Jan 28, 2016
Employee of the Year: Why Catie Lazarus Is One of the New York Comedy Scene’s Most Valuable Players
When Jon Stewart made the surprise announcement last February that he would step down from his hosting duties of Comedy Central’s long-running news satire The Daily Show, he gave his first interview in an unlikely space. Instead of in the New York Times or on another late-night talk show, he showed up in a faded leather jacket and gray hoodie and sat at a card table on the stage of Joe’s Pub in Manhattan. Opposite Stewart sat Catie Lazarus, who has hosted her talk show of her own, Employee of the Month, since 2010.
After walking onstage to the Employee of the Month house band’s scrappy rendition of “Born in the U.S.A.,” Stewart sat down with Lazarus to embark on what seemed like an early, informal exit interview. Stewart told Lazarus that he’d miss the show—“the experience of making it much more than the experience of presenting it,” he admitted—and that he looked forward to seeing how the show would go on without him. (The current host, Trevor Noah, had not yet been announced as Stewart’s replacement.) The evening also served as a career retrospective of sorts, with Stewart talking about his early stand-up experiences and acting work (he seemed to shrink with embarrassment when Lazarus pulled out a clip from the ensemble romantic comedy, Playing by Heart). But Lazarus didn’t keep from showing off her own career connection to Stewart, which also served to display her deep connection to the New York comedy world; a vintage clip from The Daily Show—a parody of Hot Tub Time Machine—featured the comedian and talk show host seated in a mikvah alongside former Daily Show correspondent Rob Corddry and a nearly unrecognizable Julie Klausner, creator and star of Hulu’s Difficult People.
The timing—a week after Stewart’s announcement—was perfect, but longtime fans of Lazarus’s show had come to expect an A-list star of Stewart’s caliber as an Employee of the Month guest. Also on the bill that night was musician Martha Wainwright; other guests have included luminaries such as Gloria Steinem, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Rachel Maddow, Martha Plimpton, Lewis Black, Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson, and Cynthia Nixon. But she’s had some guests who might not be as recognizable to the Joe’s Pub crowd, including former pickpocket and Moth storyteller Sherman “O.T.” Powell and WNBA star Candice Wiggins.
The news peg of Stewart’s imminent “retirement” as Lazarus put it (at the end of his interview, she gifted him with swag that included a COBRA form, a 92Y events listing pamphlet, and a notebook so that he would “never stop writing”) was big enough to garner Employee of the Month some press attention (the New Yorker and Rolling Stone both sent writers to report the event). But for Lazarus, hearing a titan like Stewart recall his days of struggling as a comedian and actor and the long road to success as a talk show host must have hit home.
Lazarus has held those roles, too, and then some. It was from a feeling of rejection and failure that led her to her current gig as one of the few female talk show hosts—albeit one without a TV show. The show, as its title suggests, focuses on work: She and her guests tackle both the professional and vocational, the crummy day jobs and the dream jobs. And it’s informed by several decades of Lazarus’s own search for her place, goals, and career. “I wanted to talk to people who didn’t give up,” she tells me. “I wanted to know what it’s like to follow your passion.”
Lazarus grew up in Washington DC, although that origin story might surprise you if you were to encounter her as an audience member of her show or on the street in Prospect Heights, where she now lives with her dog, Lady. She looks and sounds like a New York resident, and her voice, she admits, is the product of watching Woody Allen films as a kid. “I’m not a good enough actor to get rid of it,” she admits, recounting a voice-over agent once telling her that her accent made her sound “too provincial.” (“Actually,” she quipped, ”it’s pretty exotic considering where I come from.”)
She describes her upbringing as pretty typical of the WASP-y area of DC in which she lived. “It was extremely DC,” she says. “Basically, your parents are either lawyers or therapists. I grew up with the dysfunctional kind.” (Her father, once an advisor in the Carter administration, now works on health care policy; her mother is also a lawyer working in the government.) Though she had a few attempts at artistic ambitions (she jokes that her childhood lessons in modern dance provided “unintentional comic background”) and attended Wesleyan University, she expected to follow a traditional career path. After college, she worked in the New York City’s mayor’s office and enrolled in—and dropped out of—a doctorate program for psychology with the intention of becoming a therapist.
But the creative side of her struggled to break free—even if she didn’t exactly understand how to do it. Lazarus had always been a writer, ever since she won a creative writing contest in the fourth grade. And she acknowledges that she’s always been funny, but never the class clown. “I was shy and witty,” she says. “I was the kid in the back row of the classroom saying things she shouldn’t be saying.” Her time at Wesleyan was the first time she was surrounded by artistic, creative people. During her psychology program, she started writing a parody column for a comedy blog as a terrible therapist; it was during the height of the 90s TV self-help boom, with talk show hosts like Jenny Jones and Ricki Lake paying superficial interest in their guests’ inner turmoil.
