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An Interview with Natasha Vaynblat

[Comedian]
by Eric Farwell
February 21st, 2020

“I think my comedy is bleeding into other traditional forms of art—morphing into performance art. At least, that’s where I want to live. I want to be a comedic artist.”

If you live in Brooklyn, watch Comedy Central digital shorts, or are an attentive fan of comedy, then it’s likely you’ve come across the work of Natasha Vaynblat. After getting her start as a teacher, Vaynblat quickly began taking improv classes at The Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theater, and has created all manner of shows, from her one-woman educator character showcase, UCB: United Federation of Teachers, to Joke Thief, a show that explores joke ownership and delivery in the shell of a stand-up show. Currently, Vaynblat works at Comedy Central as a creator, writer, actor, and creative consultant, with a primary focus on her popular web series, Your Worst Fears Confirmed. Outside of this, she’s a major player in the Brooklyn comedy world, and like many other comics, is trying to figure out how to carve out a path in a world without a direct route to fame and success. What’s impressive about the work she does comes from the craft of her jokes, which are tight and quick, without seeming superfluous or forgettable. Right before her most recent show, NatashaWearsClothes, a pop-up gallery show that distilled characters down to short audio monologues, we spoke by phone about everything from her early days of doing improv at The University of Virginia, to how comedy has changed over the last few years.  

—Eric Farwell

THE BELIEVER: You’ve been at UCB for how long now?

NATASHA VAYNBLAT: I started taking classes in 2010. I was on Lloyd Night, Harold Night, Maude Night, and on the weekend with What I Did For Love. I taught sketch and improv classes there as well. Hot damn, nine years!

BLVR: I know that seeing Death by Roo Roo [a legendary improv troupe featuring Anthony Atamanuik, Joanna Bradley, Liz Cackowski, Jackie Clarke, John Gemberling, and Neil Casey] at the festival was the comedy event that changed your life. I’m curious about where you saw them.

NV: When I saw Death by Roo Roo, it truly felt like seeing a rock n’ roll show, I was blown away by how brave they were and how clearly they knew all the rules but weren’t worried about them. When I found out they were based in NYC at UCB, I knew I had to go there.

BLVR: how big of a difference is it between what you did at UCB, and your experience at UVA?

NV: It was huge, because at UVA we were just leading ourselves and guessing. But when I came to UCB, I finally got instruction from people who really knew what they were doing. I gravitated toward UCB’s method of the game. I think if you have an analytical brain, it’s great for you. I like to analyze and pick apart any art that I do. But the goal is always to know the rules and structure inherently so that you’re not relying on them. The more you do it, the more you get a sense of instinctually knowing what’s working, and what to do next. Only later can we sit down and go, “Oh, this was the game; and this was the first beat. This was the second beat.” When it’s really, really good, all of it feels inherent. Which goes back to seeing Death by Roo Roo. I know they had a game, and I know they were heightening, and I know they probably had three beats to every scene, if not more. But it seemed effortless, I felt like I was seeing magic.

 BLVR: It used to be that could just do Aspen Comedy Fest or JFL and get some spots at certain clubs that would lead to an HBO special and a sitcom. For you, someone who has a great show and job at Comedy Central, what has shifted from when you started, and where things are now?

NV: There is no path, which is both freeing and frightening. When I started at UCB, I had a clear ladder to climb. I started taking classes, and then I got on a house team, and then I performed on the weekend. But then, you know, the ladder kind of stopped, and I didn’t really know what to do next. It wasn’t until I just let myself do whatever I wanted that I started feeling successful.

When I started doing stand-up I felt very much at the bottom of the totem pole—I was going to open mics with students I was teaching in my Improv 101 class; we’d have class, I’d give them notes, and then they’d watch me bomb after I paid $5 for three minutes. It was brutal, but I really wanted to do it, even though no one was telling me to. In fact, people were telling me I shouldn’t. Now, I’m doing this gallery show no one’s been asking for, and no one understands. But I’m excited about it because it feels outside the “ladder” a comedian should be climbing. I’m forging my own path.

BLVR: You’re keeping it interesting for yourself, but I imagine it must also feel like, “At what point does this all take off?”

