CULTURE & ARTS
09/16/2015 09:25 am ET

Meet Kate Berlant, The Comedian Who Refuses Categorization

Welcome to the absurd, surreal, New Age-y, feminist, musical, Twitter-filled world of Kate Berlant.
Juan Gabriel Pareja via Getty Images

"Do you guys steal?" a woman asks nonchalantly, sauntering around a lit stage. She's got big hair and bright lipstick, but she's not playing the part of sexed-up vixen. She's not trying to be a buddy-buddy cool girl, either: Kate Berlant's schtick is a little harder to define than all that.

"No one steals?" she asks. "Just a room full of … nerds." She's almost got the air of a former homecoming queen, a mom goading her shy kid -- but that's not quite right, either. She shifts quickly away from the quirky persona to launch into a personal rant: 

"I steal in a very specific way. I believe 100 percent that women have the right to steal cosmetics."

The reason, she explains before returning to her goofy, almost absurd persona, is that women, when born, are "forced into an economy where you have to pay for your own subjectivity." She delivers this line with a chipper tone, arousing laughs and shouts of agreement from the crowd.

That's one of Berlant's goals when she gets on stage: to resist easy categorization -- an act of defiance that's especially important as a woman in comedy, so often pigeon-holed into certain descriptors. Her other aim, she says, is simply to make her audience happy. 

She'll be performing impressions of academics, therapists and faux-Zen Californians at a sold-out show at The Bell House in New York City on Wednesday night. But first, she talked to The Huffington Post about the musical magic of words and her "bleak" obsession with Twitter. 

You’re in California right now -- are you excited to return to New York for the show at The Bell House?

I’m really excited! I get to go back to New York pretty often. I was just there for about a month, a month ago. But I’m always so happy to return.

You did your Master’s at NYU, studying women in comedy. What did deeply studying that topic teach you?

Well, I didn’t really study women in comedy -- I was in a Master’s program rooted a lot in critical theory and feminist theory and critical race studies and performance. I was interested in the female body on stage and the history of that. In particular, the role women occupy in the popular imagination and also women in relation to comedy and the ways in which comedy is typically delegated to men. 

But I don’t think of my performance as a reaction to that, necessarily. It’s hard for me to think about what my performance is “about.” 

Sure. In your monologues, you use a lot of academic jargon, revealing truths and mocking the language used at the same time. Why do you think academia and rhetoric are such funny topics?

I always just liked the way that language sounds musically. I also think it’s interesting how academia and being in that world is simultaneously repulsive and really exciting. Using that elevated language -- I mean, it’s true, you can’t have an idea about a concept unless you know the word. So, there is value to intellectualism. [Laughs] But, at the same time, it’s funny or complicated the ways that kind of language excludes dialogue. It creates and also excludes understanding.

I think the act of performance is in itself a feminist gesture. So I think the most important thing is just to take up space.

Do you think there are other comedians and writers who parody academic jargon well?

No. Just kidding. Reggie Watts is one of my obvious heroes and mentors, and what he does with language is so masterful. This comedian who’s a Canadian guy, who doesn’t have nearly enough recognition is David Dineen-Porter. He’s a brilliant improviser and also this insane master of words.

Obviously there’s constant, important talk happening about women in comedy. As a woman in comedy, do you feel it’s your responsibility to address women’s issues in your jokes?

Well, I’m a staunch feminist. I do comedy. I think the act of performance is in itself a feminist gesture. So I think the most important thing is just to take up space. There’s obviously deep, like, feminist subtext in my work, but sometimes I make more direct feminist assertions. Like, I have a joke about stealing cosmetics that aired on Comedy Central. That’s a very overt feminist issue.

I think a big part of how I relate to it in my performance is by resisting definition. I think that’s really key to feminism -- refusing to be categorized. Resisting ideas of what it means to be a woman, or what it means to be a woman on stage.

In that way I think I’ve had a lot of early-on experiences of people being a little bit less than hospitable if I showed up to a show. When I was starting out, it was like, “Oh, a girl comic’s here. She’s gonna suck,” or whatever. So I’d go on stage and defy their expectations of what I was going to do, particularly because of the way I look. I wear makeup. I will wear a heeled boot! These different signifiers made people think that my comedy was going to be a certain way. Resisting that -- and also I think maybe just being a woman who isn’t necessarily easily digestible -- I think the universally pleasing woman is a grotesque fantasy. So, I think not aiming to please everyone and doing something that is more difficult to just readily consume.

That being said, I think I’m in a lot of ways very broad. I don’t think of myself as delivering a very specialized thing that only members of the elite will be able to enjoy. I do think a lot of people see my stuff and they’re like, “Oh that was just weird!” That’s a word I’ve embraced. But I think there is a power in that, in subverting people’s expectations, and confusing them even a little bit

Yeah, I think your jokes are a little bit -- well, I don’t want to say absurd, but they’re without straightforward themes, making things like gender irrelevant, and the gender of the person delivering the joke irrelevant. Is that type of humor important to you?

