Kate Berlant Can’t Hide Any Longer

As soon as Kate Berlant walked offstage at the Elysian Theater in Los Angeles in May, she started spiraling. After months of workshop performances, her new solo show felt like a mess. The comic Tim Heidecker came backstage and told her he loved it. She didn’t look like she believed him.

Over the next few minutes, Berlant speculated about what went wrong. Lack of focus? Not funny enough? Her sensibility not coming through? Her director, the comic Bo Burnham, had been emphasizing the same point: clarity, structure, clarity, structure. “I operate more with fragments,” she said, before her expressive face flattened: “I just don’t know what the show is.”

Such anxiety is a normal part of the artistic process, but perhaps especially so for Berlant, whose show, titled “Kate,” is now in previews at the Connelly Theater in New York. After more than 15 years of improvisational, experimental stand-up, this is a departure: a play with a beginning, middle and end that tells a satirically formulaic story of a starry-eyed actress who moves to New York to make it big. This is real theater stuff, with props and multimedia and even a plot in which personal secrets are revealed.

You may not know her name, but Berlant is influential in comedy circles, and her digressive style stands for everything that a scripted autobiographical play doesn’t. And she is having trouble wrapping her head around it. “It would be funny if this show is so bad,” Berlant said three days earlier in her Silver Lake apartment, her eyes lighting up, head swiveling, curls swinging, before pivoting into a parody of her rationalizing the flop. In the overly enunciated voice of the pretentious intellectual she had perfected in her stand-up, she said with a dismissive flip of her hand: “I don’t participate in the economy of distinction.” Then she cackled.

In more than two decades as a critic of live performance, only a handful of times have I stumbled upon an artist so radically different, so thrillingly alien, that it scrambled my sense of the possible. Kate Berlant was one. It was at a sparsely attended stand-up show in 2013. Following a couple of setup-and-punchline craftsmen, her entrance felt less like the next act than an interruption. The first thing that stood out was her singularly silly physicality, herky-jerky, gesticulating clownishly, a parade of buffoonish confidence. Flamboyance baked into every gesture, her hyperarticulate monologues, which could also spiral, delivered stream of consciousness nonsense with the gravity of a religious epiphany.

Berlant workshopped the show in Los Angeles, where she lives.Credit…Chantal Anderson for The New York Times

What she did was not a performance of comedy so much as a narration of the experience of someone performing comedy. And while her cerebral-minded material had the sound of coherence, the music of a mind at work, its meaning fell apart upon scrutiny, which was part of the joke. Every time she began to tell you about herself, she either changed the subject, contradicted herself or, most often, criticized her own act, as if the commentary track infiltrated the show itself. The result had the ineffability of experimental theater yet the ingratiating gusto of showbiz, full of cross-eyed expressions and flirtations with the audience. Was it a satire of a certain brand of charismatic egghead? Maybe.

She made me laugh hard, but it was difficult to figure out why. She resisted categorization, which made me try harder, perhaps an occupational hazard. The more I saw her, including the first time she did a half-hour set, I started noticing common themes: The performance in everyday life, the space between reality and artifice, confession and disguise. Even though she had no special or show, I wrote a column arguing that her elusiveness went against the grain of the dominant culture of prestige stand-up. Berlant seemed to be making a mockery of confessional comedy, emphasizing the artifice of her own performance, talking about herself but revealing nothing. Its title was “Keeping It Fake.”

In fact, Berlant’s comedy grew organically, a product of studying experimental performance at New York University, improvising at open mics at night and bringing the academic language from one into the other. “I started taking these big ideas but abandoning them midsentence,” she told me. And when people laughed, she kept doing it.

Offstage, warm and eager to joke, she really does speak with a certain academic cocktail-party flair. The more time spent with her, the less her stand-up seems like a character or a parody than a heightened version of herself. She says she might have been influenced by the language of the internet or her dad, an artist known for his mixed-media collages, but quickly contradicts herself: “It wasn’t a decision. It just happened.”

Upon meeting a decade later, she recalled my review with a shudder. “It was the first time I was like, ‘Oh, that’s what I’m doing,’” she said, before explaining: “Stand-up is a person up there baring all, a direct channel to who I am. Authenticity. What I’m doing is devising this persona that’s hard to pin down. Resisting legibility.”

Her comedy reflects her background studying experimental performance at New York University by day and performing at open mics by night. Credit…Chantal Anderson for The New York Times

Avoiding the legible (not to mention listening to critics) can be risky. Over the next few years, Berlant’s reputation grew; she became especially beloved in comedy circles though never quite found a breakout vehicle. She did an episode of Netflix’s comedy show “The Characters,” made sketch series with her friend and frequent collaborator, John Early, and got cast in cameo roles in movies by Boots Riley and Quentin Tarantino.

She became a cult comic, both in the sense of the level of her popularity, but also the intensity of her fans. Many younger comics seemed to borrow her mannerisms and style. One night in 2018, after seeing a bunch of comics doing that flamboyant Berlant-style narration, I wondered on Twitter about her impact, and Bo Burnham responded by calling her the “most influential/imitated comedian of a generation,” saying that even he “slipped into stealing Kate’s vibes without trying.”

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But her act could be rarefied. The comic Jacqueline Novak, a friend, recalls going to the Stand comedy club and watching Berlant’s act bomb but impress the club comic Rich Vos, who was hosting the show. “Rich is laughing and looking around at me with delight, astonishment and wonder,” Novak said. “He gets up there and says he’s never met her before, then scolds the crowd and says, ‘She’s a star.’”

