Public Soul Searching: Talking with Comedian Brooke Van Poppelen about Being a Female Comedian and Other Life Hacks
By Dominique Stewart
Photographed by Seth Olenick
The quickest way to aggravate a comedian: Ask them to tell you a joke. No matter how pure the intention, it’s like saying “prove it” to win an argument, but it’s also a hard impulse to resist. And yet, when I talked with Brooke Van Poppelen—comedian, writer, and producer, who co-hosts Hack My Life and appeared on The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore among other shows—there was never a moment where I doubted her ability not only to make me laugh, but also to command a room. Barely five seconds into our interview, Van Poppelen catches me and her publicist, Heidi Vanderlee, off-guard: “Happy Monday Day. Feels like Sunday to me. I went out too much this week. And let’s just say I’m straightening myself out starting today. It has been fun but yeah, the health and lifestyle cleanse begins now.” This is a woman in total control.
I feel like whenever you tell someone you’re a comedian, people are inclined to ask you to tell them a joke. Do you ever get tired of doing it? I’m not sure that any comic who gets asked that has ever been like “yeah, here’s one” because no one necessarily has jokes like that. And anytime I have given into the peer pressure of my family during Thanksgiving to do some of my routine, I’ll say a joke and they’ll look so let down. And I’m like “I’m never doing this again.” My grandpa, when he was still alive, would think I was going to tell a goofy stale joke like, “a Jew walks into a bar,” and I’m like no, it’s super hyper-analytical, personal self-deprecating humor that kind of needs to be in the moment to get.
Do you remember what the joke you’d do was whenever the question arose? I think one time I tried a silly one-liner. The thing is my family is pretty religious and conservative too, so I was like “you’re not going to like this.” It’s just so terrifying. And I don’t even have lewd humor; it’s just that you’re so quickly reminded that your life is so different in New York; it’s the attitudes just in general. The best way to put it: If they came to a comedy show and saw me entertaining a big room of people, they would really enjoy it. But when someone corners you, and is like “entertain me,” no one is ever going to like that, ever. So this can be a PSA to never to do that to a comedian. I wouldn’t be the first to make that request.
At the core, what is your comedic style? I definitely draw from what happens to me. I love to talk about my family; I love to talk about relationships. I love to talk about New York City. If I can find ways to make it relatable outside of New York then it’s a win, but sometimes you can’t always do that. I very much like telling jokes about food and wine. I have so many jokes about wine, I want to try and do the first ever late night set that’s literally six minutes of wine jokes. I’m just like “oh I’ve just become a food comic.” I worked in the food industry for so long. And I just love the little idiosyncrasies that you meet when you have bizarre jobs. And so usually that’s where my comedy stems from: weirdos that you meet, and my family.
And New York doesn’t have a scarcity of “weirdos.” I know. I know. And that’s the thing. Every comedian in New York has an amazing cannon of stories of the strange people they’ve encountered here.
Do you have one in particular? I love telling a joke about Coney Island. I’ll be in LA or somewhere, where the beaches are filled with professional hot people. And as a New Yorker, I will be like “oh, I didn’t get the memo,” and get intimidated and not want to take my T-shirt off on the beach because everyone is so hot. And it makes me homesick for New York’s public beaches where anything goes. So one time, I saw a fat Russian dude walk straight into the ocean wearing the velour track suit as a bathing suit, and it was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen. He just stood in the water, immersed up to his chin and he had, this is all in one hand, his sunglasses, a sandwich, and I was like “what is happening?” Now it’s like 50 pounds of wet velour anchoring him to the ocean floor because it’s soaking wet now. And he was just staring back at us from the water, and I was like “Ah these are my people and these are my beaches.” You go to LA and you’re, “Ew I feel gross”, but you go to Brighton beach and you’re like, “I’m a 10! We’re all 10s!” And it’s true. There are old, Russian women wearing their lingerie eating a turkey. It’s a very New York experience.
A lot, if not all your jokes, are personal stories or shortcomings in your life. How have you trained yourself to see the humor in in shortcomings, without it being depressing or overwhelmingly self-deprecating? There has been a lot of growth over… I think it will be 13 years sometime soon. I started out as just someone who was so immersed in sketch and improv, and my stand up kind of reflected that style, and I would not really turn a mirror on myself too much. And then my life fell apart a little bit. I just really went through some trying life experiences, and everything was new and everything was hard, everything was a struggle. I had moved to New York, which is a huge deal for anyone, so I feel like I then I went the other way with my comedy. A lot of my jokes, maybe six or seven years ago, were very self-deprecating because I was really having an experience. So I was the butt of all my jokes because I was a mess. I was really going through it. But now I kind of feel like the last couple years, I’ve met in the middle again, like you said, I draw from my personal life but I’m not up there like “guys I’m the worse” or “my life sucks.” It’s more like, “life is delightful. These are the few people in my life” but if I can take a potshot at myself, it’s great.
