Kate Wolff always knew she was funny, but when her classmates growing up told her she was going to be on “Saturday Night Live,” she laughed and informed them she wanted to be a teacher. Well, life is funny sometimes. Teaching wasn’t the dream job Wolff envisioned, and although she still teaches middle-school art, she’s trying to make it in the brutally tough New York standup scene. In the basement of the Village Lantern where she produces a weekly show, Wolff talked about getting paid, incorporating her son into her act, and the process of toughening up for the stage.
How did you get here?
I went to college for art education, and I was a teacher right out of college. I liked it but I wasn’t thrilled with it. I was teaching elementary, and I wasn’t a little kid person at all. We did this thing called “bubbles in your mouth,” which involved pretending to blow bubbles, and I would always have to look away. It was horrible. I thought I would start liking teaching when I was in middle school or high school. I teach middle school art now, and it’s a good job, but it’s not a great creative outlet for me. About two years ago I got into comedy. Ever since my first mic, I knew it was what I wanted to be doing as a career.
How does one “get into” comedy?
In high school I was voted class clown. I was always interrupting my teachers, but they liked me. People would say that I was going to be on “Saturday Night Live” one day. I didn’t think so, though, because I was going to be a teacher. One of my good friends is a comedian, and he had me go to one of his shows. Afterwards, we were all hanging out and I was telling a weird story. He told me I needed to do comedy. I didn’t want to. I thought I would throw up on the stage. But he really thought it was for me. For about a month I practiced on my Mac computer. It was so nerdy. I would do my five-minute bit over and over and over. Finally, I signed up for an open mic.
I took it so seriously. I think I brought about 25 people, which the other comics ended up loving because it was a show for them. I did it. I went on stage, and I really did want to vomit and pass out. But I did it, and I did well for the first time. I got offstage and I didn’t even remember being up there. It was deer-in-the-headlights, but I knew I had to keep going.
How do you progress from there?
I kept doing open mics, and I started doing “bringer shows” where you have to bring four to eight people.
So you tried to make a lot more friends?
Yeah, exactly. [Laughs] Actually, before you start doing comedy you probably have friends. It’s when you start doing comedy that you lose them and all your friends become comics. They aren’t going to do a bringer for you.
I started a monthly show with my comic friend, and we’d try to trade spots to get on other shows. From there, it picked up. I interned. I barked here. I worked. And I still am working my ass off.
How many shows do you do a week?
My average is probably five or six a week. I have son, and I have him always on Monday and Tuesdays and on the weekends. During the school year, I try not to do shows on Mondays and Tuesdays, to stay home and be a normal mom for him, which is already tough for me. But now that school’s over, he came to my shows this week. Some people judge, but I don’t really care.
He loves it. He loves attention, dancing, and acting. Sometimes when I’m here, we’ll throw him onstage for a minute or two, and he loves it. He’s hysterical.
Do you make money doing comedy?
Not a living, that’s for sure. I’m just starting to get shows where I make money. I had a show a few days ago where I made the most money I’ve made so far. It was enough money that if I was getting it regularly, I would make enough. Most of the shows are not paid. Even the clubs in the city where comics are getting paid, it’s not a lot of money at all, especially during the week. Most comics make money on the weekends by traveling.
Is making this a full-time gig the goal?
Definitely. I would love to be doing it now if I could afford it, but I’m not there yet. It’s tough because you really want to get an agent. I’m focusing on that now, but in New York City, agents are flooded with actors, comics, and all sorts of other people. Unless they have heard of you, it’s hard.
It seems like YouTube would be another avenue for revenue or promotion.
All of us comics are trying to make videos that become viral. But even if you make a viral video, it will help, but it won’t guarantee long-term success. As a comic, you have to build for awhile, to build your material and your persona. You have to be vulnerable up there. It’s a mixture. You either have to have great jokes or be really charismatic and have that “it” factor like Kevin Hart. He has that sparkle. People want to be his best friend. They want to listen to him. But his joke concepts are good but they aren’t like George Carlin where you’re like, “whoa, I never thought of that before.” So, you have to be pure charisma and be really funny, or you have to be thinking of joke concepts that no one has put together before. It takes time.
Where do you fall?
I’m a perfect mixture of both. [Laughs] I definitely think I’m charismatic and goofy and have that funny jokester part of me. But I would like, and I haven’t gotten quite there yet, to have messages. I don’t just want to be up there telling stories about how I humped my couch when I was three. That’s funny, but I would like to go more Carlin-esque.
What’s the reaction you get when you tell people you’re a comic?
It’s all different. I had jury duty on Monday, and I was sitting next to this guy. I made the mistake of being nice to him for the first five minutes, and then he wanted to have hours of conversation. He kept asking if I got material. People always want to know if I’m going to talk about them. “No, you’re boring. I don’t want to talk about you.”
Did anyone give you advice when you were starting out?
Most of the tips came from comic friends. One of the best tips came from Andrew Schultz, who’s actually doing really well right now. He said, “just get funny. However you can do it, just get funny, and people will hear about you.” It takes time. Even if new comics are funny, it takes time to really get funny. You have so many defense mechanisms. You have to adjust to being on stage. That was the best advice.
Do you think it’s working?
I think so. I’m doing well. It helps that I’m a girl. I definitely have been sexually harassed and groped at different clubs. It’s not fun groping. It’s bad groping, so that’s a bitch. But you have to be tough to be in this industry, and I feel like all of that has made me tougher in a good way. I’m getting better at blocking out negativity. If you allow negativity in, it will break you. If you do things that are bad for your soul, it’s going to deteriorate you. I’ve gotten good at saying no to people and realizing my self worth.
I’m going to get flakey, but it’s been like a journey for me since I started comedy. I got divorced from my ex-husband, and I started comedy about a year later. It was me figuring out who I am, my strength, and getting more powerful.
Has that transferred to the rest of your life?
Oh yeah. I hate to say it, but no one can really fuck with me anymore. That doesn’t mean I’m above anything, but I’m going to speak my mind and stand up for myself. I’ve gotten so much stronger from getting divorced, being a single mom, and doing comedy. I may look cute, but I will emotionally stab you. [Laughs] It’s been a really cool process.
Where does it go from here?
I’m going to keep writing. I want my jokes to be at a higher level. I want jokes with premises that really tap into something. Carlin did something where he really made people aware of political issues and environmental issues while making people laugh at themselves. He was calling people out on their stupidity in a way that made them laugh about it. That’s a skill. I would like to get there. It doesn’t have to be environmental. I am vegan, so I would like to do some animal rights jokes, but it would be more about the suppression in society. We’re okay with violence but nudity and anything that relates to sex, people just get so uptight. I would like to somehow take those serious issues and make people laugh about it.
Who should I talk to next?
Leanne Mai-ly Hilgart. She founded Vaute Couture.
Noah Davis is frequently lost.