Kate Berlant Plays the Fool

The influential, very offline comedian perfects her self-described clown show.

Photo: Philip Montgomery
Photo: Philip Montgomery

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Kate Berlant was due onstage in 15 minutes. It was March 2019, and she was performing at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in Los Angeles, where she often does an hourlong set of improvised stand-up. The crowd that night was full of die-hards glancing around in the hawkish way fans do when they know a lot about the person they’ve come to see. “That is her mom,” someone mouthed across the room as a statuesque, curly-haired woman in her 70s took her seat in the back. The comedian would soon shoot a special for FX that would crystallize her electric, unpredictable sets—which she rarely, if ever, puts online—before a national audience for the first time. The actor and comedian John Early, her frequent collaborator, sat nearby holding a green notebook. He would be taking notes to share later with Berlant, who remembers almost nothing about a set once she’s finished doing it. Onstage, she exists mentally just ahead of what’s actually happening, in a kind of flow state punctuated by bracing terror about what to say next.

Berlant leaped onto the stage, curls bouncing, and flashed a bright, straight-toothed smile. “Wow,” she began, turning on her heel. “The expectations! Already crushing, I would argue.” Her tone was elevated and self-congratulatory; she might have been about to give a self-help seminar. Puzzled, she pointed to an empty seat. “Empty seat there—and again, what happened?” She gave a searching look. “Already, I can’t really perform, thinking about the people who were turned away. The young children, who are …” she searched for a word—“kids.” The persona appeared to fissure, as though she’d caught herself off guard. She fought a smile. “I’m actually worried now!” she went on over laughter, “for the safety of—” She paused again, portentously. “The kids.

Over the next hour, Berlant told some jokes, but much of her act, as usual, was a series of riffs on the fact that she was performing. A large timer set to one hour was mounted on the wall opposite the stage, draining bright-red seconds. Berlant had no built-in refrains or segues, and between pockets of material, the milliseconds of silence sizzled. “I know! ‘What’s next?’ ” she said at one point. “It just seems crazy I have to literally fill every single second?”

The special, titled Cinnamon in the Wind, directed by the comedian Bo Burnham, would be a big step in Berlant’s career. For the past 15 years, the 35-year-old comic has existed in a “liminal place,” her collaborator and then-boyfriend Andrew DeYoung, a filmmaker, told me. “There’s no Kate Berlant Show out there to solidify her.” She is cautious about vehicles, refusing invitations to go on late-night shows. Even during the early days of COVID, when stand ups reverted by necessity to virtual performances, you could count on one hand the times Berlant uploaded a snippet of funny material to social media. She doesn’t have a TikTok. (“I mean, I’ve seen them!” she said, comparing the addictive pleasures of the platform to “the full Infinite Jest.”) “I’ve doubled down on ‘Stand-up is live.’ It’s a live art. That’s what I’m invested in,” she told me after the show. “Of course, that’s also the reason I’m looking forward to having the special.” It was something to make tangible her influence as the widely acknowledged foremother of a generation of younger comedians who do arch, surreal bits about the artificiality of everyday behavior. DeYoung mimicked a comedy crowd seeing a new face aping a Berlant-esque bit: “Oh, you’re copying that girl.”

The immediate pleasure of Berlant’s act lies in physical comedy as virtuosic as Robin Williams’s or Jim Carrey’s, at once slapstick and surgically precise. Her neck alone can elongate her strong features into an ingénue’s one second and nestle her shoulders up to her chin, hag-like, the next. She regularly careens from one side of the stage to another via mock tap dance. Her physicalizations evoke archetypes rather than specific people—the chatty friend, a self-obsessed diva. Typically, it’s someone hyper confident yet underprepared, with a tendency to spin out into verbal freefall. The deeper pleasures of Berlant’s act are in how recklessly she deploys her gifts, marshaling the chops of a traditional performer and then throwing out stand-up’s rules. She doesn’t do callbacks or talk about herself; she refuses to pretend she’s not pretending. “I’m constantly dissolving whatever meaning I’m creating the moment it’s being created,” Berlant said.

