Kate Berlant isn't the easiest to define. On the one hand, she's a comedian—the L.A.-based performer works the stand-up clubs, is a regular guest on the comedy podcast circuit, like Pete Holmes's popular You Made it Weird, and until recently hosted a weekly comedy show at the Cake Shop in NYC's Lower East Side which had a reputation for highlighting some of the city's best experimental comedy acts. But Berlant's act also thrives on being somewhat out of place. She's performed in art spaces like MoMA PS1 and the White Columns gallery, and has a masters in Performance Studies from NYU Tisch where she worked with the performance artist Dynasty Handbag, a well-known fixture in the New York art world. Perhaps consequently, Berlant's work is a study of manners, cultivated personality, and the jet stream phrases that can take over our speech when we're not being careful. Delivered through a series of semi-improvised asides, her set is a kidding-not-kidding analysis of the moment itself, one in which she might adopt the soothing nonsense vernacular of self-help while referring to the inherent politics and violence of the situation in a way that suggests she's both read and internalized Sue-Ellen Case's theatrical discourse on The Performance of Power.
Over the past several years Berlant's output has also included a video series in which she and regular collaborators like John Early delve into characters that are more interested in their own self-conscious personas than in the content of their conversations. What she seems to be exploring is the ways in which our personalities or language patterns are themselves performance, and how a social context can easily stand-in for genre. In Berlant's world, the ISO workplace patois we all comfortably adopt at meetings and in memos—where words like "stakeholder" and "scope" stop sounding ridiculous—is an established format that's just as staged as the line-line-punch rhythm of a three camera sitcom. It is in these videos that the persistent distinction between art and entertainment becomes almost irrelevant. In the ecosystem of YouTube and Tumblr, the internet's endless outsider video pool has provided viewers unprecedented access to the weird or challenging, and given rise to a generation with a deep and nuanced understanding of visual culture. In one sitting you can watch a 10-minute Yankee Candle review, a bedroom cover of Taylor Swift, a TED talk, or a pick-up artist seminar. Or you can flip over to the artists already making work that reflects YouTube culture back into itself back, like the popular exaggerated confessionals of Miranda Sings, Ms. Berlant herself, or the internet art sensation Ryan Trecartin, whose videos Berlant considers an inspiration. Some of this stuff even makes it on to network television, like the increasingly fascinating and bizarre videos that Kyle Mooney and his Good Neighbor cohorts have been managing to sneak onto Saturday Night Live broadcasts. And with cultural touchstones like the Daily Show, it is clear that comedy has a knack for hiding artful criticism in the mainstream. Here, Berlant talks not fitting in, finding her own language, and the tantalizing possibility of doing a sitcom.
You've performed in art museums and galleries, and your act is peppered with some heavy reference material. What kind of background are you coming from? My friends that aren't in comedy are visual artists and my dad's an artist so I kind of grew up around it and have always been comfortable in those kinds of settings. And environments that are not classically used for stand-up were always interesting to me.
I got into stand-up my senior of high school and I was doing a lot of one-liners. But I also got really into watching Ryan Trecartin videos that year. I thought they were so funny and I love that use of narrative. I've honestly never made this link but I think that watching his videos pretty hugely influenced me. Though I didn't start doing stuff that resembles what I'm doing now until years later.
It seems like you're exploring similar language patterns—a very particular nonsense language that appears to make sense but it's not really saying anything. Exactly, it's more impressionistic. I was actually talking to a friend of mine about identifying with postmodernism but how also it's embarrassing to talk about it in those terms. Or how talking about your comedy is so grotesque. But I also don't have a problem with it. It's maybe not hip to say "Oh yeah, I'm interested in comedy and I'm interested in feminist and queer theory and like cyber-art postmodernism." It's not cute. Even though doing stand-up is so intensely personal that of course you're very invested in it—you have ideas about what you're doing and a desire to create a certain tone. I feel like I'm often in between this place of not wanting to talk about it but then also feverishly wanting to talk about it.
Right, that comes out on stage—you'll throw in an bit of critical theory in this exaggerated tone and it feels like a joke, but then it seems like you mean it at the same time. Yeah, absolutely. That's the thing. I definitely do mean it. I went to the Performance Studies program at NYU which sounds like it's acting or something, but it's this problem-driven, critical theory-based world. You're reacting to your own performance and performance of identity, and thinking a lot about the politics of watching and being watched. And all of that was definitely super-informative. I just like talking about experience in those terms and trying to figure how to process experience. And stand up is often just a heightened reality.
