Bring a bottle of water. It’s going to be hot in there,” warns Catherine Cohen ’13 as she walks through midtown Manhattan on a Wednesday afternoon in July. She’s on her way to meet up with fellow comedians to work on a show she’s developing. But she’s already thinking about the weekly show she’ll be hosting in a few hours at Club Cumming, a bar-cabaret hybrid on New York’s Lower East Side.
And she’s right: When the show opens at 8 p.m., it’s hot. Hundreds of hip 20-somethings are packed shoulder-to-shoulder to see Cohen’s show, called Cabernet Cabaret. “That’s her! Over there!” some shout, pointing, as Cohen squeezes through the crowd to the stage in the back.
The show is always popular, but this week there’s an extra buzz in the air. Two days before, Cohen made her late-night debut on Late Night with Seth Meyers. She performed her song “Look at Me” in a silver romper, giant hoop earrings, bright pink lipstick, and her signature cat-eye eyeliner.
She opens her show at Club Cumming as she usually does, coyly approaching the microphone and singing an elongated “Hellooooo,” before turning to the audience to say, in mock surprise, “Oh my God, I have an amazing voice!” Then she begins “Look at Me,” and the crowd goes wild. It’s her most recognizable tune: A video of her singing it went viral on Twitter in 2018.
“Boys never wanted to kiss me/
So now I do comedy.
Boys never wanted to kiss me/
So I need all of you to look at me …”
She sways from side to side as she sings. Her fans sing right back at her, inches from her face.
Cohen has been steadily building her following as a comedian and cabaret performer, and is best known for writing and performing original songs with her collaborator, composer Henry Koperski, on the piano. Then, in 2019, she had a breakout year. Shows at Club Cumming and Joe’s Pub, a music venue that’s part of the nonprofit Public Theater, sold out. There was the Seth Meyers appearance in July and, in August, 28 shows in 26 days at the famous Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where Cohen was named Best Newcomer. She spends her days at auditions for voice-overs and television and film roles and at meetings with casting directors and producers.
This month she’s making her film debut with a small role in the comedy The Lovebirds.
In the short, breezy songs she sings in her shows, Cohen’s sexuality — and her anxieties — are front and center: As Lara Zarum wrote in The Village Voice in 2018, the “dominant tone is a kind of self-contempt laced through with humblebrags: I’m such a mess; isn’t it adorable?” — all sung with a beautiful, versatile voice that takes on different personalities. Cohen croons about being a young single woman in New York: about the thrill of attending cocktail parties, about what it would be like to murder a handsy date, about shopping for comfortable jeans when you’re slightly overweight. “It’s hard being the voice of my gen!” she says, before launching into a song about envying women who look better than she does even though they’ve had children.
Cohen is “the millennial paradox made flesh, and set to music,” wrote Brian Logan in The Guardian after her Edinburgh run. “Her act is a dance of death between self-love and neurosis sequinned and staged … .”
Cohen didn’t grow up dreaming of a life in comedy, but she did know she was born to perform. Being funny seemed more like a way of life than a career path, she says. Her parents are funny, she says, and humor was always encouraged at home.
“I remember doing accents and imitating commercials back when I was really young, like 4, 5,” she says. She first realized she had singing talent in third grade, in Houston, when she had a solo in a school musical. By the time she was a middle-schooler, she was pulling off practical jokes and creating imaginary characters. At home, she and her friends would tape themselves performing in character. At school, she says, she was a “literal terror.” “We were always laughing, always screaming so loud,” she says. “We’d get in so much trouble for laughing in class.” She and her friends spent their weekends making prank phone calls — to the Blockbuster video shop, local restaurants, the houses of friends. “We had this one character called Pauline, who worked at Best Buy and said, ‘Your computer is ready to be picked up.’ They weren’t even jokes. Just weird voices,” Cohen says.
She attended Christian schools and sleepaway camp in the summer; she spent most of her free time at Bible study and youth group. That time in her life informed a lot of the comedy she does today, including her latest song, “Hit by a Bus,” in which she reckons with feeling guilty about her sex life. “I was taught that I should save myself for marriage in this church group I was a part of,” she says. The song is mostly improvised, but it’s about thinking she could get hit by a bus, so she might as well do what she wants.
Cohen followed her father, venture capitalist Jim Cohen ’86, to Princeton, where she majored in English and earned a certificate in theater. She sang in the co-ed a cappella group Shere Khan, starred in the Triangle show, and appeared in plays and musicals with the Princeton University Players and Theatre Intime. In 2013, she played a lead role in a concert version of the musical Kiss Me, Kate for her theater certificate and wrote about “the poetry of nostalgia” for her thesis in English.
She says she fell deeply in love with poetry during her time at Princeton. She still reads and writes poetry and sometimes performs it, though it’s not what she studied on campus:
Poem I Wrote After My Therapist Got Mad At Me For Thinking Everyone Is Mad At Me
I just found out dog isn’t short for something it’s
actually just called a dog which is fine with me
I’m in the kitchen alone
which is romantic in a way
anything can be romantic if you sigh a lot
one time I told this guy I loved him and
he said “I don’t know what love is” anyways
he just got engaged
She was a hit as a Class Day speaker the day before her Princeton Commencement, giving an address that likely made parents and the University administrators on the dais blush. Her fellow students made her feel inadequate, she joked: Though she felt good in social situations, “when the conversation turned to politics or philosophy, I’d freeze up in fear of sounding stupid. I now know that Senegal is a country, and that you can say ‘Kant’ out loud.” Like most Class Day speakers over the years, she thanked her classmates and professors: “Thank you to all of you going into finance. While you were interviewing at Goldman Sachs, I was auditioning for an Amish musical at a dinner theater in rural Ohio. Thank you to my thesis adviser. My poetry analysis quickly became a 90-page book about my feelings, and you had to read it.” You can see her give her address here.