But yeah, the experience really even out with my perspective and my voice. And I think at some point, I had said everything I needed to say about myself. Between being very transparent on stage or in a podcast or in my writing, I feel like I did a lot of public soul searching in my jokes and writing. Eventually age just tempers you a little bit, and things just start to settle and fall into place, and you don’t feel like such a maniac. Sometimes I look back at the old version of myself, and I’m like “God, when I was angry, I was so funny” but I was also a mess. And so I prefer being this kind of person that’s gotten her life together. People don’t believe me if I say that I’m a mess. I’m not anymore. I pride myself a lot that I have a job and I’m doing well. I feel like I’m where I should be as a 37-year-old.
I think they just look at the images of past comedians and how their lives were. They were hilarious, but had some major downward spiral. Right. It’s interesting. I feel the symptoms of female comedians like the being sad and needing to be a mess for your art, and just kind of being this, and I’m not knocking so many male comedians, but I would say that all the female comedians I know are not only like pretty together, but they usually hold down a 9-to-5 job, do comedy and are socially and emotionally adjusted, whereas, I think men are encouraged to be and it’s more celebrated to be a sad, fat slob. It’s a little more in this male comedian DNA. And I’m not making a blanketed statement, but I just feel like female comedians have their shit together, because you have to. We all have our phases where we drink too much or stay out too late, and have our relationship woes. No one is immune to depression. No one is immune to life’s problems. I’m just speaking from my group of friends: They’re a pretty solid, dependable group of women.
You currently have numerous projects up your sleeve: Comfort Zone, Picture This!, Seeing Other People and Hack My Life. How do you balance it all without burning out Usually I am not working on all of my projects at once. You wait for one to wind down before diving into another. I have a lot of trouble toggling back and forth between projects that require different energy. Some days I can multi-task like a wizard and others, you just want to work without interruption. When I am really in the zone working on a script or book proposal or a show submission, I completely inhabit that world and put the blinders on to such an extreme that I don’t like to perform on those nights because I can’t get my brain to switch over to performer. It’s even harder in my experience to spend an eight-hour day at a job writing for someone else and then having any energy left to give a shit about your own comedy. I really commend those comics who can do it all.
Hack My Life is like Mythbusters of life hacks. Do you ever feel you’re becoming an expert hacker the more you do the show? I’ve seen a few episodes of Mythbusters and let me be clear, there seems to be a lot of science behind their show and the hosts understand little things like physics and chemistry—Kevin Pereira and I are guinea pigs. We like to think we represent the everyday person who wants to attempt a life hack they’ve seen on the Internet. Some work out great and are worth it and well, others are time and money wasting catastrophes.
Do you have a favorite life hack that you’ve done on the show? Well, if I had to pick a favorite hack for the sheer spectacle of it, this summer we tried a life hack claiming you can turn a dumpster (a clean one, of course) into a hot tub! No, really! You have to elevate it on cinder blocks, line the dumpster with insulation, fill it up and then start a fire beneath it; it looked like we were being cooked in a murky soup but it was hilarious and fun to try.
And you’re slowly getting recognized on a bigger scale, from your shows and performance on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson and other TV show gigs, is your plan to stay in stand up? I hope I can always do stand up. If you have been a solid performer in New York City for a long time, New York will be very loving to you. You don’t have to be famous and get the best credits ever to be invited to do great shows. There is a lot of love and a lot of loyalty. So people who want to do stand up are writer’s full-time, and their dream of being a touring stand up is not a possibility. And New York doesn’t hold that against you. There is such a wealth of shows in the city that if you want to go for the jugular, and be on that path of “I’m a household stand-up comic.” All that is available to you here but it is also a really good playground for those who, like myself, are a writer and producer. And I’m actually trying to branch off to acting but I still love doing stand up, and just because I’m not known nationally as a stand up, doesn’t mean I can’t perform on wonderful shows.
With everything that you’ve done and are currently involved in, I can imagine that we will be hearing more about you on a bigger level. Do you have any plans on starring, producing or writing your own TV show? I feel like I am doing the right things and am zeroed in on the right places for my skill set, so yes–writing and selling a show is exactly what I’m aiming for! Wanting to be the star is a tough call–while it’s more eyes on you, it’s also really exciting to think you could have access to so many phenomenal actors and actresses to make your vision a reality. When it happens, I’ll let you know what I decide.
You can see Van Poppelen tonight at Littlefield for PICTURE THIS! in affliation with the New York Comedy Festival, as well as her web series Seeing Other People.