There’s only one Catherine Cohen.
It’s something you realise about five minutes into watching her perform — she’s just burped. “I’m sorry,” she says nonchalantly, “I literally can’t stop creating content.”
Comedian, poet and all-round spectacle, Cohen has made a name for herself through her intensely personal and yet highly relatable form of comedy. It’s a dizzying display of narcissism paired with her very own brand of insecurity. The result is something else.
Cohen is perhaps best-known for her songs, comedic observations about modern life from the perspective of a self-proclaimed “millennial renaissance woman.” With nothing but the sheer force of her charisma (and the ever-talented Henry Koperski on the keys), Cohen takes on the world, and no topic is off limits. There’s I can make myself c*m with my hand, a song about the joys of masturbation in an otherwise joyless world; Shit on The Street, an existential crisis under the guise of a droll ditty; and her seminal Look at Me, in which she recounts the struggles of an adolescence bereft of male attention. “Boys never wanted to kiss me,” she tells her audience, “so now I do comedy.” She regularly performs her creations at venues across New York, including Joe’s Pub and Club Cumming, where she hosts a weekly show.
Then there’s her podcast, Seek Treatment, co-hosted by comedian and best friend Pat Regan. Joined by a special guest, each week the pair delve deep into conversation, tackling diverse subjects ranging from their love life to their sex life. It’s a stream of millennial consciousness and, as their tagline goes, “it’s ultimately damaging to ourselves, our friends, our family and our listeners…”
Her most recent artistic venture is a collection of poetry, entitled God I Feel Modern Tonight: Poems from a Gal About Town. Cohen’s pithy musings range from the utterly silly to the truly profound, often encompassing both within the same line. Highlights include: “I wish I were smart instead of on my phone”, “is it possible to miss everything at once?” and “it’s insane when you ask someone to give you space and then they do.”
Each line of verse is carefully imbued with her characteristic sense of tragicomedy. Why are the mothers in my gym class hotter than me? What’s it called when you have a sixth sense that your ex is engaged? Should I intuitively eat, do an intermittent fast, or just think about food every second of the day till I pass? These are the questions of our time. And Cohen is asking them.
Whatever it is she’s doing, no one else is doing it quite like her.
And now with her award-winning Edinburgh fringe show The Twist…? She’s Gorgeous, a handful of roles in hit TV shows, such as Broad City and Search Party, and a critically acclaimed book of poetry under her belt, many are posing the question: is Catherine Cohen the voice of her generation?
“I’m so boring right now,” she says at the beginning of our call, “all I do is lay in bed in my nightgown eating take-out.”
She upped her anti-depressant dosage the night before, she tells me, which has led to the worst migraine. “I just woke up and I’m like…my vision is still…you know when you just feel kind of just like…out of it?”
“But it’s cool,” she insists, “it means I’m footloose and fancy-free for our interview…about to pop my birth control,” she laughs, a little manically. Truly, there’s only one Catherine Cohen.
A conversation with Cohen flits between the serious and the satirical at a frustrating pace. I begin by congratulating her on her successes, listing her recent accomplishments. “That’s nice to hear because I don’t feel like a success…”And when I press her on it: “Well I agree,” she jests, before adopting a more serious tone. “You know, I’m so isolated from the world right now. I’ve forgotten lyrics to my own songs. I’ve forgotten my own jokes…I’m a shell of myself.” She laughs again. It’s a challenge to keep her earnest for long.
Cohen’s performance is characterised by an old-school cabaret feel, which draws influence from her origins in musical theatre. “It’s kind of the only thing you can do if you’re a kid and you want to be singing and dancing around,” she says, “but I loved it. I did it through college and then when I started doing comedy in New York I really missed singing. So when I started writing songs to put in my act it all kind of came together…” She also cites the Spice Girls as an important influence. “They were my first concert. When I was seven my dad took me and some friends. We went in a limo. It was the best night of my life…still. We got to stand up on the chairs. My parents made us wear ear plugs and I was like…this is art.”
Also discernible is a reactionary attitude to a religious childhood. “Growing up in Texas, all my friends were really Christian. It was the cool thing to do. We would go on ski trips and go camping. I was like…this is fun! We’re with boys! And it was really kind of insidious in that it brainwashed me in many ways… I was so scared of sex and stuff and now I’m completely obsessed with it. And I like talking about it and I think it’s very healing to be able to freely talk about things that I was previously ashamed of.”
I find it difficult to reconcile this with my impression of Cohen, though she insists she’s very susceptible to the allure of a cult. “There’s this amazing documentary on HBO about this cult that took place and started in Albany, New York. It was a totally crazy sex cult and totally misogynistic and terrible, but [watching] the first two episodes I’m like… this sounds great. It’s all about self-improvement and community. Everyone wants to feel part of something. As an adult just floating about in space, it’s hard. You want to feel like there’s a community.”
