‘I identify as a deeply lazy person’: comedian Kate Berlant on absurdity, life reflecting art – and inventing herself on stage

The comedian Kate Berlant doesn’t tell jokes. Instead, what she does is improvise a flirty, deadpan, clownish one-way conversation with the audience, dipping quickly into academic theory (“I’m very interested in the social topography of space”) before showing off her psychic powers (“I’m seeing… an injury?”), all the time playing on the voluptuous hugeness of a comedian’s ego. It means the experience of watching her perform can feel alternately disorienting and enlightening, while also very, very funny.

We’re meeting today because Berlant is having a moment. Or, more accurately, another moment, one more in a career that has seen a series of startling and hilarious moments, including as an actor (most recently in Don’t Worry Darling), comedian (in video shorts with longtime collaborator John Early) and wellness podcaster, with Poog (a play on Goop). She used to joke with Early that her greatest fear was a documentary in which very famous people talked about how influential she is. But after years of being reverentially damned as a “cult comic”, Berlant is finally breaking out into real stardom. She’s ready.

Now 36, she performed her first standup show at 17. The daughter of artists in Los Angeles, she did a masters in the “cultural anthropology of comedy”, and her shows evolved to become about performance as much as they were a performance themselves, leaning deeply into the narcissism of a person, spotlit on stage. They were also lyrical, and experimental, and extremely silly. In her recent standup special Cinnamon in the Wind (a metaphor for the sweet speed of life), Berlant takes to the stage to wild applause. “OK, yeah, sure,” she says to the crowd. “Don’t embarrass yourself.” “It’s really hard to have absolutely no comedic influences whatsoever,” she muses later in the show, before admitting her main comedy influence is “small-batch granola” because its packaging “actively resists capitalism?” Her first scripted show, Kate, just finished a sell-out run in New York. Reviews were outrageous. They weren’t glowing so much as burning, exploding from the page in headlines like: “The one-woman show to end all one-woman shows,” and: “A Night at Kate Can Change Your Life.” She’s bringing it to London this month.

It is first thing in the morning when Berlant Zooms from LA, and she has the smudged appearance of a person reluctant to quite wake up – her face is turned away, towards the window, and the sun lights her spectacularly. “I was forced into comedy early because of my bone structure,” she once said onstage, and in this light it is hard to argue. She turns slowly and earnestly says, “I identify as a deeply lazy person. I find it hard to do anything.” Which meant, “I was really scared of writing this show. And it changed me because it forced me to work in a new way. It is a play, so – not a space for me to do my usual schtick. Which is very improvisational, defined by a non-structure and anchored in this persona, a sort of a version of myself. This show attempts to tell a story.”

Kate the show was born when her friend, comedian Bo Burnham (who had just finished his award-winning Netflix special, Inside), suggested she write something, properly WRITE something, for the first time, with a beginning, middle and end. It’s about – in parts – an actor searching for a traumatic origin story, trying to impress a Disney+ executive, and it focuses on her cynical attempts to cry on camera, tears being the truest evidence of her authenticity. It plays with pretension: in the lobby as audiences file in, they find a museum-like exhibition of her costumes and notebooks, and Berlant herself, sitting in dark glasses on a chair wearing a sign that says, “Ignore Me”.

Burnham and Berlant: this was her most recent wildly creative collaborative friendship, her work with Early being her best known. With their short films and last year’s special Would It Kill You to Laugh?, the comedians they seem most similar to are French and Saunders, that delicious blend of combative intimacy and performative narcissism, and joy at the absurd. They don’t hand an audience the laugh – you have to sit there with them for a little while, go on their awkward little journey to earn it.

“Standup is such a solitary thing,” she says. “You really are alone in it. It’s just a conversation with myself, and then I perform it and kind of see what happens. But collaborative, creative friendships are everything to me – they’re some of the most important relationships in my life. They’ve continued to sustain me and push me for years. Meeting John Early, a little over 10 years ago in New York, it was kind of like falling in love.”

She and these partners (including Jacqueline Novak, with whom she launched Poog in lockdown) have, Berlant explains, a shared language, a shared universe. “These are friendships that orbit my life and that continue to be so generative and inspiring – you simply can’t do it alone, nor should you try to,” she warns. After Burnham suggested she try something new (he went on to produce the show), they workshopped it for some months in the daytimes, and went for many dinners in the evenings and, it sounds like, laughed an awful lot before she first showed Kate to an audience. “Kate is a departure, but it’s still turning over the themes of my standup – a contemporary obsession with authenticity and persona, and you know,” she says, casually, “‘the search for meaning’.”

