Kate Berlant’s experimental comedy is the best thing since oh God I’m melting | John Wenzel
Kate Berlant popped onto my radar when Denver comedy troupe The Grawlix flew her in for their monthly showcase, but it wasn’t until I saw her at last year’s inaugural High Plains Comedy Festival that I understood why The New York Times, Playboy, L.A. Magazine and others have been freaking out over her.
Berlant’s comedy is singular in the best and most confounding possible way. Watching her largely improvised sets is like watching a delusional, hilariously pretentious theater instructor wax poetic after dropping acid, but also a bit like listening to a business jargon-spouting New Age guru.
In other words, calling her inscrutable persona “weird” is like saying Andy Kaufman was KIND OF into toying with the conventions of comedy. And while it’s easy to see her a natural extension of Kaufman’s theatrical meta-humor, Berlant is increasingly being embraced by non-festival, non-comedy-nerd crowds, which hints at the broadening definition of stand-up as much as its audience.
In honor of her return to Denver’s Oriental Theater on Friday, Jan. 31 for Sexpot Comedy’s Ice Queens of Comedy show — which she’ll co-headline with L.A. dynamo Beth Stelling, with opening sets from Denver’s Jordan Doll and Troy Walker — I caught up with the 26-year-old L.A. native to talk stand-up acceptance, truth in fiction, surreal experiences, and why her comedy isn’t actually that weird at all.
2014 is the Year Comedy Changed Comedy
We here at Chicken Scratch have had a gangbusters 2014 so far. Steve Heisler took over as co-anchor on Weekend Update, Julie Seabaugh has been writing articles for the Illuminati, Matthew Love earned his Ph.D. in Advanced Loveology, and John Wenzel lives in Colorado.
To say it’s been a whirlwind is an insult to all whirlwinds out there that pale in comparison to OUR whirlwind, and the last thing we want is yet another angry letter from the Congressional Whirlwind Lobby. Needless to say, this is our first post of the year.
But why look backwards? For the first time in Chicken Scratch’s vaunted history, we have joined forces to bring you a glimpse of the future—what comedy might look like in the year 2014 if we had our druthers and comedy kept it saucy:
Happy whatever to you and all your filthy animals!
As consummate professionals and heart-warming family types, we have no choice but to take the next couple weeks off and celebrate various religious traditions and alcohol-centered rituals in the bosom of our stunningly attractive families.
We hope you’ll join us in hoisting a semi-cold one to Chicken Scratch’s first year in existence — and looking forward to all the funnies and crack-em-ups we have planned for 2014 on our Dick Clark Memorial Chalk Board, which incidentally doubles as our collective day planner and Win, Lose or Draw Thunderdome.
In the meantime, our contributors have helpfully listed their favorite comedy contributions to 2013, including Steve Heisler’s Chicken Scratch and A.V. Club pieces, John Wenzel’s Chicken Scratch roundup, Matthew Love’s Time Out New York piece, and Julie Seabaugh’s L.A. Weekly list.
My favorite comedy of 2013 | John Wenzel
A sold-out crowd greeted Reggie Watts’ headlining performance on the final night Denver’s inaugural High Plains Comedy Festival. Photo by Evan Semon, heyreverb.com.
As our Steve Heisler pointed out yesterday, nobody can consume every comedy album, TV special, Funny or Die sketch, sitcom pilot, and humor book released in a single year.
Nor should they. That would be gross. That, and discernment is fundamental to critical opinion, and when you’re getting paid to broadcast it to whatever audience your advertisers are going after, it becomes a meaningless exercise to thumbs-up everything that falls into your warm, velvety lap.
I’m as guilty as anyone else in being more inclined to listen to something on Comedy Central Records (especially if it’s someone I already like) than I am Joe Sixpack’s Startup Vanity Outlet, which incidentally didn’t put out any great comedy albums this year.
But my favorite comedy of 2013 is, like most of ours, cobbled together from things that were marketed to me as well as things I discovered on my own and through friends. Some of the best was through the digital word-of-mouth channels of Facebook and Twitter, where certain people (whose comedic opinions I highly respect) have become reliable fonts of comedy awesomeness. Some was shit I saw on the bus. Literally.
So at the risk of devolving into a rant about the inherent problems of Best-Of lists (because hey! we need another one of those!) or talking in depth about the human feces I saw on the bus, I’ll just shut up and list my favorite comedy of 2013.
