Art With Purpose: Fred Rogers and Hannah Gadsby

We are obsessed with reputation. We think Reputation is more important than anything else - including Humanity.
— Hannah Gadsby, in "Nanette"

This week, I saw two powerful pieces of film that I cannot stop thinking about. On Friday, I saw Won't You Be My Neighbor, the documentary that follows the career of beloved children's entertainer Fred Rogers, of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. Today I (finally) viewed Australian comic, Hannah Gadsby's Netflix special "Nanette." I say "finally" because I've been inundated with social media posts (and personal conversations) about the special and how important and amazing it is. I rolled my eyes; rejecting its popularity, sick of people telling me what I must watch and must love. ("You've NEVER seen Game of Thrones??" still haunts me to this day, even after having finally binged 7 seasons of the program.)

This time, I was wrong. I should've listened and watched immediately. Nanette isn't comedy as much as it's an important piece of work. Hannah Gadsby is a gifted comedian, interspersing pattern and callbacks to previous jokes. But, she is an even more skilled writer and powerful storyteller, making you rethink the jokes you laughed at just minutes earlier; making you feel, and think, and uh, cry like crazy! 

Nanette and Won't You Be My Neighbor don't have a ton in common so perhaps it's strange to combine them in this post, but I haven't written in a year and suddenly after watching both of these films - I am moved to write. I had to write about them both.


Good People Exist

Mr. Rogers quote

There are a few things that stuck with me about Won't You Be My Neighbor, the first being that Fred Rogers was a good person. That shouldn't be news but rarely is film (or tv or books or web series or anything!) made about a true good person these days. In fact, everyone supposedly loves the anti-hero...  Walter White, Tony Soprano, and literally any character from Game of Thrones. But Mr. Rogers was a good person - a truly good one - and I feel like I didn't have time to appreciate him before he was gone. 

There is a moment in the film when one of Mr. Rogers staff says something to the effect of I know it feels like there are no good people out there. But, Fred was not the only one. They do exist. That hit me right in the throat. They do exist. I need these reminders.

At one point in the documentary, the filmmakers show the (ridiculous) 1990s right-wing commentators who blamed Generation X’s sense of entitlement on Mr. Rogers by "telling every kid that they were special."  When Fred Rogers was interviewed about this fact, you could see in his face how sad and upset it made him; to see people misconstruing his words. He explains that by telling children that they are "special, just the way they are" he was saying that every child is worthy of love in and of themselves. That is it. You are worthy of love, kids.

How evil of him to say so.


Having Purpose

The second (and main) thing that stuck with me was Fred Rogers' sense of purpose. He had such a great sense of purpose! He knew what was important to him (helping children) and how to completely carve out a career and live a life that served that purpose! Can you imagine having that much clarity? And follow through? I ask once a day What am I doing with my life?

Thinking about that sense of purpose - this film sparked the performer/comedian/teacher in me. What is my purpose? And then - Nanette pushed that even further. The spark is now a full on fire.

Hannah Gadsby, whom I had not heard of before this special, invites you in slowly... making you giggle about gay pride parades and lesbian stereotypes. She shares stories about ignorant people saying ignorant things. But about three quarters of the way through, the program shifts and you realize you are witnessing more than comedy. You are being invited into something really freaking important. With skillful control of the "tension" of the piece, she makes the viewer think about treatment of women and children and minorities, and humanity as a whole. She uses storytelling as an incredibly powerful tool to teach us all - and the lesson is critical. 


As a comedian and artist myself, she made me think about my purpose, similar to how the documentary did the same.  Her work is not a comedy routine - it's a lesson more engaging and valuable than a TED Talk... meanwhile, I'm still doing comedy, freestyle rapping every weekend as a talking pigeon. How do I do something important? Can I write and perform something like Hannah Gadsby - something that has both humor and power and important? Can I give myself a true purpose? I want to.

I'm curious to know if straight white men (and non-comedians) are also talking about this Netflix special. I think it should be required viewing for all humans - but especially men and non-comedians ("civilians").  It's important. Give it a watch and let me know what you think.

There is nothing stronger than a broken woman who has rebuilt herself!
— Hannah Gadsby, in "Nanette"

Love and Humanity

At the end of the day, I was drawn to the themes of love and humanity, that were woven into both Won't You Be My Neighbor and Nanette. The difference between the themes in each film, however, was that one felt nostalgic (WYBMN) and one is certainly URGENT. 

PS Thank you to Fred Rogers (RIP) and Hannah Gadsby for inspiring me with your stories and making me think about my greater purpose.