Meet Comedian Katie Willert: Viral Video Star and Feminist
I'm sitting here today with comedian/actress Katie Willert of Cracked.com and the UCB Theatre. Katie is a viral video star with an average of 800,000 unique views on any of her videos. Luckily she took time out of her busy schedule to talk to me.
Evan Almeida: How did you get started in comedy?
Katie Willert: I started doing improv my freshman year of high school. I was really lucky that La Jolla High School had partnered with the National Comedy Theatre, which is a short form improv theatre in San Diego, to do a high school improve program and I got involved in that my very first year of high school. I kept doing improv, and in college I met Michael Swaim, who had just started Those Aren’t Muskets, which was his sketch team, or troupe, with Abe Epperson. They had just started to put stuff online, and I started to work with them, doing video stuff with them online and then Mike and Abe moved to Los Angeles and I was still in college. They just started doing stuff for Cracked and Mike ended up becoming head of video and then they brought me on and that’s kind of how I started doing stuff like After Hours and the Katie Willert Experience.
(EA): What was the first “skit” you remember seeing as a child, or that really resonated with you?
(KW): Well for me, I think that it was around sixth grade when it was the 25th anniversary of Saturday Night Live, and I watched the anniversary sketch and even though it was only snippets of sketches, because they were covering all 25 years, they made me go insane! I called and ordered the tapes, and they came in two VHS tapes and I watched them over and over again and I memorized all of those sketches. This would have back when VH1 owned the rights, I guess, to the syndication of SNL; so they played three to six episodes back-to-back on VH1 every day. So I would come home from school everyday and just watch SNL. It wasn’t until college that I really learned about sketch, I always knew that I wanted to make people laugh, but I really only got into sketch when I got the chance to work with Cracked.
(EA): When did the opportunity arise to work at Cracked.com?
(KW): Well, it was about a week or two before I was due to move to LA. I had actually graduated early from UCSD, I graduated in December when I should have graduated in June, and I knew that I was moving to LA and didn’t have a job. I just knew that I was going there (LA) and I had no idea where I was going to work or what I was going to do, and I got an e-mail from Michael (Swaim) saying that Dan and Jack O’Brien had both been percolating an idea about a pop culture round table web series and that he (Michael) was floating my name as a person to be in it, and I said “Wow! That’s amazing.” Pretty much by the time that I was ready to move to LA, After Hours was in pre-production, they (Jack and Dan O’Brien) were just getting ideas for what they wanted the show to be. When they were ready and they asked me to do it, and I said, “Yeah, of course.”
(EA): The majority of the people at Cracked seem to write articles, but you seem to mostly just make videos, is that a personal choice or is a decision made by the higher-ups at Cracked?
(KW): That's kind of interesting because I came at it (Cracked) from a performer's standpoint, because I had been connected with Those Aren't Muskets. The people who started writing the episodes of After Hours were people like: Dan and Jack, and then Soren (Bowie) wrote an episode, then Cody (Johnston) and Michael (Swaim) and I've only recently started to get into writing. I've always written, but in terms of a sketch or even something tangible, that's like a real thing, it's only been a recent development. Being in things like Muddleberry, at the Upright Citizen's Brigade Theatre (UCB), being on their video sketch team, being a writer for them, has kind of gotten me more into writing, but with Cracked it's different. After Hours is such a hard thing to write for, it's essentially four different essays all interwoven into snappy, funny dialogue and all of the points have to be incredibly well researched and each of the four points has to be written in four distinct voices. That's a really intense undertaking and I personally don't feel like I'm ready to tackle that yet, who knows, maybe sometime in the future I'll be ready, but right now I'm happy just to be involved with the videos. Doing read-throughs and punch-ups, and animation meetings, I am in all of that stuff, so I'm not writing the episodes, but I am involved in the punch-up process.
(EA): You are involved in a number of web series: After Hours, UCB's Muddleberry, The Katie Willert Experience, Those Aren’t Muskets, etc. Which is your favorite to work on?
(KW): Oh that's funny! I've never really thought about it, I don't know, most of the time I'm just happy that I get to work with my friends. You know what I mean? It's a very core thing, regardless of which team it is, or what show it is; whether it's After Hours or The Katie Willert Experience, anything with Muddleberry or my sketch team at the Improv Olympic (DJ Faucet) I just get to work with my friends. That is my favorite thing, first and foremost, it doesn't really matter what project. Each show has it's own really different experiences, but they are all fun to do. I couldn't necessarily pick one over the other.