Best Comedy of 2013: An Annotated Ballot | Steve Heisler
I probably didn’t listen to your album, and I’m incredibly sorry.
Compiling year-end comedy lists is simultaneously the most and least fun thing I do all year. It’s satisfying to be presented with a massive database of releases and whittle it down to just the ones that spoke to me—finding order in chaos. It’s human nature to enjoy making sense of things. Then it comes time to start ranking one album, special or TV series, one above the other, and I start to realize that consensus, even among my own opinions, is going to be impossible.
I watch and listen to a lot of comedy, but it would be disingenuous for myself—or anyone, really—to claim they’ve watched and listened to ALL of the comedy. I’d go so far as to say that even if every single comedy journalist and comedian came together and compared notes, there’d still be some blind spots. There are practical concerns, of course, like the amount of time I might spend consuming comedy versus, you know, showering. Or the fact that geographically I’m limited to shows I can access from the greater New York area or the festivals I’m lucky enough to attend. But the true mitigating factor is how much I love the damn thing.
With Apologies to The Hobbit: The Highs and Lows of Nerd Humor | John Wenzel
The multi-million dollar media blitz heralding the new Hobbit movie has likely made you unbelievably sick of hearing about it, so allow me to take a different path. Namely, one that deflates the movie’s violent, Biblical self-importance while at the same time embracing the gentle nuances and details of its beloved source material.
In other words: nerd humor. I’m pretty sure that’s the definition of nerd humor, anyway. And I don’t mean comedy for the general nerd population, or humor for people who are nerds about comedy. I mean comedy that laser-sights a specific target and blasts away at it from point blank range, splattering the source material in a way that only superfans can truly appreciate.
I’m talking about the Harvard Lampoon’s classic Bored of the Rings, which was reprinted last year to capitalize on the release of the first of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit adaptations. It was the book’s “sort-of-fortieth anniversary” (as press materials called it) and a fine excuse to dust off the adventures of Frito Bugger, Spam Gangree, Moxie and Pepsi Dingleberry. And who could forget the incorrigible Gimlet, son of Groin? That cut-up.
If those names mean anything to you, congratulations. You’ve either one of the millions who have watched the Lord of the Rings movies at least once, or you’re a J.R.R. Tolkien diehard in the process of adjusting your Elven undergarments. For the latter, actually sitting down and reading Bored of the Rings involves an impressive level of mental commitment — one born of the memorization and blind worship that is the hallmark of true nerd-dom.
The Rolling Beer Bottle: A Comic’s Material and the Immaterial | Matthew Love
My laminate blinds Tig Notaro. From the spiral staircase at the back of the Théatre Sainte-Catherine, a guy calmly, repeatedly says something incomprehensible about feces. A water bottle rolls across the stage. Each of these moments during Notaro’s Boyish Girl Interrupted at JFL this summer led to comic gold; but even if I could find the notes I took about them, these moments—some of the best of the show—would be the hardest to make sense of.
I can relate the bit about the invisible horse and some attempts to spell ‘diarrhea.’ I can even remark on Notaro’s contract with her audience, which stays with her regardless of the performance.* But something happened at that show that is slipperier and about which it is more difficult to talk. Coincidently, it’s a quality that all of my favorite stand-up shows have: Some magic moment of give-and-take between the performer and the audience.
Taylor Ketchum: The Highest Highs and the Lowest Lows | Julie Seabaugh
Taylor Ketchum co-hosts new biweekly show Hot Crowd, along with Joe Zimmerman and Jono Zalay, Wednesday at Over the Eight in Williamsburg. From college football star to homeless heroin addict to New York standup, his is a compelling story unlike any other in the comedy industry.
“I am from Los Angeles. I don’t tell people this all the time, ‘cause I’m not some kind of Hollywood fuckface, but I was actually in the movie Trainspotting…for about 11 years. I played Division I college football, and then I became a heroin addict, and then I became this. I’m not really sure what’s more tragic in that chain of events, to be honest. It’s kind of a bizarre trajectory for a life to have. It’s like: college glory, getting laid, varsity, letterman’s jacket, things are going well, hepatitis, death, abscesses, loneliness, ‘Eh, I guess you’re not hurting anybody.’”
