Caitlin Bergh. Photo by Elizabeth Harper.
“Look at museums–they’ve got dirty sandals from cavemen in there. Those cavemen never thought their dirty sandals were worth anything, but now we pay to look at them. Every human experience is interesting, and every work of art is worthwhile.”
This week MD catches up with Chicago comic & cast member at The Lincoln Lodge, Caitlin Bergh to learn what it takes to stand-up on stage and tell jokes. We asked her to share her particular approach as well as some words of wisdom on how to find the courage to share your talents. Bergh is the producer and host of The Funny Story Show at LosseLeaf Lounge and co-producer and co-host of Performance Anxiety Chicago at The Pleasure Chest. She is also a writer for Gapers Block. She most recently appeared in her one woman show CHUNKS every Sunday in February at StudioBe.
What does it take to do stand up comedy?
I think anyone can do stand-up once or twice (especially if they have a few shots first). But doing stand-up for a prolonged period of time requires a thicker skin. If the audience is quiet one night, they might just be listening. Or they might just be feeling shy because you’re performing at 5pm at a rec center. You can’t analyze every reaction and take every single show personally when you are performing every night, because you will definitely lose your mind.
What’s the relationship between storytelling, writing and stand up comedy?
Well, I originally wanted to be a writer, but all of my stories came out awful. They were super depressing and emo. I started doing stand-up with a specific interest in telling funny stories on stage (I’m not much of a one-liner gal). After I’d been doing stand-up for about a year, I tried writing again, and somehow I had found the missing pieces (I mean, let’s be honest, no writer has ever found ALL of the missing pieces. But I found a lot of them). Some people talk about humor as a cop-out because it can be used as a defense mechanism against the sad stuff in life. That can be true. But I also think using humor can be really brave. To make fun of yourself or something you did takes guts, and it can be a lot more relatable to a crowd than just a really sad, sappy story about how everything in your life went wrong. It makes things more bearable for you, and for the audience, and it doesn’t mean there isn’t still truth in there just because people are laughing.
First Kiss Caitlin Bergh at Brass Chuckles Comedy February 2, 2013.
How do you go about crafting your jokes?
I usually start with an experience or moment that really sticks with me. A memory that I cannot shake, whether it happened four years ago or four days ago. If I have a strong, visceral reaction that keeps coming back to my mind, that is the kind of moment that translates to the best joke material. I am blessed slash cursed with a really good memory. So I usually have lots to pull from slash agonize over every day of my life.
You describe yourself as a woman interested in “issues”. How do “issues” fit in your jokes?
I do care about issues and I’m in grad school for social work. So a lot of my jokes are about the hypocrisy of being a privileged person who cares about the less-privileged. Caring about this stuff can drive you nuts and make you super depressed, which is why joking about it is helpful. Joking gives us a chance to say “hey, what is up with all of this inequality?” and to start thinking about it in a real way, but all under the guise of a non-threatening , amusing observation (which, I think, people are much more responsive to than a lecture). I think Chicago is a great city for these types of observations. It is so incredibly segregated. I would really like to be able to have funny sets that make people think about the things that we all just get used to every day.
Caitlin Bergh at Comedy Central Audition at The Lincoln Lodge January 31, 2013.
Why is sharing your most embarrassing moments important?
I like to tell “embarrassing” stories, but I think most of the things I talk about aren’t actually that embarrassing. So by telling you how embarrassed they make me, I’m also questioning the way we guilt and shame ourselves for no reason. Who cares if I dated someone off of Cragislist? Why is that embarrassing? Sure, I grew up going to a private school and taking SAT classes in seventh grade and I was supposed to be “smarter than that,” but why? I loved that girl. I really, really did. I didn’t care that she didn’t grow up the same as me or that we met on some skeevy website. And all of the “gross” stuff she did was stuff that I LOVED doing. And I think feelings of shame and guilt really limit us in our lives. We won’t date someone who is “beneath us” or who would “embarrass our family.” That, to me, seems crazy. Love people for who they are, love yourself for who you are, because you’re human and there is nothing shameful about that.
Craigslist Dating Caitlin Bergh at CIC Theater January 19, 2012.
I love this quote of yours: “I’m just going to keep talking about things I find funny on stage till it’s fine.” How does your audience affect your work, if at all?
I would say that I’m always very aware of the audience, and I try to reel them in if I feel they are slipping, but I don’t do it by changing my material. I won’t just skip my bit about tub sex because they seem conservative. Instead, I’ll add something to break the tension they are feeling. Like, “I know this is a lot to take at 7pm, but you all have beers so drink up!” That usually just makes people feel silly and at ease. Or if I’m talking about getting an STI and they seem stiff I’ll say, “relax, it isn’t happening to you!” to remind them that they can laugh at my experiences and still be safely separate from them. I think people are afraid that laughter means agreement or complicity. It doesn’t. It means something is funny.
You’re a busy woman. Ideally, how often would you be on stage?
Ideally I’d be on stage multiple times every night (three shows a night would be pretty amazing). There’s really nothing that compares to being on stage. I think part of the reason it feels so good is that you have to be really present in the moment, and most things in life sort of suck that away from us. I’m hoping that one day I’ll be able to make a living doing comedy and spend my days writing and occasionally doing laundry. That would be a dream come true.
Any advice for our readers about finding the courage to share their work?
I don’t think sharing is ever a waste of time. What are we all doing here? Nobody knows. But we might as well enjoy it by sharing the experiences and thoughts we have. Let’s be a team. Don’t worry that your work “won’t be successful.” Just by existing as a reflection of your life, it is already valuable and worth our time. Look at museums–they’ve got dirty sandals from cavemen in there. Those cavemen never thought their dirty sandals were worth anything, but now we pay to look at them. Every human experience is interesting, and every work of art is worthwhile.
What are you working on now?
Right now I’m finishing a run of my first one-woman show, Chunks, but I’m hoping to re-mount it in April, so I’ll be working on how I want to tweak it for a new space. I’m also writing a story a week for my story blog and creating new jokes for all these great stand-up shows around town. You can find out more about me at www.caitlinbergh.com