Heading into the back half of The Characters’ eight-episode run, so far each comedian’s showcase can be roughly divided into one of two categories. Kate Berlant and John Early used their half-hour to craft a central theme around the various characters they played, while Lauren Lapkus and Henry Zembrowski’s outings were more about the sketches, weaving their characters together with a loose connective thread. Both approaches have produced varied but definite rewards—the more unified episodes have gone further into cringe comedy and subtle, often deeply unpleasant character work, while the sketch-based episodes have been broader (although often cringeworthy in their own right). Natasha Rothwell’s episode is more akin to the looser feel of the sketch-based episodes, but it’s by far the funniest example. In fact, it’s delightful.
Rothwell, Upright Citizens Brigade veteran and former Saturday Night Live writer, provides the connection herself, as she, surrounded by flowers in her backstage dressing room, apparently basks in the afterglow of her successful episode of The Characters. A friend’s texts invite her to go out for one drink, but she’s got jury duty in the morning and declines. Cut to the morning after, where she, clutching a box of “Basic Bitch” wine, wakes up late, hastily Febreezes her pits (and does that Holly Hunter in Broadcast News trick of walking through a cloud of the stuff) and heads out for jury duty—the trials and tribulations of which forms her actual episode of The Characters.
Like I said, loose. But it works exceptionally well, with the deeply hung-over Rothwell coping with the endless waiting (and ever-repeating video of why jury duty is so important), and a trio of other Rothwell characters: A crotchety (and crotch-obsessed old lady), a Latina all-too-acquainted with the legal system, and a Jamaican nanny holding an impossibly large number of white babies.
If there’s a knock to be made against the engaging Rothwell, it’s that she’s not the most versatile mimic, with the old lady’s tales of “bulldogging” (“it’s like doggy-style, but with shorter legs and more skin”) emerging through an offset jaw that’s meant to stand in for old age. But Rothwell herself (or this waiting-room version of herself) anchors the proceedings with exhausted good humor, with the four women (and some other poor souls we’ll get to later) bantering past each other, and their different takes on life and whether someone can be convicted of “man’s laughter” rather than “manslaughter.” United only in their absolute, bored conviction that this is a waste of their day, the characters’ shared fate becomes the base from which Rothwell’s other sketches leave and return.
And the sketches are uniformly wonderful. In the first, a subway car’s passengers (including a pair on their way to that room) are accosted by Rothwell in the form of a mountainous, Hagrid-like beggar who’s used his time haunting the New York Public Library to read all of George R.R. Martin’s A Song Of Fire And Ice novels. Rumbling through the car, he blackmails everyone into giving him money (and one guy’s HBO Go password) in exchange for not spoiling Game Of Thrones. It’s a funny idea, and, in the specificity the details the man lets out (“No? I guess I will have to tell you what character turns into a tree. Now I know that sounds stupid but there’s a lot of stupid shit that happens in the books that hasn’t happened on the show yet!”) and Rothwell’s performance, make the sketch keep building in hilarity. He’s also used his time to master the Harry Potter and Hunger Games literary universes, and, even when stymied by one woman’s choice of The Power Of Now, he’s still got some advice, blustering, “Today’s your lucky day… For one’s journey to self discovery cannot be tampered with. Do some yoga.” (He’s still able to spoil a deaf lady’s Game Of Thrones experience, thanks to the library’s free ASL classes every Thursday. There’s air conditioning and everything.) When the man spills his own tragic backstory—tales of home repossession couched in Game Of Thrones details—it’s sad and funny at the same time. The guy’s got problems, but his solution is as clever as the sketch itself.
“’Cause I’m well read and that undermines your expectations!,” yells the subway man to the retreating passengers, something that could also be said of Tynesha, another outsized Rothwell character with a hilarious, surprising mix of weirdness and wisdom. An adult-sized child of indeterminate age (“I’m between 2 and 10 and my dad is a professional athlete,” she blurts at one point), Tynesha is the sort of broad character that—were Rothwell still writing for SNL—might be driven into the ground with repetition, but here, the continual turns in the bit keep coming with delightful originality. Supposedly there in search of her worker mom, Tynesha struts through the office, regaling each coworker in turn with blustery wisdom mixed with kid-specific details about her obviously-difficult childhood. Emerging past her perpetually runny nose and sugar-stained lips, her advice, delivered in a stream of hyperactive little-kid babble, finds her providing sage advice to these beleaguered drones (“Why are you dressed for the job you have instead of the job you want?,” “Stop lookin’ for a man to complete you!”) unendingly funny and improbably sweet. Finding one middle-aged woman weeping in her cubicle, Tynesha simply presses the woman’s face against her enormous jumper and states, “You is kind, you is smart, you is important” before stomping off to her next encounter. (“My journey continues.”) As with the subway man, Tynesha is a near-perfect sketch, a confluence of performance and premise that, like its heroine, just keeps rolling along, leaving happiness in its wake.
