I first met Natalie Shure on an organized trip to Auschwitz. Sites of historical atrocity are unusual stomping grounds for a standup comedian, but Shure is no typical jokester. A tall brunette rocking horn-rimmed glasses and a flowery frock, the 27-year-old dresses like a sixties fashion icon and banters like a Russian History professor. When she’s not frequenting the city’s standup clubs or co-hosting her monthly Barely Regal standup show at the Palace Café in Greenpoint, you’re most likely to find her at the library with her head buried in a Soviet history textbook.
At NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute (where we’re both students), she takes a break from working on her thesis about drug resistant tuberculosis in the former Soviet Union and tells me, “I like dark jokes. I tell a lot of jokes about history and genocide. Those are my favorite kind of jokes.” You can hear some of them at Palace Café on Wednesday, or just go on and read the B+B Q+A.
Tell me about your interest in history. Do you see a contradiction between your academic interests – which can be rather bleak – and your life as a comedian?
I’m someone who’s always loved history and the dark aspects of history. My background is in Russian history, I’ve lived in Russia and Ukraine and I speak Russian. And obviously there are a lot of darker moments in that history and that’s just something I’ve always been very intellectually attracted to. But I also think that I’ve always been a relatively funny person. So I don’t see them as inherently contradictory, because people aren’t limited to one passion.
When you’re talking about those topics, there are always going to be people who are not into it, and that’s the risk that you take. When I’m writing stuff about genocide, you just try to make sure that you’re pointing out something or that you’re finding humor in something that isn’t cruel in itself. I think that’s the key. Like I have a Holocaust joke that is not about Holocaust victims. I have rape jokes that aren’t about rape victims.
I love Anthony Jeselnik. He’s a very sharp, very dark joke writer. And then I love Sarah Vowell. What I love about her is that she writes books that I would love to write, very academic, researched, historical books, but very funny.
I mean, I think that “argument” is a very generous word for those claims. I don’t think there are too many people making intelligent, reasoned arguments that women aren’t funny. But it is true that there are fewer women in comedy and I think that’s for a few reasons. I think standup comedy is an act of assertiveness. You’re taking a microphone, you’re telling everybody to shut up and listen to what you have to say, and that’s not how women are socialized. Women are encouraged to be docile, to follow the lead. I think there are a lot of cultural barriers that dissuade women – well, lets face it, that dissuade anyone – from doing standup.
Yeah. But I guess I like them for different reasons. Like the Holocaust, everyone knows about it and it’s obviously very horrible. But Holocaust jokes have also become kind of hack. I’ve heard so many jokes about the Holocaust that are terrible and I hate those. Hearing a good, new, original Holocaust joke – that doesn’t happen a lot. And those jokes are awesome if you can write them in a way that’s new and interesting. I also write a lot of jokes about Native Americans in the U.S., which some historians consider a genocide. I’m, like, obsessed with Sacagawea, comedically.
I feel like she’s a bizarre character to me. I don’t know why but it’s always just struck me as funny: Sacagawea was basically the liaison who brought in the representatives of the population who pummeled her whole community. Why does anyone like Sacagawea? You think she’d be this figure that no one would be too into. And also she’s on a coin, and her baby’s on it. Why is there a baby on that coin? That’s ridiculous. You have a baby on a coin without earning its place on it.
Exactly! I’ve always thought Sacagawea is weird in a way that no-one talks about. And whenever you have that feeling about something, that it’s weird in a way that no-one talks about – that’s how you know there’s a joke there. I actually had a dirty joke about Sacagawea when I first started.
Sure, So I’d be like, “I haven’t been dating in a while, so I have to do something about my pubic hair, because right now it’s like overgrown wilderness. Like, you would need Sacagawea to lead you through it. [Pause] And, she’d actually be the perfect tour guide because she specializes in places where no white man has ever been.”