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Why Genderqueer Comics Can’t Quit Netflix

A champion of complex comedic discourse and honest-to-God nuance, Hannah Gadsby both holds back and comes out swinging in their self-facilitated “Gender Agenda.”

The Australian comedian, now on their fourth stand-up special for Netflix, plays it mostly cool in the cheekily named genderqueer showcase — which started streaming on the platform Tuesday, March 5. It’s a consistently strong hour introducing seven less known queer and genderqueer performers from across the globe. Jes Tom, Chloe Petts, Asha Ward, DeAnne Smith, Mx. Dahlia Belle, Krishna Istha, and the mononymous ALOK appear at London’s Alexandra Palace in that order.

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Kept to roughly seven minutes each, the sharp and sensitive lineup explores everything from using they/them pronouns and attending straight weddings to seeking gender-affirming care and hooking up while taking hormones. It’s a potentially life-changing opportunity for both the comedians (only some of whom have been on Netflix before now) and curious subscribers, who are witnessing essential LGBTQ representation at an unprecedented scale.

With more than 350 specials and an annual comedy festival to its name, Netflix has spent the past decade-plus becoming the world’s biggest stage in stand-up. Gadsby has no trouble mustering the mega-watt enthusiasm needed to honor the importance of bringing these fresh voices to that far-reaching podium. But the host’s delivery is different from their past solo specials — flatter, more matter of fact, and just a touch sad.

The latest launching pad for LGBTQ talent in streaming comes less than a year after “Something Special”: Gadsby’s feel-good solo hour about being nonbinary and autistic while falling in love and getting engaged. A departure from the emotional “Nanette” and headier “Douglas,” that happy-go-lucky offering was notable in part because Gadsby did not mention Dave Chappelle’s transphobic “The Closer” — or the PR disaster Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos caused in the wake of its release.

“The last time Netflix brought this many trans people together it was for a protest,” Gadsby quips at the start of “Gender Agenda.” “[That] is kind of why we’re here. There is a foundation myth to this evening.”

Chapelle’s disgustingly hateful hour from 2021 (the specifics of which you can seek out on your own time), “The Closer” earned enough public derision to not just piss off LGBTQ viewers but to also inspire a walkout among Netflix employees. Queer workers and their allies took issue with Sarandos platforming Chappelle’s anti-trans rhetoric while supposedly advocating for genderqueer rights in other areas. The CEO made matters worse by citing Gadsby’s work and other LGBTQ Netflix titles in a public defense of the routinely hypocritical company, effectively forcing Gadsby into the line of transphobic fire.

“Netflix is a family,” they joke in “Gender Agenda.” “And like most families, they don’t really like their queer kids.”

Sarandos’ phenomenal misstep led Gadsby to pen an outraged Instagram post that resolutely told the CEO and his “amoral algorithm cult” to fuck off — colorfully lambasting him for an outrageous lack of backbone. The millionaire businessman doubled down and later apologized, before private negotiations somehow resulted in both Gadsby and Chappelle agreeing to make more content at Netflix.

(Clockwise from bottom left): Mx. Dahlia Belle, ALOK, Chloe Petts, and DeAnne Smith
(Clockwise from bottom left): Mx. Dahlia Belle, ALOK, Chloe Petts, and DeAnne Smith

The glasses that have framed Gadsby’s punctilious intelligence since their breakout “Nanette” in 2018 are replaced with contacts in “Gender Agenda.” And instead of wearing a suit or a button-up, Gadsby dons a pull-over sweater covered in multi-colored ghosts. It’s a sly styling choice, one that seems to have the host quietly telling the audience, “I’m glad you’re here. And I’m glad they’re here. But I’m not. Not really.”

Don’t be mistaken: Gadsby is fiery and fiendishly funny as the hour’s centerpiece — with a pantomimed bit about a dancing shit paving the way for an all-around strong show. We’re treated to a whirlwind consideration of progressive topics by the performers with Gadsby’s seven comics deftly discussing school boards banning books, the inherently gendered nature of sexting, walking your semi-aggressive dog while smoking weed, photographing your boobs before top surgery, and more. It’s a strategic pivot for Gadsby: a microcosm of the “they go low, we go high” debate that smartly lets its star land somewhere in the middle.

Gadsby and Chappelle’s ongoing beef manifests differently in “Something Special” and “Gender Agenda.”  In their solo show from last year, Gadsby argued they were diffusing a bad faith situation by not addressing Chappelle’s controversial remarks or their aftermath during that hour. But “Gender Agenda” sees them take on the heat of that reality from the start — dismissing Chapelle as one of Netflix’s “pet edgelords” before expounding on the infuriating situation with Sarandos.

