The Dizzying, Glamorous Comedy of Catherine Cohen

Photo: Lia Clay

Catherine Cohen wants a lot. She wants you to invite her to events (“But if you ask me for my mailing address, it will get lost, I must confess, because I move so much, because I can’t afford rent.”). She wants to go upstate (to “read four pages of a novel”). And she wants you to look at her, look at her, look at her, look at her (because, as she explains, “boys never wanted to kiss me, so now I do comedy”).

The 27-year-old comedian makes these demands in the form of songs; on YouTube; Twitter; onstage at Cabernet Cabaret, the weekly comedy show Cohen hosts with comedian and musician Henry Koperski at the postage-stamp–sized Club Cumming; and at The Twist? … She’s Gorgeous, her show with Koperski at Joe’s Pub. Her performances are a spinning, glittery, Technicolor explosion; an extravagant departure from the Apatow-esque, deadpan, hoodie-clad, bro comedy that has dominated the past decade. Cohen wants the opposite of that, she explains over lunch at Greenpoint’s Five Leaves. She wants glamour. “I want it to be where everyone’s REALLY trying. Just fucking going for it, like, jazz hands.”

The day we meet, a blustery Friday afternoon in February, her shock of dark hair is subdued, and ever-present slashes of cat-eye eyeliner swing up and away from her jadeite eyes. The pink shearling coat hanging on the back of her chair is from Rent the Runway, and she’s obsessed with it. She orders a BLAT — a BLT with avocado — specifically so that she can say the word “BLAT,” and tells me that the last year has been “a dream.” Lots of things are a dream to Cohen. The Club Cumming show: “a dream”; her recent, boob-baring appearance on HBO’s High Maintenance: “a dream”; her ex-boyfriend: “a dream”; her recent one-woman show at London’s Moth Club: “a fucking dream.” “My life is so easy, I can’t express this enough,” she tells me. “I’m the luckiest girl in the garden, that’s what I say.”

Cohen has reason to be effusive. She’s been written about glowingly in the New York Times, Forbes, Vulture, and Time Out. In addition to High Maintenance, she’s made appearances on shows like Broad City, and Search Party, and she’s in early talks to develop her own show.

“I was just talking to my dad — I always call him with good news,” she told me earlier, “And he was like, ‘Oh my God, oh my God,’ and he goes, ‘Don’t get fucking hit by a car or something.’ And I was like, I know, everything’s so good right now, I really don’t have time to get hit by a car.”

As if to warn away potential reckless drivers, she points sternly to my recorder: “Put that in.”

After lunch, we wander a couple of blocks over to Beacon’s Closet, where Cohen flits expertly through the racks, pulling out whatever piece catches her eye. She describes her look as “over-the-top diva got too drunk at the party and fell asleep in her gown.” Her onstage persona is a dazzling, self-obsessed fame-chaser who, in Cohen’s words, is like, “I’m the hottest, I’m the best, I’m the sexiest, gimme gimme gimme,” and someone with that energy needs clothes to match. As we comb through the store, a brightly patterned, ‘70s collared top makes the cut; a lime-green keyhole top does not. But the real standout piece is an electric blue, floor-length chiffon gown/housedress, with a high neck, and ostrich feathers at the cuffs.

“Oh my God,” Cohen sighs reverently, holding it in front of herself. “I love old nightgowns. I want everything I own to be like, I could fall asleep in it, but also I could go to a ball.”

Offstage, Cohen is more circumspect, but her desires — for her life, her comedy, her career — are the same as the ones she hurls at her audience from the stage, and she is just as direct and unapologetic about them. She wants to be a movie star, and to write, and to wear beautiful clothes, and to have great sex and to fall in love at least once a day. She wants to do and say exactly as she pleases.

Cohen grew up in Texas, and like so many artists who want in that consuming, bottomless way, moved to New York as soon as she could, the day after she graduated from college. She started working odd jobs — nannying, tutoring, waitressing — while also auditioning and taking classes at UCB and working in the office at the People’s Improv Theater, learning her craft and going to open mics, and meeting other artists. At first, she was embarrassed to do her songs, embarrassed to ask the straight, white guys in hoodies who ran most of these shows to play a karaoke track for her to sing over, because what if they thought it was too girly, or frivolous, or stupid? But audiences responded well, and it felt good to Cohen, so she just leaned into it, going on to write songs like “All the Things That Are Wrong With My Vagina and All the Medicine I Need” (“Don’t get too horny, boys / But if I don’t get those meds / I don’t get my period / And these uterine cells can turn cancerous”) and “Take My Money” (“Don’t get me started on boyfriend jeans / I’ve never been thinner than any man that I have dated.”) Cohen isn’t the only young comic embracing musical comedy. Artists like Larry Owens and Matt Rogers, and Ned Riseley and Rachel Wenitsky of the group Friends Who Folk, all weave jokes and songs together in their acts. And on TV, Rachel Bloom’s CW show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend brought the genre to a wider audience.

To pay the bills, Cohen started doing voiceover work for brands like Olay, Schick, Special K, Carefree — lots of what she calls “female brands” — because right now there’s not a lot of money in the comedy she’s doing. But she knows that will change. She knows she’s really good at what she does, she tells me. “In this kind of work, if you don’t think like that, nothing’s going to happen for you.”

When we leave Beacon’s, Cohen has a bag full of new tops and sweaters, a silk robe, the blue house-gown. The overall vibe of her purchases, we decide, would best be described as “bright, casual ’70s,” the kind of clothes you might wear at a daytime pool party at a house up in the hills overlooking L.A, where she’ll be next week doing gigs and taking meetings — as one does in L.A. She’s heading to an afternoon meeting that she can’t talk about yet, “but it’s very exciting. ”

We exchange weekend plans, and emails, and star charts (she’s a Leo sun and Virgo moon). And then, Cohen walks away down the street. The cars around us, forewarned, stay obediently in their lanes.

The Dizzying, Glamorous Comedy of Catherine Cohen