. So you had no safety net. What - did you have any safety sleeping like that?

GADSBY: No. No, I guess not. No. No capacity...

GROSS: Were you ever, you know, like, robbed or attacked while you were homeless?

GADSBY: Not - I guess I was, but not, you know, because someone broke into my tent. It's - you know, as - you know, at one stage, I sort of drifted into this sort of communal living situation that turned bad.

GROSS: That turned bad?

GADSBY: Yeah.

GROSS: What happened?

GADSBY: That's - it's where I was raped.

GROSS: Oh. That's turning really bad.

GADSBY: Yeah. That wasn't great.

GROSS: Yeah. Did you leave that that community afterwards, that living situation?

GADSBY: No. I had nowhere to go.

GROSS: Well, that's so awful that you had to stay.

GADSBY: Well, that's the reality of no choice, isn't it?

GROSS: That is - yeah, that's really awful. Did the other people know?

GADSBY: It's always hard to say. You know, people are really incredible at not acknowledging things to the point where they forget that they knew.

GROSS: Wow. I can kind of see the impulse here to stand on stage and say, this happened. This happened. Like, acknowledge it. It happened.

GADSBY: Yeah.

GROSS: What future did you see for yourself then when you you're living in a tent and you had no steady job? You didn't think you could hold one.

GADSBY: I didn't see a future at all. And that's trauma. You're absolutely incapable of imagining a future, incapable of understanding what a dream is.

GROSS: But, you know, you're obviously - you're, like, very smart and very perceptive and very articulate. Could you comprehend why somebody who was as smart as you were and as knowledgeable - art history degree - would feel like you had so little future in front of you, so few options, so few opportunities?

GADSBY: Yeah, that was very - always very confusing to me. I didn't understand how I got at all so, so wrong. I do - and, you know, this is part of the autism situation that until I was diagnosed, I could never look back on that part of my life and make complete sense of it. I still struggle. And that's a - that is also an effect of trauma. There's no straight line through trauma.

GROSS: So how old were you when you were diagnosed?

GADSBY: I'm terrible at the math situation. 36, I - 36.

GROSS: That's a long time not to understand what was going on, you know, neurologically for you.

GADSBY: Yeah. Yeah, it is (laughter).

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is comic Hannah Gadsby, and her follow-up to "Nanette" has just been released on Netflix. And it's called "Douglas." It's her second Netflix comedy special. The first won a Peabody Award and an Emmy. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF NAOMI MOON SIEGEL'S "IT'S NOT SAFE")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Hannah Gadsby. She's a comic whose first comedy special on Netflix, "Nanette," was described in The New York Times as the most talked about comedy act in years. And she vowed to give up comedy in that special, but now happily she's back with a new comedy special, which is called "Douglas" and just started streaming on Netflix.

So you were an art history major. I assume that means that you really, you know, love painting. And, you know, art has a central place in both of your standup specials in different ways. And, you know, you talked about how, like, the - like, the gay pride flag is, like, annoying to you because it's too - it's just, like, too much color. What was it like for you as an art history major?

GADSBY: Oh, I loved art history. That gets - it was such a - it's such a perfect way for my brain to learn about the world and understand the world. Like, I get there eventually with reading and comprehension, but I'm slow. I'm really, really slow but thorough. But with images, I seem to get so much. I seem to be able to process an image at a speed and a depth and a nuance that I can't with language. And so studying art history was just a really powerful way for me to begin to piece together the puzzle of the world.

GROSS: What made you think that you could perform comedy? Did people say that you were funny? Did you think of yourself as funny?

GADSBY: I knew how to be funny. I knew how to tell a story. And the way I'd learned to tell a story was to - I'd really built this skill to evade the reality of my life and just tell a funny story about a moment, you know? So here's a funny thing that happened, and then I didn't have to tell people about the actual reality of my life.

And essentially, I entered a comedy competition, and it was on a whim. It wasn't this sort of thing, you know, I'd been hoping to do. I did a lot of things on a whim. Like, oh, I'll try this thing. I'll try that thing. And there was no reason to expect comedy was going to end any better or worse than all the other, you know, failed attempts at my grasp at life. And this is a national competition that was held by the Melbourne Comedy Festival, the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. And they run hates (ph) all around Australia. They go into regional towns and, you know, hold these competitions. It's actually a really wonderful program because it doesn't dwell on just sort of the cities. It really does go into regional places.

And so then, you know, as soon as I sort of told my first, you know, joke - which isn't technically a joke; it was just a few words I strung together - I think it was the combination of, you know, just me being this completely strange creature up on stage that just really made people engage with me. And I'd hold the audience in my hand. I didn't know what to do with them, but I knew that I had them in my hand. So it was clear from the very first time I stood on stage - now, I'd never held a microphone before. I'd never been a performer. I'd never even been to a comedy show. But all of a sudden, I kind of knew what I was doing.

