Interview | Kate Berlant: Comedy from the Other Side

Kate Berlant is a comedian whose work has been described as “surreal,” “not comedy,” and “experimental comedy.” In her very empathic, somewhat “psychic,” and theatrical-without-that-pretentious-edge comedy that’s touring all over the country and especially landing in Los Angeles, Kate takes the stage with a presence that is mesmerizing, hilarious, and seemingly effortless. She remains present without even trying, making observations that hit every time, and tuning into an obvious force that only those blessed with intuitive powers can truly understand. 

I was thinking about Kate when a recent tweet of hers caught my eye: “When I was your age we drank from used jars and checked Facebook.” I felt like Kate was on the brink of something, plus her tweets are consistently on point and I’m always on Twitter these days, so I called her up on a Monday afternoon to talk it all out. We started the conversation by talking about Twitter, the social media that we both love the most.

Alicia Eler: I find your tweets so inspiring! Where do they come from?

Kate Berlant: I love Twitter. I don’t have a Twitter strategy. I don’t know how I would locate a strategy. It will catch me in bursts, or I’ll tweet like 15 times in a day, consistently, unselfconsciously, like 10 things close to each other. And then there’s an automatic self-consciousness that comes with tweeting, where you tweet something and then you’re in hell for 15 minutes. I really don’t know how to describe my relationship to it. I check Twitter obsessively. I really enjoy it. I definitely spend too much time on it. Whereas Facebook feels like an utter trash can, Twitter feels like it has the means, a sense of productivity and actual communication and urgency, and obviously now more than ever Twitter is used as a survival mechanism, a way of truly mobilizing ideas and community. And it can be fun. For comedy, there’s an immediacy to it that’s obviously very fun.

You grew up in Santa Monica. When did you move back to LA?

I’ve been back for over a year. There was no real decision, it just happened. I’d been going back and forth a lot more, and it was becoming too expensive. I was so married to New York and insistent on staying there, like ‘I’m a New York person and this is where I wanna live.’ I didn’t move to LA for a job, or a concrete reason. I could never choose between LA and New York, but I think right now LA is a more livable, exciting place to be as an artist. Visually I’ve always had this thing of New York of just, leaving my apartment in the morning, and the walk to the bodega was a thrill in and of itself, and I still relate to that. I still have that romanticism for LA. I’m really into the physical landscape. NY and LA are the two most imaged cities in human history, so living in either of them can feel like you’re transcribing movies you’ve seen over and over again.

I cover a lot of performance art as well, and often times with performance artists it’s pretty accepted to have a high academic degree and maybe the work isn’t “haha funny,” but it’s more heady or cerebral so thus treated as “good.” What I really love about your comedy is that you’re able to combine all of that, and it doesn’t feel academic or pedantic — like your Comedy Central bits about your father, and wanting your father to desire you — the whole Freudian conundrum of the male gaze. I also love the stealing makeup bit, and the way you talk about that whole vicious cycle of female-gendered subjectivity under capitalism. Often times in comedy there’s an anti-academia, or just not the sort of expectation of high-level education that we experience in the visual arts even though arguably comedians are smarter than artists.  How do you locate yourself as a creative who’s also spent time in the academy but is not academic but is thoughtful in that way?

There is an anti-intellectualism that’s not also just anti-American but also in comedy, it’s there, and it’s like ‘oh well is it pretentious or?’ I just completely disagree, and I think that the people that I’ve read or studied in school and the programs I’ve been in have just encouraged thinking about the world and are problem-based perspectives. I don’t think there’s any degree that will make you a good or better comedian. That being as you said, in the academy in a certain way, and being exposed to those conversations and ideas, it can only make you a richer person. Like what if you don’t have an MA but you read and you like to talk to people who aren’t like you?

I also feel like standup can be diverse. The world of improv is a very upper middle-class kind of thing fundamentally, whereas standup — even though there are huge issues of underrepresentation and exclusion — can be fundamentally diverse. Although it’s different now because comedy is such a business, a huge industry that it wasn’t even 10 years ago, so standup in my mind is still poetic and like: ‘Why the hell would you do that kind of thing?’ Whereas improv is like: ‘You’re gonna get on this team and then you’re gonna get on a TV show.’ Standup is more independent but also maybe more useless? I want to say that in as positive way as possible, as a positive valiance.

As comedy becomes more en vogue and more artists are into comedy, you see a lot of bad comedy from people who are doing a new mode of performance art, getting into a gallery, and then you see a lot of very bad overly intellectualized comedy that is trying so hard to be transgressive, and it falls completely flat.

Tell me about Communikate at UCB-Franklin! I feel like a lot of people are into dabbling with the sort of magic/psychic/Tarot vibes, and I’m wondering how you work with ideas of that sort of magic in your work. It’s also just a cultural thing right now . . .

It’s funny because the poster for the UCB show makes it seem like it is about that stuff. It’s just a play on my name, which is stupid. I always had my own show in New York, and in LA I haven’t yet. I can do a lot of stage time myself, and I have a very small amount of guests each month that can either be stand-ups or someone I interview or talk to, just being, making it loose and fun.

The psychic reading stuff, I’m not 100% sure how to talk about it. I’m trying not to talk about it too much. I’m still figuring it out. The way that I talk about it is, I’m a little bit psychic, and I get a lot of crazy stuff right on my shows. There is a fascination with all of that stuff. It’s also in fashion. It used to be cool to be like “I’m a witch.” But now it’s mainstream. Being a witch is mainstream. That’s a tweet. Our interview ends with a tweet! I feel very happy to have a home at UCB Franklin every month.

Kate Berlant’s comedy show Communikate runs every last Tuesday of the month at UCB-Frankin (5919 Franklin Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90028).
All images courtesy of Kate Berlant.



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