By Allison Kugel
Comedian, actress and writer Catherine Cohen is throwback to the likes of musical comedy acts like Carol Burnett, Bette Midler, but add in a twist of ultra-femininity, glamour and unabashed self-love. Cohen spent years cultivating an impeccable musical comedy act that made its way from intimate cabaret theatres in New York’s West Village and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in London to our television screens as part of a new comedy boom being championed by Netflix, with her hit comedy special, Catherine Cohen: The Twist…? She’s Gorgeous. For audiences, the twist, it seems, is that a one-woman musical cabaret act can be laugh out loud funny with the right comedienne at the helm.
In 2019, Catherine won the coveted title of Best Newcomer at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. She’s the co-host of the popular podcast Seek Treatment and author of GOD I FEEL MODERN TONIGHT: Poems From A Gal About Town. Currently filming the hour-long dramady series, While You Were Breeding for the Freeform Network, Catherine took time out of her busy schedule to chat with me about her unique approach to comedy and what she is currently developing for her next act.
Your Netflix special, Catherine Cohen: The Twist…? She’s Gorgeous, that title grabbed me so hard when I was thumbing through Netflix.
Thank you very much. I’m so glad.
How did you come up with such an in your face, ironic, and amazing title? Not ironic in the sense that you’re not beautiful (laugh)…
Yeah, I’m thinking, “Okay Allison, are we fighting right off the bat?” (Laughs) The title came from a tweet I did a million years ago. I feel like I will often tweet things, and then if I’m trying to come up with material for a show I’ll go through old tweets and look at [my] thoughts that I’ve had. I was just thinking about movies like She’s All That or just that classic kind of romcom tropes where at the end the nerd is really hot. It’s like, “Yeah, they were hot the whole time. I was kind of playing with that trope, and in my work, I’m always trying to be hyper-confident, deciding I’m hot and making everyone else believe it, because I believe it. It felt in line with that (laugh).
Love it! So, tell me, how does one get a Netflix special? Walk me through that…
I’m sure it is different for everyone, but this was a show that I was doing on my own for five years in New York. I did m show for the first time in 2017 at The Duplex [piano bar] in the West Village, along with [music composer] Henry Koperski, who plays piano and helped me write all the songs. Then we did it at Joe’s Pub in New York. I wanted to take it to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and right before I was going to do that, I got a message on Facebook from Steve Brill, who directed the Netflix special. I thought, “Is this spam?” He said, “Hey, I just directed Adam Sandler’s special, and I really want to do another one. Is that something you are interested in?” I thought, “Duh!” But then I thought, “This feels too good to be true.” We ended up meeting for coffee and just totally vibed and had the same vision, so I said, “Let’s totally do it!” Having Steve Brill on my team really helped a lot. He had a relationship with Netflix, so he helped me make it happen. We had a bunch of meetings with them. Robbie Praw, who works at Netflix, came to see my Edinburgh show. I remember the next day we went for a long walk, and we talked about what it could be and what my dreams were, and what would make sense for the platform. Then I got the offer to do the show as a Netflix special in 2019, and we were going to shoot it in 2020… LOL. Now this has become a very long boring story…
(Laugh). No, no, no! Go ahead…
We finally got to shoot it September 2021, and it just came out in March 2022.
We shot it in Joe’s Pub, which was nice because that was a place where we had done early versions of the show and I felt really comfortable. It was a total dream come true. I’m so happy it is out in the world. It’s been many years in the making.
Amazing. What is so incredible about your story is that this is a show you have been cultivating and working on for so long, so it was completely organic. It’s not like you got this Netflix offer and then you are writing material for a standup special. And I love the fact that it was done in an intimate setting. It was very different from your typical Netflix standup special for so many reasons.
Thank you so much. I was actually just talking to a friend who said, “Don’t wait to get a book deal. Just write a book, you’ll have it, and at the right time someone will publish it.” I didn’t ever think when I started doing this show, “Obviously, it should be a special.” But it wasn’t like, “Oh, time to scramble and come up with an hour of material.” It was very much a labor of love and came very naturally.
You are super smart. You went to Princeton, right?
Yes, I did go there. I don’t feel super smart these days, but I guess I did well enough in school to get there, yes.
That is incredible to me, because I got through school by the skin of my teeth.
It’s a very bizarre skillset; it almost has no reflection on your intelligence. It’s just like, are you obsessive? Uptight? Really hard on yourself and a fast reader?
