61: Kate Willett (Combining comedy and personal politics)

Danielle Krage interviews Kate Willett. Kate is a comedian, actress and writer who has appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and Netflix’s Comedy Lineup. 

Kate has also toured with Margaret Cho, featured with comedians like Maria Bamford, and has written jokes for Beavis and Butthead.

In this conversation, Kate shares insights from making her recent comedy special, Loopholes, and her Audible Original, Dirtbag Anthropology.

Chapters

00:00 Introduction and Background

01:19 Dirtbag Anthropology: Exploring Positive Masculinity

05:03 Balancing Personal and Comedic Truths

06:19 Feminism and Personal Politics in Comedy

08:14 The Evolving Definition of Feminism

10:59 The Process of Creating an Audible Original

13:47 Filming a Comedy Special

15:14 Writing and Developing Material

19:04 Observations from Touring with Renowned Comedians

20:21 Dealing with Online Pushback

22:14 Recommendations for Comedy to Watch

23:10 Writing Jokes for Beavis and Butthead

25:06 Being Brave in Expressing Political Stances

26:33 Adapting to the Changing Comedy Industry

27:53 Future Projects: Another Book, One-Person Show, and New Podcast

28:23 Prompt for Listeners

29:39 Where to find out more about Kate’s work

https://www.katewillett.com

https://www.instagram.com/kate.willett

CLICK HERE FOR TRANSCRIPT

Danielle Krage: Hey, everybody. Today I have with me the fabulous Kate Willett. Kate is a comedian, actress and writer who has appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. She’s been on Netflix’s comedy lineup. She’s toured with Margaret Cho. All the things, and I’m excited particularly to talk to Kate about her recent special Loopholes and the Audible Original Dirtbag Anthropology, both of which I have watched, listened to, loved, have loads of questions, particularly as it relates to using personal politics in your work, because it’s something that you do so brilliantly, something I find kind of scary. And I’ve got lots of questions about. But before we dive in. Is there anything else you’d love people to know about you and your connections to comedy?

Kate Willett: You know I don’t. I don’t really know what to say, so let’s just get in the questions, and I’ll just….I’ll I’ll add something if it comes to me. All I can think of saying is like stuff that’s like dumb like I love my cats, you know I don’t know.

Danielle Krage: Oh, that’s it’s never dumb to love your cats.

Kate Willett: Yeah, I was just thinking about them, because I… whenever I do like Yoga stretching on the floor, my cat literally like loves to like climb on top of me while I’m doing yoga. It’s like it’s a ride or something for him.

Danielle Krage: Yeah, but that’s good. I mean, people pay to do goat yoga those kinds of things. So you’ve got, you know, personal trainer.

Kate Willett: Yeah.

Danielle Krage: Yeah, amazing. So I wanted to start with the Audible Original, Dirtbag Anthropology.

Kate Willett: Thank you.

Danielle Krage: And I’ve got loads of questions, but I’m aware, for people who haven’t listened…. It would be lovely just if you could give a little bit of a sense of what either the concept is or what the impetus was behind it. So they kind of know what world we’re in.

Kate Willett: So you know, I wrote this book in 2020. It was kind of a little bit after the main like height of Me Too, and I was exploring what would a kind of positive version of masculinity look like, and I decided to pursue that through interviewing men that I knew and also some I didn’t know. But I just thought were really interesting, based on their their work that they had done

Kate Willett: and so I wrote a book of… an audio book of like essays that also included interviews within it as well. it’s kind of a mix of like memoir and research. Yeah.

Danielle Krage: It’s a really, really delightful mix. And I really loved listening to it. So I really loved hearing, like your writer voice and performer voice, but also, you actually physically brought in other voices like your dad. What do you think they brought to to it…because some of them are comedians, but some of them aren’t. But it would be so different without those voices, I think. What did they bring to it?

Kate Willett: Yeah, you know, I  think it was to me like… I I love those parts, too, and and those are everyone’s favourite parts. I think, that there’s just something really honest about people who are not professional performers or have not constructed a public image in any way. And they’re just like, gonna say, what they think, you know, especially because the questions that I was asking the guys that I talked to were very personal, I think.

Danielle Krage: Yeah, they were. And the words that you’ve used already… Like personal, honest….we might assume that all comedy has them, but it doesn’t not in the way that you kind of root your work and things that are really genuine. Everything seems to be something you’re so genuinely curious about. And it’s really personal to your life.

So I’m curious about how you manage that process for yourself, because, for example, I’m super interested in comedy. But I’m writing fiction, and I feel like in some ways what’s it’s based in is really true. And there’s… you get some distance because things are fantastical, or there’s sort of otherworldly elements. Yours is so rooted in your life. Is that something you’ve always done? And how did you get comfortable with that? If not.