"In this highly mediatized environment it's hard to have moments that are separate from performance." Kate Berlant
Do you remember when you started bringing critical theory and performance into stand-up? It was definitely never a particular moment. I feel like I was doing a version of what I'm doing now when I was a kid. It's hard to really trace it. I recently remembered about how when I was a kid I really liked to read a lot from books I didn't understand. I would recite them just because I liked the way it sounded coming out of my mouth even if I didn't really know what the words meant. That language of expertise was always funny to me, or seductive in some way.
It's the same vibe as self-help guru videos—this kind of language that's so recognizable but you can't quite place it. What interests you in that quality? My most recent day job was working for an energy healer. She practices an ancient form of Japanese healing called Jin Shin Jyutsu. She was working out of this very beautiful loft in SoHo. I didn't understand how she had this practice that was essentially about transcending the earthly or something but then it was highly transactional, like she had clients. I think it's also that in this highly mediatized environment it's hard to have moments that are separate from performance.
It comes out in the videos you did with John Early. The characters you play are these high-minded people but as they try to perform this for each other, the front starts to unravel. What makes us laugh the hardest is talking about behavior. I think the characters that we do come from a place of really articulated behavioral traits that are hyper-specific, but also at the same time very impressionist and kind of silly or non-specific, which I guess barely makes sense. We talk a lot about being watched and you know, trying to get Twitter followers. Trying to be transparent about that hunger and anxiety that's so engrained in performance. To be able to do what you want, inevitably you're constantly aware of yourself as a product. How do you sell yourself?
There's a lot of improvisation in what you do. Do you have beats you need to hit? How do you balance that when you're in a live setting? All of my videos with John are all improvised. It's always ideal to abandon the plan but I 100 percent repeat stuff. It's kind of like a spine I know I can work around. I like to know what I'm gonna do at the very beginning and at the very end. But I'm more comfortable with silence then maybe a stand-up comic should be. I mean, of course I want laughter and that's the goal. It's not like I'm rejoicing in silence. But if I'm doing the Montreal comedy festival or something when you're supposed to do a seven minute set that they've already approved, there really isn't room to move around.
So what do you do in a situation like that? Well, I did Montreal this summer and I did have a couple moments where I felt reactive or did something I wasn't planning to do because it just feels strange not to. Stand-up is this weird made up facade. The worst thing in stand-up to me is fake laughing at your own stuff. Like pretending to be so caught up in the joy of recollection that it's just falling out of you. But I have a language. Even the stuff that I repeat came out of improvisation.
Speaking of those moments of silence or being comfortable with stuff that's not directly geared towards a laugh, the video you did with Natalie Labriola for MOCA is funny, but it's also something else. What happened there? Natalie is one of my oldest best friends, we went to middle school together so it all came together really quickly. We shot it in one day, it was improvised. That white skirt-suit my character wears—it's so funny. I was working at this high-end cowboy boot store two years ago—I would kill rats with a broom there, and I once sold Claire Danes a $300 denim jacket—and this woman just came off the street saying "I'm selling this white skirt suit for $50" and for some reason I bought it from her. And it gave birth to this character. I've always had this fascination with a cartoonish idea of a business woman. I think it's because I didn't grow up around adults who had real jobs so I've always sort of fetishized it.
How is making comedy for an art museum different to making a comedy YouTube channel? I'm trying to find a language that makes sense for me. In live comedy or in a comedy video, you're supposed to be immediately whipped into a frenzy with however many jokes-per-minute, and it's [supposed to be] immediately understood what the joke is. [With making comedy for an art museum] it felt freeing to not have the immediate expectation that it has to be so insane. It's funny because I have issues with comedy crowds, but I also have issues with art crowds.
I'm glad to perform anywhere essentially but with an art crowd I've been frustrated when I see people are less willing to give themselves over to it—or just laugh! There's this hypercritical feeling, it's too cool. There's something so beautiful about the comedy club where people go after work and they just want to laugh and that's it. That can be really great but comes with its own set of restrictions. What about the ambiguous moments?
Is there an ideal space for you to perform or is it interesting to be a fish out of water in both places? I think that's it—I enjoy not ever feeling like I'm in the right place.
There are codes that people expect from any place. When people fail to speak to that code I think that's the most interesting thing.
What's next for you? I'm doing a little two week tour in the North East, and I'm developing a TV idea right now that's kind of super early, nothing to really say yet. And my ongoing collaborations with John. And you know, just trying to get on a sitcom I guess.
Do you want to get on a sitcom? I ask myself that every day. I would love to buy a brand new Mazda but I also would love to feel good. So I don't know.
Is there anything else you want to say? I hope you don't feel deceived, I've been driving this whole time.
You can see Kate Berlant on the upcoming "Very Tour, Much Comedy" tour with Nick Thune and Ben Kronberg at the Bellhouse in Brooklyn on 2/8. Check out her Tumblr for the full run of dates.