Flavorwire Interview: Julie Klausner on Her Debut Cabaret Performance, ‘Too Gay for Brooklyn’

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Comedian Julie Klausner has become widely known for her fantastic podcast, How Was Your Week?, an intimate chat show that she has frequently produced live at Brooklyn’s Bell House. Klausner has long been a performer — she has roots in New York’s Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre — and it’s a pleasure to experience her live. Despite her collaboration with rocker Ted Leo and her ability to hilariously skewer pop culture, it’s her musical theatre roots that have I’ve always found fiercely entertaining. (Fun fact: Julie accompanied me to my first Broadway show, Promises, Promises.) That musical theatre sensibility has never faded away, and next week Julie Klausner will make her New York cabaret debut with Too Gay for Booklyn, which she will perform on June 18 and 19 at the venerable Joe’s Pub. Along for the ride are her pal Ted Leo and the larger-than-life singer Bridget Everett. I spoke with her yesterday about the process of putting the show together, the loose and experimental nature of cabaret, and the performers who have inspired her aesthetic.

Flavorwire: So you’re doing your first cabaret show! It seems like this has been a long time coming, so I’m surprised it’s taken this long.

Julie Klausner: I think maybe part of me was resisting my destiny. And I’m sure there’s something to that where I was like, “Oh, this is so natural, so I’m going to fight against it.”

Did someone approach you about it or did you just see if you could do it yourself?

I guess around a year ago, Joe’s Pub approached me and they said, “We like what you do and if you ever wanted to try something in this space, we’d love to have you.” I knew that I didn’t want to do something identical to the show that we do at The Bell House together, Ted and I, so I wanted to — and I was really flattered at the idea. The notion of performing there is always a really sexy notion to me because I love this space, and it’s just a lot classier than those alt-comedy spaces that I’m used to. I knew that if I wanted to do something there, it would have to be something that would be more fitting to the space. So I proceeded to over-think it for about six or seven months and psych myself out of it, and I kind of got a little mired in a couple of other false starts.

After I collaborated with Jon Spurney on the last How Was Your Week: Live, I said to him, “What if we did a night of cabaret where we just played music and sang songs?” It seemed a little deceptively simple. I’d known Spurney for not terribly long. I was a fan of his before I ever met him; I’d seen him in Passing Strange, and he always kind popped up whenever there was a musical, kind of downtown-y, sort of offbeat performance. When he and I started to talk about it, I said, “Well, how is this done?” He said, “Well, you generally pick ten songs or so,” and once I did that, I kind of realized, “Well, this should be funnier,” because people expect me to be funny! And also I’m not the best singer in the world. I’ve got a decent singing voice, but in no way am I Barbara Cook, and in no way are people coming to expect me to be anyone besides who they know me to be. I had to kind of pull back a little on the purism of it and sort of figure out a way this was different between the songs that I wanted to sing and then songs I could sing that would maybe have a funny framing device to them. And then I added some video elements with Rachel Lichtman, who did all the video and film stuff for the last Monkees tour. And it’s still developing. I’m rehearsing with the band later today. I’m thinking maybe the ending isn’t big enough or maybe we should rearrange the running order, but basically I have funny things to say in between the songs, and the songs are either pure, or else they’re funny, or some version of in between, where I’m singing the song straight, but there’ll be something funny on the screen behind me.

It seems like that’s the nice thing about a cabaret. You don’t have to be a Broadway-caliber singer, but you can still entertain an audience.

Yeah, exactly. In no way am I a singer with a capital S.

Do you have any bits planned, like the way you prepare for How Was Your Week: Live?

Not really. I don’t want people to expect anything besides me, a band, the special guest of the night — whether it’s Ted or Bridget — and a video screen. So there aren’t going to be dancers, there aren’t going to be characters, there aren’t going to be bits beyond sort of me talking before and after a song. It should sort of feel like a pure kind of expression of that form. I mean, there’s an intimacy to it that I can carry over from the podcast, which is basically that you’re spending an evening with someone who’s talking and singing, but it’s really more about the company of the performer than it is about the variety of it all. There are less moving parts than there are at the Bell House show, where you’re going to have three to five guests and a video in the middle and a surprise here and audience interaction there. It’s definitely more distilled and more intimate and simpler, and that’s the thing that’s really challenging for me. I don’t have the confidence that doing something simple will entertain an audience, that it’ll hold them. I’m always tempted to run around and pull out the stops and just “more is more,” whereas this is a little more controlled.

