Kate Berlant on Returning to the High Plains Comedy Festival and Enjoying Confusion
Kate Berlant's performances defy easy categorization, full of verbal non sequiturs and tonally absurd. She's crafted a truly sui generis comedic persona untethered to the traditions of the surprisingly hidebound medium of standup. An NYU alumnus, Berlant gained renown in the New York comedy scene, earning glowing (if befuddled) profiles in Playboy and the New York Times. A highlight of last year's High Plains Comedy Festival, Berlant has a groundswell of fans in Denver's comedy community who turned out to see her at one of the first Sexpot Comedy showcases. Westword caught up with Berlant before she returns to Denver for this weekend's High Plains Festival to discuss touring with musicians, finding her unique style, and her contingent of bro fans.
Westword: So you were one of the stand-out performers at the fest last year. What made you decide to return this year?
Kate Berlant: Oh, man, it was so fun. Of course I was so happy to come back. It's been great to be able to come out to Denver more in the last few years than I had ever had before. It's so fun there, everybody just puts stuff on. It's a little bit of a utopia.
How has High Plains compared to other festivals where you've performed?
I think that High Plains is smaller and more localized in terms of -- I don't know how to compare it to something like South by Southwest, which is bigger but not as fun. It's always fun to do festivals with your friends. It feels like you get to just go hang out. You get to do shows for crowds that are super into it.
Yeah, it doesn't take over the whole city and everybody kind of knows everybody.
Yeah, it's so nice. So ideal.
So, in the course of doing research for this interview, I came across a lot of think pieces where people try really hard to find a way to describe what you're doing and not coming up with much. Does that ever get frustrating, or is it just nice to be written about?
No, it's nice. It's not frustrating at all. I've always been into confusion. I think ideally, my goal is just to have people respond positively to what I'm doing; whether or not they're describing it is not the point, I think. I'm always just flattered that anyone wants to know what I'm doing, or tries to understand. Because I myself don't really know. I mean, I have feelings and ideas about what I'm doing, but I can't put them into words for other people, or myself.
I'd despair of having to describe your performance style, too -- but it's certainly not the traditional set-up/punchline joke structure. I guess structure doesn't even enter into it. See? I'm failing at descriptions right now.
I also always feel ridiculous --I'm not trying to say, "Yeah, I just really can't be put into words," because I'm doing something so hyper-radical that language fails it. But I understan, though, obviously, that it can be hard to communicate.
Maybe the vocabulary doesn't exist for it yet? Standup is still pretty married to the roots of the form, you know? Its traditions are really apparent, so it's interesting to see how people respond when you don't follow that old, like Catskills rhythm.
You've opened for Father John Misty on tour recently. Were you the only comic opening for him, and how did his crowds respond to you?
That was like a real tour, a month of being on the road every night. I just opened for another musician recently, but the Father John Misty tour was so much fun. Just pure euphoria. It was my first time really being on the road and doing a show every single night in a different city. I was so overwhelmed by the experience of being taken out of everyday life and only really needing to focus on the show that night. So that was great. And his crowds were great. I was nervous.
Going into it, I was prepared to bomb a lot. I just assumed that would be a natural part of it. And that was okay. I'm sort of comfortable with silence. I'm not as dependent on the constant laughter. Of course, I want laughter as much as anybody else does, but I was pleasantly surprised. There were only a couple shows where it didn't go that well, but it was nothing Biblical, you know? I was fully expecting to be systematically abused and broken down by the end of the month. But Josh [Tillman aka Father John Misty] is so funny and his music is completely about humor, so it made sense. His crowds were receptive.
How has your experience with music crowds compared to typical comedy club audiences?
I mean, that's where I usually am. It's never really a problem. I find it more when I have friends at a show sitting in the audience, they'll tell me afterwards that someone was like, "What the fuck is she doing?" Going in front of crowds that consume a lot of comedy can be great because as comedy fans, they're ostensibly there to laugh.
Comedy nerds are more likely to be excited by something new and different.
Yeah, so I think sometimes it's nice to offer a break from what they're used to. I didn't go into standup trying to -- I don't necessarily think that anyone gets into it thinking, "I'm going to mix things up!" I don't know, maybe they do. It's weird; it's so hard to talk about without seeming like...
A bit of a wonk having a bit of a wank? I get it. But at some point, you had to become aware that you were veering away from a pretty established formula.
Yeah, yeah, absolutely. I've been sort of pleasantly surprised. I guess I've been lucky to never feel like people were wondering if whether what I was doing was even comedy or not. So, I think that in both situations, for example sometimes with music crowds there are people who have never seen live comedy before. That can also be really great. When they don't really have any expectations?