Listening, her father, Jim Cohen, found her performance hilarious, and “way more exciting” than his own Class Day celebration, when seniors threw clay pipes on Cannon Green. “Things changed!” he says.
After graduation, Cohen moved to New York City and started performing sketch comedy at the Upright Citizens Brigade, one of the country’s best-known improvisational theaters. She supported herself by working as a voice-over artist on commercials while performing comedy cabaret at night.
Today, Cohen’s sexuality is a regular topic in her cabaret show, and it’s the main subject of her podcast, “Seek Treatment,” which she has hosted with her best friend, comedian Pat Regan, since July 2018. The two hosts are joined by a different comedian guest every week; the three discuss their sex and dating lives. “My life and my work, they’re the same thing,” Cohen says. When she’s involved with someone, she’ll refer to him in abstract terms — but once the relationship is over, everything’s fair game. “Because of the nature of the podcast, our friendship has become content,” says Regan.
In her shows, Cohen strikes a balance between relatable and aspirational, earning a fanbase mostly comprising millennial women. “Part of me thinks when someone who doesn’t look like a supermodel succeeds, it’s more exciting because people see themselves in that person,” Cohen says. In July, she told an interviewer for NowThis that while she doesn’t talk about politics in her show, her act is political. Women’s stories need to be told, she said. And not just the stories of skinny women: “I just think we should have a movie where the romantic lead is a woman who weighs more than 150 pounds — and it’s not discussed — and that’s just how it is,” she says.
The frankness with which Cohen discusses her body and sexuality can feel shocking. “It’s so ridiculous, isn’t it?” says Jill Dolan, Princeton’s dean of the College and a leading feminist cultural critic. “That in 2020 we still have to be worrying about things like that somehow being radical.” Dolan, who has seen videos of Cohen’s work online, says she admires Cohen for “taking those risks and pushing the envelope.”
Cohen says she took inspiration from Lena Dunham and her HBO show, Girls, whose frequent nudity and explicit sex scenes were both criticized and lauded throughout the show’s six seasons. “I remember being in my dorm room in Princeton, and watching the pilot of Girls, and just being like, ‘I can’t believe she’s putting it all out there like this,’” Cohen says. “I felt so seen, so inspired, and so moved by that. That was a very formative moment, seeing her showing herself and her sexuality unapologetically.”
Seeing Dunham’s work gave her permission to speak about her own body, she says. “I was forced to kind of repress that persona,” she says. “I felt so much shame about it for so long that now I’m almost making up for lost time.” One of her goals, Cohen says, is to encourage younger women to understand and explore their sexuality without shame. “I never had a big sister,” she explains. “I remember being in the locker room at school and eavesdropping, trying to figure out what other girls do … .” She’d like to be that older-sister figure for other women, broaching sensitive and uncomfortable topics in a fun, relatable way.
The shock inherent in Cohen’s material may be softened by the simple fact of her singing it rather than speaking it, Dolan says. Audiences aren’t used to hearing women speak about their bodies and sexuality, but singing can make those messages more palatable, she suggests. “Training authorizes people with good voices to use them in certain ways,” Dolan says. “She uses her voice to empower herself to do things that she couldn’t do if she didn’t have the voice, and that is really important.”
It’s a motley crew on this July night in New York, with a lineup featuring an amateur magician and a teenage stand-up comedian who had to be escorted into the 21-and-over venue by her mother. Cohen introduces each of the other performers, singing a song or two between their sets.
There’s little reaction from the audience as the pianist starts to play her second song of the night, about wanting to be invited as a plus-one to all events. “OK, the crowd goes wild,” Cohen says, sarcastically. The crowd actually does go wild for that. “You don’t have to be like that,” she says, playing coy. “I’m not trying to change you. I accept you!” By the time she starts to sing, the audience is laughing.
The show at Club Cumming runs late into the night. After a few of the evening’s acts, Cohen has to work for the crowd’s attention, but overall, the evening is a success. “I’m zen and happy and proud,” she says when it’s over.
A few weeks after that show, Cohen traveled to Edinburgh, Scotland, where she and pianist Koperski performed for thousands of people. Cohen found Edinburgh vibrant and exciting, with people who embraced what she had to offer: It was, she says, “so magical.” But the pace was relentless. Performing nearly every night was the hardest thing she had ever done: “Just the stamina it requires, vocally, and trying to keep myself healthy in that environment where it’s freezing, raining, surrounded by drunk people, and everyone’s sharing a microphone,” she says. She learned a lot about her craft and her show: what wasn’t working and should be trimmed, how to riff more easily with the crowd.
In November, Cohen suffered a vocal hemorrhage. Her doctor prescribed two weeks of complete vocal rest: no singing, no talking, no whispering. She was forced to cancel shows in Chicago and London. She was silent. “It was hell,” she says.
Still, she managed to perform, using text-to-speech technology on her smartphone. She planned a grueling schedule for 2020, with shows across the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom. The coronavirus cut that short, and in March she moved Cabernet Cabaret from Club Cumming to Instagram — you can tune in live at 8 p.m. Wednesdays at @catccohen. (She asks those who like the show to donate to a food bank.) And there are other projects in the works: Cohen wrote a book of humorous poems that will be published in the spring of 2021, she’s developing her first scripted show, and a one-hour stand-up special will premiere next winter.
What’s next? Cohen replies with one word: “More.”
Alexis Kleinman ’12 is a writer and editor based in New York City.