Again, the connections between sketches are of secondary importance in this episode, but there’s a sweet runner (or biker) in the form of Gavin Spieller’s overweight bike messenger, whose journey through the episode sees him interacting with the subway man, Tynesha, and, in the development that springs Natasha and her cohorts from jury duty, the female baliff in charge. After Tynesha’s advice in the office (she and Gavin know and like each other already) that “Your task is not to seek love, but to find the barriers within yourself that you have built up against it,” he rides next door to the courthouse and declares his love to the baliff, who sets everyone free. Before then, however, Rothwell, on a lunch break in the park, has a delightfully awkward run-in with model and actor Tyson Beckford (playing himself, who, in this reality, is also, improbably, a Bernie Madoff-style white collar criminal).
Their meeting is a sunny, silly parody of rom-com meet-cutes and a great showcase for Rothwell, who reacts to meeting the seeming man of her dreams by alternately oversharing (“I’m not usually this heavy,” “I haven’t had sex in so long I’m practically a virgin”) and blurting out spacey non-sequiturs. (On hearing he has a dog, she muses internally, “I hope he’s cute.”) She and Beckford make a great team, their smiling mini-courtship partaking of a matching loopiness that’s irresistible to watch. (Their moony-eyed banter keeps steamrolling over exchanges like, “So, what are you doing in, like, 10-15 years?” “I don’t know—probably a hysterectomy.”) Throughout the episode, Rothwell’s irrepressible good nature keeps lending an overall generosity of spirit that’s, like here, simply immune to life’s incessant attempts to get her (and her avatars) down.
The one exception is the doctor sketch, where Rothwell, alongside a male nurse (a very funny Gary Richardson), gradually badger a patient with chigger bites (30 Rock’s Sue Galloway) into revealing her prejudices. It’s a lot of playing off the word “chigger,” sure, but, as the sketch progresses, it gets more and more pointed (while remaining true to the silliness of the premise), until the flustered patient—after the conversation becomes less and less metaphorical—simply asks, “Are we still talking about bugs?” (”No!,” reply the doctor and nurse in unison.) Both turning to spike that camera after the woman asks about shots with an outraged, “You can’t just go around shooting chiggers just because you’re scared,” Rothwell and Richardson puncture the fourth wall completely, getting a big, uncomfortable laugh.
But when Rothwell, freed from jury duty, finds a friend eating at a sidewalk cafe and launches into the episode’s concluding music video, “Basic Bitch,” the comic’s persona establishes itself most strongly. The joke, that Rothwell and lots of women like her simply have no time for catty insults about the little comforts they take from things like Nicholas Sparks novels, cheap wine, selfies, two kinds of hummus mixed together, and inexpensive yoga pants, takes the form of a defiant rap from Rothwell. It’d make an all-time great SNL Digital Short (SNL-er Cecily Strong gleefully takes a verse, alongside Chris Gethard and others), with Rothwell’s chorus, “Calling me basic is a compliment!” a triumphantly unifying anthem for women who know that life—like a day spent in jury duty—can be a deadening slog, and that there’s no shame in finding your little joys where you can. Like this episode, it’s a silly, exquisitely executed piece of comedy.
- Waking up, Natasha finds an empty box of Pop Tarts with an IOU from herself for one Pop Tart.
- Everyone knows John Snow is dead.” “Or is he? OR IS HE?!”
- “A subway rider, like a Lannister, always pays his debts.”
- Subway man, intuiting a Kindle-toting woman is reading Fifty Shades Of Grey: “You don’t give me money, I’m gonna tell you what happens after Anastasia signs a contract for butt sex. Thank you very much. It’s more butt sex.”
- And, after extorting a guy’s HBO Go password: “You should always have a capital letter. I could guess this.”
- The doctor is wearing earrings that appear to be made from the dried fruit snacks the Latina in the jury room makes for her Etsy store.
- “I can tell you’re the kind of guy who wouldn’t care if my boobs were monstrously lopsided. And they are. But they’re still fun.”
- Tynesha, to Gavin: “You the only one I like. And my mom work here!”
- Rothwell, trying to rally her fellow jury room inmates: “I know it seems like we wasted an entire day in this waiting room when we could have been home, horizontal on a couch, within an arm’s reach of cheese.”
- The nanny, on her way out: “I’m gonna take three and leave you two. Their address is on their feet.”
- “I love dollar slices.” “Mine was 78 cents. Perks of being a woman I guess.”