Julie Klausner’s Perfect Cabaret Playlist

How Was Your Week Live - Julie Klausner, Ted Leo, Jake Fogelnest, Danielle Henderson, Nellie McKay - The Bell House, Brooklyn - June 1, 2014
photo by Mindy Tucker Photo: Mindy Tucker

Vulture’s Julie Klausner is a woman of many talents: She writes books, recaps the hell out of a Real Housewives show, acts in her current USA pilot Difficult People, and hosts the podcast “How Was Your Week.” She also can sing, which she’s currently doing in a show at New York’s Joe Pub called Julie Klasuner’s Cabaret Situation.”The very Julie Klausner night of music and comedy features a wholly unique combination of songs, so we had Klausner walked Vulture’s Jesse David Fox through the set and why she picked each song and as-told-to piece. Though Klausner does the show periodically, tonight and tomorrow are the last two nights of this run. You can buy tickets for the show here.   

“Hello Hooray,” Alice Cooper/Judy Collins
I made the dates for this run of shows when I was in L.A. writing for Mulaney. I loved writing for Mulaney, but I have to say, my experience in L.A. was a little fish-out-of-water. I’m definitely what Grammy Hall calls a real New York Jew. It was really hard for me to be out of New York for that long and I just remember feeling out there, [thinking,] “I can’t wait to get back and do my show at Joe’s Pub.”

So I started thinking about stuff I wanted to do and also asked for suggestions on my podcast. Someone sent me a link to Alice doing “Is It My Body.” He was wearing this obscene leotard and he looked amazing. I just thought he was so captivating. I always was fascinated by him, but I didn’t know a lot about his music.

I developed this pretty raging Alice Cooper obsession, listening to every album of his — early stuff, mostly before Welcome to My Nightmare. On Billion Dollar Babies, he opens that record with “Hello Hooray” and it’s such a stadium anthem. It’s a proclamation of being here and taking up space, and I thought it was so cool to come back to New York and do that. As I was researching the song, I found out that it was actually a cover and that Judy Collins had recorded it originally. When I found her version, I almost passed out — it was so funny. It’s like a faux Joni Mitchell thing, very folky, quiet, and then it comes into this Mamas and the Papas arrangement. It’s just a song that means something completely different and that was really funny, and also just a tribute to the fact that the ‘70s were the weirdest time in the world.

The notion of coming out and doing this Alice-like, Yeah! I’m here in this skeleton unitard and let’s fucking kick ass. I feel so strong. I can do anything! and then going into that little cutie folkie number was something that was amusing, at least to me.

“Fancy,” Bobbie Gentry
Bobbi Gentry is worth Googling, not only because she’s this fabulous singer and performer, but also because she happens to be one of the most beautiful women to walk this earth. Watch her live performances, especially singing “Fancy” on The Johnny Cash show. She’s wearing something so tight and so impossibly flattering. She’s just so fabulous that I feel like people know who Cher is, but people don’t necessarily know who Bobbi Gentry is, and that’s not okay. Bobbi Gentry wrote this song about a girl who grew up really poor and whose mother turned her over to a life of prostitution in order to give her a better life. And it worked out for her because she ended up with a Georgia mansion and an elegant New York townhouse flat. It was one of these, sort of like, “Hi, haters!” ballads to women that look down on poor people who, quote, “Do what they have to do!”

It’s a very problematic song when it comes to the chin-scratching pre-millennial, post-millennial feminist sort of thinking about the rights and wrongs of sex work. Sometimes it’s a choice for people. Sometimes it isn’t. The whole notion of prostitution and the reason it’s close to me is simply because every time I’ve heard it — and I’ve heard it hundreds of hundreds of times — every time I hear it, it arouses emotions in me. The part where she asks her mother what she’s supposed to do and her mother says, “Just be nice to the gentlemen fancy and they’ll be nice to you”? That is so intense. I mean, fuck Les Mis, that’s a pill to swallow!

California Medley
When I was in California, I really felt like I was on another planet in a lot of ways. I can’t reiterate enough how much I liked working for Mulaney. John Mulaney is a genius, and to have had a front-row seat to his brain in that writing room was a privilege. However, whenever I was out of that room and that office, I was living in a really shitty part of Hollywood. I was living on Hollywood and La Brea next to the Crazy Girls strip club and the Hollywood Walk of Fame. It was really tough, and I didn’t know what to do with myself. That’s what I tried to capture with this medley. There are so many songs about California, but there were about four or five that really spoke to me.

“Celluloid Heroes” came from a podcast listener. I thought it was so cool, especially because I lived right across from where the Hollywood Walk of Fame begins. There’s a sadness to the idea of the people who are in the concrete.

Then I took Hole’s “Malibu” because I like that album, and there’s just something about that song that is very specifically depressing. There’s a desperation in Courtney Love’s voice that really embodies a lot of the feelings out there, especially living so close to the Sunset Strip, where I guess she lived with Neil Strauss at some point, which is so disgusting, I can’t even get my head around it.

Then Rufus Wainwright’s “California,” which is just one of these songs where you’re like, if there’s a time capsule or some sort of alien-outreach program where you want to leave evidence that the human brain can make things that go beyond expectations, you can leave a copy of that song.

I refused to go onstage and sing “I Love L.A.” because it just seemed so on-the-nose and silly, so we just to have that guitar intro and then have the backup singer go, “We love it!” That’s it! Then we just go back to “Celluloid Heroes,” which is a song that should be the saddest song in the world.