(EA): Do you prefer making web content, like video sketches, or doing live performances?
(KW): Well I'm a theatre girl, I've been a stage person since I was thirteen, theatre was what I started doing and about a year and a half ago I was lucky enough to be a part of Pride and Predjudice at the South Coast Repertory Theatre, which is such a beautiful regional theatre in Orange County. I mostly just loved being able to do a live show, especially at the Improv Olympics, that was very cool for me because even though I love the outpouring of support from people on-line for my videos, there's nothing like hearing someone laugh when a joke hits.
(EA): When you were growing up, where were your comedy influences coming from?
(KW): Well, my mom is unintentionally funny, she's a very funny lady who is very sweet and nice, and I found that I really wanted to make her laugh. That was the big thing for me, as a kid, was making my mom laugh because she was very important to me. My dad is also very funny, he has a really good sense of humor and got me watching comedies really early on, we watched Animal House together way, way, too early for me to be watching Animal House. I mean, he took me to go see L.A. Story, the Steve Martin film, so he definitely influenced my silliness and my dad is also just a silly, silly guy and he helped me so much.
(EA): Who is your favorite contemporary comic?
(KW): Of all time or just current?
(EA): Let's say currently, just people who are performing now.
There is a woman at the UCB, that I can say that I know, who is great. Her name is Lauren Lapkus, she's a performer at the UCB and she's on a new pilot and I definitely look up to her and aspire to do what she's does because she is funny, smart, is very much herself always and she's just kicking ass. She's doing amazing work and she is sweet and nice and not snotty or shitty, she is a good human being and I really look up to her a lot.
(EA): You've mentioned a lot of my own, personal, favorite things and people. One of the best comedy specials I've ever seen was a performance of UCB's ASSSCAT, but even just watching ASSSCAT you notice that there is an astonishingly small number of women in comedy, for instance: Leno, Letterman and Conan O’Brian all have only one female writer on their staff, do you feel any of this disparity working in comedy, or at Cracked?
(KW): Well, there are definitely a lot more ladies now, but it's never been a "boy's club" specifically. I think as time goes on it's more about talent and who can do good work then what it was in say the 80s. For instance I know Kristi Harrison, of Cracked, that actually works remotely from, I think, Idaho. She has three kids and a husband out there and she does amazing work, she's just a great writer and editor. In terms of performance, you know there are just so many more ladies involved nowadays in the process. Katy Stoll, has been a member of Those Aren't Muskets longer than I have, and had more success earlier on then I did. So, I don't think that it has ever been a conscious choice, to have no girls allowed. I know that Dan [O'Brien] is one of the most ardent feminists that I've ever come across,ever. I've never felt unwelcome in comedy, I've always been a contributor on equal footing.
(EA): I remember watching a Maria Bamford stand up and at one point a guy from the audience yells, "Get off the stage lady, women aren't funny." She then turned to him and in one of her distinct voices, looked at him and said, "You know, this is why so many young girls feel like they can't do comedy."
Do you see these kind of feminist attitudes like: if boys can do it, girls can do it, more rampant in the world of comedy, and would you consider yourself a feminist?
(KW): First of all, I do consider myself a feminist, but I do feel like my sense of humor would be the same if I was a woman or a dude, and I think that funny is funny. Regardless of whether you are a woman, if you are funny people will laugh and that is a connection that people make that is sexless. It has nothing to do with my gender, so sexism is a very interesting thing, because I don't do comedy for any other reason than to make people laugh and I couldn't see why someone would call someone unfunny just because they are a woman.
(EA): Would you have any advice for any young people starting out in comedy?
(KW): Yeah, just keep working at it, and try to work with your friends. Try to become friends with people you enjoy and who work hard and do things that you want to do. Thoses are the kind of people who are going to want to do projects and put on shows and write plays and sketches about things that you are interested in, because then you can do things you love with people you like and the work will feel a lot less hard.
(EA): Who would be your dream guest star for a video?
(KW): Let's see ... are we talking living or dead?
