Comedy Spotlight: Karen Bergreen
Karen Bergreen is a former attorney turned comedian, but it doesn’t stop there. Karen’s also a talented author of two novels Following Polly and Perfect is Overrated yet, I came to know the stand-up comedian through her stand-up comedy class. While I don’t believe a person can be taught to be funny, I do feel great advice and guidance on how to give a joke life goes a long way. As a person who’s been told I was funny by friends and family for years, I never once thought that I could ever be a comedian. In fact, I took Karen’s stand-up class just to get advice on writing. I had absolutely no intentions to get on stage and deliver the material that I wrote. However, week after week of performing my jokes in class, receiving Karen’s great advice, and seeing other people who were not afraid of bombing, I convinced myself that I could do it.
Not only did Karen prepare our class for a great performance night, but she also showed us how a professional does it by rocking the mic with a slew of family, political, and pop culture jokes. Since Karen will always have a place in my comedy journey I decided I had to get her in my chair….
Chalaire: So, what came first, comedy or writing books?
Karen Bergreen: Actually, I started as a lawyer, and I was miserable doing that. I started taking improv classes, doing stand-up, and then I worked part-time until I finally made the decision to go into a completely different direction.
Chalaire: Were you afraid? Or, did things work out for you right away?
Karen Bergreen: I did comedy for a while and had a pretty nice trajectory. I had a deal with HBO, a lot of TV commercials, and television appearances. Then I got married and had babies and all that changed.
Chalaire: So babies are dream killers? Kidding.
Karen Bergreen: No, it’s not negative, just different in the sense that I didn’t have as much freedom to make decisions as to when I could and couldn’t be home. My husband had the steady job and health plan.
Chalaire: Health plans are great.
Karen Bergreen: Yes, and I wanted my kids to be planted here and I worked around them. So, I toned down the comedy a lot. Now I teach 1-2 nights a week, and I perform 3-4 nights a week. I started writing books to fill the other artistic need I have.
Chalaire: That’s toning it down?
Karen Bergreen: (laughs) I also started freelance writing for both MORE magazine and Huffington Post, and I’m writing a third book now.
Chalaire: Well, let me hurry up with this interview because I’m sure I’m holding you up from toning it down. Do your kids know you’re a comedian?
Karen Bergreen: Yes, and they’re funny. They say funny things and they want to be funny. When I write stuff now, they say, “Is that going on Facebook, or is that going on Twitter?”
Chalaire: Speaking of which, lots of stand-up comedians don’t like Twitter because they think it’s best to be funny in their act, but there are a lot of other people being funny on Twitter. Do you like Twitter?
Karen Bergreen: I have a couple of thoughts on this. Nothing I write on Twitter goes into my act, because they don’t go with the housewife persona I have. I do a lot of pop culture stuff on Twitter that I don’t do in my act. I don’t feel fulfilled by Twitter at all. Facebook, I write whatever. I use it to socialize. I don’t use Twitter to socialize at all. I don’t know who’s retweeting me; I don’t know my followers at all. Facebook is fun.
Chalaire: Twitter can be fun to live tweet a show or something, do you live tweet?
Karen Bergreen: Absolutely, during big events like the Pope announcement. That can be fun.
Chalaire: With writing books, your critics are in print, but do you get any harsh criticism on stage, or hecklers?
Karen Bergreen: The worst feedback is not feedback, but the funniest feedback I received was when I was performing and some guy on his phone asked me to keep it down because he was on the phone.
Chalaire: At your show?
Karen Bergreen: Yes, while I was performing. It was the funniest thing that has ever happened.
Chalaire: So you’re a writer, stand-up comedian, and you also teach. How did you get into teaching?
Karen Bergreen: I used to teach kids when I first got into comedy, so I could get stage time at their show, but I didn’t love teaching kids as much because you can’t be honest with the critique, and also comedy comes from a place of pain or self-knowledge, and kids don’t have that.
Chalaire: When teaching adults have you ever had to tell someone that stand-up isn’t something they should pursue?
Karen Bergreen: I think everyone has it in them. Maybe there are a couple people who don’t have it in them, and the people who don’t are blocked psychologically. Some people will never get out of the open-mic, and it’s because they lack self-knowledge. I think people who do well in comedy know exactly who they are as a person.
Chalaire: Interesting. I remember a few people who struggled in my class asked why they could make their friends laugh and not us in class. What do you think of that?