Cohen found this community in New York, where she would regularly host and attend comedy nights with an all-star line-up, though with the pandemic these performances moved online. Cohen recalls returning to New York, having cancelled her London shows after the initial outbreak: “I was like…fuck. I was supposed to do club Cumming the next week. I thought it would be funny if I went live on Instagram during that time. I didn’t realise you could add other people and I was like…let’s try and make this a show. Then it all took off from there.” For a short time last year, everyone was doing an Instagram live show; you could go online and have your pick. You could delve into the life of Catherine Cohen feat. her really cool friends. One such show was a collaboration with comedian Meg Stalter, a charity event raising money for Cameo Cares.
“So Catherine’s an amazing comedian, beautiful singer. I’m sort of a candle maker…I have a button factory,” Stalter begins.
“Megan’s on Etsy. She does amazing stuff with cauliflower,” Cohen retorts.
It’s easy to understand their appeal. With their improvisational style and absurd musings, the pair provide some much-needed escapism to their viewers. Watching them perform, as they try their hardest to make each other break character, and occasionally succeed, you feel as though you’re in the room with them, as though in conversation with old friends.
I’m intrigued by Cohen’s comedic stylings, curious as to how much of her performance is a persona and how much is the real thing. There’s a video she recently made for Into The Gloss in which she teaches her viewers how to do her signature ‘cat eye’. It begins with her characteristically playful narcissism, describing herself as a ‘very beautiful comedian’ and a ‘feminist icon.’ Though there’s a moment that catches me off guard. Referring to her ‘millions of followers’, Cohen momentarily breaks character, laughing at the absurdity of what she’s saying.
“A glimmer of me,” she says, when I bring it up, “well…it’s all me.” It’s an exaggerated persona, she tells me, but it’s still her. “My persona is me if I didn’t care what people thought about what I was saying. I’m just saying what I actually want in that moment without thinking about the consequences or whatever. I don’t think it really is a separate thing. I’m just like…time to turn on the show. I really try not to overthink anything and just operate only from a place of pure feeling.”
There’s a strong element of parody to her work, with Cohen poking fun at the joys and absurdities of healing crystals and ridiculously expensive workout classes. And yet, her comedy never feels unkind, mainly because the things she parodies are all “[her] shit.” The result is something highly personal. “I want everything to have lots of heart,” she tells me, “sometimes I read funny things and I’m like…does that person believe that? You know what I mean? Some jokes just feel kind of empty. And I want mine to feel true.”
Her success stems from the specificity of what she says. Her creations are oddly particular (see poem I wrote after I went to Tuscany to journal about my toxic guitar teacher or poem I wrote after you ordered fried shrimp at the diner and I was like “gross” but really I was like “dang that sounds good”) and yet resonate with her readers. The singularity of these experiences is an intentional aspect of her work, she tells me. “When I’m reading stuff, I want to feel like I’m reading someone’s secret, someone’s weird little truth.”
Cohen has exposed these truths for the world to see. She gives the impression of a woman who lives her life naked. But is it true?
“Sometimes it is. Sometimes I wear a big fur coat.”
What wouldn’t she share?
“That’s for me to know and you to find out…!”, she retorts.
“I have a lot of fears,” she says in a more serious tone, “not being successful, issues with my body image…all the hits. Everything everyone else worries about…” “Dying,” she adds, “don’t want to do that. No fun there.”
She’s quick to bare her emotional nudity for the world to see, though it’s stylised to such an extent, I can’t help but wonder if she would feel as comfortable portraying her fears without her signature bells and whistles.
“I think I do that in the book,” she says, “I have poems that are more serious. That’s a bit scary…but also exciting. It feels totally liberating to be more vulnerable in my poetry. I like not worrying about jokes, just writing something true and seeing if people connect with it. It happened naturally. I have no choice but to be vulnerable in my work—it’s all I have. It’s the only thing that makes me feel less alone.”
The podcast, the performances, the poetry, they each offer a varying portrayal of the Cohen persona. But they’re linked by a common sentiment.
“It’s all about being a woman who wants everything,” she tells me. “And why shouldn’t I?”
But what does she want exactly? What are her ambitions for her work? Her plans for the future?
“Everything,” she says, “can’t get enough of the stuff…”
A few weeks later, I attend one of her live events, a Q&A session about God I Feel Modern Tonight. Another victim of the pandemic, the event has been moved online. Cohen has been robbed of the mahogany podium at a Barnes & Noble she quite rightly deserves. And yet, she is at home in her apartment, greeting her attendees as old friends and basking in the glow of their virtual adoration. “Come on in,” she says tantalisingly, “the water’s warm….”
As the evening draws to a close, I find myself posing the following question: as followers of your work, as lovers of your craft, how can we aspire to be feeling modern tonight?
She gasps. “What a beautiful question…”
“Being modern is all about being old,” she says with received wisdom. “It’s about putting your devices away and breathing deep and being like…everything is fine. You know?”
Watching Cohen perform, for a moment I feel as though I do.
Image Credit Bea Helman