Kate McCarthy Q&A

Images courtesy of Kate McCarthy

If you get the chance, head on over to the Humble Cup coffee shop on Friday night and watch the Midnight Shit. We went and interviewed Kate McCarthy, one of the performers, to find out what it takes to be a comedian at the U. Currently a junior, McCarthy began to pursue comedy her freshman year through the on-campus comedy club and has made a name for herself since then. Her unique material draws people in and leaves them laughing and wanting more. Read on to get to know one of Minneapolis’s best young female comedians.

The Wake: When did you start doing comedy?

McCarthy: Right when I got to college at the U. When I was 18, like October 1st of 2015 was my first time doing standup. And I just kept doing it since then!

The Wake: How did you discover your passion for comedy?

McCarthy: Growing up, I always thought I was going to do improv. For some reason, I was just like, ‘I will go to college, and I will do that,’ because that’s what everybody’s comedy heroes did, you know, like college improv. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are the only two women in comedy ever, and so you hear about what they did and whatever. Nothing against them—they’re great—but then I always kinda just assumed I was going to get here and do that. During high school, I did theater stuff, but it was, you know… I always played like little funny male characters or androgynous narrators, and I always think I privately, secretly, was like, ‘I would love to just do standup.’ I always wanted to do it, and I started writing jokes in high school, and then I got here. I was just like, ‘I need to do that, I gotta do it, and I need to start right away as soon as I’m in college.’ Then I just did, and then it didn’t really stop since then because it kept kinda going well and leading into more opportunities and more things I wanted to say or do, and it kept building from there.

The Wake: How did you get your start in comedy?

McCarthy: Before I was 18, I think I just thought about nothing all the time. I don’t even know what I thought about. As a kid, I was always in our family videos, and you can see me not even being a hilarious kid, but I was always directing my siblings in things. I was always fairly silly in most of my friend groups. I think I was always seeking attention or being a little more goofy.

I was voted runner-up for class comedian in high school, which is funny in two ways. One, my school was like, ‘Class clown. We can’t— that’s a little too mean. Class comedian, though…’ Two, I was the runner-up. I wasn’t the main girl. I don’t know what she’s doing today, but it’s probably very funny. Actually, my family doesn’t really find me funny, I think. Maybe that’s part of it. I’m always trying to make my family laugh, especially my mom. She’s one of those people who are like, “I don’t laugh at a lot of things, but that made me laugh.” She has like four examples over the course of her life of things that have made her laugh. She’s wonderful and warm and good-natured but… My family are kinda like tough critics, but I think they’ve always considered me the ‘funny sibling.’ I remember my siblings were like, ‘We’re like Alvin and the Chipmunks. AJ is the little chubby one, and Claire is the middle one who is smart and likes planning things, and Kate, you’re like Alvin because you’re always goofing around.’ I don’t think it’s always been like, ‘That girl is for sure going to be a comedian.’ I started doing performance stuff in our eighth-grade play. Everyone in the class had to be in the play, which is a horrible idea, now that I think about it. But I got to be Annie in “Annie,” and I was just like, ‘I’m gonna do this now. This is my life.’ I got very serious about acting, and in high school, my freshman year, I ate lunch in the library and I read all the movie book and acting books, which is a lame thing… But I don’t think even then people were like, ‘What an amazing performer! She is going places.’

Images courtesy of Kate McCarthy

The Wake: What is your favorite joke to tell?

McCarthy: Okay, I would say it’s a tie for two things right now. One of them is a standup joke that I don’t even do that much anymore, but I think of it as one of my favorite jokes because it has felt the most…like it came from a place of expressing something that I hadn’t noticed was frustrating me, and then I synthesized that, and I was like, ‘And this is my thought in joke form.’ I used to do this almost manic monologue type joke describing the insane process that I, and probably many girls, go through when I would spend the night with my boyfriend like freshman year in the dorms, and I would use all this weird, like, heightened absurd examples of the ways I was cleansing my body. So, I would talk about lathering myself in all these lotions and perfumes so that I’m like a slimy lizard, which is, I guess, good, and you know, like switch out your normal underwear with your lace underwear, and all these things… that has always done well and seemed to strike a chord with people.

And then also there is something I will be doing tonight at Strike Theater, which is something we did for Midnight Shit earlier this year, and I was on my period, and we were about to do our third Midnight Shit, and I was like…I just had this idea like, ‘What if tampons acted like magnets in the body and like procured things from your loins?’ So, I took a bunch of tampons and soaked them in red Kool-Aid and then hot glued things to the ends of the tampon. So I would have like a plastic gem and an iPod shuffle and this DVD of “The Best of Alec Baldwin” on SNL, and they’re all like, hanging from these tampons, and I would duct tape them to my inner thighs and my stomach, and then I would do this monologue where I’m like, ‘So let’s see what my body has for me today!’ and then I would reach up and pull them out and be like, ‘Wow, you guys, it’s a bottle of Clinique face wash! Amazing!’ So that’s just like a fun, weird thing that really captures my tone, maybe. It’s just fun and weird and always kinda baffles people, but it goes well. So those two are something that just came to mind for some of my favorites.

