Inside New York City nightclub Joe’s Pub, the tables are jammed together to allow for maximum capacity, personal space be damned.
The only significant source of light comes from the small stage in front, where a table draped in black is flanked by a sketch artist whose drawings are being projected on a screen overhead, and a four-piece house band provides a soundtrack to idle chatter. On a recent evening, everyone in the room was either warming up or settling in for writer and comedian Catie Lazarus’s Employee of the Month, a monthly variety show in which Lazarus interviews people of interest–to her, sure, but also a growing audience.
In April alone, Lazarus spoke with TV producer and writer Cindy Chupack (who brought a suitcase filled with homemade cookies for the audience), legendary Bergdorf Goodman personal shopper Betty Halbreich (who got choked up recounting her friendship with the late Joan Rivers), comedian Justin Sayre (who belted out classic and original tunes in a stunning pair of blue high heels), and Oscar-winning actress Olympia Dukakis (who Lazarus challenged to a fencing match–and lost). As these examples indicate, Lazarus’s interview style is loose and improvisational, and her show has a just-barely-staying-on-the-rails vibe.
Since 2010, the Employee of the Month live show, as well as the weekly podcast, have been an unpredictable circus of characters with Lazarus as the fearless ringleader. It’s where Jon Stewart first spoke publicly after announcing that he would be leaving The Daily Show. It’s where Jill Abramson gave her last interview before leaving The New York Times as executive director. Lazarus plays the consummate sounding board for her guests to tell their stories but, as evidenced during her live show, she’s also a showman, engaging her audience whenever possible–for example, at the show I attended, she hid lotto tickets underneath tables and asked the winners about themselves.
Consider it all practice for act two of Lazarus’s talk-show career: television. It’s something she’s been thinking about, as well as a grab bag of other random topics. I met Lazarus at The Writer’s Guild office a few days after her April show at Joe’s Pub. And then it was time for the interviewer to be the interviewed.
You’ve amassed quite a resume with various gigs–is there anything you haven’t done?
I’ve had tons of odd jobs. I’ve interviewed CEOs at Johnson & Johnson and Microsoft where I was off camera–but interviewing them so they feel comfortable. Hopefully, I’m able to put people at ease regardless of whoever they are. I’d say my first thing is hosting a talk show and the second would be writing for television or new media–is [that] what you’re called?
Yes, that is what us millennials do: “new media.”
If anyone uses the term “new media,” rest assured they are on Hotmail. If a guy gives me his email and it’s Hotmail, I’d just as well be given a wrong number.
You’re doing so much. Do you ever feel that your creativity is fragmented? Do you ever want to focus on one thing?
Yes. I’d love to be able to host my own talk show weekly in a format that allowed for so many more guests, because I actually have too many guests and I can’t get them all on. In an ideal world, I’d have a television show and we could have it all the time so then you could have really long interviews with guests.
Have you been approached to have your own TV show?
I get approached–it’s just not quite right from the right channels.
What channel would be right for you?
I think there a lot of great cable outlets for it. There are so many exceptional channels right now. It’s just a question of them allowing shows to develop well. Having a really good boss who’s also a mentor is so rare. Someone has to go to bat for you.
Is there someone going to bat for you?
Um, Jesus? I’ve had a lot of phenomenal guests on the show who have recommended other people to do the show–that’s how I get most of my guests. I would say that’s true for most things in my business. Most things are from someone taking the time to say, Hey, you’re good–let me help you.
Is turning Employee of the Month into a TV show your end goal?
It’s my end goal in that I would be able to share these interviews with more people. Having things like a salary and resources are invaluable. To be able to make a living wage and to be able to pay people a living wage and to be able to have the resources to do the interviews justice–I envy people who have all the resources but don’t know what to do with them. It’s a whole different ballgame. The fact that if I walk into a meeting and a TV exec cares about how many Twitter followers I have versus the depth of the interview or the fact that people say things on my show that they don’t normally do . . . Like, Jill Abramson’s interview in The New York Times office. I actually didn’t share one part of that interview. Very rarely, but sometimes, I will edit things.
Why is that?
Because people aren’t always as artful in what they want to say. I’m not artful as an interviewee! I’m praying that you’re going to patch this together.
I got your back. Speaking of your guests, you’ve bagged some amazing talent over the years.
That makes it sound like we slept together, and I want to say the rumors are true! Wait, there are no rumors? Shit. Start ‘em! What about Ryan Gosling?
