Natasha Rothwell has traded 30 Rock for the Sony lot, writing now for Issa Rae’s HBO series, Insecure.
But Rothwell’s own characters in her half-hour special for The Characters on Netflix are quite secure, assured and ready to break down barriers. She had been writing and creating characters for years, first as a sketch performer and improviser at both The PIT and UCB in New York City, then later as a cast member on Nick Cannon’s Wild ‘N Out for MTV2 and as a writer for Saturday Night Live.
Despite what you see from her main character in The Characters, the real Rothwell is not about to wake up hungover late for jury duty, arms wrapped around a “Basic Bitch” box of wine and left to mutter: “I made bad choices.” No, she’s much more likely to embrace her personality and surround herself with talented performers, as she does with a finale rap that also features rhymes from Chris Gethard, Aparna Nancherla and SNL’s Cecily Strong.
In between, Rothwell’s main character of Natasha crosses paths with her other characters — a homeless man on the subway who threatens to spoil Game of Thrones unless he receives donations, three other women of various socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds in her jury duty pool, the model actor Tyson Beckford, a doctor treating a patient for chiggers, and a girl named Tynesha who accompanies her mother to work and could be anywhere in age “between 2 and 10.”
The only similarity to the characters Rothwell first showed off four years ago in Montreal for the Just For Laughs New Faces Characters showcase (which also has featured several of the other Netflix stars, such as Lauren Lapkus, Henry Zebrowski, Paul W. Downs and Tim Robinson — Kate Berlant and John Early performed at JFL’s New Faces as stand-ups) is that she still enjoys making audiences confront racism via wordplay. In 2012, she employed a character obsessed with knickers. For her Netflix special, her doctor forces a patient (played by Sue Galloway) to confront her fear of chiggers.
“This time the racial and social subtext is a little different,” Rothwell told The Comic’s Comic in an interview this week. “One was plying with syntax. The other is how can we play with this in a conversation and also have it be a comedy sketch?”
As for experiencing a meet-cute in the park with Tyson Beckford as himself, well, “he became the only choice once he was available,” Rothwell told me. “I was in love with him when I was in college and high school, and the Blessid Union of Souls song…when I saw him in person, I couldn’t help thinking about that.”
Much like the other performers in this new Netflix venture, Rothwell’s not a stand-up comedian by trade or experience, so the idea of showcasing herself in a solo half-hour wasn’t exactly on her radar or purview. “I was so thankful to have the opportunity,” she said. “I pinched myself.”
“This is an incredible platform to showcase emerging artists and their voices and their styles and their approaches to comedy. Where you really do have the opportunity to create a world that speaks to your sense of humor,” she said.
Her homeless man on the subway buttons the scene by declaring that by spending so much time reading books in the public library, he has “undermined your expectations” of him. That line speaks to a larger dynamic Rothwell explores in her half-hour. “I really like subverting expectations,” she told me. “When (her characters are) not who you think they are, and also giving voice to disenfranchised populations. Giving a child a platform, giving the homeless a platform, and having them be funny. It’s a mental challenge,” she said. “That felt really rich.”
Richer, perhaps, was her opportunity to play four different women in one room, one scene awaiting jury duty. “The jury duty scene for me was so much fun to play and to explore that particular petri dish, where you get to have a roomful of very disparate people who have to be together,” she said. Even if “shooting it was a monster.”
Her “Basic Bitch” music video that brings her half-hour home finds herself sharing screen time and great lines with her comedy friends. “I don’t always see it as sacrificing screen time and being benevolent to my friends,” she said. “It was an opportunity to work with people I really respect and admire, and that’s what was important to me.”