The Wake: How do you come up with your material?

McCarthy: I’m trying to get better at being the comic who sits down at a set time every day and really bangs it out and that kind of thing… but I think it’s been in different stages that I’ve thought of stuff. Freshman year it was a lot of going out to open mics alone and sitting on buses, you know, sometimes listening to music, sometimes not, and just writing out more fully an idea that I had just had, just an inkling—something that had been on my mind. A lot of my stuff earlier on had focused on relationships and femininity, like the ideas of femininity that I was starting to pick up on even more in college and just kinda this frustration that I had with that or the parameters of that that I was discovering.

Later, I did a lot of standup in Los Angeles after freshman year, and I was trying to go further and do other things, and then sophomore year, it was more open mics and doing more shows as well and kinda getting known among comedians like, ‘Okay she’s independent, she’s a comic.’ Then this year, I’m running two shows, and I do film sketches as well, and we’ve got “Phony” magazine, and there’s improv and different things… I guess a thought will just occur to me and then I really run on it from there and promise myself that I’ll go back and firm it up a bit, and I never really do, so a lot of my stuff is just like, ‘Oh, I meant to go back and make that better but I never did.’ But it’s a lot of improvised stuff that then sticks, and it’s like, ‘Oh that worked so keep that, and maybe don’t keep the other stuff.’ I used to write out my jokes as a long monologue, like freshman year, as I was just starting because that’d help me memorize it when I was nervous, and just to kinda put it all in one place. Especially now that I’m doing my own shows, it’s a lot of just ‘think of something, that’ll probably work, and just do it,’ you know, like especially for my monthly show, ‘Who is She?’ So much of that is coming together at the last minute, and I’m just like alone in my apartment, running around like, ‘Oh, I had this thing, and okay I could do this and layer these two things together, and then I have this line written that I’ve been wanting to plug in.’ It’s a lot of ‘let’s just see what happens.’

The Wake: What was your first comedy show like?    

McCarthy: Technically, my first time on stage was a show, kind of… It was an open mic. The first time that I did standup was at the first comedy club showcase, here at the U, fall of 2015. It was a pretty small audience, which was okay by me, and I did three minutes of jokes. Weirdly enough, I never did any of those jokes ever again. I don’t know why. They were, like, not even that bad for a first time. But, I just remember being up there and feeling weirdly comfortable. I don’t know that I read it as weirdly comfortable, or that people were like, ‘She is a natural.’ There was one moment where I was like, ‘This is really, really correct and good for me. I like doing this and being here, and I think I could do this.’ And then afterwards, I remember these two older male comedians from the comedy club looked over and kinda looked me up and down and said, ‘Hey, good job.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah. Fuck yeah. I won them over, and now they’re afraid of me. They know who’s boss.’ It was an encouraging start, rather than, you know… a lot of people’s first times are terrible.

The Wake: How do you deal with a tough crowd?

McCarthy: I’m still learning. It takes a long time to get good at standup. Let’s see…  Right away, if you feel like a crowd pulls back from one joke or another, like… sometimes I can tell by the first thing that I say if they’re maybe older or younger, if they’re a little more hip, if they’re more conservative or conventional… You know, they don’t wanna hear you talk about your pubes, or they’re not gonna get your Winona Ryder references… So, you can kinda tell and quickly mentally scurry through your material to select, like, ‘This will probably work better, and this won’t.’ Sometimes if I have a crowd that doesn’t seem to dig my vibe, which is—I don’t know what my vibe is—but sometimes it’s almost theatrical to a vaudeville point… But, I think I’m also read as like the young woman’s perspective. All my first stuff was about ‘Look at this stuff I’m forced to do because I’m a woman.’ If I feel that they don’t necessarily want that, I’ll revert to longer, storytelling-type jokes. A lot of comics do this thing where if they’re doing a show and their jokes aren’t working, they’ll acknowledge that. They’ll be like, “Oh, you guys didn’t like that one” or, “You really pulled back there.” I try not to do that because sometimes that’ll be like the biggest laughs a comic gets, and it feels like getting laughs in a way that I wouldn’t love to get them, which is by acknowledging how not-well you’re doing. I’m still trying to figure out what the best way is to prevail over a crowd when you’ve lost them. Sometimes I end up digging myself into a hole talking about sex stuff because people know that I’m young and I think they pull back on that sometimes. A comic once told me, ‘It’s really cool to see you dig yourself into a hole and then emerge from it.’ Once you get to that point where you feel that they’re not with it, it’s just like pulling out the right Jenga pieces so that the whole thing doesn’t crumble and you can salvage something. 