I love Los Angeles. My family’s there, all my friends. I went to high school there. But I’ve always wanted to be a New York City comic. I like it here better as a comedian. It’s not always easy here. It’s not always comfortable or fun. But for comedy, it’s the best.
I don’t necessarily tell the whole story because I don’t have time, and not all of it’s funny. The addiction stuff, all you’re going to hear about is the nasty, good, weird stuff about it, not what led up to it. I try to be as honest as possible up there. If I need to edit something and get to the point and not tell the whole thing, then I’ll do that. I don’t make things up. All that addiction stuff is all real. It’s kind of CliffsNoted, but it’s all stuff that actually happened.
I always liked drugs and partying. But I played football, and it kind of babysat me. Whenever things were getting too out of control or too hairy, I always had this football thing to be like, “Oh, okay, I should go not be a scumbag now. I’ve got to play football.” I started playing in fourth or fifth grade. It was just what the kids in my neighborhood were doing. I just moved there, my parents had gotten divorced about two years before. I didn’t have a dad around. They were playing and I was just like, “Oh cool; I’ll try that.” I ended up being pretty good at it.
I smoked pot, and I got really into the rave scene when I was in high school. I was taking ecstasy. But then I would always get re-focused and really get back into football. I got a scholarship, and I went on to play in college [at Ohio University]. The last week, we were supposed to play North Carolina State. It was the last game I was ever playing. I knew it. And I knew that I wasn’t going to have that babysitter anymore.
Q&A with The Improv’s Budd Friedman | Julie Seabaugh
Epix documentary The Improv: 50 Years Behind the Brick Wall — featuring Jerry Seinfeld, Jimmy Fallon, Sarah Silverman and more — debuts tonight at 8 Eastern. Founder Budd Friedman was kind enough to speak with me…for L.A. Weekly, but this being the prime season for leftovers, here are some of his cutting-room thoughts on the film, the chain’s legacy and just who the hell Nerdist is again.
Was there a biggest surprise or greatest hurdle in the process of producing and releasing the documentary?
No real surprises. They did throw a few barbs in my direction, but that’s to be expected. But on the whole it’s a terrifically entertaining show, and we’re very pleased. We can’t wait to get on the air. It’s one thing to see it on my computer, but it’s another thing to see it on my TV.
Well, you know the comedians only kid the ones they love, so…
Oh yeah, sure sure sure. The biggest shock…it wasn’t a shock: I don’t mind being taken apart for a good cause, but one of the Wayans brothers says, “And when Budd introduced you, he’d first tell a joke and think he’s funny. And the audience just sits there; they’re stunned. And then he brings you up. You’ve got a dead audience. Instead of warming up, he warms them down!” That’s pretty funny.
Am I Stoned, or Is Doug Benson the Future of Comedy? | John Wenzel
Watching Doug Benson smoke pot on his video-podcast Getting Doug With High makes my lungs hurt. Dude barely takes a breath between joints, bowls, and bong rips, encouraging his comedian-actor buddies to puff with him for the entirety of the 50-minute show, but also gleefully toking by himself when they decline.
Few people have the superhuman tolerance of Benson, who is as synonymous with weed these days as he is comedy, and that’s probably for the best. His humor can be rambling and punctuated with awkward moments, and it’s usually more relatable to people who understand pot culture than those who don’t. I wasn’t crazy about either of Benson’s well-meaning but boring stoner documentaries, Super High Me and The Greatest Movie Ever Rolled. And like any comic, some of his live shows fall flat.
But when my non-stoner friends jump at the chance to see him every time he rolls through town, I can’t help but think he’s more than just someone at the right place at the right time, or that he’s simply pandering to an underserved market. His style of humor is fundamentally goofy and open-hearted, and often surprisingly nimble — or at least as nimble as most non-stoned podcasts out there, which could often benefit from the constant self-awareness that comes with being high (or is it just paranoia, MAN?!)
Simply because Benson is talking about (and smoking) pot all the time doesn’t mean he’s inherently lazy. He’s a podcast champ and social media rock star primarily because he’s a gifted riffer and touring juggernaut, not because he’s hitched his wagon to a drug that’s going increasingly mainstream. He’s easy-going and funny, but harsh when called for, and his taste in movies and other comedians is uniformly great. In other words, he’s a comedian first and stoner second, and the format for his open-ended talk show works in spite of its potential to be a druggy trainwreck.