Nancy Solomon: Does anybody remember laughter? In such a dark moment there, it hasn't always been a lot to joke about. Even those of us who wanted to go see live comedy shows, usually had to resort to Zoom. Not exactly the most seamless format for comedians to try out new material but this spring, things are starting to look a bit different. A year after shutting their doors, many live comedy venues in New York, Los Angeles, and other cities around the country are finally welcoming audiences back in. It's an experience that might feel jarring at first for both the performers and the people watching them but, hopefully, it can also bring back some much-needed joy.
Natalie Palamides is a comedian who thrives on interactions with the audience in her work. She's here with me now to discuss getting back out there and performing for them. Thanks for being here, Natalie.
Natalie Palamides: Hey, Nancy, how are you?
Nancy: I'm good, good. Thanks for joining us. Before we get to some of your recent live performances, how do you generally approach interactions with audience members when you're doing shows?
Natalie: Well, I guess it depends what stage the work is in, but I guess if when I'm developing material, I try to feel out who's willing to play with me in the audience, just based on how they're looking at me. If they're looking like they're enjoying themselves, I'll engage with them. A lot of the times when I'm first figuring out a new piece, I'll just improvise with an audience member and see where an interaction goes, and then if that interaction goes well, I try to figure out a way to make it happen that same time, every time I do the show.
Nancy: Have you been able to do anything on Zoom this past year in terms of working out new material with audiences, or does it just not work?
Natalie: Well, I'm not really one for Zoom. I did a couple Zoom shows, they're all right, but I was kind of suffering [laughs] during the Zoom shows. One of my bits was bombing pretty badly during a Zoom show, but I got saved by my neighbor across the street yelling at me for being too loud. People really enjoyed that.
Natalie: Yes, so that worked out. It’s just because I was playing this wicked witch, and it was fun to interact with my neighbor as this witch. That improvisation there was serendipitous and saved my butt in that situation. What my friends and I have turned to is doing outside shows, we actually do this outside show once a week in Griffith Park called Clown Zoo, and it's just a free show. I live direct a bunch of my friends as this high-status idiot character called Mrs. Skin, while my friends perform together in theatrical masks. We thought of using theatrical masks so that people could wear their COVID masks beneath it, and so it became this little loophole that we thought of.
All my friends are clowns, we're not really trained in masks. It took a while for us to learn how to use the mask as a tool, but I think we got a pretty good handle on it now, and the shows have been really fun.
Nancy: What was it like to get in front of an actual crowd again?
Natalie: Oh, man. Every week after the show, we just all feel like a huge rush. It's a good feeling. Even though everyone's sitting kind of in the grass, socially distancing, the laughs don't feel as impactful. Because you are outside, and the laughter dissipates more easily than when you're like shoved in a black box theater with a bunch of people. Man, it feels good, Nancy, I got to say, just to be able to see people's eyes. I don't know, there's something different when you feel a laugh in person as opposed to over the internet.
Nancy: Yes. I think everyone's nodding their head with you at this point. Even meetings are the same. It's like talking into the void, hard to get that response back and forth. What's it feel like in terms of-- I would imagine that maybe you haven't had as much chance to work out material with a live audience, but that there is what economists would call pent-up demand that people are just so hungry for performance and laughter that-- do you notice a difference right now versus pre-pandemic?
Natalie: Maybe I feel less pressure now to make something really good because everybody understands that comedians haven't been able to work anything out. I guess I feel like a little more freedom to just mess around. I always felt that way to just-- that's how I make stuff is just by throwing stuff up on stage and not worrying about how good it's going to be, although that's always part of it. I don't know. It's nuanced, Nancy, but I don't know if there's too much of a difference in terms-- yes, I think people are excited to see shows again, but I don't know. I think that they're always excited to come see shows. Yes, that's an enjoyable thing seeing comedy, isn't it?
Nancy: Yes. At one point in your Netflix special, you wrestle with an audience member. Seems like you're not going to be able to do that for now. Or does that actually make it better, like you're transgressing even more now to have physical contact with someone in the audience?
Natalie: Well, it's interesting you say that. I might not be able to do it now because I've had a couple producers reach out to me to put up Nate, that show that you're speaking about. Then one of my other solo shows that I have, where I also interact with the audience quite a bit, they're asking me to remount them. I'm like, "You guys have seen these shows. I don't know how COVID-friendly they are. I don't know what the protocol would be." If I did perform Nate again live, I guess probably I would have to play the post-pandemic reality as part of the bit, maybe the wrestling bit would change a little bit.
I'd bring them out to wrestle me, but the joke would maybe end up being more that I can't touch them. How do you figure out a way to wrestle somebody or bring that energy to it without actually touching them? I don't know, we'd see. Or maybe I get them to sign some consent, or maybe a gag would be to bring a temperature checker with me before I wrestle them, something like that. I feel like there's ways to use the current reality and make light of it. Of course, not make light of the disease or the pandemic but just to bring a little lightness to it, see if you can use it.
Nancy: Natalie Palamides is a comedian whose Netflix specialist called Nate: A One Man Show. Natalie, thanks so much.
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