Specials are typically released before topical material grows dated. But after filming, the network sat on the project. (A representative for FX blamed the pandemic.) In her worst moments, Berlant fantasized about releasing the material herself online. Then, in December, Burnham came to see her do a few sets at L.A.’s Elysian theater, where she was doing her typical improvised set. He said, “What would it be if you actually wrote a show?” She felt electrified by his challenge and threw herself in an “evangelical” way into a script about her “own desperation to perform.” “I developed a comedic style to avoid sitting down at a desk and working,” Berlant told me. “I’ve always had a phobia of, like, opening a computer and being like, What am I going to … write?” Now, the special’s release on Hulu in September coincides with a project that is, in form, its foil: a strange, excellent, scripted theater show, Kate, that is currently running at New York’s Connelly Theater, directed by Burnham. It’s as though two versions of Berlant are being unveiled at once.

Photo: Philip Montgomery

Berlant lives in Silver Lake in a small white house. She grew up nearby, in Santa Monica, with artists for parents. Her father is the sculptor Tony Berlant, and her mother, Helen Méndez Berlant, did experimental theater and later worked in set design; she created the miniature Stonehenge for This Is Spinal Tap. As a child, Berlant spent a lot of time around her parents’ artist friends and was both precocious and intensely scatterbrained. Once, she forgot to memorize the words to a song she’d been assigned to sing solo in a school play. On opening night, she got all the way onstage, pressed her lips shut, and did made-up sign language. “It got this huge response of laughter,” she recalled. “I truly don’t remember thinking, I’m going to do sign language; that’s funny. I went out there, and it was sheer survival.”

Berlant did stand-up for the first time at 17 after being granted permission to do a semester of independent study on the form in high school. Soon, she started going to open mics at the Laugh Factory; since she wasn’t yet 18, she got in using a fake ID. She spent a year at Bard before transferring to NYU, where she threw herself into performing. At first, she wrote down her jokes. Then one day, Berlant decided to film herself ad-libbing out loud in her apartment. “It was a way to try and generate new ideas,” she recalled. “I started doing these pseudo-confessional, stream of consciousness monologues.” She began trying it onstage. In 2014, the influential improvisational comic Reggie Watts saw her perform and told her, “You’re an improviser.” “I was like, Oh!” she said. “Permission.

Most comedians try out new versions of their jokes on the fly, but few bill themselves as improvisers the way Watts and Berlant do. She liked how the visible seams of improv lent themselves to her deeper artistic preoccupation with the peculiarity of performing. Soon, she stopped writing entirely. At dive bars like Cabin in the East Village, where Berlant first started doing open mics in 2007, she stuck out in the sea of casually dressed, mostly male comics. She always wore skirts or dresses and bright-red lipstick to her shows and didn’t frame her stand-up as a clearly delineated alter ego. Her slippages of persona could elicit genuine hostility. “It’d be like, ‘Where is she? Who is she? This isn’t her!’ ” she recalled. It was also where she started to make a name for herself. Eventually, she ran a popular series at the Cake Shop in New York, where comedians like Early and Jacqueline Novak were regulars. “She was just effortlessly funny in her bones,” Burnham recalled.

The day after the UCB show, Berlant, Early, and I went to lunch in Los Angeles. To help her prepare for the special taping, Early was serving as a kind of second brain, watching her every time she performed and taking notes about the kind of thing that worked. To many fans, Berlant is most recognizable for the scripted work she’s done with Early, with whom she’s made a series of cult YouTube shorts, a Vimeo series, and a sketch special. In her sketches with Early, Berlant’s character is usually coddled and tense; Early is either her nemesis or, if he’s playing straight, an open-shirted, leather-bracelet type who’s trying to loosen her up. The magic of their shared humor is their ability to play into character traits that transcend caricature—like “an angry person” who is trying to hide it, Berlant demonstrated, flaring one nostril ever so slightly and raising an eyebrow in an expression of barely concealed ire.

In person, Berlant is a lot like someone she might imitate: chatty, self-possessed, and hyperaware of how she is seen. In conversations about her work, she often doubles back to contradict or qualify a bold statement. She seems concerned about coming off as pretentious rather than simply devoted. “Kill me for saying this: There is something really important about people being in a room together,” she said of her preference for live comedy. She often insists that she is basically a clown.

