This week, we’re highlighting 20 talented writers and performers for Vulture’s annual list “Comedians You Should and Will Know.” Our goal is to introduce a wider audience to the talent that has the comedy community and industry buzzing. (You can read more about our methodology at the link above.) This year, for the first time, we asked the comedians on this list to answer a series of questions about their work and comedy under quarantine. Next up is Christina Catherine Martinez.
When did you feel that you were funny enough to make a legitimate go at comedy?
I had the inverse revelation. Watching big comics falter at indie shows as they worked out their material made me think Okay, I know I can be at least as unfunny as that guy — and he’s on TV! All the comedy I’d seen up until that point was a polished product. There was a whole invisible, messy, protracted process behind it, and if I could commit to that process maybe I could present a decent product one day. I entered the sausage factory, as it were.
When I started comedy, my self-esteem was so low it bordered on paranoia. I was suspicious of praise. I thought everyone was humoring me, that I was a charity case. And coming up in Los Angeles, you get used to being billed with veterans who are not as amped as you and probably won’t watch your set. During the Hot Tub 15th anniversary show in February, I was waiting in the wings next to Kurt Braunholer and Kumail Nanjiani, and as I was about to go up, Kurt leaned over to Kumail and whispered, “You have to watch this.” It was a small moment, but it made me realize no one’s doing me any favors here. I’m doing the favor. I’m about to entertain the shit out of these people.
Describe your comedy in five words.
“Conceptually highbrow and physically slapstick.” I stole that.
If you weren’t a comedian, what would you be doing?
I would still be writing fiction and essays and whatnot, in addition to running a vintage shop on Instagram peddling lots of architectural ’80s things that fit absolutely no one except the angular 20-year-olds I pay in Moon Juice to model them. I would have an easy laugh and post long captions about how thankful I am to be creative every day.
What of your work do you think you’re best known for?
I think the ad for my car has had the most eyes on it. It is also common knowledge that I have the best legs in comedy.
What’s some of your work that you’re most proud of?
I’m proud of my book Aesthetical Relations that came out last year. It’s named after the talk show I’ve been hosting for years. The show was always a mix of guests from the worlds of art and comedy, with me gleefully wrangling all the unwieldy energy that that entails. With the book, my critic self and my comedian self found some new common ground. It’s a collection of essays on art and comedy and surviving cancer and growing up in Los Angeles. Some of them are short like jokes, and some are long and serious, but they all hang together in a fun way. The next book is already starting to take shape — this is the fun part, letting ideas swim around in my head and fantasizing about how kickass they’re going to be on the page. The next step is to actually prod them through the bog of consciousness so they’ll come out as words. That is admittedly less fun. I do an Instagram Live version of AR sometimes, and I kind of love how this opening sequence came out:
I’m so different now than the person that started out presenting her stand-up as a “piece” called “How to Bake a Cake in the Digital Age,” but that set comes from a very real, very personal place. It’s the basis for a special I’m going to work out in November.
I’m also proud of my “Important Legal Announcement” video, because it went from idea to execution in one day — I didn’t overthink it.
How has quarantine affected the way you approach your comedy and your audience?
Livestream shows are interesting because the space of the screen is completely different from a stage. What we’re doing there isn’t stand-up per se, but it presents a new set of problems that can be fun to play with. The same joke lands differently if I’m whispering it close to the camera, as opposed to yelling it from across the room, or reciting it from the bathtub. I don’t do any screen-sharing stuff, which I’ve seen comics do, but I sometimes use props or lighting in my apartment for dumb theatrical effects. If it’s a low-key show I’ll just talk while I make dinner. Keeping my hands busy makes me feel more relaxed and present than ironically holding a mic in my living room.
I tend to beat myself up for not putting out more “funny” “content” on social media, but as Nietzsche famously wrote, if you gaze long enough into a front-facing camera, the front-facing camera also gazes into you.
What have you done in quarantine for comedy that you thought you would never do?
Get Zoom-heckled by a Canadian.
Who are some of your favorite comedians right now? Who is putting out work that excites and inspires you?
