Kate Willett Feels at Home With Intense New Yorkers

Kate Willett. Photo: Mindy Tucker

Kate Willett (@katewillett) is a comedian, actress, and writer from San Francisco and based in Brooklyn. Her stand-up has been featured on Comedy Central and Viceland, and her 15-minute special premiered on Netflix’s The Comedy Lineup in 2018. She’s the co-host of the Reply Guys podcast.

This week, Kate and I talked experimental theater, reply guys, and dating a few polyamorous clowns.

This is the tweet that I wrote right after the New York Times published their piece about Louis C.K. I noticed that a ton of men I knew immediately started posting defenses of him, and there was something that seemed funny to me about the way that men were willing to die on the hill of protecting the good name of someone they had never met in real life. It’s a level of loyalty that I would only expect from my truly closest friends. What is the loyalty to? I think it’s probably to a system where men aren’t vulnerable to consequences for bad behavior — or maybe, more generously, to a system where men aren’t vulnerable to having their lives altered in an instant by another person. Which is, of course, a vulnerability that most women live with every day.

How did you get into stand-up?
I started stand-up because I was failing at experimental theater — the kind where you put on a leotard and do some sort of interpretative dance movements with your arms while reciting 16th-century poetry. Rock bottom was when I had to do an entire play tied to a parachute. In retrospect, those plays were probably funnier than stand-up but I had no idea. I was in it for “the Truth.”

I went to theater school in Chicago, where I felt like a fish out of water. I love Chicago, but the program I was in was a really bad match. I didn’t like sports, I didn’t drink, and I was too young and Californian to understand not to talk to everyone about polyamory. We spent a lot of time laying on the floor doing vocal warm-ups and learning better posture. I never felt like myself in class, so as an outlet, I started doing some mics in Chicago. Comedians were my people. You can’t be too weird for comics really. After a year I got cut from the theater program, which I was devastated about at the time, but makes a lot of sense in retrospect — I was stuck. I was anxious and self-censoring to the point where it really hard to be fully creative.

Post-Chicago, I didn’t know what to do so I drove back across the country to San Francisco, listening to the entire back catalogue of WTF. I moved back into the warehouse I lived in before Chicago and decided to give stand-up a real go. It’s really great to start stand-up at a moment of life where you’ve already messed up a lot of things and don’t have much to lose. I was not afraid of bombing. Pretty immediately I felt like, Oh, this is the thing I’m supposed to be doing all the time. I still love acting and writing, but stand-up is an outlet for the real weirdness that lives inside my soul. I will say that all those Maron podcasts left me expecting an amount of conflict in comedy that usually isn’t there. Most comics are really nice, and unlike actors, they don’t randomly burst into song all the time. I’m home.

Has Twitter been a good platform for your humor?
Yes, most of the time. In stand-up I tend to write longer, more personal stuff; on Twitter it’s a lot of shorter political jokes. It’s a fun challenge. I kind of love Twitter. The trolls are trash, and it’s really addictive. But it’s fun to have a place to get instant feedback on your jokes and see your friends really crush it too.

I like political jokes and I like personal jokes. It’s fun for me when I can combine them. I truly cannot wait until Trump is no longer president (and is unseated by a democratic socialist), but in this hellscape in which we are currently living, I’ve been noticing parallels in the way the media and politicians scurry to excuse and accommodate Trump and the way I’ve done that in crappy relationships. Whenever you’re defending a dude by saying “You don’t know what’s in his heart,” you’re on the wrong track and you should stop loaning him money or letting him be president.

Do you notice any differences between doing comedy in San Francisco and doing it in New York?
San Francisco audiences are a little more patient. They will go with you on long rambly tangents that you can ultimately tighten into bits. It’s an easy place to write. I wrote a ten-minute bit there about a pregnancy scare at Burning Man — that one bit was my whole set on showcases for a long time. It’s hard to imagine being able to work on something like that in New York. I had a show in the basement of a video store with some friends called The Mission Position. A lot of the same audience came every week, so it was fun to have the experience of doing stand-up for people that I didn’t have to start from zero with. I started before the tech gentrification became total and complete, so there were still a lot of artists and weirdos there. I’d do a bit about how I was dating a few polyamorous clowns and everyone would nod like they related; it had happened to all of us.

New York has been a great growing experience for me as a comic and a person. New York audiences want you to be funny right away — they’ve seen the best of the best comics and they’ve been in New York all day, so their patience is nonexistent. I’ve learned how to write shorter, tighter jokes here. I’m kind of an intense person, and in New York no one notices because everyone is like that. No one in New York has ever told me to “relax.” What a relief. It’s the opposite of California and I really feel like I can be myself. It’s really great to have the experience of both.

What motivated you to start your podcast Reply Guys?
There are a bunch of leftist comedy podcasts, but I kept being mad I couldn’t find a feminist one. I kept joking about being sad that no matter how progressive I became, I could never start an all-male leftist podcast. Julia Claire, my Reply Guys co-host, also shared this very niche pet peeve and we talked about it for years, until we eventually decided to make the podcast we’d want to listen to. We talk about Bernie and we also talk about reproductive rights. We try to have a really good mix of guests and amplify voices that sometimes aren’t heard on other shows. We try to be funny but not punch down. There’s a persistent narrative that I’ve come to really dislike that leftists are all white bro dudes, I think because those are often the voices that yell the loudest on the internet. It’s not the case in real life. I think there’s a very obvious connection between feminism and progressive politics that I’ve come to see more and more deeply since 2016, and I like having a place to talk about it in a more nuanced way than Twitter allows. We also spend a good percentage of the show ridiculing reply guys, men’s rights activists, and boners.

At some point earlier this summer I noticed that my life was full of witches (probably because I have the compensatory love of crystals and psychedelics you get from spending most of your life on the West Coast) and sad boys (probably because I’m a comic). I started wondering if every person in the world could be categorized as a sad boy or a witch in a way that has nothing to do with gender or even hobbies, just an attitude towards life, the amount of magic you believe in. I think so! This is a very weird hill to die on.

So … are you a witch or a sad boy?
Witch. But my love for sad boys runs deep.

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Kate Willett Feels at Home With Intense New Yorkers