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Catherine Cohen Opens Up

Comedian Cat Cohen is interviewed by writer and friend, Chris Murphy for the Obsession issue.

Story by Chris Murphy

Photos by Remi Riordan, Makeup by Eddie Gee, Assisting by Rosie Yasukochi

I remember the moment I met Catherine Cohen. It was during the first month of my freshman year at Princeton; I had just finished my callback for a musical theater comedy troupe and was making a list of all the things I could have done better during the audition (don’t worry, I ended up making the troupe). Enter Catherine Cohen—curly, brunette hair bouncing to and fro as she breezily walked down the steps on the way to her callback which, of course, she also booked. I obviously knew who she was – though only a junior, Catherine had made a name for herself across campus as a vocal powerhouse and a force to be reckoned with on stage. 

Full of self-loathing post-audition, I began to pack up my things when Catherine came over to me. “Wait… are you Chris Murphy?,” she asked. I nervously shook my head yes. “Oh my god, I’ve heard so much about you!” And with that she was gone. It was such a small moment for her—so natural for her to reach out and be kind—yet so monumental for me, a ball of exposed nerves masquerading as a freshman. I had no idea at that point that Catherine and I would end up joining that musical theater club, that we’d sing together every other day in our a cappella group, and that we’d become lifelong friends in the process. Simply the fact that Catherine Cohen even knew who I was—and was nice to me too—was more than I could process. From that moment on, I was, in a word, obsessed. 

Now, more than 8 years later, Catherine has outgrown our college a capella group and collegiate theatrical productions and has become a bonafide comedy sensation. You might know her from her hit podcast “Seek Treatment” with co-host Pat Regan, her recent “New York Times” Profile, or her episode of HBO’s “High Maintenance.” Maybe you know her from her one woman show “The Twist… She’s Gorgeous” at Joe’s Pub or the weekly “Cabernet Cabaret” she co-hosts with Henry Koperski at Club Cumming. Wherever you first encountered her, one thing is clear: Catherine Cohen is everywhere, and people are—dare I say—addicted to her. 

I met up with my old friend Catherine for martinis at Anfora in the West Village to discuss life, love, and obsession.

Ok. I know the things that you’re obsessed with: Boys. Lena Dunham’s ‘Girls’. Fun Coats. Lying Down/Being in Repose. Cups of meatballs. Rockstars…

[Laughs] Oh my god. You know everything about me. 

But what do I not know about you? Because I do actually know everything about you. 

Well, I just want my entire life to feel like… a dinner party where you’re there for like six hours and everyone’s at the table and you gesture to a painting on the wall and you say “my friend painted that” and then everyone has their own bottle of wine and then we just sit and talk forever and then you go lay down with your lover and you tell them that you feel a sense of longing that resembles pain… only in the way that mist that resembles rain.

I’m undone. 

I’m paraphrasing a [Henry Wadsworth] Longfellow poem.

You’re also obsessed with poems. Why do you think you’re obsessed with poems?

I’m obsessed with poetry. It’s the only thing I care about. It’s so dense. It’s so immediate. It feels new every time. You have to be patient with novels but poetry is just like… a needle in the vein. 

People love to put more meaning onto poems which is lovely and what not, but I think the beauty of poetry is that it’s just words on a page. A deer can just be a deer and not represent anything more than that. 

I have chills. The way I try to write— It’s like this stream of consciousness thing where it’s like if I don’t get this out my heart will fall out of my mouth and that’s the kind of poetry I like. I don’t like things that are as measured. But I think often to achieve that effect you do have to be measured and patient and that’s something that I struggle with. I’m trying to be patient and understand that sometimes to achieve that gut punch effect you have to do the work… 

Sit in the uncomfortable moment? 

Yes. Just how I like my shows to feel so raw. But often that does require me to sit backstage before and be like “what do I [actually] want to talk about? Is there something I want to say?” 

That level of planning and thoughtfulness.

You have to care. Confession: You have to care so fucking much and not caring is not cool and people who don’t care are fucking losers.

They’re insane.

You pretend you don’t care about how you dress, about how you act, or how you spend your time.  It’s like that is the most unattractive, boring thing. I fear boredom. I fear… hobbies. 