My cultural diet is utter chaos. Kye Kinane’s 2018 episode of The Standups is my favorite piece of comedy to deconstruct. I watched it at least three times because two years ago he somehow solved the problem of how to talk about what’s going on right now. It’s prescient without being didactic and of course it’s funny as hell. If you have the opportunity to see Jamel Johnson perform, either live or via livestream, you must do so immediately. Katy Fishell’s comics based on anonymous sex stories that land in her DMs make me feel less alone. Bridey Elliot and Charles Rogers are taking genre parody to sexy and devastating new places. I have to watch their sketches in pieces. They’re almost too much all at once.
I like Miranda July’s Instagram shenanigans — on the Fourth of July she put clues for a scavenger hunt in her Stories and I actually drove all the way to a Silverlake 7-Eleven to dig a vintage Kenzo dress out of a trash can. (Someone beat me to it.) Whoever runs the @avocado_ibuprofen account is not a comedian, but they are doing some of the best cultural commentary while dancing on that meta-modern tightrope between irony and sincerity. Blackbird Spyplane is my favorite newsletter; I’m not sure how to describe it — fashion missives for crunchy hypebeasts with a sense of humor? I’m reading Yxta Maya Murray’s forthcoming novel Art Is Everything and it is cracking me open in terms of what’s possible in fiction for a recovering Chicanx art critic (the answer is: everything). I watched two documentaries about Pina Bausch and I want to be a dancer. I’ve been eating a lot of carrot sticks and sunflower butter. (Is that culture?)
What is the best comedy advice, and then the worst comedy advice, you’ve ever received, either when you were starting out or more recently?
Starting out, the best comedy advice I received is that there’s no definitive point of making it, you just structure your life in a way that allows the comedy to be joyful and sustainable for as long as possible. That’s general advice. On a more personal note, I’ve lost count of the myriad ways people have advised me to loosen up. I used to work my material like prose, and it would end up so tight there was no room to riff if something was going well or switch gears if something wasn’t working. I was terrified of appearing unpolished, and so I came off as stiff. I’m less afraid now of being loose or bad or taking a chance on whatever comes to me in the moment, but I still get hung up on concepts. Just earlier this year a lover said to me, “Maybe you should stop worrying about how to look smart and start worrying about how to look stupid,” and then I said, “Maybe you should starting worrying about how you’re going to get home from this gallery dinner” and sped off into the night. He was right, though. I should return his car at some point.
The worst comedy advice I ever received was that you can edit podcasts with iMovie.
Tell us one story from your childhood that is a good representation of your life.
I have this one very vivid memory of being in the car with my mother and grandmother and my two older brothers. I was trying to describe something, or say something very serious, but every time I opened my mouth everyone would interrupt me and laugh and pinch my cheeks, and I got so frustrated I started to cry. Years later I tried telling my mother about it, how traumatic it was that no one was listening. She felt bad and tried to place the memory, so I recounted all the minute details: what the car was like, what I saw out the window, the outfit I was wearing — a lavender one-piece thing with rainbow alphabet letters all over it — and finally she said, “Oh gosh, you were a just baby then! We were laughing because you kept making bubbly noises and it was so cute!” I was impressed that I’d retained such an early memory and simultaneously disheartened for all the babies out there getting laughed at while trying to say their serious things.
I guess you could say I’ve been coping with the insufficiency of language since infancy.
Assuming quarantine ends at some point, is there anything about the way that comedy or the industry in general has changed that you hope continues post-quarantine?
Quarantine has brought out the gentleness of the comedy community. I hope that sticks — checking in with each other, taking breaks for ourselves, gathering funds for those of us in need, going on hikes to take butt selfies, etc. I hope comedians keep incorporating civic action into our everyday lives and come to our own decisions over how and when to document them. I hope we stop high-horse bugging out over the juxtaposition of a thirst trap next to a community-fridge announcement next to a funny sketch next to a breakdown of a local ballot measure. I hope that in the course of what feels like the necessary task of aestheticizing our politics, we don’t reduce our politics to aesthetics.