comedy review

Catherine Cohen’s Destabilizing Twist

Catherine Cohen in The Twist…? She’s Gorgeous. Photo: Aaron Ricketts/Netflix

One of the chief advantages of comedy set to music is that our ears like musical repetition. We get pleasure out of hearing the same song over and over again, but jokes rarely age well. This is patently unfair to jokes and joke writers: Any genre that leans on surprise and freshness is so grueling that it essentially becomes a prank being played on its own creators. But embedding comedy inside musical forms, while not a foolproof way of dodging the problem of aging material, can nevertheless act as a preservative. A joke with a too-familiar idea is rarely a good thing; a song that feels familiar is like a welcome friend you’re happy to hear again. Catherine Cohen’s new Netflix special, The Twist …? She’s Gorgeous, lives on both sides of that equation. Cohen’s cabaret-style comedy act has the accomplished warmth and authority of a show that has improved with time. The ideas in it, though, have lost some of the surprising, brittle transgression they had when Cohen first created them several years ago.

Much of Cohen’s hour is about the performance of herself as a glammed-up diva, someone who presents the most mundane, gruesome, or unexciting experiences as hilarious, transformative opportunities for image-making and self-definition. She sings “Look at Me,” about her unabashed desire for attention, and a song about a weekend in upstate New York as a fashionable, high-class retreat. She laughs at catching a glimpse of herself in a selfie taken accidentally while trying to photograph her own vagina to send to a doctor. When she describes a Chipotle employee questioning her order of the “the hottest sauce,” Cohen transforms into a cartoonish, grotesquely helpless baby. Life is a joke, femininity is a joke, gender is a joke, relationships are jokes, and so is longing for a relationship. What can you do about it all but sing!

“Life is a joke” can be a reduction or an elevation: Either it’s life is nothing, or it’s that jokes are everything. Cohen’s act supports both of those readings. She mocks sincerity, and she mocks herself for wanting to mock sincerity. She is exhausted by everything and will tell you that with boundless energy. Cohen ping-pongs back and forth between disaffected distance and a Miss Piggy–level investment of her whole self in one of her songs. As a result, her material is like prop comedy, and her idea of selfhood is the prop. Here, she is onstage for an audience, laughing at how nakedly she wants to be onstage. She is glamorous and winking at the idea of glamor. When one single tear rolls down her face, it’s hard to appreciate the stunning achievement of that stagecraft because she’s so thoroughly destabilized the experience of sincere emotion. That tear is impressive! But are we meant to laugh at it or find it moving? Under the lights a tear looks pretty much the same as a sequin, after all. Maybe it’s just another way to add some sparkle to a show? Then again, if the show is everything and jokes are everything, who am I to say “just” another way to add some sparkle? Sparkle is the whole point.

This is the territory The Twist …? She’s Gorgeous plays inside, and it does that very, very well. Cohen has defined this space in comedy for years now, not just as one of the most notable performers of a New York comedy-cabaret movement, but by establishing and perfecting a comedy persona that encompasses both sexiness and sadness. The ideas Cohen has developed, influenced by comedians like John Early and Kate Berlant, are now everywhere — most obviously in the work of comedians like Rachel Sennott, who has adopted some of Cohen’s weaponized baby femininity, but also in a distinct, pervasive internet voice of self-mockery and queer sexy grotesquerie.

The downside of building and perfecting a comedic sensibility that has been widely adopted and copied is that, over time, your own iteration of that act can start to feel empty. It’s certainly not Cohen’s fault that a global pandemic has interrupted comedy-special production for years and created a massive fissure just at the moment her career was coming into its own. But as Cohen herself has described it, The Twist …? She’s Gorgeous has been largely finished since at least 2019, when she performed it for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. She intended to record the hour in 2020 but was inevitably forced to wait until it became safe to put on a show again. That intervening time had the double-edged result of making Cohen’s work seem both more broadly influential and less distinctive. The hour is now a perfectly controlled form of destabilized silliness, but the cost is that it has lost the immediacy these ideas had when she first wrote them.

Nowhere is this more true than in one telling moment in the special when Cohen sets up a song about the pain of being single by first admitting that she now has a boyfriend and is very much in love. It’s such an odd addition — it’s palpably true, in a way that suddenly makes you focus on how false all the rest of it is. That shouldn’t be a problem, because all the rest of it is an elaborate, often extremely silly performance. But the tension of a character like Cohen’s comes from the awareness that she’s always playing off some truth underneath, that the thing she’s parodying is something that has caused her real pain or pleasure. The ground is always slipping around underneath this show, playing with which emotions are real and which aren’t.

But when suddenly there’s a line that feels like it’s from a different persona, the whole thing jolts sideways. You’re left wanting the show put on by this Cat Cohen, this more recent one, this comedian who has lived through more and who maybe wants different things now. Like the pandemic (which Cohen describes as “so random!”), this is not her fault. This is the show she has become known for, and it deserves to have been made into a Netflix special. The songs are catchy and the performance of them is immaculate, even if the central idea of it now feels like a moment that has started to fade. If the end result of The Twist …? She’s Gorgeous is that people will want to know what Cohen is working on now, maybe that’s a silver lining.

Catherine Cohen’s Destabilizing Twist