We should know, after last year, to expect the unexpected from Natalie Palamides. Who could have foreseen that the buzziest comedy in 2017 would come from an unknown LA actor making performance art about fertility, parental anxiety and eggs? But so it proved. In a blizzard of yolk and shattered shells, her show Laid wowed Edinburgh and poached the Comedy award for best newcomer. So we should have been braced for more surprises. But this? A cross-dressing comedy show for the #MeToo era that workshops, with audience participation, the idea of consent?
The show is called Nate, after a male character the 28-year-old has played since college. “He does come off as a douchebag, as we say in America,” says Palamides, speaking by phone from Los Angeles, where she has been developing the show with her director, the cult clown and previous Edinburgh Comedy award champ Doctor Brown. “At first you think Nate’s a jerk,” she adds. “But people warm to him because he’s sweet – a sweet lovable idiot.”
Having created the character as an experiment in male drag, then revived him in sketches since, she felt it was time to give Nate his own show. But not because, as per the cross-dressing cliche, she felt liberated by posing as a different gender. “It’s not about ‘getting away’ with certain things,” says the Pennsylvania native, “because I pretty much do anything on stage anyway.” It was more that she wanted to explore “love, relationships and masculinity” from a male perspective, and knew there was comic mileage in satirising casual sexism.
But the show had teething problems, that Doctor Brown – real name Phil Burgers – helped her overcome. “I was dancing around the subject of consent,” she says, “because I was scared. I was really frustrated. Finally Phil was like, ‘What do you really want to do?’ And I said, ‘I want to put rape into the show.’ I didn’t want to trigger anyone or handle it the wrong way, though. But it needed to be in there.”
And so, having tried out the material in front of LA audiences, she added a new strand about Nate’s adventures in sexual consent. I’m sworn to secrecy about how that all pans out on stage. But, given the current climate, and bearing in mind the brutal, brittle brilliance of Laid, it is likely to be electric.
“Audiences are, I think, happy that the show is dealing with this,” says Palamides. But there is “one chilling moment [that] always get a mixed response. It gets pretty tense.” So why go there? Why lead your comedy towards such potentially upsetting territory? “Because it needs to be addressed,” she says. “People talk about it on Facebook, but they’re too scared to confront it face-to-face. This brings the issue to the stage – right in front of a bunch of people’s faces.”
She insists, however, that this isn’t “issue comedy”. It’s a bit like Laid, she explains. In that show, Palamides hatched from a giant foam egg and spent most of the show frying her “babies” and eating them. “It’s really dumb and stupid and fun,” she says. “It’s important for comedy to speak to issues, while providing the relief that everything’s going to be OK. I want people to leave laughing.”
They probably will: Palamides built up a lot of audience love in Britain last summer – and the feeling is reciprocated. Having grown up in a country where improv is practically the national sport (Palamides is well versed in it), she finds the LA crowd rather too keen to join in. “I prefer British audiences. They are more patient and allow me to guide them through it, rather than having someone who’s too excited to play with me on stage.”
Another reason why Edinburgh appeals is its tradition of hour-long creative comedy, which Palamides prefers to the quick-hit standup culture of LA. “My set is very different to everything else that is going on there,” she says. “It always throws a little wrench in the works. Which is fun.” But not so lucrative that she can give up her sidelines: starring in a regular insurance ad on TV, and a voiceover gig on popular tween cartoon The Powerpuff Girls.
Asked about her more long-term career plans, Palamides says: “Eeeugh! I don’t know what I’m going to do. I would like to make my own TV show. But often I think, ‘Oh jeez, who’s going to want me?’ That’s why I have to make my own stuff.”