GROSS: So what was it like when you were first on stage and realized that you had the power to make people laugh or to make them think or feel moved by what you were saying, that you could get the response that you wanted to get?

GADSBY: It felt like I was connected to the world for the first time. I'd always felt like there was a disconnect between me and the rest of the world. Like, you know, and this is kind of a common experience with people on the spectrum. You sort of feel like an alien being dropped in from outer space, and you can't quite connect properly. And being onstage and making a roomful of people, you know, laugh felt like a connection I hadn't been able to establish in any other environment.

GROSS: So comedy was a great home for you. You could tell stories. You had an audience. You didn't have to have conversations with the audience. But I bet eventually, you had hecklers because every comic has hecklers. How did you deal with hecklers?

GADSBY: I'm not very good at being thrown. You know, I don't like disruption to routine (laughter). In the early days of "Nanette," I did get really, really terrible heckles on the rare occasion from men who couldn't sit in their own discomfort. You know, there were a few times when I would be heckled in very vulnerable moments of that show, but that's what also made it so dangerous to perform because, you know, I make the audience sit in these incredibly painful moments. But if people were to break out of those moments, it was a truly dangerous place for me. And when that did happen, you know, I didn't react well.

GROSS: I want to get back to how you find loud noise - sudden noise upsetting. What about the sound of applause? What about the sound of, like, thunderous applause and cheers at the end of one of your shows?

GADSBY: There's something - this is, you know, depends on the acoustic of the room. I don't like performing in, you know, say, a rock venue where there's - it's a shell of a room that they then put chairs in, and those chairs can scrape, and there's an echo to it. Applause sounds really different in those places, and it's sharper. I find that really kind of distressing. But in a theater, where there's a lot more sort of carpet (laughter), applause is, you know, that sort of - it's like rain. It feels good. You know, it really does depend on the acoustics of the room.

I don't like people - sometimes people will whistle, and I hate that. I understand the impulse is positive, so I try and temper my response. But, you know, like a - you know, if I'm able to contextualize a noise, it's much easier for me to process it and deal with it. So, say, if there's a siren, if I can't see what's making the siren for some reason, it's more painful than if I'm eyeballing, you know, the ambulance as it goes past. So if I'm doing my job correctly on stage, I feel more like a conductor of the noise.

GROSS: Right.

GADSBY: I have more control. If I'm not doing it, then, you know, if the crowd's not, you know, sort of responding, then it's a little more chaotic.

GROSS: Yeah. You'd be the first comic to stand on stage saying, like, quiet down; don't applaud so loudly (laughter).

GADSBY: I have done that.

GROSS: Stop cheering me. Have you really?

(LAUGHTER)

GADSBY: Yeah.

GROSS: What response - did you get a very confused response to that?

GADSBY: You have to be really careful 'cause the audience is like, well, do you not want us to like you? It's just, generally, when an individual breaks out. So it's like positive heckling. And I respond to positive heckling the same way as I respond to negative heckling. So it's not even the content of what the heckle is; it's just the disruption that it causes. So I'll get some guy, you know - you know, I love you. And I'm like, no, you don't. You've never met me. Quiet. Shush, you know. And this is like...

GROSS: (Laughter) Do you say that or think that?

GADSBY: No, I say it. I think people find that funny because it's sort of a genuine response.

GROSS: Right. Right.

GADSBY: And it's also true. You can't love me. They've never met me. Not - they like the idea of me. And good on them.

GROSS: Considering everything we've talked about, you must be really surprised by your success. You had so - you really had so many years of failure and trauma. You know, honestly, it's kind of overwhelming.

GADSBY: Yeah. You know, I do feel like sometimes, when you hear a successful person sort of going, oh, this is a surprise, you're like, yeah, but you worked your whole life toward this, so there's something. You know, like Taylor Swift, I'm not convinced that she's surprised (laughter). It's like - but I am genuinely like, I can't actually process it. I've just bought my first home. Like, I own a home. And for someone who's been homeless, this is - it just - I can't believe it.

GROSS: It's been great to talk with you, Hannah. Thank you so much.

GADSBY: My pleasure.

GROSS: Hannah Gadsby's new comedy special, "Douglas," is now streaming on Netflix. She spoke to us from her home in Australia.

After we take a short break, Maureen Corrigan will review the new comic road novel "St. Christopher On Pluto" by Nancy McKinley. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BENJI MERRISON AND WILL SLATER'S "BETWEEN FEEDS/AMOROUS PEACOCK")

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