Kate Willett: Well, I mean with like this book…. With this audio book it was a little different, because everything I said was true, and you know, even the stuff that I like wasn’t quite sure about. It was like, Okay, we have to fact, check it. Did he really get his bike stolen 3 times, or was it only 2, like in a memoir? You you have to be like as honest as you can possibly be. I mean, you might misrember something about what someone said, 20 years ago, or whenever. But you have to really be factual to to the absolute best of your ability, like including fact checking for any broader claims that you’re making. But for stand-up, my comedy is personal. But I’ll also change something if it’s gonna be funnier. I do write stuff that is personal. But you know, at the end of the day, stand up is more of a…you jjust take liberties with things. I think. There’s no requirement for truthfulness in exactly the same way.

But that said,I think one of my main motivations as an artist is I do like to make more personal art and express myself. And that’s just always kind of been the original source of my desire to make creative work. So it wasn’t like a thing that was like hard to to get into. That’s just always what made me want to do it. In the 1st place.

Danielle Krage: Yeah, I love that. And there’s a line in Dirtbag Anthropology that I really loved. The line I wrote down was ‘what comedy possesses on its best day is humanity’. And I thought that was such a lovely line, particularly as you think about it in relation to personal politics or other kinds of politics. I wondered how you think about that as it fits with politics in your comedy.

Kate Willett: You know, I mean, like my actual stand up! Isn’t that political. Sometimes it is, but not that much. I do end up writing a lot about relationships. And lately, and the newer stuff I’ve been writing a lot about my religion, my relationship with religion, and the kind of Jesus brainwashing I got when I was a kid. There’s just things that you think about at various times in your life, and I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately of how, you know, being indoctrinated in a certain way ended up shaping how I see the world, you know. And like with politics I don’t know. I just, you know, for me, I’m a very politically active person. And so that shows up in my work. But, you know, with stand up certainly nobody wants to like hear like jokes about Trump anymore, or something like that. We’re all so sick of him, you know, people are in the US. I don’t know if it’s the same in the UK. But people are very sick of political humour. After 4 years of that guy doing really dumb stuff all the time, you know.

Danielle Krage: Yeah. And it’s a funny thing where we use… I feel like the word political gets used to so many things. In the UK, a lot of people that I know talk about politics with a capital P being like you say, like Trump, and anything else that’s going on…we’re coming up to elections in the UK. But then also politics with a small p seeming to mean, like everything else…like with feminism, or looking at sexuality or religion. It can all kind of gets put in that bucket, too.

Kate Willett: Yeah, that makes sense.

Danielle Krage: Yeah, and how you think about that. So you’ve mentioned religion and you’ve  also mentioned wanting to look at masculinity.

Kate Willett: Yeah.

Danielle Krage: So when I say a word like feminism, in relation to comedy, what does that bring up or mean to you? Because quite purposefully in Dirtbag Anthropology it seems to be really looking at masculinity. How do you see them sort of sitting together or not? How do you feel if someone calls you a feminist? .

Kate Willett: Yeah, I am a feminist, and it’s always been important to me. But what it has changed a lot. What it means to me has changed a lot over the past few years, you know. Like, I think, when I pitched this book, like probably back in 2017, 2018. I was really thinking a lot about a lot of stuff like, you know, abortion. And women being, you know, equals in our careers, and having the same opportunities and stuff and all that is extremely important to me, like, obviously, I think that women should have all the rights, you know. But I do think it is much broader, and that we’ve kind of seen like…You know, we’ve seen feminism be discussed in more like nuanced ways over the past, probably like 8 years especially, and it will continue to.  A lot of the time, like in the in the mid 2 thousands in the mid teens. 20 teens, I would say it was a lot about individual women being successful. And now for me, I think about it more broadly, in terms of justice and freedom and rights for for everyone you know.

If we had like housing for everybody like if everybody, if we had a guaranteed right to housing like in our country you probably would see a lot less women being forced to stay in terrible relationships, that they don’t want to be in. I think talking about this stuff so individually, one issue by issue, sometimes doesn’t let us deal with some of the some of the root causes of the problems, which is misogyny. But it’s also like how it all works together, and in terms of like…. How I address that in my comedy….I don’t know if I do on purpose. It’s just the kind of stuff that I think about.

Danielle Krage: You mentioned pitching the Audible Original, and I want to talk about your  special in a minute, but you mentioned pitching…. What was the process like? How did it work?