Karen Bergreen: That’s something different. Those types of people just haven’t been on stage enough to make what was funny to their friends universal. That’s something that comes with time, and that’s why I tell people who are starting out not to worry if no one is laughing. There’s a reason why nobody in comedy becomes a star overnight, NOBODY.
Chalaire: I remember telling you that if I do the final show I had to be funny because my friends would be expecting it.
Karen Bergreen: You have to remember the people that go to that show are so impressed that you’re even up there. I can’t substitute the process so the only thing I can do is encourage people, and you did really well.
Chalaire: Thanks. What I found interesting is that I often hear that women aren’t funny yet; your class was packed with men anxious to learn from you. How do you feel about that?
Karen Bergreen: I literally think that someone said “women aren’t funny.”
Chalaire: And everyone latched on?
Karen Bergreen: Yes. I feel the way comedy clubs developed was from men attending, men were paying, and men were in the audience. I always say there would be more female comics if there were more female audience members. Female audience members think that female comics are funnier because they speak to them and talk about their experiences.
Men used to say that women weren’t as smart, and we couldn’t get into law school, and now women are getting into law school more. Women are doing better than men in school. Men may say women aren’t as funny because we aren’t speaking to their experiences, but if more women were in the audience you’d see how funny they are.
Chalaire: I find it interesting that most male comics who think that way are dying to get on late night TV shows like Jimmy Kimmel because he’s funny, yet Jimmy Kimmel’s head writer is a female.
Karen Bergreen: Yes, and look at Tina Fey. Everything she does is funny, and she’s a whole person. It’s not in men’s interest to say women are funnier, and I have to say that in my classes there are always fewer females, but the females are always funnier and always do better in their show.
Chalaire: Do you ever feel like you have to tough up your stand-up act or lace it with profanities to fit in with male comedians?
Karen Bergreen: No, never, because if I wanted to play a game for the sake of something, I would’ve stayed in law.
Chalaire: Were you a defense lawyer or a prosecutor?
Karen Bergreen: I clerked for a judge and I worked part-time for a criminal defense attorney. I don’t want to sound snotty but there’s an ignorance surrounding comedy. In law, people are more educated, so you would never hear them say things like women aren’t this or that, because it sounds stupid.
Chalaire: Is this the thing that annoys you most about comedy?
Karen Bergreen: Yes, it’s more ignorance, to be told that they’ve already booked a woman on a show. There’s always one black guy maybe two, one woman, and the clincher is if they get a black woman to fit 2 spots, then there are a bunch of white guys in their 20’s who are all up there saying the same thing.
Meanwhile, there are female comics who look like me, but do not have anything in common with me. We could all be on the show together.
Chalaire: Who’s your favorite comedian on the scene right now?
Karen Bergreen: That’s so hard. I don’t know.
Chalaire: Do you have three favorite comics of all time?
Karen Bergreen: I love Larry Miller. I worship Tina Fey, I want to be her friend, and Carol Burnett.
Chalaire: So Tina Fey is the epitome of comedy to you?
Karen Bergreen: Yes. Tina Fey has humanity and I respond to comedians who have humanity and are funny too. Jim Gaffigan is another example of that, as well as Jessica Kirson.
Chalaire: Jessica Kirson as FANTASTIC! She’s my comedy crush, but I digress.
So, you have two books under your belt with a third one on the way, you perform comedy, you write columns, you teach, but what would be your ideal job if someone gave it to you tomorrow?
Karen Bergreen: I would love to have a talk show where I could consolidate all of it. Everything I’m involved in is so separate from each other. The books I write are not my act. The essays I write for Huffington Post are just thoughts. Then there’s the parenting stuff for MORE, but I would love to consolidate it all.
Chalaire: Have you performed on any of the talk shows?
Karen Bergreen: No, but I would love to. I’m actually trying to develop a TV friendly set now. I just don’t have the right set for the talk shows. I’ve done sets for Nick Moms, and Comedy Central.
Chalaire: Well, I hope to see you on more of those shows and your own in the future. I think you’re wonderful and a good teacher.
Karen Bergreen: Thank you, and thanks for having me in.
For more on Karen Bergreen:
- Pick up a copy of Following Polly as well as Perfect Is Overrated
- You can also read Karen’s thoughts on The Huffington Post and More.com
- Karen teaches stand-up class at www.manhattancomedyschool.com and also performs regularly at Gotham Comedy Club in NYC.
Chalaire Miller contributes to Us Weekly, E! Fashion Police, MTV VMA’s, and is an improv artist, stand-up comedian, and comedy blogger. You can also check her out on Twitter @laire and That’s What She Said.