Oh my God! My son is going straight to the Ivy League, because you just described him (laugh).
You just have to memorize a bunch of stuff, be absolutely psychotic, and evil towards yourself, and then maybe you can get in (laugh).
Your comedy has a musical element. Do you consider yourself a stand-up, or more of a cabaret performer who is also really funny?
I think I’m a comedienne, an actor, a writer… I do it all. I’m a singer, but yes, I definitely think I’m a stand-up who does a cabaret show. The jokes in between the songs, I will do those around town as just normal stand-up shows, and stuff like that. I like to do it all.
When you were putting this show together in the beginning, were you working out your comedy set and then you decided to add the music? How did this very unique show come together?
I had been doing improv and sketch comedy at UCB (Upright Citizens Brigade) in New York, and saw people doing stand-up and I thought, “This looks fun, but I’m scared.” I started doing it and really enjoyed it, but I really missed singing because I grew up doing musical theater. So, I thought, “Is there a way to write a comedy song that isn’t really embarrassing?” I met this amazingly talented pianist Henry Koperski and said, “Can we get together? I want to try to write a song, and I want to run some ideas by you.” Pretty much as soon as we got together, it felt very magical. It felt natural, and we just started writing a bunch of songs together and I said, “I think I have enough to do a full show. Will you play with me for a full show?” We’ve been on that journey ever since.
You have an interesting background. Your dad is Jewish, your mom is Catholic, and you grew up in Houston, Texas? For starters, are there many Jewish people in Houston?
(Laugh) I think there are, but I did not meet very many of them because, as you said, my mom is Catholic, and we were all confirmed Catholic. We went to very religious private schools where everyone was very evangelical, and it was totally damaging and creepy. Thankfully, I went to college and met a bunch of Jewish people and thought, “These are my friends. This is my vibe. I forgot I had this side.”
So, you felt more of a kinship with the Jewish part of yourself?
Definitely. I just hated all the arbitrary rules, the way the Evangelical church teaches woman to be so ashamed of everything; to hide their bodies, their personalities, and be submissive to their partners. It was just so against everything I had ever felt, and everything my parents had taught me. My parents didn’t teach me any of that. At one point I did get really into it, because it was intoxicating. You’re going on ski trips, meeting boys from different schools, so it was like, “Church is cool. Church is fun.” Then you realized you were kind of brainwashed into believing things you didn’t stand for.
How does your mom feel about that? If she sent you to Catholic school, I would imagine that she was all in.
I think her mother was very religious, and she did it because it meant a lot to her mother. I think my parents were always supportive of whatever I wanted to do, whatever I believed, which was very lucky, obviously.
Nowadays it is very common to have mixed religious households or people celebrating Christmas and Chanukah, as they say. So, generally speaking, people don’t think very much of a mixed religious household because it is so common now. But from the perspective of a kid growing up in a home where you have a Jewish parent and you have a Catholic parent, what does that feel like from the perspective of a child?
I think it felt like my dad wasn’t very religious and we were just doing what my mom wanted to do, which would sometimes result in us saying, “Dad, please don’t make us go. Why do we have to go?” He would say, “Because you have to go.” I would say, “This doesn’t make any sense.” I remember one time we were all waiting in line for Communion, which my dad wasn’t going to take, because he hadn’t been Baptized or had his first Communion, and he snuck it. My mom got really mad. My dad then said, “This is so ridiculous. I deserve this. Everyone deserves the spirit of Christ.” He took Communion even though my mom was mad at him. They are both very smart, funny, supportive, and open minded, so I feel like when I was younger it was a big deal, but eventually we weren’t forced to go to church. One of my brothers got really into exploring our Jewish side one year and wanted to learn all of the Hannukah prayers. But I feel like I got a taste of both. It’s nice.
Do you consider yourself to be a spiritual person at all.
Definitely. I believe in God. I don’t know what God is, but to me there is a God. I’m endlessly feeling aware of synchronicities, and I believe everything happens for a reason, and that the universe is taking care of us. All of that kind of stuff I love. My friend just got me a tarot card deck for my birthday, and I’ve been taking some quiet time to draw a tarot card in the morning and journal and think, “What is going on with the planets.” Honestly, I will believe anything anyone tells me.
Literally, I say, “Okay, that sounds great.” How stupid. I feel like it’s so insane when someone says, “That’s definitely not real.” I think, “How do you know anything, babe?”