Yeah, completely. And I perform pretty regularly in art environments. There's such an interest in comedy now within the art world. There's more crossover. It's kind of strange suggesting that the crossover hasn't always been there, but I guess with the popularity of standup in general now, you're seeing it pop up in all these alternate venues.
Let me know if I'm just completely failing to answer your questions. I know haven't spilled any secrets, but it's not like I'm sitting on some gorgeous announcement.
Keep reading for more from Kate Berlant. Okay. You let me know if my questions aren't question-y enough. You were saying earlier that you didn't set out to deconstruct comedy or anything. If you'd been that arch about your act, I think it would lose that sui generis quality.
Right. Completely. When I first started doing comedy, I was doing these hyper-constructed one-liners that were still sort of failing. I could only see myself in them a little bit. It's hard for me to pinpoint exactly when I started doing something that felt it was more from me. When I look at the first comedy I ever did, I'm doing a full Eugene Mirman voice. I was just super-obsessed with that Invite Them Up album that came from New York. I used to listen to it all the time, so it makes sense. When you first start out, you replicate what's out there and what you're seen. I don't know who I was doing that for. I feel like for a couple years I hadn't -- and also, obviously, I'm not standing in a place right now where I think, "Well, I've figured it out. I've refined, and now I'm down." I'm still in chaos about it.
There's something that people are responding to now, though.
Yeah, which is really nice because a couple of years ago there was a period when I thought about just applying for a performance art grant and just working out of the performance art spaces even though I didn't really want that. It's kind of like I was just nervous or something. I was afraid to actually do what I wanted, so it was great when people started responding to it. I was afraid I'd only work in an art house or some other hermetically-sealed environment. But no. There are like, bros and old men who like my standup. So that's cool.
I'm guessing that people who elect to go see performance art are generally a more open-minded sort. So, I wanted to ask about those sketches -- and again, it doesn't feel quite accurate to describe them as sketches -- but those videos that you make with John Early. How long have you been doing those? Are you working on any new ones?
Well, John and I became friends not that long ago, like two years. It was very automatic and sibling-like. We just had this shared language. It's totally surreal and exciting to just meet someone and immediately speak the same language. Nobody makes me laugh harder. All of our videos are completely improvised in this way that's kind surprising to us. We're trying to figure out how to script things and apply more of a loose structure. They've just kind of emerged when we do them. We've been lucky to have great directors and people who help us shoot them. But yeah, we shot something about a week ago. We have a live show that I'd love to bring to Denver. We've done it a couple times in New York and L.A. and we're hoping to tour. We have dreams.
Is that the Cake Shop show?
No, he and I have this one-hour show that we've done at UCB and places like that. The Cake Shop is basically how I started comedy in any real way. It's a music venue on the lower east side that's run by two brothers. I started hosting a show there my senior year in college. That's where I started really figuring things out; running a show and the work of booking it and meeting everyone. So I did that for five years and now I've sort of suddenly moved to L.A. and John took over that show for me.
How come you decided to move to L.A.? More opportunity?
Well, I'm from L.A. originally, so it's not as dramatic as it sounds. When you're a comic who moves to L.A. it seems kind of like you're declaring "I'm ready for the big time!" Really, it's just kind of natural. I've been here a lot over the past year and with all the traveling it's almost a matter of where I'm based more. And I really like L.A.. I was sort of resistant to the idea of moving back before. I moved to New York when I was eighteen, so it was definitely where I went through, you know, "the birth of myself." There wasn't one specific job that brought me out, it was sort of general.
Where was the first place you performed?
In L.A. when I was a senior. I did a show at my high school. I was a loser.
That seems like it could either be great or just the worst.
It was actually really great. It's nice to have the first time you do it go really well.
I can only imagine. Do you remember what you did?
It was crazy; I was in a wheelchair, wearing a kimono, and doing one-liners. Then I started doing open mics at the Laugh Factory the summer before I moved to New York. That's when I started becoming obsessed with standup, when it became the thing I cared about the most.
Berlant will be performing at Mutiny Information Cafe at 10 p.m. on Friday, August 22. Tickets are $10 on the High Plains Comedy Festival's website. She'll also be participating in a live podcast recording of You Made It Weird with Pete Holmes at 6 p.m. on Saturday, August 23; tickets cost $15. Check the High Plains schedule for updates and the event's venue.
Follow Byron Graham on twitter @ByronFG for more mildly amusing sequences of words.
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