Embracing Terror with Kate Berlant

Aside from being tremendously funny, Kate Berlant has an almost authoritative stage presence and style, one that encourages the audience to “Embrace Terror,” as is emblazoned on the rubber bracelets she sells after her set. It’s not that Berlant seeks to horrify, but her loose style of comedy coupled with her sassy old-showbiz demeanor guides the audience through a roller-coaster set.

I was lucky enough to see her perform recently, on my home turf at The American Comedy Company in San Diego, and not for the first time, I was taken aback by how seamlessly Berlant is able to weave her character into the set and vice versa. The audience that night went from being delighted to confused back to delighted again so often, I thought somebody was going to hurt themselves. Did they? Yes. And it was totally worth it.

She was kind enough to allow me to pick her brain via the telephone lines recently, and when I called, she had just wrapped up recording a podcast.

So what podcast were you doing? Or can you not talk about it yet?

Oh, no, I can talk about it. Do you know Dave Ross?


Yeah, it was his podcast called Terrified.

Oh, nice, how was it?

It was fun, I’m anxious to go back tomorrow because we both were kind of running late and it was like a time issue, so I have to go and finish it tomorrow.

But it was going well?

But it was really fun, so it was too bad it had to end.

Without spoiling it, can you tell us what you’re terrified of?

Yeah, I was just talking about how I’ve struggled with hypochondria my whole life. I’m a lot better now, but when I was younger, I was sure I had AIDS and cancer and stuff.

But you’ve since embraced the terror, I guess? To put it in a Kate Berlant sort of way.

That’s exactly it.

I really like those bracelets that you have, and it seems like a very smart marketing move (if that doesn’t sound too douchey to say), because it’s a nice memento, not just a t-shirt, and they’re cheap, right?

Yeah, relatively.

So has the response been good with those?

Yeah, I like those because I can just give them to people when they come up to me after a show and like my set, and it’s less shitty than being like, “Here’s a business card.” It’s like you said, a memento, it has my name on it, it’s potentially wearable. People do wear them, which is cool. And then obviously, the kind of joke of the “Live Strong” kind of cause, that whole world, which is sort of funny to me and interesting. Politicizing these objects and they kind of become like these holy, potentially almost religious-y objects. So making that, but it’s just my name. And “Embrace Terror” sounds really dramatic and like the stakes are really elevated. That’s something I just had written in my notebook, and kind of an idea I do believe in. Y’know, following terror, walking through the door of pain, so to speak. So yeah, the bracelets have been great, people like them. Sometimes people ask for them, but I feel like the most part, I’m just giving them to people.

It is a nice calling card to leave.

Thanks! I hope so.

And it does fit in with your overall message, I think. Your comedy feels very frightening to witness. I mean, it’s terrifying to watch you taking risks onstage. Do you know what I mean?

Interesting. Yeah, I’ll take that as a compliment.

No, absolutely it is. But I’ve read where you still get pretty nervous before shows, right?

Yeah, yeah, I do. It depends and it fluctuates, but in general, I’d say I’m nervous before every show. Not nervous to the point where I’m shaking or feel like I can’t go on. But I do, even for really small shows, that you wouldn’t think would provoke anxiety, I’ll still get nervous. I mean, I’ll want to do it, I always love performing, but there’s always this feeling of like, “How am I going to pull it off?”

But you’ve been at it for a while, right?

Yeah, so I guess it’s weird that I still have that feeling, but I do. I do embrace it. I do remember a period where for a couple of months where I didn’t feel nervous. I didn’t like that feeling. I feel like the nerves are sort of essential. It’s a good scary.

Do you feel your comedy comes from that?

Yeah, from acknowledging that. I’m kind of allowing myself to be in it.

Well, it’s paying off well. So you did All Jane, No Dick last week. How did that go?

I really love Portland, it’s one of the couple places I’ve been to a bunch of times now. The crowds were super-great. I was only there for two nights out of the four nights of the festival, so I didn’t really get to hang out and do much. But the shows were great.

Are they in clubs or what venues are they in?

They’re somewhat scattered around. I had three shows, two of them were at the Curious Comedy Theater which was sponsoring the event. And yeah, it was great.

Is there a much different vibe than at say Bridgetown?