Another time, a show-business manager called Berlant, who grew up in Los Angeles with dreams of movie stardom, and said, “Have you ever thought of being more normal and doing jokes?” She didn’t know how to respond.

Asked if she would be happy as an experimental artist, a niche star, she adopted the glamorous hard-boiled voice of the Hollywood studio era: “I want to be on billboards, baby.”

She had a running joke with Early that her greatest fear was a documentary in which more famous people talk about how influential she is. She was starting to feel trapped by her act. And her confidence had faded after she shot a special in 2019, filmed in black and white by Burnham and produced by Jerrod Carmichael, that was shelved. (FX just announced it will air in the fall.)

In the pandemic, Berlant stopped performing for the longest stretch of her career. She filmed the series reboot of “A League of Their Own” and started a podcast with Novak. But she felt the pull of stand-up and in December returned to the stage. Burnham attended the show and afterward administered some tough love. “He said, ‘This is great and you could do that forever, but what if you actually tried to make something?” she said he told her.

Berland, third from left, in the new series “A League of Their Own.”Credit…Anne Marie Fox/Amazon Prime
The comic, playing a character called Kate, tries to cry on cue in her new stage show.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

This comment stung. But Burnham — coming off the success of “Inside,” an acclaimed special that leveraged themes he had worked on for years in an ambitious new form — pushed her out of her comfort zone to craft something structured, narrative-driven, a little less elusive. “Story,” she said, “is not where I live.” (Burnham turned down interview requests.)

What she came up with centered on a struggling, self-involved actress, Kate, putting on an autobiographical solo show, a vanity project. The character is trying to mine her personal pain for entertainment. Burnham and Berlant started watching solo shows and working with those tropes. At first, she was making fun of this form and imagining the unraveling of her show with a multitude of technical problems, including fights with a production guy rooted in real issues she once had.

Like her previous work, it’s about the embarrassment of performing. But she isn’t narrating a character so much as playing one and digging into her own insecurities to do so. “I am realizing there is a larger joke about my anxiety about not having anything to say,” she said. “I don’t have anything to say. It’s the semiotics of theater without the content.”

Since I saw her performance three months ago, she has added several monologues in which she breaks character and talks directly to the audience as she criticizes and apologizes for her own show. It more closely resembled her old standup but also the spiraling that she did in May. “I’ve allowed myself to have moments in my familiar language,” she said in July. “It needs to be fun for me.”

She also added a scene about her character’s childhood trauma that clarified the central challenge that repeats itself in the show several times: her inability to cry on cue. After failing to do so in a high-stakes audition, she ends up trying to cry in a small theater show, like, well, the one Berlant is doing now. If that sounds as meta as a Charlie Kaufman script, she did watch “Adaptation” on the flight back from London, where she performed the show to sold-out crowds. The part in “Adaptation” that stood out to her was the advice from a screenwriting guru: “Wow them in the end and you got a hit.”

The climax of Berlant’s show — her trying to cry for a camera on command one last time and telling the crowd out of desperation that no one is leaving until she does — had always played well. But the structure has been streamlined to more clearly build up to it. She fails to cry, again and again and again, a close-up on her face projected on the wall showcases her clownish expressions. It’s oddly suspenseful, a sequence that builds like a joke but isn’t merely played for laughs. Even though this is a moment marked by artifice and absurdity, Berlant really commits to the emotional performance in a way that’s different from anything she’s done before.

Crying can be something of a trick for an actor. But the way it operates in this show now is also more fundamental. “I’m realizing that this has to change her,” Berlant told me, speaking of the character. The change is not in finding a trauma, but in her relationship to the show she is putting on. She discovers that making the audience happy, the audience in the room, is enough.

Scenes in which she criticizes and apologizes for the show have been added to “Kate.” As she explained, “It needs to be fun for me.”Credit…Chantal Anderson for The New York Times

“For me, Kate Berlant,” she said, shifting to talking about herself, “to have a show in New York that works and people like, that is enough.”

In an East Village coffee shop a few days before previews start, Berlant sounded more confident than ever, assured of the intent of her show if still uneasy, especially about finding ways to stay present and alive as she says the same lines over and over. In the Connelly Theater, the show now cleverly introduces itself like a parody of a pretentious art installation, with a lobby decked out in comically self-serious photos of Berlant, including several paragraphs of a mission statement that gives cult-leader vibes. In the theater, a vast video screen shows a film that positions her in a long line of great acting gurus (Meisner, Strasberg, Berlant) after lovingly scrolling through her IMDb page. You can sense the slickly ironic lBurnham touch in the framing of the play.

Berlant said the show had the silly comedy of her standup but was more emotional, adding that audience members have told her they’ve cried watching her try to.

As much as this new show is about making something with a clear narrative, she still clings to the power of obliqueness. “This is the question I’m still facing: How much clarity does there need to be?” she said. “My character is doing a vanity project. It’s convoluted and half-baked. Does it really matter how clear it is?”

The transition from comic to scripted actor is tricky, especially for an improvisational artist who has always poked fun at and reveled in the embarrassment of being a performer. She describes this is as being much more vulnerable. “I created a style of performing to avoid work,” she said of her comedy career, in what may or may not be a joke. “But there’s effort all over this show.”

She paused dramatically, with just enough self-consciousness to wink at her own actorly flourish: “I can’t hide.”

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