Are you addicted to epiphanies?
Talkin' 300,000-year-old art, ephemeral life-changing revelations, making a hit Off-Broadway show and more with Spyplane Laughter Hero Kate Berlant
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— Jonah & Erin
Kate Berlant — we are in awe of her monumental comedic genius !! An L.A. native, she’s been doing unclassifiable, conceptually slippery stand-up since she was 17 — breaking off in the middle of jokes to tell meta jokes about the jokes she just told, leaving a pile of non sequiturs on the stage, “compulsively framing myself,” as she puts it, and keeping audiences off-balance. Her special Cinnamon in the Wind is great, as is Poog, the hit podcast — nominally about beauty & wellness products but, beneath that, about the mechanics of vanity, “self-improvement” and DESIRE — that she cohosts with fellow comedian Jacqueline Novak. You can also watch the comedy videos she’s posted online with her longtime buddy John Early, or savor her cameos in such Spyplane Cinematic & Televisual Treasures as Sorry to Bother You, I Think You Should Leave and Once Upon A Time in Hollywood …
AND, until February 10 in NYC, you can catch her off-Broadway show KATE, which was directed by Bo Burnham and recently deemed “one of the funniest things I’ve seen live, ever” by Spyfriend Nathan Fielder. We haven’t been to New York since KATE first opened and sold out its entire initial run. It’s since been extended by popular demand, the people love it, and I swear to g-d if I don’t make it out to see this thing before it closes I will carry my regret to the grave !!
All of which means I was stoked to hop on the Spyphone with Kate the other day to talk about 300,000-year-old art, doing mushrooms in Ojai, finding gold on the sidewalk, constantly experiencing life-changing revelations that dissolve into nothingness, the commodification of sublime tigers, and more “unbeatable topics.”
Blackbird Spyplane: Friend of the sletter Nathan Fielder saw KATE and popped into yr dressing room afterwards to tell you it’s fantastic. Let’s put all the blurbs on the poster: who else has come backstage to tell you the show’s fantastic? And if that question feels uncouth —
Kate Berlant: “Oh honey, I’ll tell you. James L. Brooks had a really beautiful, poetic reaction to the show that stunned me. Michael Stipe loved it, which is cool. I was told Channing Tatum was first to leap to his feet one night, which was exciting. Some filmmakers I love — Noah Baumbach, Sofia Coppola… Umm… Emma Stone!!”
Blackbird Spyplane: D*mn, ok! This poster is out of control.
Kate Berlant: “Yeah, I’m going hard. Can you believe this poster?”
Blackbird Spyplane: What does the show have in common with your stand up, and where does it go that your stand up doesn’t?
Kate Berlant: “My stand up is mostly improvisation, and this is really a play. It’s a comedy show, a scripted, one-woman show about an actress trying to get work and make a one-woman show. But it’s still me, and there’s slippage between me and the person on stage.”
Blackbird Spyplane: In KATE you wear a great, stripped down, throwback-Calvin-Klein-ad type outfit that people have been flipping for — wide-strapped black tank top, relaxed fit black jeans, black boots. How’d you decide on that?
Kate Berlant: “It’s something Bo Burnham pointed out — I was starting to get onstage again and Bo said, ‘Don’t wear what you’re wearing.’ I tend to wear the same thing over and over, to the point I sometimes feel a bit like a cartoon character, wearing a uniform. For me it was black pants and a blouse — which is a terrifying line because of my resemblance to ‘Weird’ Al Yankovic. If I wear a loudly colored top I’ll be in trouble. So Bo encouraged me to wear something more stripped down, and show more skin. It’s kind of an archetypal One-Woman Show Outfit: an outfit that’s ostensibly meant to disappear, but you also know the performer wants to appear hot.”
Blackbird Spyplane: There’s something about a tank top on stage that says, “I’m gonna give it to you straight.”
Kate Berlant: “It’s an attempt at being hot that appears to be in service of the work. It’s funny, I’ve been doing stand up since I was 17, and I used to always dress up, which was something that was discouraged when I was starting out. I had people tell me, ‘You shouldn’t try to look hot doing stand up. Don’t wear red lipstick, don’t wear a skirt.’ Which was mystifying. I’ve always felt separate from that tradition of The Person in the Hoodie On Stage: The anti-style anti-aesthetic, the hoodie and sneakers, where the inherent vanity of stand up has to be undercut by wearing something ugly or artless. Like, ‘Who, me?’ I never related to that. We’re doing stand up to get attention!”
Blackbird Spyplane: Something your podcast Poog has in common with this newsletter is an interest in exploring consumer-culture pathologies, exploring this idea that we can build our identities and even “heal ourselves” through the things we buy — you criticize that mindset, even as you find it alluring.
Kate Berlant: “I’m constantly trying to stop myself from having epiphanies daily. It’s this addictive cycle of saying, ‘I got it, this is the thing, this is the solution’ — and of course it dissolves. That can sometimes come in the form of a product: ‘This is the serum, this is the ritual, this is the practice that’s gonna free me and I will give birth to my actual self through this.’
“Whereas it’s about never arriving: relishing in the chase, and preparing to never arrive. That’s a Buddhist principle — this thing of, if you see the Buddha, kill the Buddha. Nothing will save us — the thing, the practice, the product, the relationship, the career. There’s momentary relief and fantasy, but ultimately we need to submit to death every day.”
Blackbird Spyplane: I love life but real talk, shout out to death.
Kate Berlant: “One thing I will say, though, is that even though I’m anti-revelation, I do think if I never look at social media my life will be better. Up till yesterday I’d basically been off social media for two months, then the Interview piece I did with Nathan Fielder came out and I was, like, ‘Oh, I have to post to grid.’ And then of course I was, like, ‘Yeah baby, I’m looking at the likes’ — I gave myself one day, then opened it today and deleted it. I’m looking at my journal right now, and I do think maybe more anti-consumerist ‘modalities of change,’ like journaling, might be more beneficial.
