Kate Berlant’s new stand-up special, “Cinnamon in the Wind,” isn’t actually new. Directed by Bo Burnham, it was filmed in 2019 and is set to be released on FX. Instead, he languished for unknown reasons. “Show biz is a tough city,” Berlant said on a recent episode of “Poog,” the weekly podcast she hosts with fellow comedian Jacqueline Novak. “You think, here I am, my special, here we go. Three years pass. I never received a phone call. I mean, it’s really so brutal. But, even if the networks take away, also, on occasion, the networks give. Stripped of the commercials that were supposed to accompany its broadcast and last forty-four minutes, “Cinnamon in the Wind” has just appeared on Hulu as a streaming treat. Finally, here is Berlant.
Times can be tough for comedy, and three years in comedy is a long time. But the delay worked in favor of Berlant. She is not a topical comedian; a bit in “Cinnamon” about the two types of women who have a chance of being elected president – a cooing Betty Boop sexpot or a “fridge on a wheel with one eye” – is the closest she comes politics. Meanwhile, after years of being an influential figure in comedy but a niche presence outside of it, Berlant, who is 35, has found himself having a time. She can be seen in juicy supporting roles as a neurotic Jewish puncher in the TV reboot of “A League of Their Own” and as a pregnant housewife in her fifties in “Don’t Worry Darling”. This summer, she and longtime collaborator John Early released “Would It Kill You to Laugh?”, an hour-long Peacock special that showcased their brand of absurdist humor in sketches featuring Meredith Vieira. , full beaver costumes, and an alternate reality in which people pay for their restaurant meals with ladles of melted caramel rather than a card or cash.
Then there’s “Poog,” which Novak and Berlant launched during the pandemic as a cheeky foray into the world of wellness. (The hosts’ take on the subject is broad enough to include Gibson Martinis and steak dinners alongside serums, face sculpting and hydration therapy.) The podcast, which delights in digressing, found a dedicated following of fans who identify as Hags, me among them. Since the darkest days of lockdown, I’ve tuned in every Tuesday to listen to Novak and Berlant joke about whatever pops into their heads. Novak, whose one-man show, “Get on Your Knees,” remains, to me, a high bar of clever comedic bravery, is the resident theorist, with tastes in the scientific and the occult. Berlant is more of an id-ish sensualist. Listening to them chat is a bit like spying on a private phone call between friends – friends you wish you were your friends.
They aren’t, of course, and this strange symbiotic relationship between performer and audience, the mutual need for recognition, is Berlant’s stealthy theme in “Cinnamon.” Shot in black and white (the understated arthouse aesthetic is itself part of the joke), the special opens with Berlant backstage, warming up with ballet stretches and turns of wrist before she took the microphone to applause and cheers. “OK, yes, of course,” she told the crowd, stifling her enthusiasm with deadpan boredom. “Don’t embarrass yourself.” It’s a power game, funny and destabilizing. Don’t all artists want to be adored? Berlant certainly does, and she handles the pressure — and embarrassment — of that urge by turning the hard fact of her ego into comedic fodder. She reminds the audience that the show is being filmed – “big night for me” – and calls, diva-like, to a spotlight, basking in its white glow before catching herself. “It’s hard to receive,” she says, in a perfect imitation of smarmy false modesty. “I think as women we fear our excellence so inherently.” (Berlant laughs a lot at the kind of fake feminist cliches that posit narcissism as a political act.) Later, she leaps onto the wall of mirrors at the back of the stage. “I just checked,” Berlant tells his own reflection. “I love you.” It’s funny because it’s true.
Comedians have it harder than most other artists. They get their grades in real time. This first round of applause is an act of encouragement but also a kind of warning: do not please us, and all that can disappear. “The expectations: overwhelming, I would say,” Berlant confesses to his audience. But what, exactly, does the public expect? These days we tend to love a drop of blood with our laughs: nothing draws like the promise of a confession, the more painful the better. Berlant delights in dodging such mirthless demands, preferring to satirize the idea that trauma, and the will to rise above it, is the ultimate justification for taking the stage. “One thing that is essential about me is that I do comedy primarily to process the overwhelming privilege of my childhood, my teenage years, and now my adulthood,” she says. She grew up “almost collapse under the weight of resources”, a condition which she illustrates by collapsing dramatically from the neck and shoulders, the artist crushed under the bourgeois burden of so much luck.
