Kate Lee is not your typical Cornell Law student. A third year student by day, Kate Lee is a stand-up comedian and member of the sketch comedy troupe Skits-o-Phrenics by night. She began this hobby — quickly turning it into much more than a casual interest — during winter break in 2009 and hasn’t looked back since.
The Sun: Why did you initially start doing stand-up?
Kate Lee: I wrote for the comic paper during undergrad [at UCSD.] Then, during winter break of my second year of law school, one of my friends in San Diego was doing stand-up. He asked for some help [with his act] and we did a writing session together. Impressed with my work, he said, “You should do stand up.” The same night at six, I went to an open mic and had my first performance.
Sun: How was the first performance?
K.L.: Recently, I went back and listened to it and it was bad. When you do a joke for the first time, it’s never really good. During that time, I was doing a three- or four-week internship in San Diego, sleeping on couches. Because I’m so considerate, I tried to stay out of the house at night. I went to [comedy] open mics almost every night of the week and met a lot of the guys I had seen doing stand-up.
Sun: Did you have previous experience in theatre or acting?
K.L.: A little bit in high school, more in middle school. I don’t consider myself a performer, that doesn’t attract me to comedy.
Sun: How did you develop your act?
K.L.: That summer, I performed really consistently, five nights a week and every once in awhile I was invited to [comedy] shows.
Sun: How are comedy shows different from open mics?
K.L.: Open mics are on a random night and nobody really goes — there are fewer people in the crowd and people have a less genuine response to good [material]. At a booked show, the audience is more engaged and cares more. There are jokes at a bar on a crappy night that doesn’t go over well that go over real well at shows.
Sun: Do you improvise your material or is it scripted?
K.L.: I have some jokes that I’ve done a bunch of times — I usually mix new and old material. Sometimes I take a joke that I know that works and add something onto it.
Sun: What kind of material do you use?
K.L.: It’s so hard to describe, it’s first person. Everyone says I’m a “smart comic,” but I don’t know what it means. I try to not go really cheap or vulgar. Everything that stereotypical female comics use, I try to avoid.
Sun: Do you ever get bored of using the same material at shows?
K.L.: Sometimes I’m sick of jokes that work, but they’re the ones that work. Because I focus on performance, there’s always still stuff that I can work on.
Sun: How has your style developed as you’ve become a more experienced comedian?
K.L.: When I started, I tried a little bit of everything. I was all over the place, using one-liners out of place and personal stories and other things. Of that, I picked out things that are more my style and I wrote new things that fit into my framework.
Sun: How do you develop new material? Is it a collaborative process with others or an individual one?
K.L.: For the most part, I develop it on my own. I’ve done writing sessions with others, but it’s more helpful about very specific questions. I don’t like brainstorming from scratch with others. Sometimes, after a performance, comics comment on things that work well and don’t — it happens naturally.
Sun: Has being a Cornell Law student developed or changed your content?
K.L.: I don’t talk about law school in my shows. One thing that did change is that I’m a way harder worker at Cornell [than in undergrad]. One thing that’s big is to do [comedy] as much as you can. In San Diego, I’d go out to five crappy nights. On Sunday nights, there were two open mics and some comics wouldn’t wait for the second one. I’d suck it up and put in extra hours.
Sun: Do you find that it feels more like work than play sometimes?
K.L.: Everyone gets into a funk sometimes. [Comics] are always caught up in how you did, that mentality, and the business aspect. I don’t get caught up in the business aspect — I still think of it as a fun thing.
Sun: You talked a lot about how you developed your skills performing in San Diego. Is there a comedy scene in Ithaca?
K.L.: Ithaca doesn’t have a scene — it would be possible to have a weekly open mic, but it’d be 10 people every week. In San Diego, there are 40 comics every week at La Jolla Comedy Store, Comedy Palace and an open mic at an Irish pub, Blarney Stone. I don’t know about the LA scene, but because San Diego’s a smaller scene, there’s more of a community. Every Sunday, people go to the Irish pub and heckle each other. Also, in San Diego, people produce a lot of their own comedy shows.
Sun: At Cornell, you’re also a member of the Skits-o-Phrenics. How has that experience been?
K.L.: I did stand-up all summer. In Ithaca, I found a guy who ran a comedy showcase the year before and he told me to join the Skits-o-Phrenics. It’s a great way to keep myself involved somehow. It’s a great experience in comedy writing — we read a skit, figure out what works and doesn’t work and then bring everything to the stage.
Sun: How has acting in The Skits been different from your solo stand-up work?
K.L.: With stand-up, it’s kind of a solo sport. The Skits are more of a team sport, with the group developing ideas. If someone has ideas that bring [the sketch] in a totally different direction, we do that. I get to work on writing, crafting editing things. It’s been really great, really helpful.
Sun: It sounds like you take being a stand-up artist pretty seriously. Do you consider it more than just a hobby?
K.L.: I don’t have the ability to do it in Ithaca consistently. If I worked hard to give myself stage time [here], I’d have to sink time into it. In August, I’ll go back to San Diego and I’ll have more of a 9 – 5 job and I’ll still work on it at night. I really enjoy it, but I’m not ready to drop out of law school yet.
Be sure to catch Kate Lee and the Skits-o-Phrenics for their spring show on April 1 and 2 at 9 p.m. at the Schwartz Flex Theatre.
Original Author: Chris Leo Palermino