Before working on the HBO comedy series Insecure, writer and comedian Natasha Rothwell performed comedy in New York City, Washington D.C. and Tokyo. In 2014, she was hired as a writer for Saturday Night Live's 40th season and later, Rothwell wrote and starred in an episode of the Netflix sketch series, The Characters.
Rothwell was hired as a writer and actor on Insecure, created by Issa Rae and Larry Wilmore, during its first season. She plays Kelli, main character Issa's boisterous friend who never hesitates to speak her mind. The series is currently in its fourth season.
Recorded remotely during the coronavirus pandemic, NPR's Ask Me Another host Ophira Eisenberg and house musician Jonathan Coulton talked to Rothwell about Insecure, writing for Saturday Night Live, and performing comedy in Japan.
Later, Rothwell plays a game about real and fictitious home improvement shows called "Renovation or Fabrication?"
On Getting Cast As Kelli On Insecure
(Rothwell was hired as a writer on Insecure before getting the role of Kelli.)
"[The writers] do internal table reads, so we'll write a script and we'll read it as writers in the room just to hear it out loud. [Co-creator Issa Rae] kept having me read Kelli. They all knew I was an actor...but I had no ambitions to be on the show because it was my first scripted television show that wasn't [a sketch show]. [Executive producer Prentice Penny] and Issa called me into their office and I was like, 'I am in trouble, I've done something terrible.' ...That's when they asked me to play Kelli."
On Performing Comedy In Japan
(Rothwell spent a year performing comedy at the Tokyo Comedy Store.)
"It was really cool to do because, for me, it sharpened my ability to tell a joke that wasn't very niche. I came there from D.C. — the comedy I was doing was about Summer Associates and what's going on on the Hill. The things that would be really hilarious in D.C. didn't work in Tokyo so it made me think about what are the universal truths that we could subvert and make funny that are hilarious to anyone because it's recognizable?"
OPHIRA EISENBERG, HOST:
It's time to welcome our special guest. She writes and acts in the HBO series "Insecure," a show that follows four friends navigating the tricky professional and personal terrain of Los Angeles. Please welcome Natasha Rothwell. Hello.
NATASHA ROTHWELL: Hello. Thanks for having me. Hi.
EISENBERG: How are you doing?
ROTHWELL: I'm doing all right. I'm doing all right. I think it's just...
ROTHWELL: ...You know, every day is figuring out how to be. But, I mean...
ROTHWELL: ...I (laughter) - you know, I feel all right today.
EISENBERG: So I don't know how many people you are sharing your quarantine experience with in your house.
ROTHWELL: It is with me and my dog Lloyd Dobler. So he and I are just...
ROTHWELL: Talk about saying anything, he won't speak back to me. But, yeah, it's just him and I holding down the fort.
EISENBERG: First of all, your dog is adorable. Your dog just walked in to our - hi.
ROTHWELL: Oh, no. Oh, no.
JONATHAN COULTON, BYLINE: We allow dogs on this show. It's fine.
EISENBERG: Yeah, we're totally - yeah, the dog is totally welcome to play all the games.
ROTHWELL: I didn't know if he was in frame. And I was like - I was ignoring him hard, so.
COULTON: (Laughter) He noticed.
ROTHWELL: He noticed.
EISENBERG: And weren't you a photographer for J.C. Penney at some point?
ROTHWELL: I felt very - like, I took it very, very seriously. We had different backdrops. Soft focus was my big, like, push. I really loved the way it, like...
COULTON: (Laughter) Push the soft focus.
ROTHWELL: I pushed the soft focus.
ROTHWELL: Had an amazing time. I was really good at, like, getting kids to not cry. So I was just like, let me put on this football helmet and act like a monkey, and you're going to love this.
ROTHWELL: But you're going to love it more in soft focus, I guarantee.
COULTON: Maybe a little double exposure action?
ROTHWELL: Oh, yeah. We get...
COULTON: I was always - I always loved the double exposure.
ROTHWELL: Oh, my gosh. This Greek column? Put your elbows on it.
ROTHWELL: Put your elbows on this Greek column.
COULTON: You know, just like at home.
ROTHWELL: Yeah, natural.
COULTON: Just like you're hanging out at home by your Greek column.
ROTHWELL: By this Greek column, just natural - natural (laughter).
EISENBERG: Yes, exactly (Laughter). So right now, you write, produce and act in the HBO series "Insecure." So you were initially hired as a writer.