Same. I think it is the height of arrogance when someone says that something is definitely not real. We are limited by our five senses and there is so much more in the universe. How can you possibly say with assurance that something is not real? You can say that you don’t know. That makes sense. But you can’t say it is not real. If you could travel back in time and have an effect on any famous historical event, or even just bear witness to it, where would you go and what would you attempt to change or bear witness to?
I’m laughing, because I’m actively not trying to change the world. I’m just trying to enjoy my life and have a good time. I actually did past life regression therapy, recently. Have you done that?
I did get hypnotized and do that once.
In my first past life I was an ugly old lady who made bread, and she wasn’t allowed to go to the ball unless she brought a loaf of bread. I would actually go back in time to that first life and say, “Girl, you deserve to go to the ball, and you don’t have to bring bread. Just bring yourself.” That is where I would go. In my other past life, I was this big warrior soldier caring for my blonde wife, which is interesting because I’m not usually into blondes. Then I had a past life where I was a nurse caring for a soldier in a war who was actually my boyfriend in real life.
So, you would go back and alter your own past lives…
And I would have to say this… I don’t think about the past much besides thinking about the fashion. I think about going back to the 1970s or dancing at Studio54. Sometimes I wish I was part of that era, before social media, where you can just be an artist and a little freak. Just dance around and not have everything documented and measured against the success of your peers. I’m sure people throughout history have been very hard on themselves, but I feel like it is especially hard these days, being constantly bombarded with the accomplishments of everyone you’ve ever met, or even ever heard of. It is exhausting.
I can definitely say the same thing about my coming-of-age decade, which was the 1990s. I’m 47. It was so much freer in that way.
You look so young. What is your secret?
I work hard at it. That is my secret. Skincare is my religion (laughs). And lots of nutrition. Tons of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, water and sunscreen!
I know. I finally started doing daily sunscreen. For so long I was so bad about it, but now I’m 30. There is no time and I have very fair skin.
Also, no drinking, no drugs, no smoking cigarettes. No nothing. Sorry!
Have you always been totally sober?
Yes, pretty much. I don’t touch alcohol or drugs.
I definitely like a little bit of that stuff (laugh). I definitely enjoy that stuff sometimes. I actually, just last night, started the process of freezing my eggs. I just started the medications, so I’m feeling [weird]. First of all, I’m not drinking and I’m drinking lots of water, but I can’t exercise. I can only walk, and I’m feeling out of my body, but sort of a beautiful human experience, I guess.
So, when freezing your eggs, you can’t be extremely physically active during the process at all?
Yes, which I didn’t expect. You’re getting your ovaries huge, for lack of better scientific terminology, and so there is danger of twisting or damaging them because they are so big. I’d been trying to spend more time at the gym, but now I’m just going on slow strolls, and I’ll think about the spiritual questions that you’re asking me.
You’ll come up with a better answer tomorrow and you’ll be kicking yourself, but don’t. Don’t beat yourself up (laughs).
I’m sure. I’m sure.
If you don’t mind me asking, how old are you and why have you opted to freeze your eggs?
I’m 30. I have polycystic ovarian syndrome, so my cycle is very irregular. I don’t get regular periods and I have been told it might be difficult in the future to get pregnant. I’m definitely not ready at all, so I figured I have some time this summer. I have some money saved, so why not do it. Then I can just not have it on my mind and enjoy the next five years of my life and revisit the matter at a later date.
Let’s talk about your show some more. Are you still touring?
No, I’m not. As soon as the [Netflix] special came out, I was done with that material. I’m doing all new stuff. I did some shows in London. I did some shows in Austin and LA, and now I’m just working on new [material]. I’m going back to the UK this summer. I’m going to do some dates at the Edinburgh Festival, and I think I might do an encore performance of The Twist. But emotionally, I’m ready to move on creatively.
What is your creative process?
I was just sitting down this morning thinking, “Okay, girl. You’re so all over the place.” I think what is so hard is that any kind of creative work requires slots of time, and it requires getting bored and reflecting. It is so difficult to do that when we are constantly bombarded with emails, calls, and obligations. I do a weekly show in the East Village where I will try out new material every week. It’s a great way of making sure I’m trying out some ideas. With songs, I’ll usually sit down with Henry or another musician. I’ll come in with lyrics or a melody and we will try to throw something together. It’s a lot of improvising, and then with jokes, it’s just a lot of talking, looking at tweets, and seeing what sticks.
Do you find that your greatest ideas come to you when you are not trying to come up with material?
