Watching Nate, I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or scream. After breathing fire, performing motorcycle tricks and groping the breasts of a woman in the front row, the hairy-chested macho man had stripped down to his underwear to wrestle a nervous audience member.
Provocative and boundary-pushing, Nate was the most talked about comic creation of this year's Edinburgh Fringe. Hiding behind his handlebar moustache is Natalie Palamides, winner of the Fringe’s 2017 Best Newcomer Award and one of the fastest rising talents in alternative comedy.
“My mum and dad are not allowed to see this show,” says Palamides, 28. “I don’t want to be responsible for my mother having a heart attack!”
I’m not surprised. Currently playing at London’s Soho Theatre, Nate is hardly family viewing. This hour of cross-dressing clowning may begin with the kind of playful, anarchic slapstick that harks back to Bottom and The Young Ones, but it moves into much more disturbing territory involving sexual assault. The whole thing is made yet stranger by the gulf between the burly Nate and the 5ft 1in actress playing him.
It’s typical of the American comic, who uses absurdist humour to explore sensitive issues. Her debut show Laid satirised the pressure placed on women to have children, making its point with the help of dozens of smashed eggs. It was described by The Telegraph as like “a Margaret Atwood novel directed by Vic Reeves.” Compared to Nate, however, it looks tame.
Palamides first created the alpha-doofus character last September, as a short sketch for a variety night hosted by her regular director, the award-winning comedian Dr Brown.
“Donald Trump had already been elected our president, so at first I was focusing more on toxic masculinity,” she tells me. “But it felt really surface-level, and I was frustrated with it. When I started workshopping a one-hour version, though, it was December and the Harvey Weinstein stuff had come out. I was avoiding the topic because it did seem a little delicate, especially living in Los Angeles. Dr Brown pushed me. He said ‘What is it you really want to talk about here?’ And I said, ‘Consent, but I’m scared.’ He said, ‘Just go for it.’”
Following the rise of the #MeToo movement, the show has only become more topical; its most recent US run took place during the Brett Kavanaugh hearing, in which the US Supreme Court Justice was questioned over sexual assault allegations. But Palamides’s take on these issues is not quite so clear-cut as audiences might expect. If anything, Nate is a show about avoiding easy conclusions.
“I wanted to highlight the confusion around consent,” says Palamides. “We never talk about it face to face. People often jump down each other’s throats discussing sexual assault online – and we don’t see the humans trying to figure out this problem, whatever side of the coin you’re on in particular situations. Nobody wants to hurt each other, and I feel like, online, people are offended and can’t see the humanity, the empathy we have for each other, no matter what your viewpoint.”
Her insistence on finding common ground may owe something to her family’s own differences of opinion. “My family’s very conservative, socially and politically,” she tells me. “I don’t know how I came out of it! I’m definitely the black sheep. My parents saw Laid, and they didn’t like it because they said I wasn’t ‘ladylike’. So they’re definitely not seeing this, when there’s a big, stretchy penis in the show.”
Growing up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the family would often watch comedy films together. “What’s strange is that we have the same sense of humour. They like weird, gross comedy, just not when I do it. I grew up watching Austin Powers – it’s so absurd, and so blue. My parents loved Sausage Party, and that entire movie is one giant innuendo! But they don’t like when I make penis jokes. Maybe it’s hypocritical, or maybe it’s just hard to figure, seeing your baby girl do some of the stuff I do onstage.”
It has been a source of tension in the past. “When I came out to LA I started doing comedy and making weird comedy videos. I made a sketch video with with Nate in it, and it's pretty vulgar. The title sequence has 'NATE' written as a graphic, but the letters are all breasts, then a bunch of animated penises come into the shot – and that’s just the first scene.
“My mum saw it, and she said it was like porn. She really hurt my feelings. She told me how bad she thought it was, and said nobody would ever hire me. It’s ironic, because she specifically said that Disney will never hire me – and now I work on several Disney cartoons.” (Palamides has lent her voice to hit children’s cartoons including Bob’s Burgers and The Powerpuff Girls, in which she stars as the tomboyish Buttercup.)
“I understand that it was just because she cared about me and it was in an effort to protect me,” she continues, “My parents are really good people, they just want me to be professional, but they don’t understand. They’re businesspeople, and in their world you can’t draw dicks at work or you’re fired!”
She is slowly winning her mother over to her comedy, however. “She tries to be more supportive nowawdays. She’s even trying to convince me to let her see this show, knowing that I’m topless in it, but I don’t know…” Her brother, Lucas, is also tentatively coming round to it.
“He was coming to see Nate in LA, but at the last minute he cancelled his plane ticket because he was too scared to see my nipples. He was like, ‘I just can’t.’ I was really disappointed.” So she invited him to watch her do a 10-minute spot at a stand-up club the following week, without warning him she would be performing as the shirtless Nate. “It ripped the band-aid off! He watched through his fingers the entire time, but after the show he said it was hilarious.”
Palamides is bemused by others’ squeamishness around onstage nudity. “It’s not like Daniel Radcliffe’s family didn’t go see him in Equus!” she laughs. “I’m not concerned about being naked onstage. It’s not something that bothers me. I’m more nervous to mess up a joke. It’s never a topic of discussion when a man is topless, you know? It’s interesting that women’s nipples are so taboo. Dr Brown does most of his shows topless, but I don’t think he would ever be asked about it in an interview.”