Our photo guy is amazing–he can Photoshop something together.
Perfect. In fact, you can add [his girlfriend] Eva Mendes. She’s gorgeous, too, and I’d be happy with either of them.
Okay, let’s try this again: You’ve booked some amazing guests over the years, some of whom would seem more comfortable being interviewed by, say, The New Yorker and not a comedian with a podcast. How do you get those big interviews?
I drug them. I couldn’t agree more. I feel really lucky for the people who took a chance on me. Because there’s no reason for them to necessarily do the show and yet they did. And what it offers is a chance to talk to a whole new audience who doesn’t know them, so you get to learn about someone new. Whether you’re in the audience or on stage, you will get something out of this. Meanwhile, a lot of the guests have had wonderful things happen together since doing the show. Stephin Merritt ended up writing music for Simon Rich’s new show. It is a real win-win. It’s a labor of love. I try to get them little gifts that make them happy or at least amuse them, because interviews can be really painful sometimes.
Do you pre-interview your guests?
I try to. It tends to be a better interview if I meet them beforehand. I don’t know if you have that same experience, too.
I prefer not to pre-interview, but you’re putting on a show–I imagine you would want it to flow and be entertaining . . .
And thoughtful. I like it when people can be both funny and thoughtful. The fact that Lewis Black could tear up on stage and be serious is important to me if not more so than to need to be funny. I like that the show is genuine conversations. I don’t ask questions that I know the answer to, or think I know the answer to, because any time I do, they’re going to give me a different answer. I’ll interview someone, and in 18 interviews they said they love mint chocolate chip ice cream. If I go and say, What’s your favorite ice cream? They’ll be like, “I’m lactose intolerant.” And I’m like, What the hell?!
You have your live show as well as your weekly podcast. What do you gain and/or lose from interviewing someone in front of a paying audience?
They’re two different experiences. When you do a live interview, what’s exciting about that is sharing it with a community. I have such an eclectic taste and genuine thirst for understanding in a lot of different areas. Therefore I can draw from all these different things and introduce you to a cabaret star, and then introduce you to the Guinness Book of World Records holder for most Guinness Book of World Records, but also talk to a marketing exec.
Back to TV talk-show dreams, isn’t there something to be said for having your own, scrappy DIY kind of show?
That question is more complicated, because there are people who have a lot of independent wealth that they can then take that cushion or that money–it’s a different thing to be an established actor or writer or director and decide to do an independent project than it is to be starting out and unfortunately not being seen. I do agree that it is really nice to be able to have your own voice, but there are certain television and radio shows where they let those people develop. Jad Abumrad, who was on my show, was given three years to develop Radiolab. Jimmy Fallon, Seth Meyers, all these people were given an opportunity to develop their own voices, and they’re given millions of dollars to do so. So I don’t know what that experience is like, and I don’t fault them. I actually think it’s great–I envy them. I need to change my name to Jimmy.
Speaking of comedians as journalists . . .
Hold on. Do you really consider them journalists?
In terms of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.
Stephen Colbert is one of the greatest interviewers of all time.
And John Oliver.
John Oliver is remarkable.
Right. Even though they may not have a degree in journalism, they’re able to have these thought-provoking interviews.
But we’re looking at exceptional individuals. I feel like if you asked Jon Stewart to run a dry cleaning business, he would run the most eco-friendly, sustainable dry cleaning business that would somehow help people all over the world and inform them about trade and labor and steaming versus ironing. What makes them good comedians is being good listeners and being open to growing. That is true for journalists as well, so there’s crossover there. [Employee of the Month] just happened to be the perfect amalgamation of everything I love: it’s comedy, it’s journalism, and it’s learning from other people how they really are versus who you want them to be.
What’s your motivation to keep going until you reach that huge break?
I’m so driven, and I believe in what I do so much. I picked what I do because it was the thing I was willing to make mistakes at and keep doing. I am willing to keep learning and growing, and I think that is what propelled me to say let me keep doing this.
How do you balance pushing for thoughtful interviews with entertainment?
I want them to be able to be themselves and to speak as they wish in that sense. That’s also what I love about the live shows–I’m taking this audience with me on a journey that neither of us knows what the ending is going to be. I’m okay with not knowing. I live with so many unknowns and I’m cool with that, so you’re going to come along with me and trust that we’re going to get through this alive because so far I have.