Natalie Palamides: Nate - A One Man Show on Netflix is this year's most compelling comedy special
In Nate: A One Man Show, currently streaming on Netflix, Natalie Palamides offers the most provocative one hour on rape, consent, and mixed signals.
There’s a part about even the most unblemished comedy specials that I usually find jarring. It’s that moment when the comedian on stage attempts to weave the audience into their performance by picking on a few of them. Commonly termed as “crowd work,” this exchange has now become a standard asset of any comedic performance – a delicate dance of banter guaranteed to produce a punchline or two, most often at the expense of the occupants in the first few rows.
My grouse with it stems from the illusion of audience participation it radiates when it really is nothing more than a crude joke generator. At first look, it seems like an equal partnership: a comedian handpicks an audience member at random with a query and the audience member in turn offers a response that directly contributes to the arc of an imminent gag. Ideally if that was the case, the consequences of the exchange – the revelations of embarrassment, shame, or utter stupidity – would be borne uniformly. But the microphone always remains at the mercy of the comedian and the audience member is, without fail, reduced to a joke by virtue of supplying the outline for it.
But in Nate: A One Man Show, the year’s most admirable, startling comedy special, Natalie Palamides, a relatively unknown LA actress, improviser, and comedian, brazenly attempts a course-correction, arriving at a consideration that not only takes into account how freely a performer is allowed the leeway to confront an audience but also how pointless that examination ends up being if the audience doesn’t consent to play along.
Despite its title, Nate is so much more than a one-man show – it is brought to fruition by a partnership with the audience, an act of crowdfunding insecurities, judgement, beliefs, and enactments from both sides of the stage until it all coalesces to make up the story. It’s also raucously hilarious, alternating between abject absurdity to profound complexity in the blink of an eye. This isn’t the standard crowd work, the unease that arises from someone being put on a spot isn’t temporary or a means to an end. Instead, it acquires a language of its own, becoming both the means and the end.
Now streaming on Netflix as a one-hour special, Nate: A One Man Show made its debut at the 2018 edition of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and is built as a clownishly aggressive drag-show. On stage Palamides plays the character of Nate, an emotionally volatile dudebro who is dunked in shades of abrasive machismo. Nate’s attire echoes his state of mind: he wears a furrowed plaid jacket, ridiculously stapled chest hair, a towering moustache, a noticeable black eye, and a face that droops with uncharted sadness.
Similarly, the special opens with a buffet of standard male toughness: Nate enters the stage riding a motorcycle with a hostility that seems unfounded, plays air guitar on a sheet of plywood that has a dick drawn over it, and chugs protein powder only to set it on fire, demanding audience applause at frequent intervals. It’s all too absurd and unnecessary, its ironical pleasure compounded by the fact that even as a parody of male rage performed by a female creator, it still manages to provide an accurate portrait of male rage. But the braggado is merely a ruse; it’s clear that Nate is on the brink of explosion, taking to displays of anger to distract from his emotional constipation. Recovering from a heartbreak and newfound singlehood, Nate is also the guy thrust into a moment of cultural reckoning where encounters with the opposite sex is characterised by a definition of consent and informed by clear demarcations of what is considered acceptable.
Initially, I didn’t make much of the rousing, beyond it being a catalyst for the kind of laughter that is mined from the ludicrousness of a woman playing a heightened version of stereotypical toxic masculinity, like Nate bathing his face with a can of soda to mimic what it feels to be able to cry or claiming that he’s trying to manage his anger and then violently chopping wood a few minutes later. But Palamides giving the performance of a lifetime, soon reveals Nate: A One Man Show to be the kind of special that doesn’t believe in provocation for the sake of provocation. What I presumed to be an easy gimmick was actually the amuse-bouche, a slow ascent into a world of terrifying, outrageous, and ambitious escalations stacked next to each other that end up at the most definitive question of our times: Isn’t it redundant to talk about the grey areas of consent without addressing the curse of mixed signals?
In the course of an hour, Palamides makes her case armed with the thoroughness of a thesis statement. She unpacks Nate’s emotional turmoil through a blistering, single-minded dramatised storytelling that is interspersed with audience interactions, which double up as plot development in Nate’s story; the audience members workshop their roles as the show goes along. Palamides gets one of them to play-act the role of the man whom his ex-girlfriend left Nate for, wrestling with Nate on stage shirtless; another plays Lucas, Nate’s submissive best friend who rubs an almost nude Nate dry after a shower. Both these encounters are tinged with awkwardness and hesitation on the part of its participants but the tension in the room – most notably that of two men touching an almost naked woman-in-disguise as cameras capture them in the act – is lost on Nate, which heightens it several notches higher for the viewer (Palamides setting up the character of Lucas is a masterclass in theatre).
It’s not the only time Nate: A One Man Show interrogates the wide-ranging nature of consent.
A gag in the beginning involves Nate approaching members of the audience – two women and a man – as he makes eye contact with them while asking for their permission (“May I?”) before groping them. If they say no (and one of them does), he backs off; on the off-chance they say “You may,” he proceeds to feel them up. This moment is crucial not because of how charged its insolence is, but because as Nate, Palamides sets up a black and white – almost bordering on objectionable – picture of consent. “All you gotta do is ask,” Nate proclaims to the audience as a sort of a victory lap, as if suggesting that a consensual experience is only informed by the presence of verbal authorisation and not on the questionable degree of that very experience. By all means, an act of groping is textbook inappropriate behaviour but here’s what Nate needles the audience, and by extent, the viewer, to account for: Does it still count as misconduct if the person being groped claims they’re comfortable with it?
It’s in the electrifying last stretch of the special that involves Nate’s date with his painting teacher (a muppet that the comedian voices herself) that Palamides reveals the grander intentions about constructing a collective definition of consent. It’s altogether impossible to see Nate’s final line of inquiry about a “bad date” coming, even more difficult to truly process the revelations that the response to that chilling crowd work suggest. At its heart, it’s a simple act of reckoning: a masterful deep-dive into subject areas that people are more comfortable pontificating about on the internet than talking about in person.
Palamides single handedly turns Nate: A One Man Show into an essential groundwork in compassion through her careful prodding. Through Nate, she doesn’t just relay the psyche of a man facing his transgressions, but more importantly, broadcasts his embarrassing struggle to do better in real time. The world watching him is held to task as well: the special succeeds in revealing as much about a viewer as it does about Nate, unpacking our individual blindspots with a sensitivity that we perhaps might not have bestowed on someone grappling with theirs.
On more than one occasion while watching the special, I kept thinking of just how easily Nate could have been one of the several men outed during the Me Too movement. That the show could give me enough reason to be able to empathise with someone like Nate without going out of its way to apologise for his transgressions is perhaps as a testament to how compelling this one man show is. After all, the greatest comedy specials aren’t the ones loaded with big punchlines but the ones that tell us the hard truths about the world around without making it seem like a preachy lesson.
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