Kate Willett: So I wrote a book proposal, and then I got some feedback on my book proposal, and then I wrote another one, and then I got some feedback, and then that probably all went back and forth for like 6 months to a year, and then even writing, it was very different than I thought the actual process. It changed a little bit from the proposal. Yeah.

Danielle Krage: And who was that feedback from? Was it from peers, or was it from the people that you were pitching to?

Kate Willett: The people I was pitching to. I was pitching to the person that edited it. My friend Rachel. She’s a friend, but she’s also an editor at Audible. We became friends through the process. She’s amazing. And she had, you know, a huge impact on the way that the book turned out and so yeah, going back and forth with the person that I would say, I really co-created this with, you know.

Danielle Krage: Hmm, yeah. And how did that come about? Did she see your live work, or was it…How did that work?

Kate Willett: So I knew Rachel because Audible used to be in, based in San Francisco, and I knew her from when I started comedy in San Francisco. Yeah. So you know, I just ended up knowing her from the San Francisco comedy scene. And then, after that, I just kinda …Once Audible, was starting to kinda go into more of these audiobooks, we ended up exploring this  project.

Danielle Krage: Yeah. And was there anything that you found surprising or challenging about the project, either in the process or dealing with the content, that you just weren’t expecting?

Kate Willett: Yeah, I mean, it was very different than I thought it was gonna be, I mean, when I pitched this, and started writing it honestly I had a completely different life than I did when I was actually writing the book. And then that kind of ended up being… You know what the the book is about. I think when I started it I was in a place in my life where I felt like really good about everything, or you know, I felt like it’s all going super well. And then the person that I was in a relationship with tragically died out of the blue. And then I was like, Oh, my God, I’m well, okay, I’m not…I’m not writing my happy ending story right now. What the hell you know. So this ended up being, I think, a book that is a lot about grieving. And I don’t wanna undersell it in terms of… like it’s it has sad parts, but it’s also funny.

Danielle Krage: It is.

Kate Willett: But you know…it did end up being a lot of different conclusions and connections that I didn’t expec, that I would come to, just because I changed so much as a person at the same time when I was writing it. You know.

Danielle Krage: Yeah, yeah, and amazing that you managed to weave all that and produce what you did. Because you can really see that…it was so gripping to listen to because I didn’t know where it was going in that sense in the way that…It was like kind of following along with the best kind of series where you care about the person who’s authoring it as well, but you’re like…I don’t know how this is gonna turn out? But with all the cohesiveness of the themes that you’re dealing with. I found it really affecting and really funny, too.

Kate Willett: Thank you. I appreciate it.

Danielle Krage: And I want to ask you about your special again. Which…super funny. I watched it on Amazon Prime, but it’s in lots of different places, Apple TV, YouTube, other platforms as well. But for people who haven’t caught up with it yet, what was the fuel behind your special?  What were you really thinking about at the time and wanting to explore? I can see from the outside some interesting things, but I’d love to hear from you.

Kate Willett: Yeah. So you know, it’s interesting cause I wrote Dirtbag Anthropology very much during the pandemic. I took almost a whole quarantine period, which was like a year, not the entire year, but most of it. And then after we didn’t have to be, you know, inside anymore, went on tour. I revived some of my material from right before, and also wrote a bunch of new stuff. And this special was very much like the 2 years of my life after the pandemic, you know, and kind of how that changed. So, yeah, this is kind of another iteration, I would say.

Danielle Krage: Yeah. And when you say, like writing the special, what does that mean for you? Because so many different people approach their processes differently, and you might have different processes for a different project. But say, for the special, what was that process like for you? Do you literally write and test, or do you kind of write on stage?

Kate Willett: Bit by bit in stand-up bit.

Danielle: Literally bit by bit.

Kate Willett: Literally, bit by bit. So what I usually do, like the last 2 times that I’ve had a special and or an album, and probably we’ll maybe do the 3rd time I’m getting there almost, I will spend a while just kind of approaching individual stand up bits, and then when I have enough that it’s like about 80% to the amount of time I would need for a stand up bit, I would think about, okay, what are the themes here? What was I really trying to say and what was going on in my mind? Like, what were some of the other underlying issues  running through my work, then sort of begin to pull it together.

So you know the actual bits of comedy and the jokes in the special, those probably came from over a 3 to 4 year period with a lot of them coming from like 2021, 2022 but you know, I think I was really working to to find…I had most of it done. And then I was working to think about what the themes were, you know, and how I can draw those out more. Yeah.

