(Note: It’s finally happened. I’m covering a sketch I can’t find a full clip of online. It especially sucks because it’s one of the more obscure sketches I’ve written about so far, and the first anchored by a performance from a woman of color. You should definitely watch it, though. I’m embedding the early staged version because it’s the cleanest, most audible rendition of the material, but I’m going to comment on the version on Netflix. If you can stand YouTube gigglepusses, you could try to watch this clip, but I would recommend you look it up on Netflix instead if you can. It’s Episode 5 of The Characters, and it starts at about the 3:15 mark. There’s enough interesting stuff in the whole episode to make it worth your time but for me, this is the clear standout).
Our last sketch was an old, theatrical British piece about class, and in some ways, today’s sketch is a modern American take on the same issue. As you can (hopefully) see above, it originated onstage through an Upright Citizens Brigade group, and while it was written Erik Tanouye, it will forever be associated with writer/performer Natasha Rothwell and her episode of Netflix’s awkwardly titled The Characters, a show that none of my friends seemed to have watched the entirety of and is most likely destined to be a one-season oddity, perhaps deservedly so. (Tanouye is listed as a “Creative Consultant” in the credits of the show).
If you weren’t one of the precious few to check it out, The Characters was a sketch series with an ingenious premise. Each episode centered around one performer, who portrayed multiple people and starred in numerous filmed sketches. To me, the most exhilarating part was the intro, in which a camera wandered down a dressing room hallway and pushed through a door decorated with the name of that episode’s star. As someone who loves shows that promise something new in each installment, this is pretty much a distillation of what I want: a door opening, with the possibility of anything being on the other side.
Unfortunately, a lot of what was on the other side proved underwhelming, meandering, shapeless, and sometimes out-and-out bad. Still, all of the performers were clearly talented, and there were some moments of brilliance that don’t deserve to be forgotten. I also believe the concept is too good to abandon, no matter how hit or miss the results may have been. So let’s take a look at the most direct hit from the episode that seems to be the general favorite.
Rothwell has written for several episodes of SNL and stars as Kelli on Insecure. Her Characters episode has an overarching story but you don’t need to know it to get this bit, in which she plays a formidable homeless man with an immensely chewable comedy beard. Instead of begging for change or trying to get onlookers to pity him, he threatens to reveal spoilers from the Game of Thrones books (technically A Song of Ice and Fire, but I’ll allow it). It proves to be effective right off the bat, as a terrified commuter forks over some change to avoid finding out exactly what happens to Jon Snow (“A subway rider, like a Lannister, always pays his debts”, Rothwell responds). Soon, the homeless man is using this same tactic to score an HBO GO password. The sketch takes such hilarious turns and is filled with so many amazing lines that I’m tempted to just quotes it (minus the use of the word “midget”, which it should be noted is not ok, although perhaps forgivable given this particular character).
There’s a weird scene in the middle that feels like it would normally go at the end, where Rothwell’s character suddenly launches into a soliloquy about his tragic downfall in the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis, which he can only describe by dropping Game of Thrones references like Brienne of Tarth and the White Walkers (“the White Walkers were WHITE MEN who WALKED up to my house with EVICTION PAPERS!”). But no sooner has he ceased his tale than he’s lashing out again at a “grown-ass man reading Harry Potter” (guilty as charged). He can even sense that a quiet white woman is reading 50 Shades of Gray on her Kindle and spoils what happens in the book despite getting money from her (“it’s more butt sex”).
I’ll admit that someone who doesn’t take public transportation every day (or read while doing so) might not relate to this sketch very much. I’m willing to bet that a lot of people do, though. I personally have seen countless people who resemble Rothwell’s character here make speeches to silent audiences on moving trains. You can almost feel everyone rivet their eyes to their laps. How is a good person supposed to react in this situation? Most people will tell you that they’d prefer to give to charities or be sure that their money is going somewhere that will do good, but how many people actually do? Confronting the truth of poverty is uncomfortable, and this sketch punches up with an oppressed man getting a sort of revenge and hitting the subway riders where it hurts (it’s also a nice touch that Rothwell’s victims include members of multiple races and genders, depicting a realistically diverse train car all full of passengers trying to avoid the homeless man’s comments).
In the end, the well-read man may only have gained enough money for Chipotle and a side of chips and guac, but there’s a kind of symbolic justice in the way he gets to evict the passengers out of his “house”. As he says, “I’m well-read and that undermines your expectations.” He’s actually underselling himself here, since he’s not only literate, but also fluent in ASL and knowledgeable about the best internet password security practices. Rothwell’s voice jumps brilliantly between sarcastic cajoling to shouting (the way she bellows “GAME OF THROOOOOONES” at the beginning should be edited into every GoT intro from now on).
Nobody in this scene appears to have their mind changed by this encounter, but I’d wager that it might make you consider how you interact with and judge strangers a little differently. If The Characters is truly dead, let’s hope Rothwell’s career only continues to thrive. She definitely deserves it based on this, and at the very least I’d want her to come up with more incredible HBO theme songs.