There sort of isn’t. At the second show I was on, everyone at that show did great, I truly forgot – it didn’t feel like, “Oh, this is all women.” That really dissolved into the background for me. It was just a great show. But I really mean that. I know that’s the kind of thing you could say, and it sounds like, “Sure!” But like I’m serious, it really just felt like a show. But it is great, because it makes you realize you do see less women and it’s exciting a bunch of them and to see a bunch them do so well. Again, because I was there so briefly, I didn’t get a full fest vibe for me, but the shows were really great.

At the risk of giving this fellow further publicity, did you hear about this guy protesting the festival?

Yeah, he never even showed up.

Yeah, I was trying to find any aftermath, but no one had written about it, so it sounded like a lot of bluster.

Yeah, it was very strange. When I first heard that, it made me really angry, of course. But yeah, he never even showed up. I had fantasies of like, y’know, distributing information to him. I mean, someone like that is clearly a fucking idiot. Don’t quote me [she said this with very directly implied quotes around this, ironically], but yeah. I kind of thought he wouldn’t show up because it was just so absurd. But it’s also I think important to see those people and acknowledge that they’re there, to feel that they’re there, because even in a place like Portland, which is ostensibly one of the more liberal open-minded places, there’s this tendency to think that misogyny is somewhere else over there, but not over here, but to see it pop up in that environment is an important reminder.

Yeah, and it seems like, as loony as this guy was, if there’s anywhere where this conversation is going to take place in a civilized manner, it would be Portland. So it’s disappointing that he didn’t follow through, because we can’t excise this thing without confrontation, not in a negative way. This vibe is nothing new, but it does seem prevalent lately. What do you think that’s about?

You mean like this men’s rights advocate thing in general?

I mean, I haven’t really followed it too closely because it doesn’t feel new, not that you’re suggesting it’s new, but I think misogyny is here to stay. I think this guy is a good example, because he wasn’t some bloodthirsty maniac who was like women should be chained up and should not have rights. It was much more kind of tame and just purely ignorant. I don’t know if you read the thing where he said he couldn’t imagine there was sexism in comedy, he didn’t believe women would have different experience in comedy than men, like, why would that even be? Something like that would be bad for business! And for me, I mean…what was the genesis of this? Why suddenly is there men’s advocacy?

This whole Gamergate thing kind of lit a fuse.

Right, right. Yeah, it’s just kind of the classic hostility toward women who choose to speak about things that don’t make them objects of male fascination or attraction. I think that’s just continues to be very real for every woman I’ve ever known. So I think it’s just really misunderstanding, the idea that feminism is excluding men or that feminism is somehow anti-male and not just fundamentally about ending exploitation. So I think there’s this alignment between – obviously, I’m not saying anything even remotely new – feminism needs men, and men need to work hard to change. Men benefit from sexism every day, and just knowing about it, and being like, “Yeah I believe women should have the right to vote.” That doesn’t end the discussion. There’s a lot of work and it’s hard to…not necessarily undo, but to criticize and to consider your patterns or your privilege. I think it’s hard. It’s an undertaking that plenty of people obviously don’t want to undergo. So I think that’s part of it.

The statistic I read is that 19% of working comics are women. Do you feel that’s improving, that the environment in general is getting better, that that number can get higher?

Yeah, it’s definitely getting better. There’s no question that it’s getting better. But that being said, there’s still definitely an issue, an imbalance here. And it stems from something so complicated, and it’s so fundamental and institutionalized and so subtle why women aren’t seen in those roles and why they don’t have the access to the spotlight that men do in that way. But yeah, I feel like I was lucky to be born when I was and to come up around so many women who are so great and working. It’s remarkable, and I’m reminded in a lot of ways all the time. It’s a process for sure, but things are absolutely improving. But there’s still obviously a lot to be done.

So this is a time-worn topic in comedy, but it seems to me that you would be in a better position than most when it comes to New York vs. Los Angeles, because you seem truly bicoastal.

Yeah, the last two years I have been. I’m from Los Angeles, I lived in New York for about eight years, the last two of which I was in L.A. a lot. And…do you mean, like in general, within comedy?

Yeah, well, I’ll put it like this: If a young comic were to be making that decision to move to either city, which would you recommend?

