SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “Lowkey Happy,” the eighth episode of “Insecure” Season 4.
May 31 was supposed to be a big day for Natasha Rothwell. The actor, writer, producer and comedian penned the eighth episode of Season 4 of “Insecure,” which was airing that night. It was her first solo writing credit on the HBO comedy, and it was the first episode to put exes Issa (Issa Rae) and Lawrence (Jay Ellis) in a room together, talking through their relationship like mature adults.
But before the episode aired, the world turned on its head. The death of George Floyd brought on new protests against police brutality and Black Lives Matter marches. At one such event in Los Angeles, Rothwell’s co-star Kendrick Sampson was hit with a baton and shot with rubber bullets. Criminal opportunists took to the streets to loot and riot amid the peaceful protests, resulting in city curfews. The morning of Rothwell’s episode, entitled “Lowkey Happy,” she took to her social media to say it felt “lowkey tone-deaf” to promote the episode “when the country is on fire.”
But she ended up tweeting along with the episode, nonetheless.
“It was really moving to see how much people wanted it and needed it,” Rothwell tells Variety. “The messages of gratitude and people saying they needed to laugh and for 30 minutes needed to be reminded of our humanity, it was just really special. What was the most surprising was I didn’t realize how much I needed it.”
She adds, “I put out the statement because I was feeling increasingly oppressed and scared and sad and distraught by everything that was going on, and I was finding it hard for myself to get excited for the show. And I try to use my social media presence to talk about the issues and not necessarily pretend like they’re not going on, so I’m really engaged online and I really try to be with my friends and my family and other people of color who are going through it this week. [The episode] felt like it was helping them and that’s all I ever want to do.”
Here, Rothwell talks with Variety about showcasing humanity through “Insecure,” the power of comedy as catharsis and the importance of self-care in addition to activism right now.
“Insecure” is set in present-day Los Angeles and speaks to a lot of issues that black individuals face, from the way neighborhoods change to micro-aggressions they face in places of business. Do you think it’s important for the show to directly address the marches or protests in the next season?
One of the things we pride ourselves on on our show is not pretending what’s going on is not going on, but our show is meant to speak to the resilience of people of color. We don’t have the privilege to stop and bemoan every social injustice — we have to go to work, we have to fight and survive and live our lives. There’s definitely moments in our show where the struggle may not be at more of the forefront, but it’s always in the background because we’re black people. And so for us, the real power of the show is to defiantly show our humanity by being regular. It’s not about turning Issa into a black activist protagonist. The activism of our show is subversive; it allows us to give voice to our humanity, which is part of activism.
In speaking to that humanity, what do you think it says about Issa and Lawrence that they got to a place where they could have the conversation they had in “Lowkey Happy”?
It was several seasons in the making that we were feeling as a writers’ room that we wanted them to have this specific conversation of unpacking what went down between them. At the beginning of [Season 4], it occurred to us as we were breaking episodes that this was the time and the place because they have the time and distance between each other in order to become better individuals. They wouldn’t revert back to immature responses; they were able to be vulnerable and really hear the other person. It felt like a great opportunity to also show their own individual growth — and a unique opportunity to show in a black relationship where there is infidelity, the woman’s part.
That’s so true. We usually don’t get to see these conversations often, but if we do it’s usually between white characters and it’s the man talking about his infidelity.
Yeah, and it’s less premeditation in us making a statement of the episode or trying to make a variation on a theme folks have seen before and more just wanting to write the stories we want to tell. It was just a byproduct. To me it was really special, but recognizing how special it is happened primarily in hindsight.
How does this episode set up what’s to come for Issa or for Issa and Lawrence together?
We didn’t want to put a period on the end of the sentence that is Lawrence and Issa and declare that they are getting back together or they aren’t getting back together because the episode wasn’t about that. It’s specifically why we have Issa leave the apartment and the camera stays with her. It’s an ellipsis. It speaks to the potential of not only her relationship with Lawrence but just the potential that lies within a woman that realizes the world is her oyster and there are endless possibilities and that she’s allowed to have that kind of night and it not mean everything, but it can mean something. That’s why it’s not a walk of shame! Her shoulders are back and she’s taking in the day and she’s realizing that she has agency, which I think is the big key. There’s so much of Issa’s story where her insecurities allow life happen to her and she’s reactive and there’s a feeling of quicksand when the decisions she makes aren’t from a place of having time and space to think about it. And this moment in their relationship and in her life just speaks to her being able to have control. And to me, the catalyst of this episode is not just about her love life, it’s about her life.
Do you feel there is an added pressure or responsibility on content creators to depict that agency and that humanity in the face of such inhumane treatment being splashed across the news?
I’m really grateful that black content creators aren’t a monolith: We’re nuanced and we all feel inspired to tell the story of what it means to be black given the lens that we have. Because we have so many varying takes on what it means and the effects of what’s going on in real life, it effects us creatively. And I feel like the calling upon black people to tell our stories, I’m just grateful there is a diversity of stories to be told within our culture. There are certain people who will feel the calling to express this climate and situation by directly addressing it and calling it by name, writing their version of protest art where it’s A to B addressing it, and for others it’s telling stories of love and romance that feels a little bit more of an antidote to the jarring, traumatic replaying of what television is sometimes. My hope is the response to the current situation remains as nuanced and varied and diverse, because that’s what our people are. [In “Insecure”] showing Issa, who is painfully ordinary is extraordinary as a result — because she’s just a regular girl with regular problems going through the world. She’s not the magical negro, she’s not the best friend, she’s not a nurse, she’s not fixing white people’s problems: She’s just as flawed as the next person. That’s just as necessary to me as direct protest art in order to see progress because the real issue is that without nuanced storytelling — when it’s so very black and white, and I mean that literally and figuratively — we aren’t seen as complete and total people, we are generalized, categorized and otherized as “less than.”