These obsessions are familiar to Berlant fans, especially her “Hags” that listen to Poog. At first glance the premise of the podcast might seem to be anti-wellness, or a joke (she and Novak say at the top of each show their motivation for making the podcast is a quest for free products). But upon listening to episodes that cover such themes as spiritual consumerism and shame itself, it’s clear the two friends are deeply obsessed. A typical episode saw Berlant isolated at home waiting to see if she had Covid, alone with only a gua sha stone to massage her face, meaning she looked, she told Novak, more beautiful than she ever had in her life. “What does it mean to be alone in a room and authentically be beautiful for no one?” she asked. “It’s an interesting thing, beauty as being productive or beauty as something that needs to be optimised, and needs to be for something.” These conversations are not just about smoothies and crystals, she says today, “They’re about the existential terror of being alive and feeling your life pass very quickly, and trying to hold on to your beauty, or some approximation of that, some promise…” She exhales, theatrically. “And the pressure of ‘optimisation’ is felt across, I think, all areas of life.” They’re aware of how it looks, how it sounds, how anything related to wellness is seen as hyper-feminine and, therefore, degraded – how beauty is, she says, “a non-interest”. But with Poog we’re trying to show these are important conversations. These conversations are about so much more, right? The hunt for a serum is like the hunt for God. Like truly, I’m not even being hyperbolic.” Go on. “These products hold this promise of beauty, but it’s deeper than beauty.” It’s… fulfilment.

“And yet, on some level, we all know there isn’t a product that’s going to fix us or give us meaning. However, there also is a very human pleasure that comes from buying things, unfortunately. Adorning oneself with oils and such. And the quotidian engagement with these objects does kind of provide you with your life – that is sort of what life becomes, chasing these promises. They become like the modern religious rites, a ritual. So yeah, the search for the perfect serum really is like the search for God.” There’s something bigger at play when we talk about beauty and wellness, is what the podcast suggests. “Which is, of course, embarrassing because this is, you know, hellish capitalist excess. But we’re not going to apologise. We could talk about that, and kind of admonish ourselves and the industry, but that’s a given, right? We know this isn’t where meaning truly lies. And yet,” opening her eyes very wide, “Again ‘and yet!’, it is such a point of obsession, and there is pleasure to be gained. And maybe that’s OK.”

Is there a connection between her obsessions – with double cleanses and gua sha-ing her face until it’s as smooth as glass – and her lifelong interest in performance? “Yes, whatever you return to consistently, that becomes the defining element of your life. And yeah, performance – trying to make people laugh, getting on stage, this has been the centre of my life for so long. And there’s something inherently silly, or again, embarrassing about all of it.” She grins. It’s a month into the US actors’ union strike, so we’ve agreed not to discuss her film career, but even those unfamiliar with her comedy work may recognise her as the most interesting supporting character in their favourite shows and movies. She starred in Sorry to Bother You and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, as well as A League of Their Own, Amy Schumer’s comedy drama Life and Beth and the brilliant Search Party.

But Kate, the show, is partly about how embarrassing it is to perform. “There’s something very embarrassing and naked about getting dressed every day, and putting on your face. But the repetition and the returning to it is where you might find yourself and how you also build connection.” Everyone is performing, she reminds me, all of the time. “We’re always engaged in the text of our lives, the script of our lives, and life very often does feel like theatre. Ideally there are moments that break through and then, suddenly, you’re in life and it’s not a show any more. But I have come to find the show [Kate] actually does provide life. Oh, God,” she shrieks darkly, “Listen to me!”

It’s a challenging show to perform every night, she admits. While her standup has always been kind of abstract, Kate inevitably inspires conversations, questions. Who is she, this person on stage, tripping between identities? What is she doing? Despite it satirising the modern trend towards confession, “It’s the most personal thing I’ve made. There’s a lot of pleasure in it. But also, I don’t understand the show fully. Which is ultimately, good. I think?”

Though from here it seems her career is quietly glittering, one joke of Kate is that the show is a fairly naked attempt for her to get work. “It’s a bare attempt to be seen as potentially deep or versatile.” She’s talking about being an actor, but also about the point of the show and possibly performing itself. “Or seen as attractive or seen as mysterious or interesting or complicated.” She leans into the light. “It’s all an attempt to be adored.”

Kate Berlant is at the Soho Theatre, London, from 31 August to 30 September (sohotheatre.com)