Earlier that week, Berlant had decided to type out a list of her semi-recurring jokes for the first time. She is quick to point out that labeling oneself an improviser is a bit of a feint: she often returns to similar material, and plenty of lines of hers become written (although not literally) over time. But the content of each performance is still uncharted territory: She doesn’t have a typical comedian’s hour of jokes hammered out in the same order for years.  “I want tightness and clarity, but no script,” she told me. But just having put pen to paper, she and Early agreed, had made the show last night better.

“It’s the tightest one I’ve had, right?” she asked Early.

“You were letting yourself probe one thought,” he agreed, “and then immediately making a left turn and then like probing down another path. There wasn’t a lot of air.”

“I didn’t get offstage and go, ‘Hell yeah, baby.’ ” Kate reminded him.

“Maybe it was just good in the context of all these runs,” Early said. Berlant had performed 13 hours of stand-up in the past few weeks. “It’s always been about striking the balance between preparation and being free. Preparation and joy.” He extracted Berlant’s notebook from his tote bag and flipped through the pages.

“It’s also my fertility diary,” Kate said sweetly. Early snorted.

“ ‘The expectations are crushing,’ was the first thing you said,” he read from the notebook. “I wrote it down because I thought it was a perfect opener.”

“Good opener, yeah,” she said.

Comedic free fall as an improviser can be terrifying. Toward the end of a set in San Diego later that week, Berlant started a riff about a water bottle she’d brought with her onstage, lamenting that she’d failed to do some required product placement for the bottle company. She raised the bottle until it was right in front of her face. “I love this cap because it uses less plastic,” she said into the microphone. It was bargain-basement material, but the audience was rapt in part because it was so unclear how she might back out of the situation. At one point, perhaps not knowing what else to do, they began to clap as though she was finished for the night. “Gimme a minute, okay? I have to get my bearings, okay?” She pleaded over their applause. Then she did an elaborately fake near fall, complete with a slapstick “Woooah!” sound, as though seeking solid ground. Berlant typically lands uneven jokes by dropping into her body, dancing, posing, or warping her vocal cords with a terrible face. The pratfall killed.

After Berlant’s set that night, a middle-aged man approached her while she chatted with fans in the emptying theater. “Were you running out of material at the end?” he asked.

“She has hours!” said the opener, who was standing nearby.

“I mean I sense that,” he said, growing earnest. “That you have hours of everything. But you gave this feeling of, like, you’re running out or something! Because you could tell—” He seemed to be struggling to articulate the frisson between Berlant’s overconfident persona and the way she let it visibly struggle with bumpy terrain. Berlant just laughed. “So fucking cute,” she said to me once he’d walked away.

“The only thing worse than a bad show is a good show,” she’d told me earlier. “It’s like, What happened? Why was it so good? Why?”

In some of Berlant’s sets, you can see her delight in unplanned silliness creep into her performance as she doubles down on something small, highlighting its dumbness—those are her best bits. By the end of a run of 25 shows at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, she was so desperate for something new to do in the theater she would poke around backstage before curtain for new objects to play with onstage. “One night, there was an orange and they announced me and I just rolled the orange onstage and chased after the orange and was like, ‘Oh no!’ ” she said, doing a clownish stumble after the lost object. “That’s something I did once, but to re-create that would be almost crazy,” she continued. “I guess you could repeat it. I don’t know. I feel like there are some things you can’t repeat.”

Kate Berlant in Kate. Photo: Emilio Madrid

During the pandemic, comedians who traded in parodies of self-obsessed nobodies found their moment on TikTok and Instagram Live. Jordan Firstman, who started uploading minute-long impressions of “truffle oil” and “banana bread’s publicist” to Instagram in 2020, counted Jennifer Aniston and Katy Perry among his fans. The same year, Megan Stalter began uploading rambling, often single-take videos to Instagram sending up the ways that people perform themselves on-camera—a category perhaps best described as “local woman preens.”

