Comedian Katie Halper riffs on Zabar’s and socialist summer camp
Katie Halper refers to herself as a stereotype of the Upper West Side. “My dad’s a psychiatrist. My mom’s an English professor and a novelist,” she explained. She identifies as Jewish, but in the secular sense, and uses that in her comedy. “I’ll do stuff about anything from Zabar’s to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
The 34-year-old is making a name for herself in the political comedy world of New York City. Describing herself as “liberal, progressive, left,” she is very much aware of the fact that she’s not alone in her thinking here in the city. “It’s funny, people are always like, ‘You’re preaching to the choir,’ but the choir deserves to be entertained,” she said.
This year, she was given her own weekly radio show on WBAI, “The Katie Halper Show,” where she brings on guests such as historians, journalists, organizers and of course, fellow comedians, and they give their takes on the news, the arts, politics and pop culture.
On November 18th, she will host Laughing Liberally, an offshoot of Living Liberally, the troupe, of which she is a member, that creates social events around progressive politics. Her documentary “Commie Camp” about Jewish activist-founded Camp Kinderland, which she attended as a youngster, will play at Anthology Film Archives on December 14.
How did you get started in comedy?I’ve always been very political. I went to Wesleyan University in Connecticut and when I was in college, I thought that I would go to law school. I remember one day at Wesleyan, people were like, “Katie, you should be in the standup show.” And I said, “I don’t do standup. I’m not funny on command.” Because they thought I was funny. So I did the show. I just basically told stories about my family, and my grandmother, in particular. There was a really nice and funny woman who was the headliner named Susan Prekel and she was really encouraging. But I was reluctant to perform. There was something I always thought was kind of obnoxious about actors and performers. I was also more political, so it took me a while to admit that I liked performing.
What was it like growing up on the Upper West Side?Well, I’m the product of a mixed marriage, my mom is Bronxian and my dad is Queensian. But I’m a walking stereotype of the Upper West Side. It’s very Woody Allen. Actually, there’s a part in the film “Annie Hall” where Allen meets a character named Allison Portchnik, who is played by Carol Kane, and tries to size her up and says, “You’re like New York, Jewish, left-wing, liberal, intellectual, Central Park West, Brandeis University, the socialist summer camps and … father with the Ben Shahn drawings, right, and … strike-oriented kind of, red diaper …” But I grew up on Riverside Drive, not Central Park West, and went to Wesleyan, not Brandeis. I even went to the socialist summer camp, Camp Kinderland, which was founded by secular Jewish workers in the 1920s. My mom, uncle and grandmother worked there and I made a documentary about it called “Commie Camp.” It’s funny because I didn’t use to identify as Jewish because I’m not at all religious. But now I realize that there is a secular Jewish identity and tradition, which I very much have.
New York Magazine called you “Stephen Colbert crossed with Sarah Silverman.” How do you describe your comedic style?Like Colbert. I am ironic or satirical and sometimes pseudo self-congratulating, but I break character all the time. My normal character is just me. Actually someone just gave me a blurb today and she’s like, “You’re quirky and incisive, but never mean.” I like to get people to tell me stories. I really like listening to people and asking them questions. Often I’ll have people talk, not just about the current events, but also about their lives. I like to get them able to relax. And when I do standup, it varies between short, cerebral jokes or storytelling. Sometimes it’s sarcastic. It’s about politics. It’s about dating. More and more it’s about dating, actually. Thank God for small favors, like terrible dates, which make great art. It’s all going in the book that I want to write one day.