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Cat Cohen is the #nofilter New York comic making sex and neurosis hilarious

We talk to Cohen about her conflicting desire to be objectified, the misery of other people’s holidays, and her aptly-titled new Fringe show The Twist?… She’s Gorgeous

“Boys never wanted to kiss me, so now I do comedy,” sings New York stand up comedian Catherine Cohen dramatically, as though this song is the closing number of the musical of her life. In some ways, it kind of is. But it’s also just part of her current Edinburgh Fringe show, The Twist...? She’s Gorgeous., a glitzy one-hour comedy cabaret that will make you wince uncomfortably with shock and cry-laugh at Cohen’s astute one liners. In it, her co-composer Henry Koperski plays the keyboard while she sings musical show songs about millennial life, flirts with and propositions her audience, tells depressing masturbation and dating stories and shares her most intimate wants, needs and desires.

Reviews have been overwhelmingly positive, which is not really a surprise given that Cohen’s been honing her skills on the New York comedy circuit for almost five years, and already has an adoring online fanbase, who live for her wry, astute and knowingly self-absorbed tweets. She also has a podcast, Seek Treatment, which she co-hosts with Pat Regan, who she describes as criminally under-famous, much like herself. 

Between Fringe performances, we sat down to ask her about making it as a stand up, getting compared to Lena Dunham and Rachel Bloom, and why female entitlement is feminist.

Firstly, since we’re at Fringe, what’s good this year? 

Catherine Cohen: Lucy McCormick! It’s called Post Popular and its her re-enacting powerful women in history’s stories, and in between she’s just talking about her life. I assume it’s usually more of a late night crazy act, so it was so funny to see her doing all this shocking stuff in a lecture theatre while it was still light outside with all these old people in the audience. Anna Drezen’s stand up show I also loved. And Courtney Pauroso, Gutterplum! It’s like a clown show about what it’s like to be a woman in the world – sad but funny. The way she morphed between these different characters physically was very engrossing. She’s magnetic.

Let’s talk about you…

Catherine Cohen: Ugh, finally! 

I read that you always wanted to be a comedian?

Catherine Cohen: No… I always wanted to be an actress and performer. I didn’t really know much about comedy growing up. I remember literally asking my friend in college once, “Are there female stand up comedians?” I hadn’t been exposed to any. And then when I moved to New York I fell into the improv scene through UCB and met all these comedians, saw people doing it and then felt not just, ‘Oh I can do this’ but ‘wow, this is what I’ve been doing when I’ve been acting’. Doing sketch just felt like a natural fit. But the way the system works is that you end up having to pay to be involved and I just didn’t find it rewarding. When I broke out and started writing my own stuff and putting on things with friends, that’s when things really started happening and I felt fulfilled. I guess that was 2015.

“The show is basically me without social niceties” – Catherine Cohen

Now you have a monthly solo show at Joe’s Pub? And you do a weekly show at Alan Cumming’s cabaret bar?

Catherine Cohen: Yes! Every Wednesday I host a show at Alan Cumming’s place called Cabernet Cabaret where I trying new stuff and then invite five to eight comedians to come and do five minute sets. So it’s a variety show. It’s very casual – I can book the show the day before by texting ten friends. It feels like a party every week, it’s heaven! One person is my best friend Pat Regan, the funniest person in my world, who I have a podcast with, called Seek Treatment. It’s a podcast about boys, sex, fucking, dating and love. Larry Owens does a bunch of stuff with us. Also Sydnee Washington, an amazing stand up. The guys from Talk Hole. A bunch of alt comedians! It’s loose and fun. And from that I’ve crafted an hour that’s me, and that’s what I am doing here at Fringe.

For anyone doesn’t know can you tell us more about The Twist...? She’s Gorgeous.

Catherine Cohen: It’s a show about living, laughing, loving and being a woman who wants it all! It’s centred around these songs I’ve written with jokes in between. The songs are all super personal, about sex, dating, love, body image... it’s very intense. And the way I write them is I don’t force it, a phrase will come to mind and then I’ll ask Henry to improvise something on the piano. We joke that I don’t rhyme. Like, “Oh my god it’s so avant garde!” but it’s really laziness.