Berlant is a born entertainer, and her extraordinary physique is one of her comedy’s distinctive delights. The way she uses her body, dancing wildly across the stage or rolling her eyes cartoonishly, is pure vaudeville. She can make a joke with her knees. She has one of the great contemporary faces of comedy: a long, elegant nose and a prominent chin; high, round cheekbones framed by a clash of dark curls. It’s a moving face, like Etch A Sketch. No sooner had Berlant stared at him in a fantastical contortion—eyes crossed, eyelashes fluttering, lipstick mouth pinched like the pinched end of a helium balloon—when she pulled away and resets. There’s a bit of Jim Carrey in this urge to constantly morph and contort, and a lot of Lucille Ball. Watch, in a bit about museum visits, as she transforms into a panpipe-playing court jester from a Renaissance painting, just because she can.
“Cinnamon in the Wind,” a phrase Berlant uses as a metaphor for the ecstatic shortness of life, usefully doubles as a description of his stand-up style. Berlant is not a storyteller. The show doesn’t build so much as it moves forward in a series of rapid-fire riffs and bits: an idea is caught, a motif picked up, then dropped as Berlant goes on. A friend of mine compared the experience of watching the special to scrolling through a social media feed: next, next, next. It is a great pleasure at the time. It also means that Berlant can ignore anything that doesn’t work, and even things that do – a dodge’s clever way of refusing to engage.
In a recent profile of Berlant in Time, Jason Zinoman reported that after years of being quoted with admiration by fellow comedians whose fame had surpassed his own, Berlant began to feel “trapped by his act”. After a hiatus during the pandemic, she was challenged by Burnham to stop playing and “do something” with proper structure and stakes. The result is “Kate”, a solo show, also directed by Burnham, at the Connelly Theater in the East Village, in which Berlant plays several characters, as well as several versions of herself: the ingénue with star-studded, the tyrannical diva and, more true to life, the super-talented entertainer who has yet to find her breakout role.
“Kate” picks up where “Cinnamon” left off, taking the premise of the autobiographical confession and twisting it like taffy. The rounds begin in the lobby, where viewers are greeted by a faux art installation dedicated to Kate’s greatness. There’s the requisite selfie wall, where people are encouraged to pose alongside black-and-white photographs of Berlant, looking like ’90s Calvin Klein in his signature on-stage outfit of black jeans, black tank top and black boots. The outfit itself is displayed in a Plexiglas box; Berlant’s Moleskine notebook is in another. There’s a Warholian riff here about fame – or the striving for fame – as a performance in its own right. Arrive early enough and you might spot Berlant, slumped on a bench, holding a sign that says “Ignore Me.”
In the theater itself, Berlant’s arrival is preceded by more meta antics. Audience members are first encouraged, by a disembodied voice, Oz-ian, to introduce themselves to a neighbor (mine was, unsurprisingly, a fellow Hag), then treated to a grand comedy slideshow, which features a scrolling through Berlant’s IMDb page and places it in the great tradition of Stanislavski, Adler, Strasberg and Meisner’s method. By the time Berlant steps out, dressed as a newsie in a peaked cap and overalls and claiming, with a gummy, Bronxian accent, to be employed as a stage sweeper, expectations are so high it’s impossible to know what’s going on. ‘expect .
What happens after Berlant drops his maintenance man persona is something less telling than the hype might suggest. On the bare stage, equipped with a camera and a tripod and a screen that serves as a backdrop (the locations are conveyed by projected words like “Porch” or “Club”), Berlant tells the story of a star struggling to be born. Since growing up in the small seaside town of Santa Monica (have you ever heard of it?), Kate has dreamed of being a Hollywood actress. This ambition was encouraged by her father and decried by her mother, who warns that ‘Kate’s big, crass pointing style has no place on camera’. Convinced she could never make it to the screen, she moved to New York City to pursue a career on the stage, thriving on the downtown theater scene until a fateful encounter reignited her cinematic dreams. Not since the heyday of Jenna Maroney has the camera been treated as such a comedic object of love; Kate is drawn to her like Gollum to the ring. As she gazes into her lens, her image (again in black and white) is projected onto the screen, a digital pool of Narcissus. A joke about the “nuances” of acting, briefly touched upon in “Cinnamon,” is developed at length; there’s a sort of subplot involving a quarrel with a backstage technician and the promise of a visit from a top executive. Meanwhile, we receive a dispatch from the pitfalls of traumatic drama. Kate has been scarred by a childhood tragedy (her father left the family), she vows to divulge a long-buried secret, and she explores her fatal flaw as a film actress: her inability to cry on demand.