Spotlight: Employee of the Month’s Catie Lazarus on interviewing the who’s who of the world
Catie and Jon Hamm by Andrew Walker courtesy of Shutterstock
Catie Lazarus might have one of the coolest jobs in New York, interviewing the likes of actor Jon Hamm, singer Patti LuPone, United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power, and even a hand model. As the host of Employee of the Month, a live interview series at Joe’s Pub, Catie delves deep into her interviewees’ careers, adding in some of her own fun (she used to be a stand-up comic) alongside Lin Manuel Miranda’s Freestyle Love Supreme, the hip hop host band, and a sketch illustrator. 6sqft recently reversed roles, offering Catie the chance to be the interviewee and talk about her job.
You were pursuing a doctorate in psychology and then began doing stand-up. What inspired the transition from academia to comedy?
It’s really painful, so I think thank goodness that’s the direction I went in. I just remember being in the library wondering how many weeks it would take before my body was found and thought, this may not be the right fit for me. I dropped out of my doctorate, moved to New York, and was in a class when someone said, “Come do stand up, you’re really funny.” So I went and I killed it. I won a free trip to San Francisco and was told I was the next sexy Tina Fey by the booker. I go to collect my prize and I’m told that the word trip is ambiguous; it was just going to be a free tasting meal. That was a good entry to stand up.
I loved stand up because I met so many phenomenal people. I think it’s one of the hardest jobs outside of being a surgeon and doing something really noble — going on the road to strange cities, not knowing where you are some days, performing in front of a group of strangers and hoping that you resonate is a lot to ask of people.
How did Employee of the Month come about?
It came about because I could not figure out how to break into writing for television. I couldn’t get a job writing for the weather. I didn’t understand the steps to break into it, and it sounds perhaps simplistic when I say something like that, but now comedy and comedy writing are more of a business. People say, okay go to UCB (Upright Citizens Brigade), but those things weren’t really pre-professional institutions and they really aren’t now either. So I started Employee of the Month because I wanted to hear about people’s experiences.
Doing stand up, I got all these odd jobs during the day. You’re like, wait a minute, I’m sorry, so you just do braces for dogs? Wait, someone’s a hand model? I started meeting some interesting folks, and I wanted to know what is was that inspired them. We spend most of our lives at work, so learning about people’s work lives is fascinating, and it’s the only talk show about this. I look at people and how they define success and what that means to them. I think 250 interviews later, I’ve gotten a wonderful glimpse into what the steps are.
Catie with her Employee of the Month crew. L to R: Michael Arthur (show illustrator), trumpeter Eric Biondo (of Antibalas), beat boxer Chris Sullivan, Catie Lazarus, MC Andrew Bancroft (of Chris & Andrew of FreeStyle Love Supreme fame), and keyboardist Justin Carroll at Joe’s Pub. By Andrew Walker courtesy of Shutterstock
How do you approach interviews?
I feel like I could ask someone, “Is the sky blue,” and they’ve answered the question 700 times blue and then for whatever reason they decide that today it’s purple. That’s why I try not to ask questions I think I know the answer to because every time I do, it backfires. My point is not to make them uncomfortable, but to ask real questions. I really want them to enjoy themselves and have an open conversation where I can ask questions they don’t normally get. Lewis Black teared up talking about his dad, and I don’t know if he was surprised by how much love and pride he has in his father, but he was probably surprised to cry on stage at that point and really feel it. I think the audience was so grateful to be a part of that moment.
Based on your encounters, who has one of the most interesting jobs in New York?
One of the people I love who I interviewed is cartoonist Al Jaffee, who did the first fold outs for Mad Magazine. He is 95 and has been working for 60 years. It saved his life as a kid when he narrowly escaped the Holocaust. His mother sadly didn’t. When he came here, one of his teachers saw what a great artist he was and said, “You should go to LaGuardia,” which at the time was a new school. He and another classmate became two of the greatest cartoonists we’ve ever had in history. They created their jobs for themselves; at the time no one knew that it could be an industry and now it is.
Emily Nussbaum, Catie Lazarus, Stacy London, Joy Behar and Janeane Garofalo at backstage at Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in Chelsea. Photo taken by Nolan Conway
What’s your greatest takeaway from your interviews?
I learn a great deal about how other minds work – some are far more brilliant than mine will ever be. And of course there’s always the sheer humanity within all of us and that can be familial and really makes me want to keep going. Mainly, I see it as a privilege to spend time in someone’s world. It’s generous of them to open up and I love that they have fun. That’s my favorite part. It’s so rare to have a calling, but even if you have a sense of purpose, which is not quite the same thing, you’re on the right track and you’re still luckier than you might realize.
At 9:30 p.m. on September 22nd at Joe’s Pub, Catie will be interviewing Maya Rudolph, Laura Benanti and Issac Oliver. Click here to purchase tickets.
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[This interview has been edited for clarity]