ROTHWELL: Yes, that's right. That's right. I moved to LA to write the show.
EISENBERG: And then you were offered the part of Kelli by Issa Rae. And Issa plays the main character on the show. And Kelli is the wild one in the friend group.
ROTHWELL: Yeah, yeah. It was about three episodes into writing the season - Season 1. We had developed, you know, Issa's world and felt like, you know, she needed, you know, a friendship group that was sort of diverse. And Kelli appeared on the page. And a part of our process as writers - we do internal table reads. So we'll write a script, and we'll read it as writers in the room just to hear it out loud. And Issa kept having me read Kelli. And they all knew I was an actor and did both things, but I had no ambitions to be on the show because it was my first sort of scripted television show that wasn't sketch. And Prentice and Issa one day called me into their office, and I was just like, I am in trouble. I've done something terrible.
ROTHWELL: I'm such a goody-goody.
ROTHWELL: And I was just, like, definitely principal's office syndrome. And so that's when they asked me to play Kelli.
EISENBERG: OK. So I think I'm right in saying you moved to New York in 2010 to pursue comedy. And right before that, you did a year in Japan teaching and performing at the Tokyo Comedy Store.
ROTHWELL: I did. I did. It was really cool to do because it, for me, sharpened my ability to tell a joke that wasn't very niche. 'Cause I'd come there from D.C., and so the comedy I was doing was just, like, you know, about summer associates.
ROTHWELL: And, like, you know, what's going on the Hill.
ROTHWELL: And, you know, the things that would, like, really be hilarious in D.C. didn't work in Tokyo. And so it made me think about, you know, what are some of the universal truths that we could subvert and make funny that are hilarious to anyone because it's recognizable? And so it really allowed me to open up my comedy with a worldview that I wouldn't have been able to otherwise.
EISENBERG: That's so great.
EISENBERG: And before you worked on "Insecure," you wrote for "Saturday Night Live" in 2014. So what was that experience like for you?
ROTHWELL: It was wild. I mean, I auditioned to be on the show and didn't get it and, you know, grieved that, thought it was done. Moving on. And I got a call, and my manager was just like, you know, your audition was one of the best ones that they'd seen, and they would like to interview you to write for the show. And it was - (laughter) the only thing I can, you know, relate it to is just like, you know, being broken up with from your crush and then getting a call being like, he wants to go on a date. (Laughter) It's like...
ROTHWELL: ...This could end miserably, but I'm going to do it. So (laughter) I'm so glad that I did.
COULTON: (Laughter) Yeah.
EISENBERG: All right, Natasha, we have a great game for you. Would you like an ASK ME ANOTHER challenge?
ROTHWELL: Yes, please.
EISENBERG: OK. So you told us you love HGTV.
ROTHWELL: I am guilty as charged, yes.
EISENBERG: That's the network with "House Hunters," "Love It Or List It," a bunch of other home renovation shows...
ROTHWELL: Oh, yeah.
EISENBERG: ...That are on - that I see on TV at my doctor's office.
ROTHWELL: (Laughter) Yes.
EISENBERG: So your game is called Renovation or Fabrication?
ROTHWELL: (Laughter) OK.
EISENBERG: It's very easy. We're going to give you a description of a show that may or may not have aired on HGTV or its spinoff network, DIY. You're just going to tell us if it's a real show or if it's something that we made up.
EISENBERG: Yeah. That's it.
ROTHWELL: All right.
EISENBERG: So here's your first one. "Unspouse My House" - interior designers show newly single clients how a home remodel can be the best therapy for heartache. Homes aren't the only thing getting a makeover. Hearts get renovated as well.
ROTHWELL: (Laughter) This is a real show (laughter).
EISENBERG: Sure is. Sure is.
ROTHWELL: And I'm mortified (laughter).
COULTON: You've seen it.
ROTHWELL: I've seen it.
COULTON: How is it?
ROTHWELL: It is actually really good because it's surprising how emotional people are to their stuff. It's, like, really kind of therapy to watch these people give up things they were holding on to, literally. So guilty as charged (laughter).
COULTON: All right. Here's another one, Natasha. "For Better Or Cursed" - married couples spend a weekend renovating haunted houses. If they can make it through the weekend, the house is theirs. Real or fake?
ROTHWELL: I want it to be real, but I think it's fake.
COULTON: You are right. It's totally fake.
ROTHWELL: That would be cool (laughter).
EISENBERG: That would be cool.
COULTON: It's not a bad idea for a show.
