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‘We’re all learning’: why Netflix needs Hannah Gadsby’s Gender Agenda

<span>Photograph: Jess Gleeson/AP</span>
Photograph: Jess Gleeson/AP

When Dave Chappelle released his Netflix special The Closer, widely condemned for its transphobia, fellow standup Hannah Gadsby was among the protesters, describing the streamer as an “amoral algorithm cult” in an open letter to its CEO, Ted Sarandos. Now comes Netflix’s “carbon offset show”, as Gadsby drolly calls it: a mixed bill featuring the Nanette star and their curated lineup of “gender diverse” standups. It is being recorded on Saturday; the Soho theatre gig I attended earlier this week was a warmup.

It’s a curious confection in some ways. There is no shortage of queer comedy nights already operating, the LOL Word prominent among them. Broadcast an event like that and we’d all get a sense of a thriving and supportive comedy community. We don’t necessarily get that sense from Gadsby’s night because the acts are selected from both sides of the Atlantic and beyond, and because Gadsby seems barely to know some of them. The night was going to be called “Hannah Gadsby and friends,” the 45-year-old jokes – but that would have been stretching a point.

That’s partly a crack at the expense of Gadsby’s lethargy and social unease, which become running jokes as the comic strains for the positivity required of a compere. They get away with it because there’s enough high-quality standup on show that we don’t need additional hype. And because sometimes Gadsby’s taciturnity feels – and they know it – like a tart commentary on what we’ve just watched. On a diverse bill, there’s a place for US comic Dahlia Bell’s genitally fixated routine, but you’d think the overlap with Gadsby’s sense of humour must be minimal. Cue Gadsby, returning to the mic, eyebrow arched: “We’re all learning!”

There’s no doubt that platforming these acts on Netflix is a valuable response to the Chappelle episode. Thriving queer comedy scenes here and there are one thing; a global screen profile for these comics is quite another. And the initiative also includes a mentorship scheme for the comics involved. On stage, none of the acts waste much breath addressing transphobia. The show is a celebration of the queering of gender; of the possibilities and insights that open up when binaries are discarded and assumptions dismantled.

At its best, that can be great for comedy, an art form which is all about seeing things from surprising new angles. Acts such as Chloe Petts and the Asian American standup Jes Tom – both on great form here – position themselves as changelings, or secret agents shuttling between the traditional genders and sexual identities, relaying insider information both ways. Purring and self-delighted, Alok wants little to do with either binary, but has wicked fun picking holes in the threatened masculinity of their macho abusers.

As per the old Jewish joke “ask two Jews, get three opinions”, there’s room on this seven-strong bill (plus Gadsby) for at least that many different perspectives on gender – including some impish scepticism from Canadian comic DeAnne Smith, who complains about “getting they/them’d against my will since 2005”. The most experienced act on the bill, Smith could also be its breakout star with this set. They are very funny on the consequences of their breast-removal surgery, and strike a resonant note when they argue that “understanding everything is overrated”. Perhaps in these times of fast change, we could all accept with a little more grace that “we’re all learning”, and understanding will come when it comes. That’s a cause to which this special, when it arrives on Netflix, could usefully contribute.

• Hannah Gadsby Presents: A Gender Agenda is at Alexandra Palace, London, on 14 October