Never had one never need one. If you have a hobby you don’t love your life. As someone who has known you for years and years, I know that everything you make comedy about is authentic and real to you. It’s not, like, ironic or tongue in cheek. Like in your old sets you used to have poems, you used to write poetry.

And I want to do more of that. But yeah, I never lie on stage. Everything I say is a true story. It doesn’t interest me to make up something for a joke. I want to say something that’s true… so that people feel like less alone. 

Is that your goal via comedy? To make people feel less alone?

Well, that’s why I like to go to shows. So that I can hear some secrets to make me feel less crazy. And that’s what I want my shows to feel like.

The community aspect is so insane because I remember your first “Cabernet Cabaret” show at Club Cumming. It was amazing, but only like… a solidly packed house.

It was pretty packed. 

[Laughs] Ok, for the record: it was pretty packed. 

But, we’ve had some empty ones.

Now when you’re at Club Cumming you can’t even see the stage because there are so many people there. What does that feel like?

That’s the best thing in the world. All I want to do is create a community and throw a party. I hate being alone. So, I make people come to me. I want to feel like I’m in the past, like I’m in a coffee table book. When I’m at Club Cumming, I feel like that. At Club Cumming time seems to stop and I’m in this removed place where you can forget about the outside for a second and dive into something more.  

You are radically honest about your life on stage. Do you find it easier to be honest with your fans or your friends? Or is it the same all the time?

I don’t know. There are certain things in life that I haven’t worked through that I don’t want to talk about on stage. Umm, like I’ve been dealing with my vocal health stuff.

Yes, I’ve been there. 

And I don’t want to talk about that onstage yet because I haven’t wrapped my head around it and I don’t know how I feel about it yet so it doesn’t interest me. But, like with the break up, like when Charles* broke up with me, I went to Club Cumming the next day and I was just like screaming about it on stage because I knew how I felt about it. And it was such a release…

Good for your soul. Good for processing.

Yeah and Henry [Koperski] came up to me during the show and I was like, “is this funny or sad or too dark?” And he said something like “no, I think it’s really important to talk about this stuff.” And I was like “oh good, that’s what I want.”

I feel like you’ve always been an open book for anyone who takes the time to read it. And now it feels like everyone in the world is reading the book. Did you always know you were going to have fans to this level?     

I don’t know. I feel like it’s easier now with social media. Like, people who aren’t famous can have fans because, like, they can have their own community online, so that’s cool. I’m just really flattered to have people like my stuff. And I feel like I can be real with fans and talk to them like they’re friends.

Ok, this is a little bit of a dishy question. We went to college together, obviously. And like there were some people who were not that nice to either of us who now seem to be… jumping on the Catherine Cohen bandwagon.

Who are you thinking about?

Jessica* and Lance*, for instance. 

[Laughs] Yeah, what I will say is people are coming out of the woodwork in very interesting ways. And I will never forget in what ways they were lying within the woodwork before. 

[Laughs maniacally] You heard it here first. 

If you mistreat me, I’ll never forget it. And if you were kind to me when no one else was, I’ll never forget it. 

That’s the thing, you’ve got to remember it all. I don’t want to talk myself up, but like I got you from the moment I met you.

Yeah, you did. But I also feel like I have to remind myself that people who were rude to me in college or didn’t give me the time of day, they have their own shit that they’re insecure about.

You’re right. That’s very empathetic of you. I have no fans and I’m not in a space to be like “oh you were rude to me, but that might not be about me.”

It’s never about you. It’s harder in romantic stuff because my ego is so fucking massive. The Charles* stuff has definitely been a learning opportunity and it’s already inspired a line in a new song that I want to play you.

Oh my god. You have to.

It’s different. It’s more stream of consciousness. A little messier. A little more low key. Low key only in the sense of like… not low key, but less presentational and more emotional. 

More emotional. I literally have a note in my phone that says “Catherine Cohen is a well of emotion.”

Oh my god. Well I had a boyfriend tell me I was a waterfall of negativity when I was 22. 

[Laughs] I feel like there’s a little bit of a narrative going around right now that you’re an overnight sensation?

Is that a narrative? 