I would recommend New York, even though right now L.A. has so many shows and so many great and excited and hungry people. I mean, now more than ever, I would say, “Oh, you can get up a lot in L.A.” But I would still say New York just for the reason that – and I feel like I owe so much to this and I’m so glad this was my experience – but just being away from the anxieties of industry panic. For eight years in New York, I never once had the feeling like there’s a manager or a producer or anyone like that in the audience. That presence was just not felt in any way. So performing for people that truly just were there to see comedy and working in it. You go to an L.A. show and there’s this feeling that a lot of the people in the crowd are either performers or writers or directors or they work in some facet of the industry. I still think the crowds are great, but I think if you’re starting out I think there’s no question you need to just not care and not worry that somehow that you need to be good.

That makes perfect sense, I had never even thought of it like that. Wouldn’t that be true for other towns as well, then, like Denver or Portland or…?

Yeah, Denver, Portland, San Francisco. This idea that you have to be in L.A. or New York, I really don’t think that’s true. I think you need to be just where it feels good and people that you like are performing.

That’s a really great way to look at it. But now that you are back in L.A. – that’s where you’re based now, right?

Yeah, I moved all my stuff here. I’m here.

Do you find you have that industry anxiety now?

Yeah, I wouldn’t say I feel the anxiety. It’s just…it’s interesting, it hasn’t changed at all what I do. I realized recently that I really don’t adjust what I’m doing depending on where I am. Obviously, you adjust within each show, each crowd, and you’re feeling it out. But I’m not going to do a different set or cut certain material based on what city I’m mean. And for that reason it hasn’t really affected me. But of course, I’m an anxious person. But I don’t find myself like, “Who’s in the crowd?!” Kind of miraculously, it doesn’t really bother me, I don’t really think about it.

This might seem like a strange way to describe your material, but I’ve always found your work to be broad. It’s not exclusionary, unless you’re not paying attention and then it might seem that way. But ultimately, it’s very relatable, and it feels like you’re really making an connection with the audience. So, you’re not doing topical stuff, you’re not doing just drug stuff…

I think that is how I try to think about it. I appreciate you saying that you find it relatable or broad, because that’s what I want and how I feel. But I find this currently and it’s something I’ve felt for a while: People sort of thinking that my stuff is alt where it’s not going to relate to people who aren’t in this hermetically sealed environment of like an art house or something. And that’s really not my experience, I feel very happy and lucky to connect with people who are completely different from me or from people who might be considered my target audience. Absurdity and being in the moment, those are things…I don’t want to say the word “universal” because it’s just so trite. But yeah, what you’re describing is what I hope so much is that it’s relatable and that people respond, all different kinds of people respond.

You’ve been described as “avant-garde” many times. Do you feel like that label might be handicapping at all?

I mean, it makes me a little nervous, in that it’s embarrassing to be like, “I’m avant-garde,” or “What I’m doing is art.” I think that’s the word that’s attached to anything that feels different. I appreciate it, it’s obviously coming from the right place and I understand being on a lineup with more traditional standups, yeah, I feel different, doing something different. But I still identify as a standup and don’t in any way claim to be inventing a new form. But yeah, to answer your question, yeah, maybe people are overly eager to put it in a place where it’s like, “Oh, this is soooo different.” Which I always take as a compliment, it always comes from a place of kindness…But it’s not that crazy, right?

Yeah, you’re not doing standard setup/punchline stuff, but it’s still standup and it’s still funny.

Hopefully, yeah. But I can’t ignore that I’ve had plenty of friends who tell me they’re at a show and someone next to them is like, “What the fuck is she doing?” I’m not trying to pretend like I can’t imagine why somebody would label me as alternative or something. I welcome that.

The New York scene, the Invite Them Up guys, that was a big early influence for you. But before that you weren’t super into comedy?

I had always loved comedians growing up, of course, but it wasn’t until I was like 17 that I started listening to standup and trying to really learn about who was around. And I was like, “Oh, this is what you do, you listen to Steve Martin and you listen to Woody Allen and you read their books.” So I had been looking at other comics, but they were like the first stuff that I was just like, “Oh, I love this!” and felt watching the Stella shorts and stuff was so exciting to me.

As you started to dig deeper, what were some other comedians that you might not have heard of had you not started doing comedy?

I’m just reiterating myself, but the Invite Them Up CD, which lead me to Variety Shac, and which lead me to so many people who weren’t necessarily in the canon or who maybe didn’t even have albums yet. That’s what I think was so exciting about that album, or places like Rififi in New York, where all these people were at, felt like a real moment and that I had discovered it in a sense because none of my friends were interested in comedy and it definitely felt exotic to me. This idea that all these people were just at this one place doing a show.

