Entering the Connelly Theater for Kate Berlant’s one-woman show KATE, it’s clear you’re not in for an ordinary night of comedy. The outfit Berlant wears on stage is displayed on a mannequin next to a well-worn notebook protected by glass, and the comedian herself sits in the lobby wearing a sign that reads: “IGNORE ME.” Once inside, the multimedia show uses film projection, sound, and characters of Berlant’s creation to tell the self-aggrandizing story of a woman destined to be an actress, but held back by one fatal flaw.
KATE’s self-conscious personal myth-making is a prime example of how female comics have been innovating the stand-up form with one-woman shows. Like her podcast co-host Jacqueline Novak, who staged her own critically-acclaimed performance Get On Your Knees at the Cherry Lane Theatre in 2019 and has been touring the show in the UK and Brooklyn this summer, Berlant is just one of many female comedians bringing comedy out of the club and into the theater—and finding their greatest creative success there.
What’s so appealing about the theater for comics? For one thing, the technical capabilities of theater give them an opportunity to think outside the box of stand-up. Mo Welch, a comedian and cartoonist whose show Mole also ran at Cherry Lane this summer, saw a one-woman show as an opportunity to marry art and comedy, incorporating comics and animation into her material in a way that would be difficult to recreate in a club.
Theater also seemed like a better fit for the show because a theater audience is ready for material that might not play as well in a club.
“I have come up as a stand-up comedian, so I know how to tame the audience,” Welch says. “But I always had to do it at the very beginning of my set, because people can get super drunk at comedy clubs and what I was presenting to them was super vulnerable. Most people aren’t at a comedy club for that. They’re just there for the jokes and, you know, the cheese fries.”
When Alison Leiby performed some of the material that would become Oh God, A Show About Abortion in clubs outside of New York City, she found herself adjusting the material to hold onto crowds that were less comfortable laughing about a woman’s right to choose.
“People walk into a comedy show and either do or don’t know who the comics are, and they’re kind of there for just laughing,” says Leiby. “[My show] was titled very intentionally because I didn’t want anybody to get tricked into seeing a show about abortion, if that’s not something that they want to hear about.”
Leiby’s show was playing at Cherry Lane when the Supreme Court’s decision on abortion rights was announced, which added extra weight to the set. Performing the show in a theater made room for the moments where jokes written before the decision suddenly took on a new anger and sadness.
“I’m not telling joke, joke, joke, joke,” Leiby says of her show. “And I think because it was housed in a theater, people were ready for that. People understood and allowed that space.”
It’s not that surprising that theater audiences are more open to women using comedy to talk about serious issues. Comedy is still a “boys’ club” according to Welch, and club audiences still aren’t particularly good at recognizing and respecting female talent. Performing in a theater, female comics know the audience is more likely to be there for them, and they can expect the crowd to care about what they have to say. That’s not always the case when touring clubs.
“I was doing a lot of comedy clubs, and I stopped doing as many because of the environment, which is not open to that sort of comedy,” Welch says.
Comics also don’t have to share the stage when performing a one-woman show. For Leiby, that gave her some space from an industry that’s still grappling with how to handle male comedians accused of sexual misconduct, and largely choosing to let them back on stage.
“It’s been a minute since I’ve really encountered these apologists for men who have committed sexual misconduct or other types of misconduct, and just are in general not open and allowing of women and marginalized people to share space with them,” Leiby says. “It’s been a luxury to be away from all of that.”
For female comics who don’t want to alter their material to cater to a male-dominated environment, theater offers a chance to take their work to the next level. And for women earlier in their careers, it offers a way around industry gatekeeping, and opportunity to show off the full range of their talent.
How might the popularity of one-woman shows affect mainstream comedy? Welch thinks back to Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette and the negative backlash it received from male comics, only for them to turn around and adopt a similar style of confessional comedy themselves.
“I will say from the front lines that the guys in comedy are doing Hannah Gadsby in the club, whether they like to say it or not,” Welch says. “The stand-up specials that come out [where] a guy’s being vulnerable and stuff—I can’t help but think, ‘You’re doing Hannah Gatsby, and you probably talked shit about it when it came out.’”
It remains to be seen whether the one-woman show style will trickle down to comedy clubs, making club shows more like theater, or if the theater will endure as the place to go for comedy that offers more than just jokes.
Rebecca Woodward is a writer and amateur funny person living in Brooklyn. Be nice to her on Twitter @beckwoodward.