Natasha Vaynblat is a comedy powerhouse based in NYC, where she regularly performs in the Upright Citizens Brigade’s hit show What I Did for Love in addition to her two solo shows: United Federation of Teachers and Self Help Yourself, Help! Her writing has been featured in McSweeney’s, Reductress, & Funny or Die, and she’s been featured in videos for IFC, Above Average, and UCB. In her free time, she’s responsible for the hilariously sartorial Instagram account Natasha Wears Clothes, which combines her love for maximalist fashion with joke-writing.
While she resides in NYC these days, she cut her comedy teeth early here in VA, performing alongside Coalition Theater co-founders Matt Newman & Katie Holcomb in ComedySportz’s High School League; and as a founding member of UVA’s longform improv group Amuse Bouche along with SNL’s Sasheer Zamata. Clearly there’s something funny in the water here.
Now, Natasha is gearing up for her next adventure as part of the Comedy Central’s new project, The Creators Program led by Nate Dern (Funny or Die, UCB.)
You’re a successful comedian & writer in NYC. But not everyone believes you’re really from here. Can you introduce yourself in the most Richmond way you know how?
Well I grew up in Henrico, in the heart of suburbia, so I guess my personality is somewhere between an old Wet Seal t-shirt and a stale Auntie Anne’s pretzel.
You and I have known each other for a minute, so I can attest that you’ve been funny AT LEAST since you were 14 years old. Take me back, girl. Let’s talk about when you realized you wanted to pursue comedy, and what that was like for you coming up?
Oh man, I had always secretly thought I was funny but I never had the guts to be funny outside of my small friend circle of awkward Russian immigrant girls. But then in my middle school drama class we played some short form games and for some reason I felt liberated. As soon as I saw that I could make a group of non-middle-school-immigrant-girls laugh, I was hooked. I was like: my comedy isn’t niche!
How much does where you come from & your upbringing influence your comedy?
We are all a sum of our parts, am I right?!?! I think we all don’t realize how much of our life experience creates who we are as a performer. I think because I’m an immigrant and spent a lot of time trying to prove that I had a valuable contribution to make to this country I felt very silly asking people to pay attention to me. So even still I always want to make sure the comedy I present is super polished because I feel guilty about making people watch something that’s uncooked. Does that even make sense? In the back of my brain I’m always like, “I’m sorry, thank you for listening, but you probably have somewhere to be, I’m so sorry!” There is this push and pull of desperately wanting to perform and desperately not wanting to take up space.
What did you think was funny when you started out? What kind of humor would you go for?
Wow, I think it’s taken me a really long time to figure out what I think is funny. And I know that will continue to change. I guess at the time I think I felt like you had to be a ham to get laughs. I felt like you had to be a human cartoon. That always felt unnatural to me but I felt like you needed a silly face and voice. Now, for improv especially, I find myself laughing hardest at the person who is pointing out what’s crazy.
Give me your best memory of your early comedy days.
One of my favorite early comedy memories was in high school when I decided to run for student government and delivered a “funny speech.” No one expected the meek little girl to make them laugh. And I crushed! And won! That’s the first memory I have of truly believing I could captivate an audience.
What was your experience like when you first got to NYC? There’s such a saturation of amazing talent, how did you find your own path to stand out?
I knew I wanted to cut my teeth in NYC so I was thrilled to move right out of college. But I knew I needed a job to get myself to NYC, so I got a job as a high school teacher. I thought it was a brilliant idea because teachers get out at around 4pm everyday and I was like, “I’ll have plenty of time for comedy at night.” Little did I know how absolutely consuming that job is. For that first year I was waking up at 6am and doing work until midnight. I didn’t actually find time to do comedy until my first summer off as a teacher.
But once I stepped foot in UCB I was hooked. The teachers and the school and the students were amazing. I feel very fortunate to have risen up the ranks there.
NYC and particularly The Upright Citizens Brigade Theater have such a mystique about them for a lot of aspiring comedians. A lot of people I talk to who are looking to “make it” feel like it’s impenetrable. Can you demystify it a little for us? Tell us what your experience coming up through classes, etc was like?
I had a great time but of course classes can be challenging. But I think people come into the theater looking to “make it” and that’s not what it gives them. It gives them incredible skills and knowledge. I am a far superior writer and performer because of the training I received. And that has led to me working in comedy. Also UCB provides an opportunity to meet like-minded people. So many UCB “success” stories are really of people meeting while taking classes and then going off and doing their own thing using the training they received.
Do you think one has to live in a big city like Chicago, LA, NYC to make a name for yourself in comedy?
I don’t think you HAVE to live anywhere but I certainly think there are way more opportunities in one of those three cities. So much of being a great performer is surrounding yourself with people who challenge you. I think you get the most saturation of talent in these cities, so it’s easier to keep pushing yourself there. So much of comedy is about building a community and I think these cities offer the best communities. With that said, you could also get discovered from anywhere, but I think that involves a lot more luck. I’m not much of a gambler, so I go where the odds are better.