A little bit. But I know you’ve been doing shows every night for the past six years. I’ve seen the content of your act change so much in the three years I’ve been in NYC. How would you describe your transition from more character based comedy into stand-up and cabaret?  

I enjoy making character videos because they’re basically just different versions of myself. They’re people I mock but they’re people I love because I see myself in them. But, I’m not interested in wigs at the moment.

I would like to go on record as being the first comic to be fully anti-wig. I’m anti-wig in any capacity — whether it’s at brunch or whether its on stage.

Yeah, and I feel like the character stuff is just a way of finding this version of myself that I’m like settling into.

That’s always been there. That’s been there since 2011.

Two thousand and forever. But I was just too scared to access it.

That’s a big thing: fear. It’s scary to get up there and be yourself in front of people, warts and all. How do you deal with that?

Do you know what’s especially tricky? Because when you start you’re in this straight male community…

Straight *white* male dominated community. 

Yes. You get it. And I was nervous to be hyper feminine at first — hyper emotional, hyper personal, hyper sensitive. And now it’s the leaning into that that has proven the most rewarding. 

That’s how you’ve set yourself apart; it feels so authentic. There’s a line in the “New York Times” profile of you that is so funny to me because it references “the persona [Catherine] is playing at Club Cumming” insinuating that you are, in some way, playing a character. What, if anything, is different between the person Catherine Cohen and the persona Catherine Cohen you portray on stage?

It’s just me if the rules don’t apply.

If you’re in total control.

If I’m unfettered. If I’m ignoring social niceties. It’s not [really] a character or a persona. It’s just the real me in that moment.

The real you, sometimes with a blowout. 

I’m just a feminist that’s obsessed with good dick. 

That is a core struggle for many feminists. Wow, now I’m getting nostalgic for good dick… is there anything or anybody you are really obsessed with right now either in comedy or music? You always had cool girl indie music tastes. 

Yeah, I love indie music. I’m listening a lot to the new Girlpool album. The new James Blake album… Half of my mind is like deeply musical theater… I think about Sondheim every day? What [else] do I like? Ariana Grande. This girl Caroline Rose is really good. King Princess. Rilo Kiley is the only music I ever care about.

“Portions For Foxes.” [You] killed the solo [in our a cappella group] from 2011 to 2013.

And Sufjan, of course–I want him to murder me. And this girl called Mallrat. I think she’s Australian. And I like any music that is talky like Pavement. I also love this band Car Seat Headrest. I’m addicted to Mitski. She’s a queen.

Speaking of addicted, is there a difference between addicted and “obsoosed”? What’s the difference between being addicted to someone and “obsoosed” with someone? Or is it one and the same?

It changes with the wind. 

I’m obsessed with ranking things. So now you have to rank boys, sex, fucking, dating, and love in order, best to worst. What you need most. What you need least.

In this moment? 

In this moment. In this one singular moment.

In this very moment, I need fucking. Boys. Sex. Love. and then dating [laughs]. 

That absolutely scans for me and I see that for you, too. I think dating is hard last. I thought you were gonna put boys last, actually. 

[laughs] I love boys. 

Boys – yet another thing that brought us together. What about your catchphrases: “Coocoo loo loo”. “Laa Tee Da Too”. “Obsoosed”. Seek Treatment. 

Pat [Regan] came up with Seek Treatment. And addicted came from [Chicago comedian] Sarah Squirm. She said that once and I thought it was the funniest thing in the world.

I also want to know what you’re “obsoosed” with, fashionwise? 

I Rent The Runway, as you know. I mean I can’t afford nicer stuff. I just shop at Zara and TopShop. And when I want something nice I Rent the Runway. I do a lot of vintage and second hand stuff. I love Beacon’s Closet. 

Clearly, something about you seems to be resonating with the masses. Do you feel like something has clicked or do you feel like you’re just doing the same thing that you’ve been doing and people are just now starting to pay attention?

A combination. I’m always getting better at what I do by doing it more. The slot at Club Cumming has turned me into… has given me everything. It has made me so confident… so certain about my ability to command a crowd even when it’s not going well and I’m just really grateful for that. 

That was a huge turning point.

I have this energy and feeling on stage that I… I got this. And it’s because of Club Cumming.

*The names have been changed to protect the identities of those mentioned.