“It Might Be You,” Steven Bishop
I think that Tootsie is one of the most important movies ever made. But if Tootsie were made more recently, there’s no way that in the third act of that movie, they would have taken a weekend trip upstate and witnessed Charles Durning falling in love with Dustin Hoffman as Dustin Hoffman fell in love with Jessica Lange. That is such a boondoggle, but at the same time, it’s such a great way to tell a story. Charles Durning is very convincingly and very realistically falling in love with Dorothy Michaels, who is in her, like, upstate-country drag. She’s wearing her neckerchief and a long corduroy skirt with a patterned blouse and a visor that leaves the top of her hair intact. It’s so early ‘80s, I actually can’t even picture it without feeling all of the mise-en-scène taking place in every cell of my body. And the song is the saddest song in the world, and anyone who’s seen that movie remembers experiencing very strong feelings during that segment, but when you look back, you’re like, does it have to be played with that much pathos? And apparently it does!

It’s also so slow that I had to come up with some business for myself, too. So onstage, I make a sandwich and then I sing the love song to the sandwich. It’s a nice little comment on being back from L.A. to New York, where you can eat sandwiches and people don’t look at you like you’re crazy.

“Little Person,” Jon Brion
“Little Person” was made popular by Charlie Kaufman and Jon Brion in the great romantic comedy Synecdoche, New York. I remember that song being completely haunting and stunning, and I also remember wishing that I’d walked out of that movie. I remember thinking around the time when he was getting gum surgery that it was probably my time to leave. But I was like, Look, we made it this far, we may as well get to the end.

“Little Person” is from that film, and then I use that as a point of departure for a spoken-word piece. I wrote this piece put to music called “The Jessicas,” which is about a very particular kind of New York woman. I was very influenced by Bruce McCulloch’s albums. I feel really good about it, although it is weird saying, “Well, you know, I also do a little bit of spoken-word art.” But now I have something to audition for Def Poetry Jam with, if I need to. When I need to.

“Faust,” Paul Williams
I wanted to do a Paul Williams song because Paul Williams is so fascinating to me. He’s another figure of the ‘70s who really could’ve only thrived in the ‘70s. Meaning, he’s not a great-looking guy. He was on television all the time, and he looked like an albino lesbian who worked at the Keebler factory. He wore high-waisted women’s pants and he was all too happy to go on The Muppet Show or Match Game or any other place that said, “Hey, do you want to come on TV and sing your songs?” Or Brian De Palma was like, “Do you want to play a character?” And he’s like, “What time do you need me there?” That’s something that I remember whenever I feel bad about myself. I think, “Oh, I want perform and I want to be on camera, but I’m not perfect-looking.” I battle with my own sort of body dysmorphia and face dyslexia and I kind of think to myself sometimes, “What gives you the right to be on camera? You’re not perfect. You’re not skinny. You don’t look like Megan Fox.” When I think about that, I think about Paul Williams. I say in the show, if he had the twisted confidence to put his Harold and the Purple Crayon physique on camera every night, then why not me? That’s a good tribute to Paul Williams as any.

Ben Folds/Stephen Schwartz Medley
In my first book, I Don’t Care About Your Band, I called the music of Ben Folds “Pippin with a yeast infection.” I actually like his music, even though it’s just dreadfully uncool.  It’s still technically impressive and beautiful. I acknowledged recently that his songs are so similar to the composer of Pippin that I came up with a medley that really illustrates the similarities between Stephen Schwartz’s music and Ben Folds’s. I really was stunned how well all those songs work together. I love doing it, and people seem to really respond to it, if only because it does flow so well. It’s sort of like a pre-mash-up mash-up. It’s almost psychotic how all of those songs are in the same key and have the same cadences, and lyrically they’re both equally ornery and just dripping with sentimentality. Also, you’ve got to have some showtune realness to end a cabaret show. Otherwise, you know, what are you doing?

“Goodnight Saigon,” Billy Joel
First of all, Billy Joel is a ridiculous human. He’s a very, very silly person. His lack of sense of humor about himself is what makes him the funniest artist that’s ever lived. He’s just so not self-aware that it’s arguably shocking. So he put this Vietnam ballad out when he was not in Vietnam, and there’s just a lot of hubris there. And an actor who shares a similar amount of hubris is Gary Sinise, who played Lieutenant Dan in Forrest Gump and has since taken it upon himself to start the Lieutenant Dan Band. They play classic-rock covers for wounded veterans across the country. By the way, I have absolutely nothing snarky to say about that. I think that’s fabulous and that’s a great cause, but Gary Sinise is a little too into it to the extent where you’re like, you know that you’re not a veteran, right? You know that you weren’t actually Lieutenant Dan. They basically Photoshopped your legs out so that you could pretend to be a guy who was in Vietnam. But you weren’t, right? And all of his tweets are about veterans. I thought a good way to end the show would be to talk about Gary Sinise and then sing this very silly Billy Joel song and make sure nobody sang it with me. That was really funny to me, so I yell at the audience to not sing along and I get very angry about it. It’s very satisfying to end the show yelling at the audience. There’s no camaraderie implied in my version.

It was important for me to choose songs that have a point of view. I’m not the best singer in the world. I’m not going to sit onstage and expect people to be entertained by the beautiful quality of my singing voice alone. I did not set out to show people I could sing and get compliments after. I really put this show together as a creator and as someone who’s making stuff that has something to say behind it. It was really important for me for this to be a show and not a showcase. I am a comedian and I’ve got a lot of shit to get off my chest. I want to be challenged and I want to make sure that the audience goes home not feeling like they indulged Make-a-Wish Foundation.

Julie Klausner’s Perfect Cabaret Playlist