Dissecting the controversy, Instagram post an all, Gadsby effectively bolsters the credibility of “Gender Agenda” as a critical project that might otherwise be perceived as a compromising of their values. For months, critics have pointlessly speculated about how much money it took to keep Gadsby at Netflix — and they tend to toss around the phrase “sell out” with wild thoughtlessness. But Gadsby endured endless public scrutiny from right-wingers to secure and expand their genderqueer presence at Netflix. Frustrating though compromises may be, that’s essential to staying in the game.

“It won’t fix it, it’s not enough,” Gadsby admits in their opening set. “You don’t raze the Amazon and plant a tree. This is just the carbon off-set show.”

Fresh harm is still coming from Chappelle too. “The Dreamer,” Chappelle’s seventh special for Netflix, began streaming on New Year’s Eve 2023 (a strategic mid-holiday release, maybe?) and starts with a series of anti-trans jokes referencing “The Closer” controversy. That bit soon dovetails into a pointedly tasteless run about the differently abled before Chappelle brags, “I love punching down.”

(Left to right): Krishna Istha, Asha Ward, and Jes Tom
(Left to right): Krishna Istha, Asha Ward, and Jes Tom

“Gender Agenda” was filmed last October, so there’s a limited chance anything in “The Dreamer” impacted what Gadsby decided to say on their stage. But there’s a stark difference in how the two comedians — who, as far as the public is aware, have not and will not meet privately — are approaching the battle for political dominance at Netflix.

Chappelle tees up “The Dreamer” with a story reminding audiences about his disgraced role as one of comedy’s favorite regular guys. A husband and father, he tells us he sometimes smokes weed with his son. Then, Chappelle pivots into a name-dropping celebrity story that seems to exist solely to remind us of the celebrity privilege he will always enjoy thanks to people like Sarandos. (For context, Chappelle whines about meeting Jim Carrey while he was working method on the Andy Kaufman biopic “Man on the Moon,” before getting to the anti-trans jokes that trigger one of the worst hours of his career.)

Alternatively, Gadsby uses “Gender Agenda” to step away from the spotlight and expand their impact by propping up other genderqueer comedians. Between “The Closer” backlash (and an unrelated debacle involving a show Gadsby put on at the Brooklyn Museum last year), there’s no question the comedic genius has enough new life material to begin work on another solo show. But, as a matter of pure math, it makes more sense to increase the number of LGBTQ voices appearing on the Netflix carousel than to keep centering Gadsby. That’s particularly true because Sarandos’ stance isn’t changing.

“I think comedy is one of these places where you should have a pretty open playground to figure out ideas, and ideas have to live through conversation,” Sarandos said during a recent appearance on David Spade and Dana Carvey’s podcast “Fly on the Wall” (h/t Decider).

“That’s why we have so much to watch on Netflix, because tastes are really diverse, and certainly within comedy,” he continued. “The point I was trying to make when people got angry was the idea that if you don’t like that idea, switch it and find another one. Find one you do like.”

BEVERLY HILLS, CALIFORNIA - JANUARY 07: (L-R) Dave Chappelle and Ted Sarandos, Co-CEO of Netflix, attend Netflix's 2024 Golden Globe After Party at Spago on January 07, 2024 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Charley Gallay/Getty Images for Netflix)
(Left to right): Dave Chappelle and Ted SarandosGetty Images for Netflix

Sarandos may not be a great judge of quality, but he at least knows quantity — and Netflix does have a lot of different comic voices to offer. If you’re into stand-up at all, then you’ve likely heard the name Taylor Tomlinson mentioned a lot this year. The late-night host just took over the hour after “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” at CBS and released her third solo hour, “Have It All,” for Netflix on February 13. Yes, that dropped right between “The Dreamer” and “Gender Agenda.”

With Tomlinson’s meteoric rise seemingly set to rival Amy Schumer’s emergence out of Comedy Central from 2010, it’s worth noting that Tomlinson first appeared on Netflix as part of a multi-comedian showcase. She did a 15-minute set for “The Comedy Lineup” in 2018 — and, in “Have It All,” she questions if she’s bisexual.

A white cis woman (who discusses that privilege sensitively and frequently in her work), Tomlinson may be an easier sell for network audiences than many LGBTQ comedians. But even still, shockingly few women have been allowed to take over major comedy desks for networks. Tomlinson’s career trajectory coming out of a Netflix showcase is promising for other competitors in the space — and there is plenty of extraordinary talent for Hollywood to consider on display in “Gender Agenda.” That all seems to suggest that Gadsby was right to hold onto their claim over the Netflix mic, if only so they could hand off its power with more intentionality.

“When we were putting this evening together, it was very important to me to really get a wide spectrum of voices on stage,” Gadsby says in the special, while introducing Krishna Istha, the greenest of the “Gender Agenda” comics.

“Not just gender, but also geography and tone and experience. I really wanted to give an opportunity to a new performer. Because when you’re genderqueer in the comedy world, stage time is not always safe time.”

“Hannah Gadsby’s Gender Agenda” is now streaming on Netflix.

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