Laughter Is Coercive: An Interview With Caitlin Bergh

by: In Our Words Staff/Patrick Gill

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Starting this weekend, at Studio Be, 7:30, 7 dollars.

It’s a strange, but lovely feeling when you find a person to be both energetic and eloquent.  It’s both ebullient and grounding, making you feel so nice that you choose to use words like ebullient.  My interview with comedian/storyteller/writer Caitlin Bergh felt like that.

The afternoon after seeing her shake Zanies with laughter at the Queer Comedy Season 3 opener, Bergh sat down with me with the same conversational confidence and friendly banter she has on stage, just you know, not amplified.  We talked extensively about performance, writing, cumming, and moms reading our work (and not recognizing how hard we sometimes work to keep something clean enough for them to read). Then we started the interview.  With her one woman show CHUNKS coming up, her work as a cast member at the Lincoln Lodge, and various shows around town, there was plenty to talk about.

In Out Words:  Many of our readers know you from your deep and darkly funny stories, but you are also well known as a performer around town, doing live lit.  Did you start writing and move to performance, or move to writing after performing? 

Caitlin Bergh:  I always wanted to be a writer, when I moved to Chicago, that was a goal.  But a lot of my writing was too dark, it wasn’t good-dark.   Just really sad.

I had a hard time getting people to read any of my stuff, so I just stopped.  Eventually I discovered stand up.  After doing stand up for a year, I started writing again, and it started to come to me more and more.  All the missing pieces were there.  I really developed my voices as a writer while I was on stage.

When I first started writing again, I was nervous, really nervous.  Before, I had sent out so many things, and I always got rejected.  I don’t think anyone is done working on their voice, but at least it’s more enjoyable.

IOW: You are also a damn well accomplished stand-up comedian, what do you do differently when telling a story than in a stand-up set? 

CB: The most obvious thing is the progression of bits.  With stories, it’s still bits, but woven into a narrative.  With stand up, it’s more open.  There is still a movement, but more with themes.  Like theme of welfare, in my triathalon bit*. How that works later into my bits on social work.

Stand up is harder to remember, you remember a how a story moves.  Also storytelling audiences are nicer.

IOW: Really, how?

CB: Oh yeah, comedy audiences are meaner. Well, they’re tougher, they feel like they paid for this so they should get more.

IOW: Like “Make me laugh monkey, you are on that stage for my entertainment.”

CB: Exactly.

With a comedy audience, you have to warm them up, you have to get them to like you.  With storytelling they are more there to observe.**

IOW:  How do you adapt to an audience?

CB: If you have an NPR audience, and you say that a girl had a huge bush, they will recoil.  If you say huge bush in dive bar, you are their hero for the night.

It depends on how you want to feel like shit, really.  Do you want to feel like shit, because you sold out, or because you didn’t get any laughs.  But I think as long as you be yourself hard enough, you can win anyone over, it just takes time.

IOW: Tell us about your upcoming show, CHUNKS, what should we be expecting? 

CB: There’s, a lot.  I do talk about some stuff that you don’t want grandma to hear.  It has to do, I think, with my audience.  It’s a collection of funny stories with a painful and dark root.  Chunks are at that root, they reoccur in stories; what type of chunks is a secret.   The theme though is that we are all disgusting, and if you don’t believe that, you are just trying to fool yourself.

IOW: You tend to get very personal with your stories and comedy, has this always been your style?

CB: Yes, what drove me to get on stage was a burning need to share the things that no one needed to hear.  There’s some reason that we keep things like that down, and the root of that repression is that kind of discrimination or judgment.

A lot of the time women, when they talk about sexuality on stage, they are called filthy.  When men do it, it’s fine, it’s just what they do, it’s normal.  I’m just going to keep talking about things I find funny on stage till it’s fine.

I also think I get away it too because I am “cute”, which is actually kind of a problem.  I think people are surprised at what I am saying.

So many things in our culture are telling women to become an object, were never the creepy ones, were not pursuing, and that’s not true, I do that.  I have been watching the Bachelor lately, though, which is… yeah.

IOW: Are there more reasons  why you tend to tell these kind of stories?

CB: It’s all I know, but I know it connects to you somehow; in a way it’s not really all about me, it’s more about the shared points.

IOW: I have also noticed in your comedy you tend to mix in some social justice style commentary, stemming from your work as a social worker, is this also you feel is important?

CB: Yes, it definitely is.  I want to feel like I am doing a little bit more, that people are thinking in a new way, when I perform.  I hope after my I perform they look at people in a new way, they challenge how they think, especially about people; or that maybe a few days later they think about what I said and laugh, and think about the situation they’re in.

Through humor, I really want to break down divisions we make.  We make so many judgments, off of one thing someone said or you see, I want to dissolve a lot of those by laughing at the divisions.  It’s a lofty goal.  If they are drunk enough they might not remember anything, but it’s possible.  Laughter is one of the most coercive things you can do to someone, you can weaken them.

IOW: You, and I mean this is the most respectful and complimentary way, are one of the biggest hustlers I have seen in comedy—you are booked all over, you have your show at Studio Be, you are performing at DePaul soon, you have #Ladybros, Lincoln Lodge, Performance Anxiety, and The Funny Story Show monthly, or even weekly. And a day job.  How you manage your time, seriously, do you have any tips?

CB: I don’t know if I recommend what I do to anybody.  I think I’m a little crazy.  I’ve always been this way, I go fully in.  I feel like you either have this temperament or don’t.

You can succeed without it.  Some people are just funny, they get booked, they can wait.  I can’t sit and wait, especially because I want to make this a career.  I’m not interested in waiting.  And I love organizing, running a show.

IOW: Any final things you would want us to know?

CB: I don’t want to say something cheesy, so I just want to thank your website for being wonderful, for encouraging me to keep writing and building up the community.

*Bergh’s set is really on point on social issues and making fun of things like heterosexism and class stratification, her joke about triathalons is the best example of it, it is worth any distance or dollar to get to and see in action (I won’t try it here, again, see it, you’ll like it).

**After the interview, while chatting, Patrick (the interviewer) likened performing stand-up, warming them up and getting them to like you before you go into jokes, to fisting—Bergh agreed.

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