Danielle Krage: Yeah, that makes sense. And I got the impression from Dirtbag Anthropology that you you seem to have a strong network of peers that you kind of challenge in conversation. And who challenge you. Is that the same for your comedy? Do you also work with other comedians who are kind of challenging your work and giving feedback? Or do you like to kind of just test it with the audience? Or bits of both. How does it work for you?

Kate Willett: Bits of both. I definitely learned how to…like for me. Okay. When I’ve come up with all the angles that I can on a bit, and it’s been in the same place for a while, I very much will just ask my funny friends, comedians or not like… hey, where do you think I could go with this? And most of the time it’s not gonna be something that’ll make sense to me in the way that I thought about it. But sometimes, that’s what opens it back up again, and, you know, can generate a new idea. So I’ll do that pretty liberally. But most of the time I’ll go on stage with, like you know, an idea of what they want to talk about. Maybe a few jokes, and then the rest of the jokes will sort of develop over the time of doing it, you know.

Danielle Krage: so many things I’d love to ask you. But one of the things is that also you’ve toured big names…. Comedians like Margaret Cho, and you featured with Maria Bamford as well. Are there anything stick in your head from watching those comedians, and how they deal with their own kind of personal material that you that you still think about, or advice that they given? Or do you feel like very much…. No. Because you seem to have such an individual style as well.

Kate Willett: Those women are both so different from me.

Danielle Krage: Yeah, they are.

Kate Willett: And I’m not similar to either of them in terms of my style, necessarily. But you know they’re both like so much themselves, and I think that that is something that I did learn from them is like, you know…I just they they just do what they want. They’re not trying to kind of conform to a market. They were able to just be really true to their own artistic vision, and then build a fan base from thee. So, I think to me that always seems like a good approach, although I think there’s definitely people that are just churning out content every day and going super viral, based on what goes viral. And and a lot of those people are killing it. So your listeners may not want to take my advice on that.

Danielle Krage: Yeah, but that’s what I really love about your work. It’s so distinctive. Because you’re you’re not like them at all. You’re completely yourself. But it’s interesting in terms of…that you mentioned different fan bases, and  I did wonder… I don’t know if you have experience of it. But if you have, how you’ve learned to deal with pushback online or negative comments online, or those kind of things, particularly when you’re really being such a true artist and sharing yourself.

Kate Willett: I mean, I haven’t gotten push back online in my comedy in a long time. Like, when I first started, it was like a lot of incels and stuff being like…: I guess there’s still guys that do that …they’ll be like, you’re so fat and ugly and old, and I’m like, I Ijust don’t even care anymore, like I just don’t. I don’t even read it most of the time, you know.

Kate Willett: I mean, I’ve definitely gotten a lot of pushback on the internet for saying other things that were edgier jokes. Or other stuff. I really believe, for example, that there needs to be a ceasefire in Gaza yesterday, you know, I’ll get a lot of push back on stuff like that. And you know, it’s like that could be draining. You know, not so draining that I won’t do it. But you know, t my attitude about like things that I would say or not. It’s just like…would I stand by this? If I wouldn’t stand by it, if it’s like a joke that’s just pointlessly offensive or mean, or somethin, I’m not gonna say it, you know. But if it’s something, I believe, and I would be willing to defend the perspective of it, you know. Then, sure.

Danielle Krage: Yeah, and what’s some of your favourite comedy to either watch or listen to that  listeners can also go off and find potentially,  whether you feel like it’s overlooked, or needs a shout out, or that you just love it.

Kate Willett: Well, there’s a comedian named Ian Abramson – I taped my special on the same day. He’s super funny. Make sure you check out Ramy Youseff. He’s so funny, and he’s like a very exciting up-and-coming comedian right now… is barely up and coming. He’s really famous at this point. But in the past couple of years, he’s gotten really famous. So yeah, Ramy, Ian Abramson. There’s a guy named Dan Licata that’s really funny. Some of my favourite women in comedy, Jo Firestone, Aparna Nancherla. There is a trans comedian named Jes Tom, that, I think is doing really interesting work. So yeah, those are just some names that come to mind right now.

Danielle Krage: Yeah, no, that’s great lots to check out there. Thank you. And you mentioned filming your special. What do you think you learned from doing thatt? That process because there will be people listening to the show who have not had that experience. What did you learn from actually filming it.

Kate Willett: You know it wasn’t the first time I’d ever filmed something. I had filmed a few things before this. I would say, if you are filming something, one thing that’s like a good tip that someone gave me originally is, if you mess up something, like if you stumble over a word or you forget something, you can literally just go back and redo it, and they can edit that out. You can do it again, and just tell the audience you’re doing again, and they’ll laugh with you, you know. I mean, so you have more control over it than you realize, you know.