“Anyone who knew me knew that I was bananas,” Lazarus says, “but I didn’t know that comedy was a profession, something that someone seeks out.” In the 90s, before the improv training boom hit at places like Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, the likely place to learn the ropes of being funny was in stand-up clubs. A friend suggested that Lazarus sign up for a spot at Stand Up NY, and she prepared as any lapsed academic would: by picking up a how-to guide to stand-up.
While the book didn’t really help (“You can learn the craft,” she says, “but it can’t make up for talent”), it did offer the kind of meet-cute that most New York women dread. On her subway ride home from work, a strange man noticed her stand-up guide and tried to make conversation, offering up the possibly dubious notion that he was, in fact, a comedian. He followed her after he got off the train and made a joke, when she got to her apartment building, that she’d need a subway token to get in. “He knew my building was formerly an SRO,” she says. The joke, at least, got her attention, and he asked her to do her routine for him. “He said, ‘Oh, you’re going to bomb,’” she says, but a combination of wide-eyed optimism and self-determination told her that the guy was wrong. The next night, at Stand Up NY, she showed up and expected a prime spot, only to learn from the booker that she was likely to get bumped. Her comedy benefactor showed up after all, though, and talked the booker into letting her go on—and she didn’t bomb after all. (When asked if the comedian is someone I’d know, Lazarus demurs, keeping the identity a secret. Every origin story, after all, needs a little mystery and magic.)
Her experiences in the stand-up world weren’t always rosy. “I was so deluded and satisfied from that first night that I kept going,” she says. There were some setbacks, yes, but she got the chance to host a night at Comix. “These days, those things are a dime a dozen,” she says, “but it was a big deal then to be an unknown comic hosting a show.” Fresh Meat ran at Comix and later at Ars Nova, and offered her the first chance to curate a cross-genre comedy show that ended with Lazarus interviewing each comic (guests included Marc Maron, Jonathan Ames, David Rakoff, and Dave Attell) in a Q&A style.
Despite that success, which most people would use as sure-fire resume fodder, Lazarus became disillusioned and convinced she wasn’t good enough. “The bar for success was so high growing up,” she says. “I didn’t understand that I wasn’t failing.” After an audition in front of Judd Apatow, who told her that she did a great job, Lazarus boasted to her agent about the good notes—and the reply was disheartening. “I was told, ‘He didn’t cast you in a movie. It doesn’t matter,’” she says. So she quit: She just quit being a comedian on the spot after five years of working at it and feeling like she didn’t have what it takes.
Lazarus tried to figure out what she was good at and, like many creative types in New York City, what she wanted to be when she grew up. Born out of that self-reflective search, Employee of the Month began at the now-defunct 92Y Tribeca in 2010 (the show would move to UCB and the Bell House before landing at Joe’s Pub in January 2014). The concept was simple: Using the connections she had, Lazarus set out to do informational interviews with people in the city who truly loved what they did—and she sought her guests from as many professional backgrounds as possible. “New York has all these silos,” she says. “I studied psychology, dabbled in journalism, and worked in comedy. Those worlds aren’t connected.” The city is, of course, segregated by race, class, and economics, but also by industry. “Hollywood is a company town, and DC is a company town, but New York is different. The top hedge fund manager probably doesn’t know who the head honcho in book publishing is.” Employee of the Month, then, hopes to bring those people together not just to entertain and inform the guests on the show, but the guests in the audience, as well.
Lazarus’s vision is what makes the show so successful. On the surface, it seems like the regular talk show—albeit one in a cabaret rather than on a TV soundstage. Flanked by a house band and a live illustrator who draws the guests during their segment, Lazarus’s scrappy, DIY set-up rivals most late-night talk shows because it harkens back to the era of Dick Cavett (Cavett, by the way, has appeared as a guest). “So many talk shows are about what guests are promoting,” Lazarus says. “I have the opportunity to fete people and have genuine conversations.” But there’s the mix of high and lowbrow that gives the show its perfect combination of salty and sweet, which matches the host’s demeanor. On Lazarus’s living room wall hang two autographed photos: one of Richard Pryor, one of Sesame Street’s Prairie Dawn. Both figures serve as guides for Lazarus’s comedic style: silly, thoughtful, endearing, and provocative all at once.
As for what makes a great talk-show host, Lazarus says, “You have to have some interest beyond yourself.” It’s easy to assume that the most famous of her guests are her favorites (and, when asked, she doesn’t hesitate to name “the regal” Gloria Steinem), but her curiosity about other lives is what fuels her success as a host and interviewer. What began as a show about getting advice and personal direction has turned into something more informative. “Whether or not I’m talking to a cartoonist, a journalist, or a WNBA player, there are human elements in all of them that strike you” Lazarus says. “You may walk away in awe of that person, or you may walk away thinking, ‘Thank God I’m not them.’ But all of them are humans with a lot to share.”
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