Do you know what kind of audience to expect? You’ve gotten a broader audience over the years, and when I’ve seen your live show it’s more of a Brooklyn hipster crowd than the usual cabaret crowd. Do you think it’ll be a more diverse audience at Joe’s Pub?

I hope that it’ll attract people who are in for a experiment. I mean, the tickets are already more expensive than you would pay for a Union Hall comedy show. There’s something about cabaret that I don’t think is comfortable to a lot of casual comedy audiences because it does require a certain amount of — I wouldn’t say pomposity as much as formality. People dress up and sit on this stool and they sing a standard and they don’t worry about it being too gay, frankly, or too anything. Every time I see a play on Broadway, the pomp of it always surprises me a little at first because you have to get used to the idea that there are people singing and dancing in this really unnatural way in front of you on this giant stage and it seems so wild to settle into that, but then you remember everybody around you is up for this. They knew what they were getting into when they got into those seats, and I don’t know if they expect it, but they want it. So there’s something to my getting over the sort of casual comedy notion of, “Oh, whatever, we’re just here to fuck around. I just came off the street, I’ll just make some shit up, and I’m still in my workout clothes, but it’s cool that I have nothing prepared.” It took me awhile to get rid of that and embrace the readiness and the extra effort and not having to make it seem like it’s as easy as breathing. This sort of seems like a good opportunity to do that in a safe space to do stuff that’s a little more serious in the way that people [who] go to see music are entertained in a very different way than people who just go to see stand-up or improv or other forms of comedy.

I think the title kind of prepares the audience for what to expect.

Yeah, but it’s also a misnomer. I’m not singing Judy Garland. I think there’s like two showtunes in there altogether, but it’s mostly just ‘60s pop and there’s a ‘90s song in there. It’s really not, like, a super-gay show at all — it’s just gayer than the stuff I’ve done with Ted out of respect for the medium and out of respect for the fact that what I do with Ted is a collaboration — a rock variety show — whereas this is a purist cabaret show. But it’s still me. I’m not playing a drag version of myself by any means.

I think it’s interesting that you’re bringing in Ted Leo and Bridget Everett. I’ve become aware of her in the last few weeks, and I was watching some of her videos before I talked to you.

Good! Oh, man.

She’s very intense.

Yeah, you’ve got to stick around after the show on the 19th to see her show. She’s like Chris Farley in that sense; people always say, “Oh, you think, Chris Farley, you think you knew how funny he was from watching SNL because you never saw him live,” and when you saw him live it was, like, dangerously funny.

It’s an interesting way to introduce people unfamiliar with cabaret to that performer. She exists in a world that’s a little more closed off to a lot of what your audience is expecting to see.

Well, it’s funny. It’s actually more like I’m on her turf than she is on mine, whereas when Billy [Eichner] and I had her do our show in San Francisco, that was an incredible opportunity because any time you bring Bridget to an audience that hadn’t originally familiarized themselves with her — that’s an incredible privilege. And Ted I’m bringing to feel a little like I’m home. What Ted and I do together is really special and unique, and he brings something to my attitude towards myself as a musical performer that is really grounded and an authenticity that I don’t necessarily feel I’ve really earned. I feel so much more comfortable when I’m with him.

Are there any other cabaret performers who have influenced what you’re going for with this show?

Sandra Bernhard, no question. I worship Bridget Everett, but I’m not someone with the specific kind of talent that she has. I love storytellers, I love one-person shows with people that are smart and funny and aren’t necessarily singers. I loved Mike Birbiglia’s show. I’m a fan of any kind of performer that makes you feel like you’re keeping them company. But Sandra Bernhard is a huge influence to me. She just sort of thinks out loud on stage and it’s really incredible and defies categories. She has her own language, and there’s stuff that she does that is absolutely unable to be replicated. The only problem I have with cabaret is that it can be really expensive and inaccessible, so I wish that I could say, “Oh, I love Laura Benanti,” but I didn’t see her show at 54 Below. But the more cabaret I can see, the better. I’m really fascinated by somebody’s ability to just captivate an audience for an hour. I really liked Ana Gasteyer’s show, and before she did it, she told me, “I’m not interested in proving that I can sing. I want to put on an entertaining show.” That’s a really good step towards doing a show, because you’re not doing some sort of weird showcase of your talents, and that’s hopefully what I’ll be doing next week, because I’m sick of proving myself. Who cares?