She starts the day with English Breakfast, moves to Earl Grey by afternoon, then peppermint after dinner. There’s always a pot of green tea on the go, which she tops up throughout the day. It’s been a comforting daily ritual she’s participated in since her childhood growing up in a family of five children in Smithton, Tasmania. She would duck next door to her elderly neighbours for after-school afternoon tea. They were not related but she called them Nan and Pop, and it’s Nan’s scone recipe, a Stephanie Alexander derivative, marked indeliby on her brain, like the tattoo on her left arm (St. Sebastian as a woman by French artist Louise Bourgeois).
“I would help Nan make scones on a regular basis, I loved the peace and quiet and chance to escape from my big rowdy family,” she says, rugged up in a purple turtleneck jumper, with matching beanie and glasses.
Joining us is Douglas, for whom the next show is named, the elder of her two Lagotto Romagnolo dogs. Jasper the other dog traipses in and out, as does a minder from Netflix. Michael, Medusa and Figaro lurk in the background. Gadsby, a keen gardener with a green thumb, nurtures her indoor plants by naming them, talking to them, dusting them and never overwatering them. She’s listened to the bestselling book The Hidden Life of Trees, by German forester Peter Wohlleben maybe 20 or 30 times. As a child she struggled to learn to read; she still does, so she listens to audiobooks and likes the comforting sound of the narrator’s voice explaining what trees feel and how they communicate.
The 42-year-old comedian had just moved to her new rural retreat on Friday, March 13, when she hopped off the plane from Los Angeles. She went straight into self-isolation – “it’s what I do anyway” – and busied herself unpacking, and planting some winter vegetables: broad beans, broccoli and cauliflower. “Gardening is grounding,” she finds; she once made a living planting vegetables.
She did BYO toilet paper for this homecoming, pilfering some from LA. Which was lucky as it took her three weeks to locate some in her new home town’s hardware store: “Welcome to the country,” she thought. Right now, she was meant to be touring her show, this week staying in the Airbnb she usually rents in Silver Lake, a hipster suburb to the east of Hollywood for the Netflix launch of Douglas.
Instead she finds herself facing the prospect of her first Australian winter for 15 years. “I like being back here, particularly after travelling so much. In the past two years I wouldn’t have spent more than six weeks at home,” she says. Fortunately for Douglas and Jasper, she has a dog sharing arrangement with a close friend in Melbourne. For now she’s living pretty much like the rest of us in the corona-cocoon: baking and binge-watching Netflix (other shows, not her own).
“I have never worked out how to set up my terrestrial TV here so if there was no streaming service I wouldn’t have a job and I couldn’t watch TV. Thank God for Netflix really, they saved my life.”
She’s not joking. “I was running out of options for comedians. Breakfast radio wasn’t knocking. I’d done some television and I made the best out of every opportunity that I had but I never got any follow up. The live stream was really the only way I could make my living. I was getting exhausted and I think sick.”
She was about to give up comedy out of frustration and to salvage her mental health, when Netflix came knocking (via her manager, who has been with her since the beginning of her comedy career). For anyone who hasn’t seen her genre-bending comedy Nanette, it is a narrative around her own trauma: coming out as a lesbian, being sexually abused as a teen, raped and bashed in her native Tasmania. By her own admission, it is a tough act to follow. She dubs Douglas her “difficult second album” but warns she is fresh out of trauma. She wishes she had budgeted better, and not put all her trauma eggs in the one basket.
“To use a gardening metaphor, Nanette was like preparing the soil so I could have new growth. I’d done comedy for a certain number of years and been reasonably successful. But I felt I’d lost something. I needed some blood and bone, to pour some s— into the soil … I took a wrecking ball to comedy with Nanette. Douglas is building something from that rubble.”
She calls this next show a “good natured needling of the patriarchy”. As an art historian it contains another tour through the art world, but takes aim at American culture – her audience since her streaming show became so popular.
She is fresh out of trauma. She wishes she had budgeted better, and not put all her trauma eggs in the one basket.
“I’m starting to feel bad about picking on Americans because they’re not doing so well,” she says about the high death rate in that country from COVID-19. It’s way too soon to joke about that she warns.
“It’s certainly providing a lot of food for thought but I’ll play the long game on that.”
She’s concerned about her parents Kay and Roger who still live in Tasmania’s north-west. She was born in Burnie’s North-West Regional Hospital, which was closed when it became a COVID hotspot, only reopening recently. There was a time when she couldn’t afford to visit her parents; now she’s so frustratingly close but can’t because of the coronavirus. She has a brother in Tasmania who checks on them but, like her, her other siblings in Melbourne and Adelaide cannot.
She’s been thinking a lot about the past in this period of isolation, especially the poverty of this part of Tasmania, where she grew up, always feeling different. Her recent autism diagnosis is touched on in Douglas, as is golf, which she took up with her brother after a hockey injury requiring a knee construction at the age of 11. “Why don’t you take up slow hockey,” is how her mother, a cleaner at the country club, described golf. She became state champion, and along with getting her first dog called Ronnie Barker, this helped her recover after the knee operation. She and her brother Hamish would help their mother and maths teacher father in the club kitchen on Saturday nights. They’d practise putting in the dark, while her parents had beers at the bar after work.
She’s been reminiscing about her Nan’s wartime stories, which she’d repeat at arvo tea. She tells me one about Nan hanging out the washing with two seagulls fighting overhead. A fish falls out of the sky landing in front of Nan who picks it up and cooks it. “I need to prepare for clumsy seagulls,” she jokes.
“World War I pretty much devastated a generation of Australians and onward. We didn’t fight the war here but that trauma came back. I think about that a lot. Generational trauma … There we are trauma again. This is not scone chat.”
We return to the business of baking. One of the Netflix shows she’s been bingeing is Nailed It!, when home chefs get to test their baking skills. I show her my scones with jam and cream, “preloaded” as she calls them, and share my secret: soda water. I ask if hers is lemonade.
“We didn’t have fizzy shit where I come from, we just had curdled milk. Nan always used buttermilk,” she explains. For Gadsby, curdled milk in scones is what manure is to gardening and trauma to comedy. No secrets, just all parts of the mix.
Hannah Gadsby’s new comedy special Douglas streams on Netflix from May 26.
Helen Pitt is a journalist at the The Sydney Morning Herald.