Michael Whitham interviews Catherine Cohen
Wait, Catherine Cohen won 2019 Best Newcomer AND she’s gorgeous?! It sounds unfair, but it’s true. Luckily for us, this year she’s back at the Fringe with her long awaited second show, Come For Me. Expect savage and sexualised skewering of millennial mores and a cabaret voice for the ages. All while dressed to (literally?) kill. I spoke to Cohen about blow dries, body image and being delusional.
“I don’t ever think like, I want to do a show about something. It’s more that I’m always, always writing new material about my life and when I step back and look over it I realise, oh, over the past two years, I’ve written a lot about this or that. So inevitably my first Edinburgh show was a lot about being in my twenties and fucking around and not having my shit together and dating a hundred people. Then this show has mostly been written while I’m in a serious relationship and I’m thinking about maybe starting a family one day or trying to have a nice life for myself in a city that’s insanely expensive (Cohen lives in New York). And wanting to feel like I figured certain things out. But… I still don’t have what I want. So what’s this feeling? And why can’t I be happy!? I think this show touches on a few more of those existential themes.”
In truth, Cohen always makes work that speaks deeply to our – by which I mean millennial girls and gays – many and varied anxieties. She charts a course through a complex and hilarious rollercoaster of self love and self loathing, as well as reflecting on those magical moments we were all expecting to turn us into ‘adults’ that never materialised.
“I always thought I would know how to blow dry my hair to look like an adult woman. But I like …don’t know how to. I still look like a child sometimes.”
After leaving university with dreams of being an actor, Cohen discovered a gift for stand-up. Once she started to write songs and integrate them into her act, she cut her teeth at Alan Cumming’s cabaret club in New York. In 2019 she brought her first ever show to the Fringe, blissfully unaware of the potential pitfalls. “There’s no American culture of reviewing shows the same way that there is in Edinburgh. So when I went in 2019 I had no idea what to expect. Though, I would never read a negative review anyway. My sense is just that the writer wanted to feel something particular they didn’t feel, or honestly just make a point about themselves with their review. I’m just like… if someone doesn’t like me, they need help, whatever, next.”
An empowering and self-assured stance to take? “Yes, but I could never do this if I didn’t have some sort of delusional belief that what I was making was fucking brilliant. So you need a little bit of that and you’ve got to cling to it.”
Cohen’s lexicon – hyperbole, delusion, deep irony and a volley between self-aggrandisement and self-loathing is part of her signature. For Cohen and contemporaries like Kate Berlant, that mode of expression is frequently reviewed as if it’s part of an elaborate character conception. In truth, it is the way Cohen and her friends speak both on and off stage, on text messages, in social media, on voice notes.
“People often are like, what’s this character you’re playing on stage? It’s not a character. It’s a heightened version of myself but it’s all things I would say, it’s all real stuff from my life. It’s all real feelings. I do really oscillate between feeling like the most beautiful woman in the world and like an absolute troll from hell – that is the reality.”
It’s a vernacular – crafting elaborate narratives, self-reference, quotations, exaggeration, all at lightning speed – that you can see deeply resonates with the women and gay men who frequently dominate Cohen’s audiences. “That’s who I do it for, baby! When I did my first show at the Fringe, I remember this old man literally running after me after a show and saying, ‘you talk too fast’. I was like, well catch up bitch.”
She also frequently gives a knowing wink to beauty standards and the complexities of positive self-image (Her first Edinburgh show was called’ The Twist? She’s Gorgeous’, and her website bio reads ‘Catherine Cohen: Beautiful Comedian’). Cohen subverts the dominant orthodoxy that women are expected to both obsessively maintain and improve their looks while pretending they don’t really care about them.
“Being someone who didn’t feel beautiful growing up, it leads you to develop personality. Then you can come back around and reclaim the beautiful part of yourself. I got the sense of humour from being called hideous my whole life and now I’m going to come back for the hot part. And I hope the way I am in my shows inspires people to feel more confident in their skin. I understand the fact that it’s a struggle. It’s a struggle all the fucking time. I can’t believe I’m in my 30s and still think about my weight every day. It’s ridiculous. Part of my goal on stage is to be this version of myself that wouldn’t be bogged down by those concerns, which in real life are like constantly plaguing me. How can I deal with the fact that I’m insecure about my body? How can I deal with the fact that I’m jealous of my peers? I am going to make jokes about it, and it makes me feel a little better.”
For Cohen, comedy has the ability to skewer and deflate some of the emotional and social pressures of being a woman, or indeed just a person, in 2023. To render deep anxieties less powerful through levity and a side-eye.
“After I filmed the first special we wanted to find some childhood footage to use at the beginning, and by chance in the childhood footage, I’m wearing this pink bathrobe. And in the special I’m wearing this sparkly pink bathrobe. How funny that by doing this job, I’m just trying to crawl back to the pure, imaginative child version of myself, before the world like… smacks you to hell.”
For Cohen, like many of us, social media can be one of the cosmic hands that smack you to hell, particularly when it comes to self image. “It is interesting because yeah, I want to post hot pics but I also want to be real about my struggles with my body and acknowledge I don’t look perfect. That’s important to share too. It was also different because when I was single I was more obsessed with looking hot online, but now that I’m in a relationship, there’s, you know, fewer thirst traps. And what we said earlier about wanting to be beautiful but maintain the pretence of not caring about being beautiful – it’s the same with social media. You post a hot picture but you have to make sure you’re also being self aware or you’re being funny at the same time, or you’re like ‘oh! I didn’t know this was being taken’. It’s an exhausting little dance.”
Cohen’s blistering success with her first Fringe show, including the Best Newcomer win, came just as the world began to spiral towards the pandemic. Now just as her IMDB teases us with an exciting new acting role, the SAG-AFTRA strike forbids her from telling me anything about it. Nonetheless her energy is indomitable, filled with excitement and love for the chance to bring a new show to the Fringe.
“I came to flyer at the Fringe when I graduated college. I fell in love with it. It’s my favourite place in the world. I could not be more excited to go back. People there just really, really care about live performance, so it’s a great place to be. And I cannot believe we’ll all just be going out and hugging and dancing and drinking in these small spaces. It feels medicinal.”
A dose of Catherine’s Fringe medicine is available August 14-21 and 24-27 at 10.30pm (Pleasance One). Catherine Cohen: Come For Me