When Cat Cohen logs into the Zoom call for our interview, I start by giving her a compliment. The introduction seems fitting: She has a habit of giving them to herself. In fact, there’s praise embedded into the title of her first Netflix special by Ella, “Catherine Cohen: The Twist…? Ella She’s Gorgeous.”
Cohen, 30, brings the structure of a cabaret show to millennial stand-up comedy. In the music-filled special, Cohen — clad in a hot pink sparkling romper — compliments her own singing (“I have an amazing voice, wow”), writing abilities (“Am I the voice of my generation?”), and beyond .
On first listen, Cohen sounds like someone who has internalized the importance of positive affirmations. But the special — which won her the newcomer award at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2019 — is not restricted on a foundation of earnestness. She ricochets between deprecation and self-esteem. “Everything I make fun of, I love,” she tells TODAY. “It’s a fine line.”
When asked to identify the best compliment she’s ever received, Cohen responds earnestly. “A friend of mine once said that I was very generous with my energy. And I thought that was really nice compliment,” Cohen says.
Her friend’s words can also apply to Cohen’s approach to the comedy special. Cohen is generous: With her energy from her, with her voice from her … and with her stories from her.
For many of Cohen’s stories are of the variety that some might keep locked in a diary or in a vault in their hearts, never to be consumed by the general public. As an example? At one point, Cohen describes taking a photo of an infection to send to her gynecologist, and mimics the “dead eyes” expression accidentally captured.
Cohen, instead, uses them as fodder for jokes and songs. There is no story too embarrassing to be rendered off limits.
The act of turning her past into material, Cohen says, has been healing. In fact, she says she’s “grateful” for the embarrassing moments — “now that they’re far enough away,” she adds.
“I think some of the things were like a bit traumatic at the time, but now that they’re in the past, I feel like I’ve grown from them. It’s part of being alive,” she says.
After all, these memories are the making of her origin story, as she acknowledges in her first song: “Boys never wanted to kiss me / so now I do comedy.”
“Now that they’re in the past, I feel like I’ve grown from them. It’s part of being alive.”
Cohen grew up in Texas, the oldest child of a Jewish father and a Catholic mother. She says she knew she was funny from a young age. “I was always making people laugh,” she recalls. “I’m the first grandchild in a big family — so I’ve always been an attention hog.”
Humor was the tool she used to navigate the social scene in her Catholic school environments. “I was the one who didn’t have a boyfriend — so you’re forced to become the funny friend. I realized that I could make (boys) laugh and I could like, get high off it,” Cohen says.
Her life changed, she says, once boys did want to kiss her, and the special explores her dating life before she met her boyfriend. “Then you kind of go too far in the other direction and then you’re defining yourself forth in that way. The key is not care at all about what men think,” she jokes.
Now that the special has been broadcast to Netflix’s millions of subscribers, she’s privy to what many people — men included — think. While Cohen performs in New York weekly at Club Cumming and is a rising star in the comedy scene, her Ella special is reaching an undeniably wider audience.
Cohen confronted her new fame when, on one of her TikTok videos, someone commented that she had been their old tutor. “LOL to be scrolling on TikTok and be like, ‘Is my LSAT tutor in a pink rhinestone romper, talking about her butthole de ella?”’ Cohen says.
Cohen’s openness about her sex life has shocked some viewers, and in her time scrolling through comments, Cohen has encountered criticism. “It’s so funny, because there are plenty of things I don’t like, but I’ve never had the impulse to scream about it to a stranger. I think people must think that I don’t see things — but you know, I’m just on my couch all day looking at my phone so I see a lot of s—,” she says.
If anything, the haters make her more confident about her “intimate” approach to comedy. “I don’t know how else to be. I would love to have jokes that are clean. But all I think about all the time is like stuff no one wants to talk about,” she says.
The vast majority of the feedback, Cohen says, are from people who relate to her work and feel seen — people who are happy she jokes about the stuff that “no one wants to talk about.”
“I’ve gotten so many, so many DMS that are so nice. They make me literally cry and like very moved by people’s messages just just a lot of women being like, ‘I feel like you’re inside my brain. I’ ve never felt represented like that before. And that’s a that’s like the best feeling in the world,” Cohen says. “I just want to make people feel less alone.”
Her favorite messages are from people who send pictures of them watching with friends. “You can tell they’re enjoying their night. I’m like, ‘Oh, that’s so fun,'” Cohen says.
Cohen’s material speaks to the confines many women find themselves in: Aware that society has contorted them to feel a certain way about themselves, and unable, or unwilling, to break out of the box. In “Take My Money,” a song that is particularly resonating with audiences, Cohen points out the difficulty of finding chic plus-size quotes.
For the special, Cohen wanted a sartorial experience that was the opposite of what she describes in the song — and she got one, thanks to a custom garment made by her friend, designer Kelsey Randall.
“We both have a similar tastes: We love glamour, we love over-the-top, and we love the ’70s,” Cohen says. Cohen was looking for something that let her be mobile onstage, but also be “flirty and feminine.” With that brief, Randall created a hot pink taffeta number sporting 25,000 hand-applied sequins.
“When you grow up going to stores and struggling to find things that fit, to have someone make a garment for you is like such a dream come true,” Cohen says.
Speaking of dreams: The past few weeks have felt like a bit like one. Cohen says she has n’t “processed” all the progressions in her life of her. Amid the changes, she hasn’t begun to work on her next show in full force quite yet.
“I feel like ideas can’t come if you’re if you don’t have time to sit,” Cohen says. “Sometimes it’s good to sit in a room, be really bored, and see if things come to you.”
But she’s sketching out jokes. The majority of “Catherine Cohen: The Twist… Ella She’s Gorgeous” was written before the pandemic, so she may weave in more timely material, which she’s already started on.
During quarantine, Cohen launched a cabaret on Instagram live that filtered what was a universal experience through her one-of-a-kind mind. “I wrote songs about jerking off being the only respite from reality or like, songs about not being able to handle anything song’s about, you know, you’re revealing to your partner that you’re actually a terrible person because now you live with them,” she said.
Her relationship with her boyfriend will continue to figure into jokes, too.
“There’s very few solid men who also can handle being with someone who’s talking about them onstage or on their podcast all the time. We’ve never moved like never had an argument about it,” he says. “I feel lucky that I met him.”
Next, Cohen also is looking to write a book of essays, and eventually a memoir. “I have a little more living I want to do,” she says.
For now, she’ll finish a song about her memoir. “I have a new song I’ve been doing called, ‘Do it For the Memoir. That’s becoming part of the show,” she says.
She’s living to rack up experiences—and eventually, sing about them.