In the interest of full disclosure, Katie Haller is one of my best friends from college. She is also fucking hilarious. There is video evidence of myself doing a lip sync music video to 2gether’s “U + Me = Us (Calculus)” under he guidance. Now, Katie is a standup comedian going through the comedy circuit New York City. She writes for PITtv, she hosts her own comedy show and does a lot of funny videos.
I wanted to do a five questions feature with Katie because I was curious to what it was like to try and make it as a standup comedian. There are SO many try to make it in comedy these days, you really have to distinguish yourself in order to make a name for yourself. You also have to persevere through tough times. Katie joined me to chat about folding towels, fart jokes and why she decided to ditch the route of becoming a PA in order to forge her own path. To check out Katie’s work go here.
1. Why standup comedy? What is your “dream job?” Is it being Liz Lemon?
I actually majored in television/radio at Ithaca College in Ithaca, NY. I realized very quickly in my production classes that I loved the environment, but was on the wrong side. I ended up writing, directing and acting in all of my projects at Ithaca. This explains how it’s possible to get an A in Intermediate Field Production without touching a camera. I just approached things from a very specific point of view. For example, I would have no opinion about which lighting kit to choose, or what I wanted the shot to look like, but I would be adamant about the script. I appreciate the technical aspect and give so much credit to DP’s, editors, audio engineers, etc. I think they have the toughest jobs and often don’t get the credit they deserve. But I pretty much felt the same way about Final Cut as I did about Trigonometry. Not for me.
It’s funny that you mention Liz Lemon. Because if there is one person whose life I would switch with, it is, indeed Tina Fey. I remember after I graduated and I pretty much dug up as much information about her as I could. Not in a creepy way. More in a, “I want to be you. How do I do that?” way. I saw that she had gotten her start at Second City in Chicago and had a day job folding towels at a YMCA. I researched almost every female comedian I could think of, and regardless of their different paths, they all had a common thread. None of them took the conventional route in life. I knew that if I went straight into a PA job, I would regret never fully pursuing a career as a writer/performer. So I moved to NYC the summer after I graduated and started working at a New York Sports Club, folding towels and taking improv classes at The People’s Improv Theater and Upright Citizens Brigade. Perhaps I took it following Tina’s path a little too literally.
As for stand-up, I actually did stand-up for the first time at Ithaca. I was writing for a sketch show on ICTV and a bunch of my guy friends were all signed up for this stand-up competition. There were no girls in it, so I dared my friend Lexi to do it with me. It was only 3 minutes. And it actually went really well. I was like “This is fun! I want to do this again!” (Really trying not to make a virginity joke here) It wasn’t until I did my first open-mic in New York that I discovered the misery that is bombing on stage. I’d be lying if I said I never left an open mic crying. (Ugh, women, right?) I dabbled in sketch and improv for a while, and to be honest I think i did improv partly because stand-up scared the shit out of me. I didn’t like going to open-mics where I didn’t know anyone and no one wanted me to be funny. I was unable to be myself on stage. I felt paralyzed in terms of writing. But improv was different.
It was fun, and supportive. The thing about stand-up is that you don’t get better at it by doing it once a week. And the other comics will never take you seriously if you don’t take it seriously. I remember talking to one of my favorite comics, Sean Donnelly, one day and expressing to him that I felt really discouraged. He gave me some of the best advise about stand-up I had ever heard. “Open-mics are for you, not for them. Never let an open-mic validate your material.” It was so freeing. All of the sudden I approached them with the attitude like “fuck you guys, this made ME laugh when I thought of it, so I’m going to work it out until you agree with me.” Shifting my focus to what I thought was funny from what would other comics think is funny was a HUGE breakthrough. Also, comedians are kind of like bees. They can smell your fear.
In terms of my dream job, I don’t know why that question gives me as much anxiety as it does. Tina Fey didn’t know she would go on to create 30 Rock when she was 25. So whatever I say now I’m sure will change. I do know that I consider myself a writer before a performer. Which I guess is why I love standup, because it allows me to showcase both. So a dream job would be writing for a sketch show or sitcom. My dream dream job would be writing for a sketch show or sitcom THAT REVOLVES AROUND ME! Just kidding. But if that happened I’d be totally down.
2. I feel like 10-15 years ago the only real way for comedians to gain exposure was through comedy clubs, now their are a ton more options: Twitter, videos etc. Do you think this makes it easier to get noticed or is the room much more crowded?
Yeah, this whole “internet” thing has been a game changer, and it has been a great thing for comedians. Half the time I get more material from Twitter than I do from open-mics. Not to say that everything I tweet is comic gold. But it’s sort of like a fun exercise or challenge, which is actually an amazing joke writing tool. You don’t have time or space to ramble on Twitter. You’re forced to cut the fat off the joke, otherwise those nasty negative red numbers will taunt you. And they can be pretty discouraging. But depending on the response I get, sometimes I can say, alright, there’s more to that. Without Twitter I wouldn’t have even had a vehicle for that idea.
