(Photo: Tim O’Keefe)

When opening New York shows, stand-up comedian Natalie Cuomo often cracks a one-liner in reference to her recognizable surname. “The only thing I have in common with the governor of New York is my last name and my body piercings,” she smirks, igniting the audience with laughter. 

A professionally trained actress who passionately leaped into stand-up three years ago, the 25-year-old comedian carries herself with an unapologetic authenticity that can even be felt through a Zoom screen. Her sharp-winged eyeliner, extensive tattoo collection, and brunette hair serve as decoration to what she holds within: a killer work ethic, pure talent, and a desire for authentic, intimate human connection through her comedy.  

Although she initially pursued acting after graduating from the Stella Adler Studio in 2017, the Queens-born performer began constantly attending open mics and found that comedy gave her more autonomy over her material. “I felt like I could be myself more,” Cuomo explained.  

What sets Natalie apart from other comedians is how intimately unique her material is. “I’m very personal with my material. I joke about my romantic relationships, the way I view the world, my anxiety, and growing up in New York City,” she explains. “I would definitely describe my comedy as dark humor with a lightness to it. I, myself, am a very light and tender person, but the subject matter close to my heart is that of adversity.”  

Fast forward a year: In the face of unprecedented adversity at the hands of the pandemic and government regulations around gatherings and venues, the entire industry has had to get creative in regaining a new normal. “I did a lot of Zoom shows. So many Zoom shows,” Cuomo said. “They’re cool, they’re a way to stay connected to the community and keep working that muscle, but it just isn’t the same.” She let out an exasperated laugh, reminiscing about her days of performing to squares on a laptop. “Some Zoom shows are really good. But they’re also really soul-crushing and embarrassing.” 

To Natalie, nothing can quite match the authenticity of live stand-up. “I did a show indoors in Jersey recently,” Cuomo grinned. “I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I can’t believe I used to do this every night! Like, this is a living, this is cool!” Comedy largely acts as a platform for perspectives. And when Natalie– a fan of comics like Sarah Silverman, Whitney Cummings, Nikki Glaser, and Ali Wong– got tired of hearing the same male perspective, she created a show where audiences can hear a new one: the female one. She launched That Time of the Month Comedy Show, at The People’s Improv Theater, in 2019. “It is a male-saturated industry. You’ll do a show and it’s six guys and one woman, and by the time you get up, the audience is like ‘Thank god! Anything other than a guy, like fuck!’”

As a female comedian in the male-dominated space, Cuomo is no stranger to hearing unwanted perspectives from others – just the other day, she went on Twitter and saw a thread ranking the funniest comedians. Except the list was based on how hot the women were, not their talent. Unfortunately, this experience is one of many similar ones for Cuomo and other female comedians. 

“It’s really annoying. I mean, literally a few days ago I went to a show and saw this comic that I respect. He’s just like, ‘Hey, what’s up, are you a comedian or a model?’” She smirked, physically reacting to the annoyance she felt recounting the situation. “I don’t think it’s a compliment. I don’t think someone would say that to a male. A lot of jokes are about how you look, and a lot of them are easy swings about using your sexuality to get somewhere. And I think it’s frustrating. You start to gauge quickly how to navigate people talking down to you … you have to have thick skin to be a woman in comedy, for sure.” 

Perhaps these men are simply jealous of a confident, successful woman in the industry. As her best friend, photographer Tim O’Keefe, puts it, “She magnetizes people. I feel she connects easily with people because of her ability to internalize her experiences. It’s not very often that I encounter someone who can be profoundly vulnerable yet still able to share the depth of the human condition.” 

The other kinds of stuff that makes Natalie uniquely herself? Her interest in the worlds of tattooing, motorcycling, and podcasting. She is the co-host of the comedy podcast Thirst Trap, and marries her various interests in her second podcast, Classy Trashy. Podcasting provides another avenue for the comedian to express herself, as Cuomo explains. “It helps us throw ideas back and forth and just gets our creative juices flowing.” Classy Trashy Podcast is an extension of Classy Trashy Magazine, which Cuomo co-founded, in which she dissects “the fascinating and expansive world of tattoo artistry and its various subcultures.” 

“I just interviewed the coolest woman,” Natalie said, thoughtfully. “Her name is Shanghai Kate and she is one of the first female tattoo artists and she is just so awesome. Talking to her, I realized the importance of womanhood and being a woman, and she talked about tattooing as a woman’s art.” While Natalie does not tattoo herself, she found herself connecting with Kate through her most consistent project for the past six years: an embroidery shop on Etsy. “I feel like it’s pretty similar to tattooing. It’s very detail-oriented tracing, it’s very specific in the same way and it is a woman’s work in that way and I’d say that’s one of my main intimate hobbies.” 

In juxtaposition to what many would describe as her more masculine interests, she has very much chosen to embrace her sexuality and femininity. “I strive to demonstrate the coexistence of being womanly and funny and intelligent,” she shares. “I think that sexuality is power… For a lot of time, men have been harnessing women’s sexuality for their power, and I want to take the power back in my sexuality. But, I also am a lot deeper than my sexuality and I work really hard as a comedian and a producer and what I have is because of my work ethic and because of my writing.” 

Despite being a self-proclaimed germaphobe, the lessening restrictions have allowed Natalie to get back to in-person shows, complete with masks, hand sanitizer, and even mic condoms for the comedians. In June, she started producing a show at QED Astoria, and then started producing a Saturday show at The Tiny Cupboard in Bushwick, for which she commutes from her home in Jersey City where she resides with her dog,  listening to whichever Spotify playlists best reflects her mood that day. 

“The first show we did at QED, we were so desperate to perform,” says Natalie, setting the scene. “It was pouring rain, okay, and the audience sat there with umbrellas and the comics had umbrellas and no microphone. It was ridiculously depressing and insane but people were really hungry to see comedy. Then The Tiny Cupboard totally blossomed into this beautiful thing.”  Founded by Amy Wong and Matt Rosenblum, the small, experimental space has evolved during the pandemic, first with Zoom shows and then, once outdoor gatherings became a possibility in September, with 20 shows a week on its spacious open rooftop.

While comedy clubs and venues continue to readjust and open as new regulations are set each day, the pandemic has inspired a new career goal for Natalie: self-releasing a comedy special. “I regretted not putting some sort of pandemic thing together… I feel like I have jokes I’m ready to put online and retire,” she laughs. “You just gotta do it, like anything else.”