Kate Berlant’s 36-minute special for The Characters series on Netflix opens in a most remarkable way, as she barely appears onscreen in the first few minutes. Instead, one after another, real-life artists, actors and architects sing the praises of the performance artist “Denise St. Roy.” Casey Jane Ellison, Jemima Kirke, Tony Berlant, Todd Oldham, Frank Gehry, Billy Powers, Ed Moses, Alicia Silverstone, Peggy Noland, and Benksy all appear as themselves.
“All of us, all of her friends and I have been looking forward to what she’s going to come up with next. It could be any scale. It could be the scale of a desk. It could be the scale of a pin. It could be the scale of the world,” Gehry says, lifting his eyes up to the sky.
The world-famous 87-year-old architect is lauding a fake artist whose pretentious ideas about art meets mainstream commerce in a very seriously silly way. Which all is a dream come true for the very real Berlant, whose very real father not only helped open doors for her on the opening sequence, but also appears as himself in it, too.
Tony Berlant, Kate’s father, is a painter in the Los Angeles art scene. Had he done much acting before? “No. Although he is such a good actor. Actually he was in Kids Say the Darndest Things when he was a kid,” Kate said. The family’s art connections helped when asking favors for some of the artists who appeared. Of Gehry, Kate told The Comic’s Comic: “I was dreaming of having him in it…he was truly such a genius in the moment.” Silverstone’s appearance “was another shot in the dark.” The opening was so big and fun, Berlant said she and Andrew DeYoung had a difficult time editing it down to size.
Because she still needed a half-hour to lead us further into the world of her Denise St. Roy — from the students she teaches, to her art dealer, her collaborator, her twin daughters and husband, and her sometimes desperate attempts to reach out in friendship with her housekeeper. Berlant also portrays a couple of ancillary characters, too, including a girls’ softball coach, and an enthusiastic YouTuber with her own TV show.
In multiple moments, Berlant through her characters appears to be making grander statements about art and whether/how it can be appreciated or critiqued. Does it, as her art dealer, suggests, have to have a clear message (while juxtaposed with a ridiculous human art piece)? Or is it immune to clear interpretation or criticism, as her artist suggests during an interview?
“I have my own complicated feelings about making work and talking about it,” Berlant told me this week. She said she relates to “Denise” in how, when you create a persona, the audience may assume a specific intention behind it. “Oh, you’re doing it for a reason,” Berlant said. “Of course…What I want to do I want to see more of. But I also have paralysis in the face of that question.” With Denise, Berlant said she was interested in exploring a persona “that’s precariously on the verge of collapse,” who will not answer the questions in her own interview because she cannot see that she’s a fraud. “So many of us can relate to feeling like frauds.”
Berlant is whip-smart, her onstage characters clearly crafted to skewer audience perceptions of what stand-up can be. But making a full showpiece of character work for Netflix felt a little out of her wheelhouse at first. “I don’t have a sketch background. All the characters you see in this, I didn’t have any of them on ice,” she said. “They were all created for the special.”
She had thought she might have made a stand-up special with some unconventional elements to it; or, perhaps a TV show, which she and her comedy partner John Early are developing, in addition to a series of short films they’re already making now for Vimeo with DeYoung (both Early and Berlant appear in each other’s Netflix specials, too). “It’s so fun to do stuff together, and we have a shorthand which is very helpful when you’re shooting,” Berlant said.
“But I’d never do a pitch for something like this,” she said, had Netflix not given her the opportunity first. So she decided to build her half-hour on one major story. “I’d love to turn around in two months and do it again, maybe some more self-contained sketches.”
The softball coach and the YouTuber are most like that in Berlant’s special for The Characters.
Don’t try to figure out which YouTube star with her own TV show Berlant is spoofing, though. “In no way am I trying to be parodying anyone specific,” she said. “It’s really everywhere. This preciousness. I personally have my own issues with grown women speaking like children. And that’s something I’ll do in my private life, slip into that character, too.”
How will her characters play to a crowd who’s not immediately familiar with Berlant from YouTube or her stand-up? That’s where Netflix’s viewing recommendations come in handy.
“Netflix is great for having something people can see immediately,” she said. What does she hope her comedy is paired with by Netflix’s guides? “I just saw that Citizen Ruth is streaming. So I hope if people watch Citizen Ruth it says…’If you liked Citizen Ruth, you’ll love Kate Berlant. So I’ll take that!”