For a stand-up whose influence on alt-comedy is so well-established that aping her has become its own insult, Kate Berlant can be hard to find on her own. In her recent work, the Los Angeles comic appears more often as a team player: on her podcast, POOG, alongside co-host Jacqueline Novak; in her sketch special, Would It Kill You To Laugh?, with comedy partner John Early; and on the show A League of Their Own, alongside an actual baseball team of comedy heavy-hitters.
Longtime fans will point you to her episode of 2016’s The Characters (a bet on new talent from an early Netflix, since algorithmically buried under shows like Is It Cake?), an art world satire where Berlant plays a delusional Marina Abramović-inspired conceptual artist working on a commission for Sprite (as well as her beta-male husband, her high-strung gallerist, and the teen host of a YouTube show called “So THAT’S a Thing”). But until recently, the only footage of her stand-up online consisted of either two-minute clips or cellphone videos shot from the back row.
She shot an hour-long stand-up special back in 2019, directed by Bo Burnham and produced by Jerrod Carmichael, but it was shelved for undisclosed reasons. Her one-woman show “KATE,” currently running at New York’s Connelly Theater, sold out its seven-week run in days, leaving lazier fans like me weighing whether to attempt standby. The good news is that its success, or some other corporate reason that has not been shared with me specifically, has pushed FX to unearth her shelved special and, as of Thursday morning, it is now streaming on Hulu under the title Kate Berlant: Cinnamon in the Wind.
The online scarcity of Berlant’s solo work somewhat suits her style; her onstage persona — blending slapstick physicality, half-earnest navel-gazing, and a pastiche of theory jargon scraped from liberal arts seminars — is at once obsessed with being seen, while declining to specify what exactly we’re looking at. The final act of Would It Kill You to Laugh? ends with Berlant and Early as aging celebrities, waiting impatiently for their waitress to recognize them. At the same time, Berlant has never traded in stand-up comedy’s currency of blunt self-revelation; “The few details of her life she shares are obvious lies,” a New York Times critic wrote in 2013 (the piece was called “Keeping it Fake”). The classic Berlant character is a diva so preoccupied with putting on a show, with being a star, that she never makes it to her monologue; the performance is the warm-up, exposition, and afterparty.
“KATE” takes this premise to unexpected and thrilling conclusions — a narcissistic comic named Kate puts on a one-woman show who, and in the process of trying to plumb her psyche for some deeper vulnerability, winds up trying to cry on stage, failing, and refusing to let the audience leave until she does. For those who don’t want to brave the standby line, you can see glimpses of that character in Cinnamon in the Wind, which is shot in black-and-white and finds Berlant performing in front of a literal mirror, occasionally turning around to check in with her reflection: “I love you.” Showbiz is out in full force; the title credits look like what might show up before the phrase “starring Cary Grant.” Before her big entrance, Berlant watches herself waving at the camera screen. Once onstage, she starts off by saying, “So: the cameras! Big night for me. There’s a camera. There’s a camera. We can see you. You can see them.” At the end of her set, having teased her exit for a solid 20 minutes, she mugs to said camera: “Oh no, there’s a camera here?”
Many contemporary specials, especially after the runaway success of Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette, attempt to thread their motifs throughout the hour, shoehorning heavy-handed messages amid punchlines that barely seem like the main event; Berlant does not. (She announces this outright: “I did have this incredible closer. It was really creamy and brought together all these different variations on the show into this tightly woven tapestry. But — time. I just can’t.”) Berlant once described her start in improv as “taking these big ideas but abandoning them mid-sentence,” and her show operates along similar lines — she lays it on thick and leaves it hanging. Her disinterest in catering to trend may explain why the special was shelved.
Berlant’s hour of intentionally false moments is goofier and more vaudeville than most of the Netflix comedy catalog. She tells the crowd her influences are pottery, small batch granola, and George Carlin, though there’s a healthy dose of Laurel and Hardy mixed with Mitch Hedburgy one-liners. (“Please buy it,” she says while boosting her merch booth’s “chili sale.” “Know that all the proceeds go.”) But the defining qualities of a Berlant set are hard to trace to predecessors, partly because of how she uses her her face — expanding into deerish surprise, contracting to cross-eyed idiocy — to punctuate her half-abandoned ideas. “I was forced into comedy at a young age,” she tells the crowd in an aside, “just because of my bone structure.”
She plays on this throughout the show, at one point calling on the audience to name emotions because she wants to “act,” then proceeds to try on different moods — anger, fear, thrill — mostly by moving her eyebrows in near-identical ways. Elsewhere, though, the range of her expressions is part of what makes her such an effective clown, and how she gets away with saying so little about herself. At the climax of the show, for example, Berlant adopts a neutral, quasi-professorial stare. “My name is not Kate Berlant,” she reveals. “And I’m not a comedian. My name is Megan [redacted for my privacy]. I’m actually the chief research analyst of behavioral science at Cornell University.” Megan had been living as “Kate” for almost a year, “studying the relationship between audience and performance,” she explains; playing her in this hour-long show was the “magnum opus” of the entire project. “But I do want to go back to my real passion, which is irrigation.” That mini-soliloquy culminates in Berlant reaching for her hairline, as if about to rip off a wig. For a second, you think she might.