“I decided I’m only going to do red nails forever,” Catherine Cohen is telling me as we compare manicures across a dark wood table in the back of Soho’s Café Boheme. The New York City comedian, actor, writer and general bon vivante holds out a hand and a sparkly bracelet falls down her wrist. She gestures at it: “I’m trying to wear lots of jewels to make myself in a good mood.”
Fans of Cohen’s will recognise the cadence immediately: flighty, funny, like if a sighing, golden age Hollywood actress had opinions about Love Is Blind (“When they say “I love you” in the pods, my whole body hurts,” she says when we inevitably get onto it). She’s in the middle of a run of Work In Progress shows at Soho Theatre, trying out new material – I see it a few nights before we meet, and she sings a song called “Everyone Is Annoying”, while jokes include: “I want to be the first Bachelorette with a massive bush.” For her audience of people who live their lives through news feeds and Instagram psychodramas, it’s virtuosic.
Since her emergence as a major new comic voice in the last three or so years, 30-year-old Cohen – who, when she is not touring or being a movie star, lives in Manhattan’s West Village – has become the internet’s most glamorous comedian and patron saint to girl’s girls everywhere.
Through her observations, reled off on social media, or in her shows, she explores the way that the frivolous and the existential often feel like one and the same, mushed together by online-addled brains. A tweet From earlier this year reads: “I can only sleep at night because there’s a girl in my building who online shops more than me,” and it kind of sums up Cohen’s gift: she laughs about how stupid the things that make her feel bad are , and we laugh along, because they make us feel bad too.
Evidence of her knack for pointing out the frequent ridiculousness of the way we live is everywhere. You can find it on her cult podcast Seek Treatment; in her book of poetry God I Feel Modern Tonight: Poems from a Gal About Town (sample title: “poem I wrote after I texted my therapist that I’m not pregnant”); and in her Best Newcomer award-winning 2019 Edinburgh Fringe show The Twist…? She’s Gorgeousa contemporary musical-comedy cabaret, which is soon to take new shape as a Netflix stand-up special.
Cohen’s style is simpatico with her brand of comedy – today her look is sort of “off-duty starlet” in sunglasses, trademark winged eyeliner, a patterned silk neckscarf, and a coat with a fuzzy collar and cuffs – and in her Soho show, she jokes about pandemic weight gain and how this has changed her self-perception. “I’m less inclined to wear a tight, sequinned jumpsuit,” she says now, referring to her nightly costume in Edinburgh, where she’d ask audiences: “Can you imagine what this thing smells like?”
Her bold femininity can be surprising in male-dominated comedy. Onstage, she sings about being a hysterical woman who would be shipped off to take the sea air in the olden days, while wearing a red satin camisole and go-go boots. Along with comics like Rachel Sennott and Megan Stalter, being a “girlie”, as she puts it, is inherent to how Cohen operates, and therefore, to why she is beloved.
She tells me that she is motivated by “dressing the way I always wanted to when I was a little girl. Costumes and fun. The world made me scared of that, and I was hiding my body and dressing like a tomboy. As I found myself and found my voice, as they say, I reverted back to the pure fun of wearing a skirt with bells on it, or a feather boa.”
Cohen was born in New York, though her family moved to the UK for a short period when she was small, before settling in Texas. She has two brothers, and as a child she was “hammy, funny, always singing.” She grew up performing and then studied English at university (“It’s like: ‘Can you read one book? Barely.”) She acted in student plays throughout her degree, and afterwards she moved to New York with the hope of going pro on the stage.
That didn’t work out, but something else reared its head: after taking improv classes with performers from the legendary Upright Citizen’s Brigade (founding members include Amy Poehler) at an arts festival she worked at, she “fell in love with comedy”. “That’s how I fell into it,” Cohen says.
Influenced by internet-fluent comedians like Kate Berlant and John Early, she began writing comedy songs with pianist Henry Koperski – “I feel most myself when I’m singing a little silly song,” she muses – and gigging as a stand-up. Momentum built behind her seemingly unstoppably, and after her Edinburgh win, Steve Brill messaged her on Facebook to tell her he’d just directed Adam Sandler’s Netflix special and wanted to do hers next.
“I was like: ‘Is this spam?’ Who the f**k is this guy?’ I ignored it. Then I showed my agent and she was like: ‘No, you should respond to that,'” Cohen laughs. Plans were underway, and then, of course, the pandemic hit. How did that feel when she’d been gaining so much headway?
“I would start to feel so crazy and then I’m like: ‘No, this happened to everyone,’” she remembers. “That’s the only thing that made me feel better. I talked to so many friends who had their first book come out or dropped a big album. It was horrible.” She stayed in New York to begin with, and then road-tripped around the US with her boyfriend, stopping to visit family in Texas. The absurdity of the situation is what shines through. “I would be in my parents’ bathroom, painting pictures of my dog, drinking White Claws. Like, this is dark.”
Since some restrictions lifted, and film and TV production has resumed, Cohen has been back at work. She recently appeared in the third season of What We Do in the ShadowsTaika Waititi’s vampire mockumentary, as a siren with bird legs, shot a TV pilot and worked on a movie, At Midnightwhich – she flashes an in-on-the-joke film star smile – “filmed in Mexico”.
In between all of this, Cohen is also working on expanding her 2021 GQ article about choosing between Prozac and orgasms into a feature film. The article, which tracks her decision to start taking the anti-depressant despite its adverse effects on her sex life (“I wish I could take a drag of a cigarette, bashfully look down at my chestnut Ugg minis, and tell you that my venture into medication made sex even better […] but it’s not my truth”), went viral when it was published.
Cohen is “excited” by the prospect and has been quietly writing it between jobs – while she is constantly busy, she has now learned to gravitate only towards the things she enjoys. “I think in general for comedians they feel a pressure to do everything,” she says. “’I have to be writing on a show, I need to be in a writer’s room, I have to be writing my own show, I have to be writing a movie, I have to be acting in a movie.’ But it’s like, writing poems makes me happy, the podcast comes naturally, the songs come naturally. Whenever I follow something that felt natural, that’s been good.”
The apex of all this, of course, is the imminent release of The Twist…? She’s Gorgeous. “I started writing some of those songs in 2016. It’s six years in the making, so it really feels like a culmination of my twenties,” she explains. Now she is older, however, she is keen that her new material feels different: “I’m of course scared of doing the exact same thing.”
On the shoot day itself, after quarantining for a month, Cohen remembers: “I woke up so calm. I was like: ‘I’ve done this a million times. I was born to do this.’ I got to the theater and I was so zen. I was like floating. But I still feel like until I see it on the TV I won’t believe it.” On brand as ever, she wore a pink dress with huge ruffled shoulders for which “there was like 10 women doing like 25,000 rhinestones by hand”.
“It was the best day of my life,” she says, decisively. “I got hair extensions.”
The Twist…? She’s Gorgeous is released globally on Netflix on 15 March