“I am a consumerist, though. I like objects, I like to buy things. There’s a story Jacqueline brought up once that I’m gonna butcher, but there was a temple somewhere — I don’t know what culture, like I said, I’m going to butcher it — and they were all praying when a tiger came in and caused this euphoric, ecstatic experience. Like, Wow, a tiger just walked in! But then people created souvenir tigers, where you buy the tiger to try to remind yourself of the day the tiger came into the temple. Of course you can’t buy what you’re really trying to buy, but that’s something I suffer from: I’d be first in line to buy the souvenir tiger.”
Blackbird Spyplane: I was happy to see you pop up in the New York “Nepo Babies” piece the other day as the “daughter of a sculptor and the woman who made the Stonehenge for Spinal Tap.” I’m not sure if that’s stretching the concept of nepotism past the point of meaninglessness, but it does make your parents sound cool and I’m glad someone is exploring the dark underbelly of having cool parents.
Kate Berlant: “I was thrilled that my parents got to be in New York. My dad, Tony, is an obscure pop artist and my mom, Helen, did prop fabrication and was, like, a set painter. Unfortunately artists do often beget artists, though — it’s a sick, twisted cycle that must be broken.”
Blackbird Spyplane: Real quick, you were in Don’t Worry Darling — does Chris Pine dress mad cool? Because I’ve seen some photos that make it look like he does but I’d love a firsthand report.
Kate Berlant: “I only saw him in his plain clothes a couple times and I was, like, There’s a movie star. The first time, we were doing a table read. He was in some brown suede jacket and he had cool sunglasses on, hair in his eyes…”
Blackbird Spyplane: There’s a shot of him that had my timeline going nutty where he’s wearing this woven bucket hat with a little scarf and carrying around a camera, like a chill artsy aunt — it sounds like he came through this table read on some more “timeless cool” s**t.
Kate Berlant: “Yeah, classic.”
Blackbird Spyplane: OK & finally, we asked you to tell Spy Nation about some unique cherished possessions. First up, you sent me a Gucci watch & gold ring you found on the street in New York. I’m from New York, lived there for decades and lost mad s**t there, but the most valuable thing I ever found was like a $5 bill !!
Kate Berlant: “I lived in New York for about 8 years in my early twenties, and on my 21st birthday, on Avenue A and 9th, I found this gold Gucci watch on the ground. I thought, It must be fake. I wore it for years, then took it to a watch man and he said, Nope, it’s real. And then, swear to God, also on Avenue A, I found this gold ring. 14 karats. I wore it for a while and stopped, but I was packing up to come back to New York to do this run of the show, and I said, I’m gonna wear that ring again for good luck, and to remind myself of finding literal gold in the streets of New York. It felt like some kind of divine nod.”
Blackbird Spyplane: OK, and what’s up with this carved stone you sent? It’s beautiful.
Kate Berlant: “So when I was 13 or something my dad started building this very obsessive collection of Paleolithic stone tools and hand axes. They were everywhere in my house, on every surface, and my dad talked about them constantly.”
Blackbird Spyplane: Wow, does he go out on expeditions to find them or are there ancient-rock dealers?
Kate Berlant: “There’s a couple freaks who are really into this, and when I was in high school he got connected with this French archeologist who he went over and got some from. A few years ago he collaborated on a book about it, and Jared Diamond wrote an essay, so that helped legitimize it a bit, but it’s still a hyper-fringe obsession.”
Blackbird Spyplane: What draws him to these stones?
Kate Berlant: “You know, natural-history museums will often have one or two on display, like, ‘This was a stone tool used for whatever-the-f**k,’ but my dad developed a new theory, like, ‘I actually think these are art objects.’ They can be as much as 2 million years old — way before it’s ever been acknowledged that humans ever had any aesthetic sense — but the idea is that some of these objects are carved all the way around in a way that wouldn’t make sense if it was just a tool.
“If you look at the one I sent, you can see the way it’s chiseled so deliberately, in a way that doesn’t really fit in your hand as a tool — it feels like an art object, and the stone has these unusual shapes in it, so you can see someone hacking away at it, revealing that. I just texted my parents asking how old this one is and my mom says, ‘Estimated about 300,000; very rough estimate. Probably North African.’
“I kept this on my desk to look at and touch when I was writing my show. There’s something about it that’s like a piece of a meteorite, where if you hold it, it gives you some connection to how expansive space and time are, and these have some abstract connection to the history of humans’ aesthetic attachments.”
Blackbird Spyplane: Erin and I love picking up interesting rocks when we travel — it’s sort of like seeing a good cloud, where you can project an interpretation or emotion onto this naturally occurring shape, except instead of it wafting away you can put it in your pocket.
Kate Berlant: “I just remembered, I was on a hike in Ojai on mushrooms with John Early once, and I picked up a rock from this stream — my mom has had a rock on the kitchen counter my whole life that she uses to smash garlic, and I found this rock in Ojai with a perfect flat edge and said, ‘This will be my garlic stone for the rest of my life.’ But then I said, ‘Whoa, I can’t take this from the natural landscape.’ I had this strong internal debate: Is leaving it the way to honor it?
“And since we were on mushrooms it became this huge decision. It connects back to the theme of non-attachment we were talking about before: I finally told myself, If I still want the stone when we’re on our way back, I’ll take it — and I left it.”
Kate Berlant is on Twitter here and on Instagram here, even though she feels better when she doesn’t use those apps. The site for KATE, her Off-Broadway show, is here, and Poog is on Apple podcasts here.
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