You’ve also taught improv & sketch writing classes for the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater. What honest advice do you wish you could give to most students?
I’ve loved teaching both. My advice is to not come to class hoping the teacher thinks you’re funny. You’re already funny, that’s why you’re taking the class. Use this class to learn how to write or improvise well so that you can let your funny shine through. For that to happen you need to take the notes. Especially when you’re in level 1 or 2, just take the note.
Your latest project is The Creators Program, Comedy Central’s new pop culture show for the internet. What can you tell us about it?
I’m very excited! It’s still in the beginning stages but we will be doing a daily pop culture show on YouTube and Facebook, and a weekly sketch show as well. It’s been really exciting to start at something that is brand new. It feels like our baby. I hope people like it but I’m also prepared for the internet trolls.
You’ve received a lot of accolades, like being named one of the 9 Funniest Women in NYC Right Now, and one of Brooklyn’s top 100 influencers. Talk to me about how it feels to get that kind of recognition.
Guuuurl! IT FEELS GREAT! But also it’s fleeting. It’s a quick high and then you’re on to chase the next one. Unfortunately, this business requires those kinds of markers but the thing I find sustains me most is that I genuinely love the work. It is the thing I am most passionate about. I live and breathe it, and I never want to take a break. The business side of it can be a nightmare (generating heat for yourself, being in the right place at the right time). BUT the work is a real joy. My friends and I always say: salvation is in the work.
So you’ve got a pretty long rap-sheet of cool shit you’ve done. You’ve been featured on Funny or Die, IFC, written for McSweeney’s and Reductress, done your own one-person shows, etc etc. What, of everything, has been the most fun for you? Where do you feel at home creatively?
Honestly, it keeps changing. When I was first starting out as an improviser I remember being so intimidated by writing. And for the longest time I was too scared to try stand-up, and now I’m addicted. That currently gives me such a high. There is something amazing your brain does after you do a set, it feels like something out of A Beautiful Mind. The pieces just start coming together and you’re like, “of course, that punchline sucks ass, I have to try it this way.” And so now I’m addicted to fine tuning every joke. My husband and I have this thing that if I come home from a show he knows I need at least thirty minutes with my thoughts because my brain is on fire!
On the flip side, everyone has horror stories…what’s the worst show you’ve ever done, or the hardest you’ve ever bombed?
God, so many! I was once in a sketch show where I played a Bayou witch and I had a Creole accent (I’m a little white woman, btw) and it BOMBED so so badly. By the way, I pitched the character. So it was truly all my fault.
What do you wish you were better at, or felt more comfortable doing?
Riffing on stage when I’m doing stand-up. I do it sometimes but not at big shows, at big shows I still feel like I have to stick exactly to the script. I want to perform with a sense of freedom at all times.
Your Instagram account, Natasha Wears Clothes, has gotten a lot of attention as a medium for your comedy; it also feels very authentic to who you are.
YES! I think of all the things I’ve done so far, it feels the most unique because I’m not trying to do anything anyone else has already done. It came together organically. I genuinely love clothes and love styling myself, so I wanted to take photos of that; but then I also don’t like things to look “classically pretty.” So it just kind of morphed into this character Instagram. But also not even, it’s sometimes just cool clothes and funny captions. For the longest time people kept saying, “Okay, but what is it?” And for a while I was nervous that I didn’t have an answer. And now I see that as a sign that I’m doing something right because it’s truly my own expression. Here’s what it is: Me.
What’s the best advice you can give to folks who want to find their own “thing” in Comedy?
Just keep doing it. I still have so so far to go but every step feels like I’m getting closer to understanding exactly what I want to say with my comedy. Don’t force it, just do the work and it will naturally come. And also, do what you like. Do the thing that brings you joy.
You’ve also done a lot of one-person character shows. What inspires you when building a character; does it always start in the same place? What’s the process of making a character whole for you?
You know, it keeps changing. When I wrote my first show I wanted it to capture my experiences as a teacher so each character started from a real memory I had or a real person I interacted with. My second show was about making fun of my love-hate relationship with self help, so all of the seeds came from observations I had made about people in the self help space. I would say my characters never come from mannerisms or voices and almost always come from an observation or idea. I’m really jealous of people who can grow something just from a movement or sound.
Is there something that you feel like is important for you to say with your comedy? Or, what do you want your audiences taking away from your shows?
I have found that I am gravitating to saying things about gender and what it means to be a woman: I talk a lot about aging and sex and femininity. I think that’s a symptom of turning 30. But in the end, I just want to do what’s funny and make people laugh. I currently have a joke about taking gigantic dumps, so really it feels like I’ve come full circle.