Danielle Krage: Yeah, yeah. Okay. And this is slightly left field. But I read in your bio that you’ve written jokes for Beavis and Butthead.

Kate Willett: It’s true. Yeah.

Danielle Krage: It’s true. How does that fit into this picture?

Kate Willett: I mean, that’s just like a really fun opportunity to do as a comedian. You know just the the parts that they have like comedians punch up on or where they’re like… the guys are watching videos. And we’ll think of their riffs and stuff like that. And that’s just a really silly fun thing. They are such fun voices to write for.

Danielle Krage: And so is that how it worked? They literally asked you to come in and do punch-up.

Kate Willett: Yeah, we’ve done it on zoom and stuff. Yeah.

Danielle Krage: Okay, amazing. And how did you get put forward for that? Is that something that you are able to do through your own relationships? Or do you have, like a manager who helps you with that? How does that work?

Kate Willett: I don’t know. Actually, yeah, I think that they had some comedians they just reached out to yeah.

Danielle Krage: Yeah, okay, amazing. That’s very fun. And last couple of questions I want to ask you before we wrap up. Is there anything that you would love to see talked about more in comedy? Not necessarily content, but just in terms of people being able to be part of different comedy worlds.

Kate Willett: I mean, I would like to see comedians be a little bit braver in terms of their political stances. There’s never been an easier time to do that in some ways, because a lot of people have their own audience online. You know they can’t really cancel you, you know, or they will appreciate it…. If you are using your voice to support what is good and just. So I do wish people were a little little braver sometimes, you know.

But like, in terms of comedy…The industry is changing so fast. It’s gotten so much about short content videos. And I think there are people that are really good at it. I am so very much learning like, Okay, how could I?I’m like trying to figure out how do I produce like this much video shit every day? Because the video stuff is really…I’m not like that good at videos, you know. So I’m trying to learn.

I mean, I put my stand up online and stuff, too. But I wanna learn how to do more sketches and stuff like that, like the technical aspect of it, filming, lighting it, making the sound and stuff. So yeah, I don’t know. I mean, that’s all part of it. At this point, you know, it’s a lot of free work. There’s a lot of free work involved that, you know, that maybe didn’t used to be true. Yeah.

Danielle Krage: Yeah. Yeah. And do you know, like…how far ahead can you think as a writer and comedian. Do you know what next year looks like for you, or 3 years or 5 years? Because, like you say, it’s changing so fast. Are there things that you’re like….If I get the chance, or if I can see the paid opportunity, I really want to do this.

Kate Willett: Well, I really wanna write another book. I’m starting to think about what that will be. And also, you know, a one-person show. I’m starting to think about some larger projects that I want to do. And they’re not quite fully incubated yet. But like I’ll be starting another podcast. In the next couple of weeks here that, you know, check it out. I’ll be having, one-on-one, conversations with people similar to Reply Guys, but a little bit more broad. And yeah. So those are some things you can probably expect from me over the next year or so.

Danielle Krage: Yeah. And have you got any inklings for the book? That you want to be poking at or exploring, or can you not say yet? Fine, if you can’t say.

Kate Willett: You know I have a few ideas of things that I’ve been tinkering around with, but I don’t wanna talk about it yet, cause sometimes I like…. Sometimes I’m like, after I say it, now I don’t feel like writing it.

Danielle Krage: That’s fine. No problem. Well, lots to look out for, amazing. And before we wrap up is there anything else that you’d love to encourage any of the listeners to do do this week. So there’s such a mix of listeners who love comedy. They write, and some of them are writer performers or different kinds of comedy. Is there any kind of prompt from your amazing brain that you’d love them to think about this week?

Kate Willett: Okay, a prompt. What is one of the times that, like somebody came into your life, that it was like a seemingly random interaction that ended up having such a bigger impact.

And you thought…something that didn’t seem like it was going to be a big deal, but ended up being a big deal like I feel like that can be a source of jokes. Yeah.

Danielle Krage: When we finish this conversation, I’ll hhave to make a note to myself, because I want to think about that immediately. That’s super intriguing. I’m gonna answer that. What a wonderful prompt thank you. And thank you for your amazing work, and for taking the time today to delve into it a little bit with us. Where can be go to find out more about you and your creations?

Kate Willett: So katewillett.com. 2 Ls and 2 Ts. You can follow me on Instagram, Kate Dot Willett with 2 l’s and 2 t’s. I keep Instagram updated more regularly, with shows and stuff. And hopefully, we’ll get to the UK sometime in the next year or 2. This has been so fun. Thank you so much.

Danielle Krage: You’re so welcome.

Kate Willett: Thank you.