As far as other social media platforms go, now more than ever we have the ability to be in the drivers seat of our careers. Rather than waiting for a role that we might one day possibly be perfect for if the stars aligned, we can literally create a role for ourselves. Whether its a web series, vlog or sketch video, social media allows us to showcase our talents in a way that we never could 15 years ago. I know, personally, I don’t consider myself just a stand-up. I also write, act, and rap (I’ll get to that). What I’m saying is, without all of these new social media platforms, I’d probably have a shit ton of ideas on post-its lying around. All of these new social media platforms give us a place to execute them. (I still do still have a shit ton of post-its laying around, but I think I have less than I would have…)
3. How do you try to be different and make yourself unique?
Well, being under 5 feet helps. As much as I joke about my size now, I wasn’t always able to. In the last few years though I’ve realized that’s got to be part of my persona. I can’t walk on stage and not acknowledge that I’m the size of a 12 year old. Otherwise there’s an elephant in the room. And it’s a really fat elephant that parks itself between you and your audience. On the other hand, I don’t just want to make short jokes. Yes, I’m 4’11, but I’m a lot of other things too. I had a booker tell me once, “You’re funny. But you spent 10 minutes on stage talking about a fart blanket. I know nothing about you.” That cut me deep, because I am extremely passionate about fart jokes. But he made a good point. I had to start getting personal. And the more I looked inwards for material, rather than relying on external observations, I pretty much retired every joke I had written and started over. I host a monthly show in the Lower East Side that I call, “I Wish I Was Kidding”. This is because I think the funniest stuff is just real shit that happens to you. My dad is British but was born in Africa. That’s kind of weird. I stand-in for children on television shows. That’s weird.
I have an obsession with the Disney princess Belle. Sometimes when my poodle humps me I don’t stop her. None of these are jokes, but they are unique facts about me that inform my standup. This is such a cliche, but the more you stop trying to be different or unique and just acknowledge who you actually are, you realize that you do stand out. Not literally, for me, of course.
4. Sometimes girls get an unfair rap of not being funny. How do you approach this stereotype? Do you use it in your act?
The biggest mistake I see with female comedians (not that I’m some seasoned vet, I was guilty of this at the beginning too) is using shock factor to get laughs. I’m 4’11. If I get on stage and say the word “cock”, I will get laughs out of the pure fact that you don’t expect someone who looks like me to say dirty things. But eventually I realized, that’s not where I want my laughs to come from. You can be dirty. Look at Sarah Silverman, or Amy Schumer. These ladies are not clean. But they are smart. When they are dirty, there is a point behind it. So as much as I love fart jokes, I at least try and make them high brow.
The other obstacle female comedians face is the double standards that still exist. There is a fine line when it comes to self-deprecating humor, and that type of material is received completely differently coming from a woman than it is a man.
Of course, this is a generalization, but for the most part, if a guy walks on stage and talks about how fat he is, it’s funny. If a female does that, all of the sudden everyone is uncomfortable and wondering if she’s going to go home and cry herself to sleep. If you’re going to go there as a female though, you have to go all the way. For example, I realized that if I wanted to make fart jokes on stage, I had to get over my fear of admitting to an audience that I fart. (It’s so weird to try and intellectualize this) But if I’m embarrassed about it, or try and frame the joke like “Oh, other people fart and it’s funny, but I don’t! Cause I’m a woman!”, then I’m not committed to it. Those jokes only started to hit when I told them with the attitude “I don’t care if you’re uncomfortable with this, because I’m not”.
Women also struggle with how attractiveness plays into determining our careers. There is a brilliant line in 30 Rock where Jack says, “Jenna, you either need to lose 30 pounds or gain 60.” This line is perfect because it says so much about the narrow ways in which women are portrayed in comedy and in the media in general. We’re either leading lady hot or funny fat. Luckily there are countless women who have said “fuck that, why can’t we just be in the middle?” These women include Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Sarah Silverman, Margaret Cho, Amy Schumer (I could go on for days, but I won’t).
5. How can people see your comedy? What projects do you have in the works?
Right now I co-host a monthly stand-up show at Karma Lounge in the Lower East Side, as well as a monthly storytelling/song-parody show at The PIT where I write and perform rap parodies as my rapper alter ego, T-Spoon. I also write for PITtv, the video arm of the People’s Improv Theater, on a group called The Murk. Currently, I’m shooting the first few episodes of a web series called “A Date With Katie Haller”, where I take footage of people I think are douchey out of context and insert myself on a date with them. So far I’ve dated a Charles Manson, Glenn Beck, Mitt Romney, and my date with Lance Armstrong is about to come out. This will also be available on PITtv. You can also follow me on twitter @halleratyou if you like short people jokes, fart jokes or pictures of poodles.