Definitely.

Your jokes have been classified as absurdist, surrealist and a bunch of other things. What descriptor would you use? Or, you can not use one -- that works, too.

It’s always embarrassing to describe your work or to classify it -- “I’m an absurdist comedian,” or something. I relate to that word in certain ways, and I also don’t relate to it in certain ways. But I also think it’s pretentious to be like, “There is no category to describe what I do.” I don’t relate to that either.

It’s more of a collage: different modes of performance tied together.

Raffi Kirdi via Getty Images

The experience of your shows has a lot to do with confusing performance with conversation. Like, you always address your audience directly, even though you have a background in improv. Why do you think this state of confusion is important?

It’s fun for me. Because I do always hope that I’ll be able to improvise, and be in a place where it’s going well and it’s comfortable to free associate.

Comedy is classically about clarifying boundaries, so sometimes you blur those boundaries, even just for yourself, privately -- what’s your own voice and what’s somebody else’s voice; what’s autobiographical, what’s not. Does that even matter?

There’s a pretty big assumption that women on stage -- or in any medium -- that their work is inherently autobiographical. I think subverting that creates confusion, and is exciting.

Your New Age-y, self-help rants remind me a little of Miranda July’s stories. What inspires these jokes?

A couple different things. Therapy. Therapy language is very valuable to me and also ridiculous. And I had a day job working for an energy healer in New York and her language and approach -- although at the time I didn’t realize it -- definitely seeped in.

I don’t know historically what exactly is going on, but it does seem like in a certain socio-economic background, even among performers, there’s this interest in health. I missed the boat of when being a comedian meant doing coke and being drunk every night. I feel like that’s no longer fashionable. It’s more fashionable to be sober and in shape.

Also, I grew up in Los Angeles. The obsession with wellness and the vaporous language that surrounds that, and how it’s really so capitalistic. It’s Zen-capital or something. It’s -- to use that word -- absurd. That interests me. I didn’t directly make a decision to start using that language, or start inserting that into a persona I would do. It just started happening. 

Sometimes your jokes seem to be about you, but often they’re performative, and you take on characters, mocking other personas. When did you start doing impressions?

I think it’s cheesy to say, but honestly since I was a kid. I was pre-lingual. Actually, recently, my mom found this home video of me, and I can’t talk yet, and I’m literally doing an impression of my dad. It’s honestly eerie, it’s spot on.

It’s kind of embarrassing to go through your own archive, like, “I was so cute, I was a genius,” but it truly is bizarre. I can’t talk yet and I’m in a high chair and I’m doing a dead-on physical impression of my dad. He’s very gestural and tells stories and makes this very specific face, and I’m making the face.

Part of that is, I’m an only child. I was exclusively around adults a lot growing up. I think that I would just listen to their conversations and then try to use their language. I’d insert myself into their conversations. I didn’t want to be treated like a kid. 

There’s a pretty big assumption that women on stage -- or in any medium -- that their work is inherently autobiographical. I think subverting that creates confusion, and is exciting.

You’re pretty active on Twitter but have this kind of ironic, sometimes disdainful tone while using it. Like, “I can taste 12.9k,” or “They tried to verify me but I said no.” Do you see social media as a necessity, or do you enjoy it?

I’m completely addicted to the point of devastation. It’s despicable. Where do ideas come from? I guess I’ll never know because I have no solitude anymore. I have joyfully renounced imagination, apparently. I am very depressed by it, but at the same time I completely love it and I do think it can be very valuable. The most obvious thing is it’s informational. You know, "Come to my show!" So in many ways it has become a necessity. 

But things like not having Facebook have suddenly become extreme political acts. Every month I’m like, “I’m gonna convert to a fan page,” but then I can’t lose the archive. I struggle with my relationship to it, but I’m completely entrenched.

So what do you enjoy about social media?

The likes? I mean, who knows. It’s bleak.

Do you like the non-sequiter nature of telling jokes on Twitter?

Yeah. It’s so fragmented. I like fragmentation. It allows for that kind of non-storytelling.

Does it influence your in-person performances at all?

No, I wouldn’t say so.

One time, maybe the hardest bomb I’ve ever had, was in Nashville, maybe three years ago. They hated me. I had two shows, and for my second show, I completely lost my identity. I was looking through my Twitter, like, maybe I’ll just read my tweets on stage. So I scoured the feed and brought out a few, and pitched these tweets on stage like they were jokes. It was the most humiliating moment ever. 

Oh no! What else do you like to do when a show isn’t going so well?

I just make a face. Cross my eyes, that’s my meal ticket, my crossed eye. Without the crossed eye I’m nothing. People think I’m an intellectual. No, I’m a face, who loves Facebook. 

You can be both! So, finally, what mood do you hope audience members will experience during your shows?

It’s funny, at the end of the day, you want them to be happy. You want to create an ecstatic experience that feels really fun. It’s that simple. Of course, you want them to leave “invigorated socially” and excited and connected. But you mostly just want people to be satisfied, like they got their $12 worth.

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