NV: Oh boy. Yeah. This morning I was scrolling on my phone and landed on “Forty Women Who had Success Later in Life.” I was like, “Oh, well, this feels perfect for me.” And everyone was talking about how at forty, everything started opening up for them. I think for me, the end goal is to make a living writing and performing in my own voice and the voice of artists I admire. Emily Heller has a career that I am in awe of. She gets to write on incredible TV shows, and then in-between works on her stand-up and tours. That feels like a magical place to be in. I’m not looking to stay at one job from now until I retire, so being able to find a way to consistently perform and support myself is the dream.

BLVR: Is there anything where you look back and go, “Oh, this is why this maybe didn’t happen. I would do X differently now?”

NV: I think everyone’s heard about being ready and being at the right place and how those things have to line up. I’ve done several fellowships that didn’t immediately result in jobs in the industry. I think the takeaway is, having done those programs, to use them for what they actually offer: networking and skills. There’s nothing I would do differently besides enjoying the experience more in the moment, instead of thinking so much about the end goal. I don’t know if thinking about specific goals is healthy, and I’ve tried to let a lot of that go. So my new goal is to work creatively and to get paid for that creative work. Working on Your Worst Fears Confirmed, in many ways, feels like an end goal. I spend my day getting to write something that is my vision. I collaborate with Ellie Skrzat, who does the animations and co-directs. She’s a perfect partner because I feel our sensibilities are just so in line, and now we’ve gotten into a language where we’re really good about giving each other notes. Our working relationship is one I’ve always wanted. And I’m paid to do that. Ultimately, do I want more? Of course! I want to be doing this on a bigger scale for TV and film. But as far as the meat and potatoes of what I’m doing? I’m getting to do it now.

BLVR: Where does the idea for Your Worst Fears Confirmed start?

NV: It comes from my natural neuroses. I think, like many performers, and really human beings, I’m a naturally anxious person. I find myself at 2am searching “Will I die from BLANK,” because I wake up with a weird chest pain. I wanted to come up with an idea that was both true to me and also universal. I think that’s the sweet spot for comedy. Something that feels so specific to the performer but is something we can all relate to. So the show is born from the act of entering a fear into a google search bar and then going down a WebMD rabbit hole after which I’m like, “Yup. Spiders will certainly crawl into my skin and lay eggs there.”

BLVR: There’s a lot of talk about how comics like Julio Torres, Hannah Gadsby, and Drew Michael are signs of a seashift. I’m curious if you feel there’s a goal of being inclusive of these voices as they emerge, or if you think most comics are still trying to write the punchiest material possible.

NV: I think there is a hunger for new and fresh perspectives. I am such a fan of Julio, Hannah, and Drew. They are so funny and so fearless. I’m also inspired by how people who have consistently been in the game are reinventing themselves. I just saw the Gary Gulman special The Great Depresh and really loved it. I have been a fan of his for a long time, and it was inspiring to see him push past his comfort zone and really open up while still staying true to the great joke writer he has always been.

BLVR: You said earlier that people discouraged you from doing stand-up. I know you’ve been working out those muscles for a while now, but what’s hard about the transition between working with a group and getting up with pre-written material? Does the craft change that drastically, or is it the same skill set applied in a different direction?

NV: Regardless of the form: improv or sketch or stand-up, the skill is still finding and exploring a comedic idea to its fullest potential. Each form gives you a new way in. The challenge has been making the comedic idea feel personal and truest to me. When I first started doing stand-up, I still felt like a character doing it, and sometimes would do character bits that didn’t really work because I wasn’t committing. It wasn’t until I committed to being fully myself on stage that I started seeing success. It was and continues to be the scariest thing. I’m still someone who doesn’t really like to riff on stage. I haven’t gotten comfortable doing it, and I still feel like I want to make sure I’m not wasting the audience’s time. Having started as an improviser helps me find the funny of a joke faster, because my brain is wired to be in edit mode and build on a joke quickly. I remember when I started doing standup, I’d do three mics in a night, and I would revise the joke throughout the night. I always had a tweak after the first time I did it, because I always wanted every word to feel like it was being used. And if it wasn’t needed, I’d drop it. I still, before I fully commit to “This is the joke,” write it out in Final Draft as if it were a script for a sketch show. I want to know every word.

BLVR: What’s different between new stand-up Natasha and current stand-up Natasha?

NV: The difference is I’m more focused on my personal voice. Now, I’m very much approaching something with, “What’s my unique take on this,” whereas before, with improv, it was, “What are the group’s ideas about this?” With characters too, it was, “Who’s somebody I’ve seen, and how can I embody their perspective?” And now, I’m starting with my perspective first.