Berlant’s comedy is such a clear predecessor of this newly mainstream genre it would be easy to miss how completely she sat out the trend. Instead, she shot a part in the television adaptation of A League of Their Own and started a comedy podcast, POOG, about wellness, broadly defined, with Novak, which felt like a chance for fans to see Berlant through a more unfettered lens. As she banters about skin care, you get the sense that her refusal to play herself onstage is part of a larger personal preoccupation with the ways that the coherent “self” is always a doomed project. She regularly discusses attempting to wean herself from “the feed.”

Kate, by contrast, winkingly prepares viewers for a self-aware embrace of social-media readiness. Berlant sits on a bench outside the door to the theater in shades with a big sign that says “ignore me.” Photography is encouraged. The whole business readies us for a send-up of a show about a self-obsessed performer. Kate is ostensibly an autobiographical tale about Kate Berlant, an actress from Santa Monica who craves attention but whose mother discourages her from performing. (Her refrain: “Your crass style of indication has no place in front of the camera!”) As a consequence, Kate’s fear of the camera and desire for it become inextricable. When she finally tries acting on camera—a close-up of her face is projected on the screen above the stage so we can watch—she fails to cry on command. Berlant plays the unremarkable origin story with starry-eyed wonderment; the hilarity hinges on her ability to maintain a frothy blend of knowingness and apparent sincerity. A “real” Kate interrupts the action frequently to comment on the action. At the top of the show, Kate suggests that a traumatic personal revelation may erupt from the parody. She tells us she has “a secret that makes me feel broken inside that I’ve never told anyone.” The admission is played straight; all three times I saw the show, the room around me—made up mostly of Berlant’s demographic audience of young women—stiffened like they were watching a horror movie. This is going to be a different kind of show, it signals. Berlant is eventually going to tell us something bad—about her.

But the trauma never comes. There is no childhood experience that can be used to neatly explain the artist’s psychology. (Or, there sort of is, but it’s not what you think.) Instead, in the show’s climactic gag, the actress Kate (who is playing the actress Kate) can’t cry at the moment in the show (about not crying) where—she swears—she always does. Berlant, now “herself,” stops the show and demands that we do not leave until she sheds a tear. She works herself into an emotional frenzy, building a monologue around a suggested word from the crowd. Her eyes well; “There!” she shouts. The tear falls. With it, three layers of reality—the world of the cheesy one-woman show about not being able to cry, the world of the actress failing to put on that show, and the world of the creator, Berlant, who is orchestrating the lead up to this moment—collapse into a whole.

The show is a bigger risk artistically but safer to execute than her improv, Berlant told me one afternoon before previews. It feels “liberating and exotic to know this is going to happen,” she said. In her FX special, she operates on instinct; she mugs for the crowd, laughs at herself, flubs words, then castigates herself for mispronouncing them. Even on film, a sense of liveness crackles. At first, Kate was looser, too; she would just bring a list of scenes with her onstage. When she began workshopping the script in L.A. in front of crowds, Burnham came to almost every show. He “forced” the script “into structure,” Berlant said, which she needed in order to risk genuine failure. The previous evening, her tearful moment had come too quickly. “Bo was like, ‘You should take longer, because it’s a better payoff,’ ” she recalled.

In the triumphant moment when the tears finally fall, the audience finds themselves cheering for what they know is an actor’s stunt. To Early, “it felt like a comment on the idea that revealing trauma is inherently valuable or artistic, when it’s often neither of those things.” Berlant chafes at the notion that, if you claim the spotlight, “you better be promising to reveal yourself”—a concept that has only become more literalized through social media’s transformation of everyday self-presentation, she said, “down to infants.” What is real is Berlant’s desire to weep for us. She doesn’t have an interesting narrative. She just wants us to watch. Berlant ends the show in supplication, crying, as the lights go out, “Come back!”

For some, it will be genuinely frustrating that she spends so much time elaborately evading our grasp. For others, it’s euphoric when you realize how fully she does. “That’s the triumph,” Early said. “It’s a one-woman show and then you walk away from it and you go, Oh my God, I learned nothing about her.

*An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that Cinnamon in the Wind is available on FX. While it was produced by the network, it is only available to stream on Hulu.

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Kate Berlant Plays the Fool