How much of the show is new and improvised each night?

Catherine Cohen: There’ll be a joke in there I wrote in 2014, and a joke I wrote two days ago. It depends on my mood. I read poems in the middle of the show and I wrote a bunch of those the day before I got here. I’d say 75 per cent of the show is set in stone and 15 per cent improvised. Wait… I mean 25 per cent. I’m actually really good at math and I want the reader to know that!

In the show you come off likeable while also being bitter and neurotic, a kind of maniac millennial woman in overdrive… it must be hard to balance both! 

Catherine Cohen: Bitter, no! It’s funny to put words to it. I guess that’s what I’m giving off. I don’t think of myself as bitter but definitely neurotic – everything is very overwhelming. But the show is basically me without social niceties. Naomi Eckperigin, who is this amazing American comedian, came on my podcast and was like “you guys are like pure id” and I was like, “Oh my god, yes, that’s my stage character!” It’s me without worrying what everyone thinks. So me saying, “I wanna be fucked like a dog.” I probably wouldn’t tell you that over brunch. Or though I probably also would.

I feel the show is empowering and feminist but you’re also very, very self-deprecating. How does the show translate the way you feel as a feminist?

Catherine Cohen: I think it’s just feminist because it’s me – a woman – talking about what I want, unapologetically. I’m just like, “I deserve these things”. I think sadly people are still surprised when a woman says, “I want this and I deserve it and I’m gonna get it.”

Can you give us an example? 

Catherine Cohen: My closing song is called “Live or Die” and I sing I just want a guy who doesn’t care if I live or die. I’m always dealing with this push pull between wanting a man’s affection, like wanting to be praised and told I’m hot and sexy, basically being objectified – I know I’m not meant to say that but it’s true – and on the other hand when it becomes too much I’m like, “ew, the affection... get the fuck away from me.” So I end up with guys who are horrible to me because I don’t want the affection to be too much. None of those things are good! But I think it’s funny to say I want to be objectified by some tall man. Like, have I pushed the movement backwards? I have that joke about the mic stand… if it gets too tall I’m gonna fuck it. That’s the way I am with guys in the street. I guess I’m rolling my eyes at myself…

One of my favourite bits of the show is the song that goes “what are you running from?” which is about athleisure-wearing overachieving millennials who do runs on the weekend, right? 

Catherine Cohen: Right. I just get so sad when I see people doing marathons. I get sad when I see people on vacation. I get sad when I see people getting engaged. I think it says more about me than anyone else. But when I see people drinking Aperol spritzes on holiday with their fiancés in Italy I think ‘that looks like hell’. To have downtime? To have space to think? Hell!

“I just get so sad when I see people doing marathons. I get sad when I see people on vacation. I get sad when I see people getting engaged” – Catherine Cohen

Who do you most often get compared to? Do people compare you to Lena Dunham? 

Catherine Cohen: Yes and I love Lena Dunham. I think Girls is one of the best shows ever created. People compare me to Rachel Bloom who does Crazy Ex Girlfriend. She’s great. I just read a review that compared me to Bette Midler and Sandra Bernhard! Which I will take! That’s lovely. I guess it’s the old school showbizzy sing song vibe, my cabaret stuff. I’m flattered by all comparisons.

What’s next career-wise? What are your goals?  

Catherine Cohen: Well I want to be a big movie star. I’m also developing my own show – a scripted vehicle for myself, like a comedy with music. And hopefully soon I will record a comedy special. 

Since your show is all about the complexities of womanhood, what do you know now that you would tell your 15-year-old self? 

Catherine Cohen: Good question! I guess sit in your feelings, move through them, because they will change. I used to have such a temper that I always wanted to act right away… I’m trying to get better at waiting before I act. So accept at times that you feel bad but it will change. I would always write this quote in my journal from Rilke, the German poet, that said: “Let everything happen to you, beauty and terror, just keep going, no feeling is final.” 

See Catherine Cohen: The Twist...? She’s Gorgeous at the Pleasance at Edinburgh Festival Fringe until 25th August 2019