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Just Watch Nate, You Clowns

Natalie Palamides in Nate. Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Courtesy of Netflix

There is just nothing like Natalie Palamides’s Nate. Built on Palamides’s background in sketch, devised theater, and clowning, it is a part of all three and yet also something completely new. It’s an incredibly sensitive, heartfelt, intellectually provocative show while also featuring some of the dumbest (and “dumb” is a compliment) and most lowbrow bits you’ll find anywhere. Palamides worked on it tirelessly for years with a perfectionist’s focus, and yet most of the show is determined by audience interaction. It is, as Vulture critic Kathryn VanArendonk’s wrote in her review, “the most astonishing special of 2020.” And it’s out on Netflix today.

On Vulture’s Good One podcast, Palamides talks about developing the character of Nate, fear, the beauty of idiocy, and more. You can read some excerpts from the transcript or listen to the full episode below. Tune in to Good One every Tuesday on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Overcast, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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On Developing Nate

I would bring him back every so often in some sketches. I made a video with Baby Nate with a sketch group called Little Red Feathers. And then I brought Nate back to live theater, live comedy when I got back from Edinburgh in 2017.

At the Lyric Hyperion, which is one of the clown hubs in Los Angeles, we throw up these shows called the Incubator. Basically it’s kind of a weeklong boot camp of shows where on the first night you put up something brand new, and then you do that show every single night, and your piece develops throughout the week. And everybody who’s in this variety show watches each other’s bits and helps them, helps their friends develop their pieces. The director of that show, Dr. Brown — who also directed Nate and my other solo show — he directs the Incubator shows, and he always encourages us to try something we’ve never done before or that felt risky.

So in a previous Incubator, I had blown fire. And so I was like, Oh, what else feels risky to me? How about wrestling? And so I was thinking, What could be a good character to wrestle with? And I just pulled out Nate out of my back pocket and came up with the wrestling scene that you see in the full long hour show. But that was the first ten-minute piece that I created from the show.

On Fear

I have a very high tolerance for fear, I suppose so. Whenever Dr. Brown asks us to try something risky or that we feel is risky, I have a hard time thinking of what that could be because I’m like, Well, nothing really scares me. I mean, I would never want to do bodily harm to myself. But I don’t think, like, actually hurting yourself is risky. I don’t think that’s risky in the ways of comedy. It’s challenging for me to feel fear onstage. I’d say what I’m most after is an adrenaline rush. I don’t really feel scared. I mean, I definitely get nervous before I do a show and especially before I try a new bit. But I’m not scared. I’m more excited to try something that I think is crazy. And to shock people, I think, is so much fun.

On Clowning

It’s interesting you mention that the comedian listens to what the audience likes, because that’s a big part of clown and what they teach in beginner clown classes. There’s this exercise where you have a friend onstage and a friend backstage, and the person who’s backstage isn’t allowed to look while their other friend chooses a very specific pose. Then they have to come out onstage and try to figure out what that pose was. And when they’re getting closer to the position, the audience claps. When they’re getting very close to success, the audience claps louder. And then when you get far away from it, the clapping goes away. It teaches you to listen to what the audience likes and to follow the laugh, and to follow what people are liking.

A lot of the times, they teach that you should drop your planned bits and follow whatever people are laughing at, and play that out fully in a game, and then you can always return to what you had planned. But always be in the moment. And in terms of creating Nate, I definitely adjusted the character based on what people were responding to. I did have him pretty well figured out going into it, but I’m sure that I adjusted for what the audience was approving of. And then if they disapproved of something, you either drop it or you lean into it.

On Why “Stupid” Is a Compliment for Clowns

A lot of the times, people will overhear me saying to a friend, “Oh my gosh, you’re so stupid” or “You’re so dumb,” and they look at me like I’m saying something mean. But to us it’s a compliment, because at our best, we’re idiots. We’re playing these beautiful idiots that are so stupid and so dumb, and so we think of dumbness and idiocy as these things of beauty. They’re beautiful to us. And it’s a great success when you do something that’s really, really fucking stupid.

We’re always calling one another so dumb and so stupid and fucking idiots, but it’s a term of endearment, because the clown is the idiot. They’re always figuring out ways to resolve problems in the most complicated, inefficient way. An example I always give is Lucy and Ethel eating the chocolates when they can’t wrap them fast enough in the chocolate factory. They’re shoving the chocolates in their mouth, which is the stupidest way to resolve that problem of the conveyor belt going too fast.

On Consent

Initially, when I started workshopping the show, I had no intent of exploring consent or the gray area of consent. But all of this stuff about Me Too kind of erupted. Initially, I was just thinking, Oh, I’ll make a show about masculinity and toxic masculinity. I was like, How can I make a show about that and not address this, that is so kind of intertwined with it? You can’t really explore toxic masculinity without exploring consent. I was really scared to initially explore it because it is such a sensitive subject, and I just posted up trigger warnings outside the theater door saying “This show’s going to explore consent and toxic masculinity and may be triggering for some people.” On those signs I would encourage people to just feel free to leave. I would say, “Leave at any time,” because I feel like a lot of people feel stuck in the seats because they don’t want to feel rude, or they don’t want to hurt the artist’s feelings, maybe. That’s always why I feel stuck in my seat if I think a comedy show sucks or something. But sometimes you just got to bust out of there.

I’d say the show is definitely a hybrid of many different things. Clown in its purest form definitely has more innocence to it than this show has. But I would say Nate’s this guy who’s so deeply plagued by toxic masculinity, trying his best to do a show about consent that has no clear message. [It] is a very well-rounded clown game within itself: A show that’s supposed to teach something and teaches maybe nothing.

It’s still being optimistic. The clown is always the optimist. At the end of the show he says, “I hope the message was clear,” earnestly believing that he has delivered something that has been clear. And it is not at all, which is the gag. A story that a lot of my clown teachers have told is of the clown student who is always raising his hand to answer the teacher’s question and getting it wrong every single time.

On the Internet

The internet is one of the greatest weapons against mankind. It’s going to bring us down because, like I was saying earlier, we just can’t make any progress on any kind of important issues until we get back to just having town halls. The internet cannot be our town hall. Our town hall has to be a place where everybody goes in a town to a hall with their bodies, with their faces, with their eyes, with their mouths, and are in a room with one another. I think social media does a great disservice to us. Of course it’s an important tool, and it can be used for good things. But we have to put it in a box, and we have to acknowledge that it’s not a good way to communicate about important issues. I think we need a lot of people to get on board with that idea.

Nobody knows exactly how to tackle this beast. We’ve unleashed the beast — how do we get it back into its arena? Let’s use social media for what it’s good for and not let it suck all of our empathy out of us. It allows for no empathy or nuance. That’s why when you want to have an important conversation with a friend or loved one, you call them, you meet up with them. You don’t text them, because everybody always says texting arguments always end badly. Even emails — people get scared to write emails because they’re afraid they’re going to be taken the wrong way. Texting is a terrible form of communication. Even letters are better. At least you get some sense of care when you get a letter. Texts are just so flippant and brief and easy to send. There’s no care behind them. We need to take better care of each other.

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Just Watch Nate, You Clowns