BLVR: Was there a set that changed everything for you that you can think of? You’ve said on podcasts that it took you awhile to feel like you had a right to take up space on stage, and I’m wondering how that impacted you comedically, and whether or not there was one moment or set where you just decided to be completely you on stage?

NV: I can’t think of a moment. What I can think of is I had a friend who said something to the effect of, “There’s a difference between someone ‘performing’ stand-up and being a stand-up on stage.” That stuck with me. I want to be someone who uses the form to express herself in the truest sense. I don’t mean everything needs to be confessional, I just mean I want it to feel like it’s the crystalized version of my voice. There’s a joke I do on the Comedy Central Digital Stand-Up Presents where I talk about seeing a woman on the subway who was wearing her makeup just above where her face actually is. That was the first time I felt I was using my sketch and improv skills within stand-up. That felt like the first joke where I cracked it for myself. I think one of the things that makes me a good stand-up is that I have an improv and sketch background.

BLVR: Well, I know your Comedy Central digital show is doing really well among a white male demographic. Are studio heads surprised when that’s the case?

NV: I can’t speak for them but I know I was surprised. I think as a society our first thought is, “If the majority of the people deciding something are straight, and white, and male, then we should deliver to them what looks and feels like them.” I think what we’re seeing by promoting diverse voices is, it’s not true.

BLVR: What is the collaboration like for that show? There’s so much about it that’s in your voice, but I know the show is developed by both you and Ellie Skrzat. In terms of managing that vision, what’s the process like to make sure it feels equal and unified?

NV: It changes episode to episode but for the most part I will write the episode and then Ellie and I will meet to go over it – she’ll tell me what’s missing/pitch jokes, etc. In studio, after a few takes, Ellie and I will watch the footage back and go over what worked/what needs to be re-shot. And then Ellie edits and creates the graphics – which I then give notes on/pitch visual jokes. We sit directly across from each other, so there is a lot of back and forth from start to finish with each episode. But we also have support from the entire CC Digital team. Mitch Lewis, the creative director, helped get the show off the ground and still gives feedback on the episodes as well Jim Fagan, who directed the series before handing over the reins to us. And we have script meetings with the digital writing staff where everyone gives notes and pitches jokes. Everyone gives support but also let’s Ellie and me have the final say.

BLVR: You recently put up a show that juxtaposed drag and stand-up performances that seemed to be interested in the question of how much overlap there is/can be between the two art forms. In Joke Thief, you play with the question of ownership by exploring delivery and cadence, and how personality/persona shapes material. The pop-up show, Natasha Wears Clothes, was an audio tour of captured moments from the lives of comedic characters, which invites laughter, not quiet reverence. What interests you in creating shows like these?

NV: I’m always trying to think of new ways to present comedy and to expand the definition of what a comedy show should be. She’s A Lady came out of my love of drag shows, plus I’m such a fan of Cholulalemon who co-hosted the show with me. Joke Thief came from a green room riff between Gianmarco Soresi and I where we picked up each other’s joke books and started trying to do the other person’s set. And Natasha Wears Clothes is a fusion of all the things I love—characters and fashion and photography.

BLVR: The pop-up show is certainly a huge swing. Is the goal to do them quarterly?

NV: Potentially! I know that doing something once isn’t going to be the thing that makes it explode. So, the question is how can I do it one time to figure out how to improve it next time. The response has been great. People were saying how excited they were on Instagram, but also I was getting personal emails, “I love this idea. Can I help you build the website for it?” This feels like I’ve found something that people are genuinely excited about.

BLVR: How long have you been working on the show, just in terms of writing the jokes? How time consuming is that?

NV: I’ve been thinking about it since I’ve been doing character photos on Instagram. So, four years I guess? It started because I wanted to take comedic self-portraits. I’ve always wanted to figure out what the live show component was, but didn’t want to force anything until it felt right. Recently I figured out the format, which is doing a gallery show with character monologues as an audio guide.  In the last few weeks I realized that it needed a layer of sound design—that’s all thanks to James Hamilton who’s helped give each character a rich audio background. I think the next time I do it, I’m going to want to print the pictures way bigger—I want them to feel larger than life, like portraits of the royal court. I’m trying to think about this show visually first. I think my comedy is bleeding into other traditional forms of art—morphing into performance art. At least, that’s where I want to live. I want to be a comedic artist.

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