When you finally got out to New York and started doing standup, was it all you had imagined or were there any rude awakenings?

It definitely wasn’t like I just got to New York and was like, “I have my community!” There’s so many people in New York that I love and feel close to and feel like I grew up around, but for the most part I felt kind of like a loner. I didn’t really attach myself specifically to one group. I hung out and knew a bunch of people, but I feel like only now that is starting to happen more. John Early, who I make stuff with, feels like a weird comedy twin. Which is so great. But I also met Reggie Watts and Rory Scovel in New York, and those are also people with who I felt that exciting thing of “Oh my god, this is happening right here!” It’s weird to reflect on it because I feel like I’m still in it, in that way. But it’s great, I love it, standup’s my favorite thing. I’ve gotten to meet so many great people who have become my best friends from it.

Are you planning on also acting, writing, stuff like that?

Oh yeah, I’m planning on being a big star! No, I am interested…I kinda wasn’t thinking about acting for like the last seven years, but for the last year, I’ve gotten back into it, and yeah, I’m trying to get a goddamn job for sure. I’m writing something right now, trying to figure out a couple different ideas. I feel like most comics are trying to get a writing job or an acting job, and I am trying to do all of that.

But is standup something you think you’ll continue to do?

Oh yeah, 100 percent. My life’s dream would be performing forever, definitely.

Any more festivals coming up or anything like that?

I’m doing the Maui Comedy Festival at the end of the month, which is crazy, because I get to go to Maui and the line-up is so awesome. But that’s the only festival I have, I think, the only announced thing. Other than that I’m really just doing local shows. I’m doing an hour with John Early at UCB on the 6th and then an hour at NerdMelt in January. But that’s kind of it. Making videos and stuff.

Do you do the road a lot?

I haven’t done the proper road in the sense of me in a car driving for three weeks. I’ve opened for bands twice, one time for real like a proper month-long tour, living on a bus.

That was with Father John Misty?

Yeah, yeah, so that was the only time I was out on the road doing a show every night for over a month. Other than that a weekend here and there, but that is what I really want to do. That’s something all comics want obviously, to build up fanbases in cities and just tour.

Are there any cities so far that you prefer over others, and any that you do not?

I have to say there isn’t a city where I feel…the places I’ve gone the most like Portland, San Francisco, D.C., those are places where I feel more comfortable, where I actually have some people there I know like my stuff, so I’m always excited to go to those places. I really liked the show in San Diego, I had a lot of fun doing the show there, but I had been at the House of Blues with Father John the year before. I don’t hate any cities.

Was that in the big room at the House of Blues? There’s often a weird crowd.

I was only soothed by the fact that they talked all through my set but all through his set also. Yeah, it was weird.

You had your own show in New York, Crime and Punishment. Are you doing anything like that in L.A. or have plans to?

I suddenly have plans to. I did that show for five years, and then moving out here I was like, I’m not gonna do that. A weekly show is just so much work or I just kind of felt unexcited about the idea. But then after guest hosting a couple shows out here and then going back to New York since and doing Cake Shop, I am reinvigorated by the idea. So I am looking for a place to do another show. Just monthly, I think, but I forget how much I do actually enjoy hosting my own show and how everything that comes along with it can be so much fun. The horror of finding a venue and picking a name and all that is sort of daunting to me, but the way I approached my show for years was it was really the least precious thing. If some nights were terrible, I didn’t lose any sleep over it. So I’m hoping I can retain that kind of looseness.

Does that looseness come from just having to do it a lot or…?

Yeah, I think that’s what nice about a monthly show, and ideally I’d just like to charge 5 bucks or something, then you have to be a little more concerned about what you’re serving up. But that show was so great. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to that venue, it’s a music venue and you play down in the basement. And it’s owned by two brothers and it’s just very cool place. The general grunginess of it or something. There was regular crowd that would come, and then it sort of died down. But for a couple years, when it was at its strongest, the same people were there every single week, and then they would bring friends and it grew to a big crowd. I kept it at an hour. I just like to keep things short. So yeah, I’m gonna start a new one.

Well, that’s certainly good news for the citizens of Los Angeles.

Well, let’s hope so.

Please follow Kate Berlant on Twitter @kateberlant and check out her website here.

Embracing Terror with Kate Berlant