ROTHWELL: No, not at all.
EISENBERG: OK. How about this? "A Very Brady Renovation" - cast members who played the six "Brady Bunch" kids transform the house used in exterior shots of the classic sitcom. The goal is to make the inside look like it did on the show.
ROTHWELL: OK. Here's why I watched it.
COULTON: Oh, man.
ROTHWELL: I just have to get into it. So I grew up watching "The Brady Bunch," and I love mid-century modern architecture. And then here I am, like, Episode 3, crying over the remake of, you know, Greg's bedroom. I'm just like...
COULTON: And who lived - does somebody live in the house? Do you see the owner of the house on the show?
ROTHWELL: They talk about - I mean, in the first episode, they talk about who owned it and was putting up - putting it up for sale. And the development team at HGTV found out it was on sale and bought it. And so it's just...
COULTON: Oh, I see.
ROTHWELL: They just sort of, like, decided, oh, that's a show. And I'm wondering...
ROTHWELL: ...Like, can they buy the "Good Times" house? Like, can they buy (laughter)...
COULTON: I know. It seems like they could do a whole bunch.
EISENBERG: Keep this model going.
ROTHWELL: Keep it going.
COULTON: All right. Here's another one. "You Live In What?" - a ferry, a train depot, an ice cream factory. With imagination, tenacity and a few bucks, people have turned the most unlikely places into personal palaces. Real or fake?
ROTHWELL: That sounds so - that sounds so fake (laughter). That's a - but it sounds familiar.
COULTON: They all start to sound a little familiar after a while.
ROTHWELL: I know. They all sound familiar. I'm going to say fake. I'm going to say fake.
COULTON: I'm sorry. That's actually a real show.
COULTON: It ran for five seasons. Other unexpected living places included an ink factory (laughter), a clock tower and a distillery.
COULTON: Ink factory...
ROTHWELL: "You Live In What?"
COULTON: ...Is the worst, I think.
ROTHWELL: Ink factory - yeah, that sounds...
EISENBERG: Ink factory.
EISENBERG: Can't get that out.
COULTON: Just scrubbing and scrubbing and scrubbing.
EISENBERG: A lot of that.
EISENBERG: All right. How about "The Vanilla Ice Project"? Pop icon and knockout home renovator has started flipping homes. Will his Champagne taste end up costing him a profit, or can he and his crew flip this tacky mess and still come up on top?
ROTHWELL: Is that real? If that's real, I'm going to watch it today. Is that real?
EISENBERG: It's your lucky day.
ROTHWELL: What? What?
EISENBERG: Apparently, Vanilla Ice was already in the real estate game for about two decades before the show premiered.
ROTHWELL: Wow. That's Nice, Nice, Baby. I'm into it.
COULTON: "Island Hunters" - it's like "House Hunters," except instead of touring three homes and choosing one to buy, the extremely wealthy couple tours three private islands and chooses which one to buy.
ROTHWELL: Here's why I watched it.
COULTON: You have watched them all. It's amazing.
ROTHWELL: It is one of those things where I have it on while I'm cooking. And, sure enough, they go island hopping and are just like, yeah, this is great. This will do. It's...
COULTON: What are some of the complaints they make about the islands that they don't choose? I'm curious.
ROTHWELL: Well, there's some where it's like the couple is, like, rich/developers, so they're just like, you know, this is just, you know, hard to get to. I'm like, it's an island. What do you, like...
ROTHWELL: That's built into the thing. And then...
EISENBERG: But can we entertain?
ROTHWELL: Can we entertain?
COULTON: Yeah, we love to entertain, so we need a big entertainment space.
ROTHWELL: We need a big entertainment space. So, yeah, it being too remote or too hard to clear. And then sometimes when it's, like, an actual, like, the - just ridiculous. It's like, well, we wanted to do paddle boarding, but the channel's too narrow.
ROTHWELL: I don't know what life this is, but it's fun to watch.
EISENBERG: You did amazing.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
ROTHWELL: Thank you.
EISENBERG: You got all the points. You get all of the - all the points.
ROTHWELL: Yay (laughter).
EISENBERG: So thank you so much for joining us. And you can catch Natasha in Season 4 of HBO's "Insecure" right now. I have been watching it. And let me tell you, it is a breath of fresh air, especially right now.
ROTHWELL: Thank you.
EISENBERG: Thank you so much.
ROTHWELL: Thank you so much. Thanks for having me, guys.
COULTON: Thanks, Natasha.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.