Okay, so give me an example of something that you would be doing when an idea strikes; something PG-rated.
(Laugh) I was just thinking, everything I say is so disgusting.
I’m very big on the idea that you can’t force it. I have a new song called, “Blame it on the Moon,” about blaming all my problems on astrology and saying it’s not my fault at all. I’m a mess or I’m rude or whatever, because of the planets. I think that phrase popped into my head when I was just lying in bed one night, and so I wrote it down. If I wake up at 4am or 6am and I’m lying in bed, my mind starts racing and I’m like a genius, and then it all goes away.
Those genius moments, I feel like they’re not inside you, they come through you. It’s like you channel something inadvertently and then you better record or put it down on paper, because just as fast as it came through you, it can evaporate if you don’t put it down.
I totally agree. With everything I do I think I’m literally so talented and a genius, but I think that is just because of luck. It’s not mine. Things just come to me. It’s what’s in my heart at the moment. I didn’t put it there. Who knows who did? Life is all completely random, and it’s like a balance of being confident and realizing I have nothing to do with any of this.
There is a wisdom in knowing that it didn’t come from you. It came through you and having a healthy respect for that. Once you made the deal with Netflix, do they micro-manage everything, or do they just have you do your thing, and then they air it on their platform?
I’m sure it is different for everyone. In my experience, the show was already done, and they had seen it. The director and I had the same vision, so they just gave us a budget, we had a production company come on board, and we just shot the show. That was pretty much it. I got to be in the editing room. I was one of the producers, so I got to make all the calls and I felt very supported and lucky. Steve is such an amazing director. He accomplished visually what I was seeing in my mind but lacked the skillset to do on my own. It was a seamless process, because as you said, it had just been an organic thing of, I had this piece I was ready to share and then it was just capturing it for the camera.
Will you do another comedy special for Netflix at some point?
I hope so, if they ask. Who knows? I don’t know how this works. I would love to do another one. We will see what the universe brings my way. I very much feel like with any of this showbiz stuff, no one knows until you’re doing it, because no one tells you and there are no rules. You work on things that disappear, or you do something like this where you made this [show] and all of a sudden, it’s on Netflix, so you never know.
I used to always say that I never know why people say no, and I never know why people say yes. So, I just don’t analyze it.
That is a good way to be. It is hard to do.
That is what I’ve done. It’s like “Oh, you want to do this? Great.” Or “Oh, you don’t? Okay.”
Exactly. I feel very strong. I was just pitching a project and got a lot of “No’s,” and I felt like, “Okay, this has nothing to do with me, ultimately. It’s out of my control.”
From what I’ve studied and all the people I have interviewed, one thing that everybody has in common is that they were all so set on a vision that nothing could interrupt that vision. There might be a little blip here or there, but otherwise it was like tunnel vision.
I definitely connect with that. I think, “Of course I’m going to make a fabulous TV show, movie, or whatever. I don’t know when or how, but of course.”
You should watch the TV show, The Food That Built America. I believe you can watch it on The History Channel or Hulu.
What is that about?
It goes into how the guys that made Heinz ketchup, Hershey’s chocolate, Kellogg’s cereal, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, Birds Eye Frozen Foods invented their brands. Nothing was getting in their way. I was floored, because I’m like you went broke several times, this or that didn’t work, your factory burned down, and you kept going? It’s amazing.
I don’t know where the belief comes from, but it is definitely there. It has to be there.
That’s what it takes. Netflix has this new brand called Netflix Is A Joke.
That is their comedy arm. They just did a big festival in LA, which was super fun. I did a bunch of shows. It was like two weeks ago, and it was great.
I love that they are supporting the artform of comedy, and that they created that division.
It is amazing. I feel so lucky they gave their huge platform to something that I do, which has been described as very niche, though I think it is universal.
The style of your show feels niche and extremely unique to you, although I think it has universal appeal. Apart from you, the only other name that comes to mind would be Carol Burnett.
The way that she would sing a little, dance a little, and do jokes.
Thank you. I think when you are doing it all the time, it feels different to you.
What is the greatest advice you have ever received?
There are so many good ones. One that I think about a lot is that you can only control yourself. I think about it a lot in terms of romantic relationships. You can’t force someone to love you, and it’s the same with creative partnerships. If it’s not working, it’s not working. Just trusting that you can only do what you want to do, and you can’t really concern yourself with or take personally why other people do what they do. It is very difficult, because I take everything personally.