(EA): Let's stick with living, it's a bit easier. Abe Lincoln would be a great guest on a sketch but he's harder to get ahold of nowadays.
(KW): Well it would probably be Amy Poehler
(EA): Amy Poehler?
(KW): If I could just, hang out with her for like 15 minutes, it would be incredible. It would obviously be an amazing video for Cracked, but really it would be selfishness on my part because I would just be way more into just hanging out with her, for a day, than actually making the video.
(EA): So, I take it that you are a Parks and Recreation fan?
(KW): Oh yes, I am very much a Parks and Rec fan, I just think that Amy is such a genius and I love watching her.
(EA): Do you ever see yourself making the move from making sketches to doing television or film?
(KW): I would love to. I love making internet comedy, but honestly my life goal has always been to make people laugh, that's what I want to do every single day. If I can make a single person laugh then I've succeded. So for me, moving over to TV or film would just be about trying to reach a bigger audience, because I want to make as many people laugh in my life as I possibly can. So whether that's internet, television, or film I'll be a happy camper as long as I can make people laugh, I'll do whatever it takes.
(EA): How do you deal with criticism, especially over the internet which, as we all know, isn't the most friendly place in the world?
(KW): Most of the criticism is nothing I can control. I've found that to be a good thing, because the fair amount of the people that comment appreciate what I do and are very complimentary and fantastic; most of the negative comments, are comments about my body, or my looks and I honestly couldn't give two shits about what people think of my appearance. Dan O'Brien has a formula for counter-acting negative comments that's really good, which is "Of the amount of people that view a video, say the very first episode of After Hours which has over 4 million views, you look at how many people that viewed the video commented, which is usually about 200. That's 200 out of 4 million people that commented. Then say that there are ten just awful, shitty comments out of the 200 that commented out of the 4 million that viewed the video, then you realise that it's such a small percentage of negative people, that you just can't let it effect you."
Criticism just doesn't bother me anymore, I mean it used to but I think that it was Aziz Ansari that said, and I'm paraphrasing, "You never see the people that you admire, shittily commenting on somebody" and he's right, no one I admire would talk to anyone negatively, or say negative things about anybody. They have their own stuff and are moving forward. It's been a journey to get to this point where things don't bother me anymore, but now I'm at a point where if you are going to be a crappy human being and just be really nasty ... then that's your perogative, you do that and I hope that you have a good day.
(EA): Last question, which is your favorite: Breaking Bad, The Wire or Game of Thrones?
(KW): Breaking Bad!
(EA): Breaking Bad?
(KW): Yes! I've only seen a little bit of The Wire, which I know everyone is all like, oh my god you have to watch the Wire, and I have to be all like, I understand but I just don;t have time right now, form what I've seen I've really enjoyed it but I don't have time. I've seen a few episodes of Game of Thrones too, but Breaking Bad I've watched from the begininning through now and it's amazing. It is fantastically written, it's incredible, it's such an intricate and beautifully written piece of television.
There was a sketch that Michael and I did a while ago called TV Internet Radio Hour, that's like a 1930s radio play that we filmed, and it was about Lost, so it was like an episode of Lost but as a radio play. Now, Michael and I have co-written another episode of TV Internet Radio Hour for Breaking Bad, which should come out before it (Breaking Bad) comes back. It's actually the first thing that I've ever written for Cracked, so it's kind of a big moment for me, because it's finally like I've written something and it's so cool. And yeah it's about Breaking Bad and I had so much fun writing that.
(EA): *Spoiler alert for Breaking Bad* So how emotionally scarred were you when Mike died?
(KW): I don't want to talk about it. I just don't want to talk about that, it mad me very... very sad.
(EA): I don't think that I've ever felt sadder over a genuinely awful character dying.
(KW): He's a horrible person what he's done is awful, but his granddaughter ... I don't know.
(EA): He's just such a great character, I didn't want to see him go.
(KW): That's another thing, when such a complex and amazing character, like him (Mike) gets knocked off in a series, you get sad because you don't have the opportunity to watch that character develop more is now gone. To see a character's journey is that is so amazing that you grow to care about such an awful person, that means that the character was written very well, and for that characters arc to be done, it's sad.
(EA): Well thank you for taking the time out of your day to talk to me, and share your thoughts.