Kate Berlant is the kind of person you want to drink a beer with. Or a green smoothie. Or a secretly spiked Shirley Temple. Or anything really. Her comedy straddles genres—part academic lecture, part chatty gossip session, part theatrical improv. As a teenager, she got her hands on a fake ID just to perform at the 21-plus Laugh Factory in Los Angeles. After she earned an MA in performance studies from the Tisch School of the Arts, she established her own show at The Cake Shop in Manhattan, toured nationwide, opened for Reggie Watts and became one of Comedy Central's Comics to Watch.
Onstage, she's a masterful hostess. Her opening set works in critiques of gender, materiality and the linearity and violence of time. Also: Poop jokes. Her cadence constantly shifts between that of a nasally valley girl and a too-serious academic. The material makes no logical sense, but she sounds completely expert. Above all, it's hilarious.
Due to the new-age vibe of Berlant's comedy, I suggest we meet at a crystal shop in Chelsea. The shop lady suggests Berlant buy a lucite wand to cleanse herself of negative energy. I am told to purchase a copper ball to balance my first and second Chakras. It will help me think about what it means to a be a "strong-yet-feminine woman."
Eventually, the two of us decamp with our crystals to the ACE Hotel to chat. But the proliferation of taxidermy and dearth of bar stools conspire to exile us to a less glamorous salad shop. "I make seasonal choices," Berlant explains, cocking her head coyly to one side after ordering a juice called The November. Her voice in person is gentle and quiet. She wears a delicate print dress and a little eye makeup. We start talking about the comedy of seduction, Paul Thomas Anderson and why women don't do stand-up to get laid.
Playboy: If you had to pick three words to describe your comedy what would they be?
Berlant: Confusion. And its synonyms: ambiguity and invention.
Playboy: The New York Times compared your comedic persona to a "trendy academic." When you were at NYU, were you taking character notes?
Berlant: When I was much younger, I used to read aloud textbooks even though I didn't understand them. I liked the way they sounded; I liked what they did to me. I'm an only child. Putting on the affect of authority, you can get away with murder. The academic language of expertise that I'm obsessed with is like a seduction.
Playboy: How so?
Berlant: You have to get onstage and coax people into, I don't want to say, submission, but kind of. You have to get them to listen to you. Hopefully they're going to want to hear you. So I guess, in that way, it's like seduction.
Playboy: It's interesting to think about seduction as getting people to listen to you. More often it's about making them sleep with you. But getting someone to sleep with you isn't all that different from getting them to listen to you. To that end, a good comedian might also have to be a seductive one. Who do you think is the sexiest comedian alive today?
Berlant: I don't know if I want them to know. Sexiness and comedy is one of the weirdest, delicate, unwanted-but-deeply-wanted things. Sexiness for men and women in comedy is different. I was alarmed by this when I got into comedy, but there are men wanting to do comedy to get laid, basically, which is so not what you're doing it for if you're a woman.
Playboy: What do you think you're doing it for if you're a woman?
Berlant: I think men are doing it for other reasons too. But if you're a woman, you are, in some ways, being radically desexualized if you're doing stand-up. Male comedians can be seen as sexual objects—like, "the intellectual, hilarious man." Maybe he's not classically attractive but "Oh! His wit!"
That's not the case for women. I'm thinking about clothes right now. Onstage I wear dresses and skirts and makeup. I'm not going to negate some classic display of femininity in order to get people to listen to me, because I don't have to. I've learned that. But I've had women say to me, "You're really funny, but you shouldn't wear that." That's so deeply boring to me.
[A long pause ensues as Berlant thinks about it and changes her mind.]
The thing about doing stand-up is that maybe it just is sexy.
Playboy: Doing stand-up is sexy?
Berlant: Maybe. A friend of mine was performing recently for an hour and a half, and her boyfriend wasn't there. I was like, "Where's your boyfriend?"
"He couldn't make it," she responded. "He had a show. Plus, I needed the audience to be my lover tonight." She described it like she needed to feel as though she could take them, sexually.
Playboy: Do you feel that way?
Berlant: I do. I'm weird about people I know seeing my stuff. I forbid my parents for a long time. If I'm interested in someone, it's uncomfortable for me. There's this transmission that's happening that's powerful. I feel like dudes are so often hit on after shows. And I never am, ever. Not that I'm searching for that necessarily. But it's weird to me at least.
I think I've always had a lot of sexual frustration maybe. And it's been tied directly to being funny and being younger and being, in my own eyes, radically de-sexualized—being violently horny but feeling like I was Bette Midler's dog. That was so much of my identity and still a part of me. And being around women friends in my teenage years who were remarkably beautiful but maybe not as excessive as I am. I linked that excessiveness to being, like, "too much"—and inherently grotesque. Now, I love thinking about the generative potential of excess.
Playboy: We still haven't arrived at the sexiest comedians...
The men that I feel like are classically talked about as being sexy are like Marc Maron and Louis C.K. Which is so funny. I love the show Louie. And I think Louis C.K. amazing. But that, for me, epitomizes someone that physically wouldn't be a sexy man but is fetishized in this way.
When people are really talented they're automatically really sexy to me. So the answer to that question is just who do I like watching perform.
Playboy: Which connects back to this idea of comedic seduction as getting somebody under your power. Getting somebody to laugh makes them vulnerable.
Berlant: Oh my god, that just reminded me. My friend John Early, who's a gay guy, talks about how when he makes hetero men laugh he gets off on it. I relate to that. For him, to make them laugh is a huge power. I experience that, too. Mainly, though, I've been surrounded by so many men in stand-up who have been wonderful and deeply funny. I don't have that feeling of comedy as a hostile environment for women. Comedy is so hard. For everyone. I'm pretty sure just as men and women have different experiences walking down the street they're going to have different experiences getting up onstage.
Playboy: What's a dream project for you?
Berlant: I really want to act. I've had so much shame about that for so long. I'd love to be in a Paul Thomas Anderson film. That's my ultimate fantasy.
Playboy: He's great. I think of him as the father of films about American masculinity and its nuances. Like There Will Be Blood, Punch Drunk Love…
Berlant: …And that Tom Cruise character in Magnolia. The Master, too. It's all about desire.
Playboy: His female characters are also awesome.
Berlant: He needs to make an epic starring a woman. I want to be, like, a Jewish prostitute in the '50s—or maybe the '40s. You could call it, "Bad Sam." Her name is Sam and so is her estranged son and so is her pimp and so is the priest who tries to convert her. That's actually really good.
Katherine Cooper is a freelance writer and performer based in New York City. She is an online contributor to BOMB magazine. She is also a professional matchmaker for Tawkify.com.