Images courtesy of Kate McCarthy

The Wake: Who are your favorite comedians?

McCarthy: Oh boy. I have an active, running note on my computer of all my favorite comedians. For standup two of my favorites have been Kate Berlant and John Early, who sometimes work together. I don’t even think I’m super similar to them, but they are just so ahead of the game. They’re doing such weird, interesting things that appeal to a very certain group of comedy-goers, and a group of people who are like, ‘That’s so funny and I had never thought of that as comedy before.’ They have very mannerism-driven comedy. I really like Chris Fleming. He’s known for his web-series, “Gayle,” and also does character monologues that are kind of like standup but are just wild, like…  the jokes-per-minute is insane. A few more of my favorites are Chelsea Peretti, Natalie Palamides, Sarah Sherman, Ana Fabrega, Kyle Mooney’s sketch group Good Neighbor, the writing team of Broad City and Abbi and Ilana.

The Wake: Is this a possible career or just a hobby?

McCarthy: I think right now it isn’t a hobby, just because it takes up all of my time— which is how I like it to be. Sometimes you get paid to go on shows. I’ve been commissioned to make some videos for different things, like Trish and Erik’s campaign [for the University of Minnesota’s Student Body President and VP]. All my stuff is structured around comedy, so it’s not like a side thing and then my career is over here. I would like to go into performance and writing. I don’t know what else I would do right now.

The Wake: How is the Midnight Shit different from other comedy?

McCarthy: Midnight Shit is based off a show in Chicago… I lived there over the summer, interning, and it’s based on a show called The Holy Fuck Comedy Hour at the Annoyance Theatre. It’s Fridays at midnight and it’s an hour or so of all brand-new stuff that’s really undercooked, like, it hasn’t been performed or rehearsed… it’s not really super written. Obviously, ours is a little different from the Chicago one because it’s our sense of humor and our people. Basically, Andrew [Friedman, a fellow collaborator for Midnight Shit] and I had been doing standup around here and we were kind of tired of shows that were like, ‘Here, you get five standups and headliner and then we go home.’ It started to feel a little tired, even if the comics were great, which they almost always are. We both had ideas for weird bits. It’s like, ‘I have this great idea!’ or ‘I wonder if this would work?’ but we had no way of knowing, or nowhere to put this kind of stuff that isn’t only standup or only improv shows. Because if you think about it, you can do anything. It’s insane. You can think of anything, and then do it. That’s crazy. Midnight Shit has given us that avenue and that tool. Just like, literally think of anything. It’s a character? Great. It’s a PowerPoint to demonstrate a concept? That’s great. It’s a video… Like, I did this weird video where I showed Sex and the City and was like “I wanna show you guys some of my favorite Sex and the City episodes” and then I explained what the episode was about in great detail. “This is the one where Charlotte is such and such” and then I played the full theme song and then it would cut to a clip of me, like, sucking on an egg, and then it would cut to the end credits. And then I’d be like ‘Oh my god you guys. I love that episode. You see the way he looked at her at the end? And the music? Oh my god.’ There aren’t a lot of places for that kind of thing. So, it came out of this desire to put more on stage.

The Wake: How much time do you spend preparing for each show?

McCarthy: A lot of the writing happens the week of, and often the day of, and the last couple hours are spent really firming up what I’m gonna do. I think I like to work under pressure, which is not always the best thing, but sometimes that kinda forces your brain to, ya know, draw out an idea. Sometimes with Midnight Shit you’ve been talking about an idea for a while, or it finally came to fruition later. It really depends. I would like to see what happens if I tried harder. I should be trying to plan out more.

The Wake: What is it like being a woman in comedy?