Do you feel inspired to respond with direct protest art?
My personal call that I’m answering for telling stories of people of color is to continue this specific tradition of allowing us to be seen in ways we haven’t been seen before. I am a comedy person, and I feel like there are times where it feels frivolous and it feels tone-deaf, as I said in my text, to be funny and to use the gifts that God has given me in this specific art form; it feels like it’s not contributing to the fight. But then I have moments like I did last night where I was literally looking through tweets and just sobbing because you have people saying, “Oh this is the first time I’ve laughed in a week”; you have activists that are on the front lines, who are dealing with actual injuries they sustained in the fight, saying, “Thank you for this moment of levity.” That reminds me that my calling is important, and so I want to continue to use humor and I want to continue to use subversion and I want to continue to use gravity and levity in the way “Insecure” does to tell stories of other marginalized groups. It’s important to me to have representation across the board. Pride month starts today, and the LGBTQ community, we’re linking arms; they fight with us and we fight with them, and it’s really important for the work and the art that I have created and will continue to create to speak to our need to be seen because that speaks to our humanity.
How do you approach comedy now, knowing that we may need light moments for our mental health but the state of the world with police brutality and the pandemic also may make it tougher to find humor?
For me it’s just calibrating the call to be funny with your authentic vulnerability and reality. And so for me, making jokes about the episode last night as I was tweeting, all of that was through the lens of the statement I put out beforehand, which was like, “I’m hurting, you’re hurting, we’re all hurting. Let’s try to hold each other’s hands as we go through this. If we laugh, we laugh, and if we don’t, we don’t.” So I would say, for comedians out there who are struggling, allow yourselves to feel hurt and feel sad and to grieve along with us — to fight along with us — and when you have the energy and the wherewithal to put together a joke, remember to punch up and not punch down. Make sure you understand that being mean is not a form of comedic catharsis; it’s contributing to the ritual that is out there that is perpetuating a hostile environment. One of my favorite quotes is George Saunders, who said, “Comedy is truth told quickly.” And we as comedians are truth tellers. George Carlin comes to mind, especially in terms of profanity; he used his comedy to speak truth to power. Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Moms Mabley, Whoopi Goldberg — there’s a long line of comedians being funny in dark times because these dark times that we’re seeing today aren’t brand new; it is a continuation of what has happened since blacks setting foot on America soil. But don’t put pressure on yourself to not feel what you’re feeling; be authentic and allow that truth to be told quickly.
Are you getting involved in any of the protests Kendrick is involved in?
We definitely talked prior to the George Floyd catalyst in this moment, and being on the front lines and marching, he is such an inspiration in that way. He is so vulnerable and he walks the walk. I’ve texted him, and I’m so glad that he’s OK, for sure, but for me it’s calibrating how I can best serve the community. One of the things I’ve said and continue to say is we all need to do what we can, when we can, if we can. I continue to use that as my barometer as how I can get involved. I promote his organization and have given and have marched and am doing the best that I can to do the best I can so substantive change can actually transpire. I am so proud of him and the work he’s doing and that these stories are being told.
Is there a line you think it’s important for people to walk between when to protect themselves from the triggering, troubling news and when to lean into watching in order to stay educated?
I think there’s a difference between attaching yourself to social media, to television 24/7, 365; that’s not healthy under the best circumstances. And I think one of the things I try to do in order to maintain my mental health is to try to control that input. It’s the ability to recognize that seeing moving images and pictures of George Floyd’s murder is triggering and traumatizing for me. So I can read something and become informed, rather than watching people replaying that footage incessantly on TV. I think that, for people of color, there is a very low tolerance for being inundated with those images and so our self-care, mental health routine is going to look very different from the self-care and mental health routine for people who don’t look like us. Everyone has a response to trauma that has to be calibrated on an individual level, but for me, I have to maintain self-care and take a step a way but it doesn’t mean I have to ignore what’s going on. I try to balance my day in a way where I engage as much as I can — I consume as much as I can — and then when I hit that wall where I feel triggered or traumatized by my participating in gathering knowledge, I take a break. But I do feel for a lot of people who aren’t people of color going through this time in history, feeling uncomfortable is exactly what you need to be feeling: You need to take that discomfort and use it as a catalyst for change; you have the luxury to engage and not see yourself lynched on screen. We are nursing actual wounds that have been inflicted upon our people for hundreds of years and your introduction into this discomfort and this pain, whether it’s new or something you’ve experienced before, lean into it and allow that to allow you to be a catalyst for change — allow it to allow you to have discussions with other groups that are homogenous, that may look like you, to have conversations on what can we do beyond just posting #BlackLivesMatter on our Twitter.
What do you advise people to do?
Are you calling council members to change policing budgets for your local government? Are you calling representatives to tell them it’s not OK? Are you picking up a sign and are you marching? Are you checking in on your brown friends? Are you making sure they’re OK? What are you doing to educate yourself on your kids on what it means to do or say something when they see a racist thing happen? Are you reading things that aren’t just the news — the millions of books that people of color have written about our experience so you can edify yourself so you can come to these moments when there is racial tension and not ask a black person to walk you through it? I feel like self-care versus participation is going to look very different for each and every one of us, but my hope is that if you have someone that you call a friend or an acquaintance that is a person of color, recognize that what they’re going through right now is vastly different from what you’re going through and also that if there’s pain or discomfort on your part as a non-person of color, lean in and check your privilege when you don’t like how it feels and you want to opt out of the struggle — because your friends who are people of color don’t have that option.