Who gave you that advice?
My friend’s mom. Shout out to her (laugh). I think whatever you are worried about, if it involves someone else, it has nothing to do with you.
What is something about yourself that continues to be a work in progress?
(Laugh) Everything. Literally, everything. The main thing that I haven’t begun to deal with and don’t even know how, is that the way I talk to myself is so mean, and I would never talk to my friends this way. I don’t know how to begin unlearning it, but I don’t know how life would be if I wasn’t constantly telling myself I wasn’t enough.
Allison Kugel: Do you think that is a driving force that propelled you to getting where you are so far?
Yes, definitely. I’m constantly convinced that if I wasn’t successful, I would be inherently unworthy. My boyfriend told me I wasn’t allowed to use the word “loser” anymore. I would say, “They are a loser,” or “I’m a loser.” He says, “What are you even saying? Don’t use the word loser anymore.” I’m constantly convinced that I have to be the most successful person in the world, or I’m a loser. It’s a very Princeton mentality. I actually just went to my college reunion last weekend. I was just thinking about how hard on myself I’ve been for so long. It does often yield results, though it’s taking a toll, so I’m trying to figure out how to be productive without losing my mind.
Do you think, “If I stop being hard on myself, I may not continue to succeed,” so it’s almost like a superstition?
Absolutely. Since the [Netflix] special came out, I’ve been trying to rest, refocus, and figure out what I want to do, which makes sense, but I feel guilty. Like, I haven’t done anything today. I’m just looking at my phone, but then I try to remind myself that the way I got to making the first show was sitting around on my phone being bored, and I had some kind of creative spark.
What do you think you came into this life as Catherine Cohen to learn, and what do you think you came here to teach?
Wow, these are really getting into it! I came here to learn, I don’t know, to chill out? To slow down, chill out, and that it is just for fun. It’s just a game, so enjoy it. To teach? Literally, to teach everyone that they are absolutely fabulous. You’re deserving of everything. You should laugh, you should live. You deserve all of the extravagant things that you want. Every day should be glamourous and fabulous, and don’t take “No” for an answer. I sound like a total hedonist, but maybe I am.
No. So even the wardrobe, the set, and everything in your Netflix special is very girly girl, frilly, pink, and over the top glam. I’m guessing it’s an extension of your personal philosophy and how you see the world.
Yes. Clothes are so important to me. The way people dress and decorate their rooms, and the way we choose to express ourselves visually, I’m obsessed. I’ve always been drawn to very elaborate over-the-top fashion and styles. I’m also hyper-feminine, which I feel like I hadn’t seen a ton of with standup [comedy]. You see a lot of jeans or hoodies, and obviously, I’m wearing something incredible.
It is so funny that you say that, because I had this really stupid thought in my twenties that I could either be funny or pretty, but not both, so I chose pretty (laugh). It’s stupid. I don’t know why I thought that. What is that about?
I think it’s what we are told. I think because I was not considered pretty, or because, like I sing in my special, “Boys never wanted to kiss me,” I thought, “Well, I better be funny to get attention.” We are raised in this world where we are supposed to pick a lane, and I think I, and many other women, are saying that is absurd. Look at us LOLing and looking absolutely gorgeous.
And by the way, you are very pretty. I don’t know where you got the idea that you weren’t.
I don’t know. I think everyone has their insecurities, especially when your younger sense of self-worth was so directly tied to male attention and affection, and I didn’t get any of it. Thank God! I would be so boring if I had just decided to worry about that stuff instead of myself.
I hear you have a TV show coming out for Freeform Network. Tell me about it…
Yes, I’m so excited. I shot this pilot. This amazing TV writer named Kristin Newman wrote this memoir a few years ago called, “What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding,” about her decision to end a long-term relationship and travel the world as all of her friends were settling down.
And having kids.
Exactly, breeding. She has turned the memoir into a TV show. We shot the pilot in the fall, and we just found out that it got picked up, so we are going to do a full season of it for Freeform and we start shooting sometime later this year. I play the lead girl’s best friend and the lead character is played by Chelsea Frye, who is so funny and talented, and we’ve become totally obsessed with each other. I feel really lucky to get to work with her for a few months, instead of shooting something and never seeing each other again.
Watch or listen to the extended interview with Catherine Cohen on the Allison Interviews podcast @ YouTube, Apple Podcasts or Spotify. Follow Allison Kugel on Instagram @theallisonkugel and AllisonInterviews.com.