McCarthy: This is such a big topicI was young when I started, and I was also doing a lot of material talking about my boyfriend, so I think, around the time I started, there was a heightened awareness of inappropriate behavior in the Minneapolis comedy community, or that’s what I’ve heard at least. So, I don’t have horrible experiences or was mistreated. In fact, I have had encouraging ones where I think I proved myself to people early on, and even though I was young, often the age thing worked in my favor because people were surprised, like, ‘Oh, you’re really good especially for 18, or 19, or 20.’ I’m 20 now, and it was a lot of encouragement from people, like, ‘Yeah, really keep going. Don’t quit. You’re doing a good job.’ I had some really good encouragement from early on. But then there is also this disappointing thing where someone will be nice to your face and you’ll hear that they’ll be not so nice to other women and have done not-great things. So, I think there’s this weird incongruity where especially a lot of men have caught onto the idea of like, ‘Oh I think it’ll be really good to present myself as a feminist,’ but then their actions don’t always follow suit, so that’s kind of a more difficult layer that is even harder to navigate. You have the straight up skeevy guys who… it’s like, they’re gross and not even nice, anyway. Like, don’t go talk to those guys. And then also the guys who are fake. In the college community, I’ve noticed more of a comradery among guys that’s sometimes really hard to get into, and they’re like young guys, and they get it, and they’re not trying to be exclusive but they all just love each other so much. In a lot of comedy circles, there are a lot more men than women in them, sometimes… Okay, so this is the distinction: I think in the Minneapolis comedy community, it’s more chill, like no one is yelling in the green room, everyone is having a pleasant conversation, and there are more nuances in that, and you know, I’ve noticed that. But I think in the college girl community, there is a lot more excitement, and more often, it’s the male voices that rise up above the fray, and they’re not like exclusive to women, but I’ve noticed more of a desire to do bits with each other, heighten each other’s bits, and turn to each other first to make the jokes.

Images courtesy of Kate McCarthy

I think that especially for young girls, you find yourself in a position where you’re a part of the group, but you’re the one taking videos of how funny the guys are being, but when are they going to turn around and take a video for you? That’s really been hitting me lately… I’ve spent my entire first half of college spending time mostly with guys, and they’re great, but I think that’s a trap in college, or just a trap that a young woman in comedy can get into. You are in the group technically, and no one is being exclusive, but there is almost this slight, almost imperceptible, change like… of who is being given a chance to even be funny. I want to be careful to not have it come off that I’m not bashing a certain group in particular, especially in college. This is a college magazine, and I don’t want any college boys to be like, ‘Wait, what?’ Maybe let’s just say for younger guys in comedy, I think there’s this wildness, or not a wildness, but like an excitement to keep going, going, going, until you realize you maybe left the women behind, or just haven’t given them a chance, and I don’t even think they’re actively doing it. Maybe there is a tendency to not shift your humor ever, like depending on who you’re talking to, so if you’re not in on their joke or their sensibility exactly, you’re, like, not going to get into it ever. So, I’ve been working on being okay with that.

Also, sometimes there’s this thing where you’re watching this group of guys mostly just yelling, like a lot of their bits end in just yelling, and I’ll be watching guys and I’ll be like, ‘I’m funnier than you… funnier than you… oh, and funnier than you,’ and I don’t feel lesser than them, but I’ve just decided to stop yelling and getting into it so much because it’s just a lot of loud yelling, and it’s fun, but like, if I’m going to have to shout my way into it to even be a little bit heard, I’m not going to try so hard because I can go on a stage and do that and maybe get paid for it, you know what I’m saying? It’s so hard because this is such a big issue, and I don’t wanna be like, ‘Well it’s been really easy for me.’ In the younger college community, like undergrad, I’m not trying to prove myself to the group of guys because you know you can go on stage and put that somewhere, and one of my favorite things is when people leave a standup show, like either college or Midnight Shit, and they’re like, ‘You were the best,’ or ‘I really liked you in particular,’ and you’re like, ‘See? That’s all that matters.’ I’m always operating with the awareness that I am factually a woman in comedy, because I’m always mentally calculating for about half the audience—guys—to either not get my stuff or think it’s excessive or dumb. I’m always aware that my material is stridently about my perspective, which is female, and sometimes falls into the idea of what people think that is and sometimes doesn’t. And that, if I’m one woman performer in a group of men, or one of a few women, I can’t do poorly because I’m the representative for the night, which is crazy.

Images courtesy of Kate McCarthy

But I think a lot of the time I have the privilege to not think about being a woman in comedy as an obstacle since I’ve been given a pretty fair shot so far, especially in the comedy communities I’ve been in that are more aware, and that is so not the case all the time for women. Being a woman in comedy is a lot like being a woman anywhere. You need to shout to be heard sometimes… you carry this extra pressure, you fight to have the same level of camaraderie with the guys, you have this idea in the first place that you need to be approved of by the guys. But on male-dominated shows, you’re often people’s favorite—a breath of fresh air, a welcome change. I ultimately wanna have so many female driven shows that the paradigm flips and people see a woman performer come out and they go, ‘Ugh, another one?’ That would be the ultimate switch up!

You can check out Kate and her friends perform unique comedy acts every Friday night starting at 12 a.m. at the Humble Cup on West Bank. In addition, keep your eyes out for Kate’s monthly show, “Who is She?” which is an original act based on 70s TV shows and is performed in different spots around Dinkytown. More information on the time and location can be found on fliers around campus and Facebook