Katharyn Henson on pot noodles, men and the paradox of the healing comedian.
Not so long ago, Katharyn Henson was scrolling through the internet and came upon an advert on craigslist looking for someone to share a spaghetti bath with them. As the ad was old, she couldn’t resist the opportunity of recreating the scene especially seeing as she was working in an S&M sex dungeon at the time. So, she rang up her friend who did headshots, ran to the Asian supermarket for fifty pots of instant noodles and made herself a noodle bath. The headshots are a great, if somewhat weird, ode to Katharyn’s roguish sense of humour. Left with a bathtub of noodles, and fearing them going to waste, she then put them back up on craigslist (someone did bizarrely get in touch a few days later). Katharyn worries that she will never live up to anything that good again.
If you have seen Katharyn perform, or listened to her podcast, you’ll recognise this outlandish and playful strangeness. She muses, “I think my shadow self is what comes out on stage. I say these deep, dark thoughts that people generally would want to hide from the world. If I can’t lean on that, it makes me feel like I’m on a river without a raft.”
Henson came over to the UK to join her Irish husband, Mark, after getting stuck in Australia for six months during the pandemic. They met at the Edinburgh fringe, got married in Melbourne during the pandemic, and set up the podcast This Irish American Life to chronicle their peculiar situation. The podcast is a genuinely honest, entertaining weekly dialogue between Katharyn and her husband Mark, who’s also a comedian.
The podcast has overseen their entrapment in Australia and transition into the comedy scene in the UK, whilst only knowing each other for the equivalent of a few days. She explains, “We were recording the podcast through some of the darkest times of my life. I joke about this at the end of my shows. If there’s a psychology student here, you should listen to this because you’re going to hear people go through some really insane stuff.”
Katharyn is hilarious both on and off the stage. She retains the kind of vulnerability that makes her both tough and soft at the same time, which is where much of her charm lies. She can delicately and defiantly elicit both shock and laughter, whilst weaving through a range of topics all seemingly shamelessly. One of the most notable aspects of Katharyn’s performances is her quick, unfiltered use of language.Her sets move through paedophile jokes to shutting up hecklers by telling them that she just came. With nothing apparently off limits, I ask her how she figures out where to draw the line? Her response is that it has to be done delicately. It has taken her six years to perfect her meth jokes.
Within these six years she has grappled with the harsh and gruelling comedy scene in New York to rise through the ranks and get to where she is now. The way into comedy is cagy and differs depending on where you are. New York has a harsher comedy scene than the UKs, and Katharyn soon found herself tediously working numerous clubs and open mics to build up confidence and experience.
New York’s comedy scene is a gruelling slug of open mics, leafleting and hard work. She sighs and says, “In New York, it’s grimy, it’s awful, we have to stand out there, beg people to come watch us and then bomb in front of them”.
Often, she would be on the street hours before a gig, handing out leaflets and trying to entice busy pedestrians into the club to watch her show. There is no fairy godmother waving her magic wand, especially when you’re one of the 11% of female comedian’s competing in a male-heavy industry.
Why get into comedy then? For many years comedy acted as a form of gratification without the burdensome task of feeling. Over the past few years, she has become more sensitive to her body and feels things more which she finds are at odds to working as a comedian. Her twitter bio reads; ‘trauma response: stand-up comedy’ symbolising the fraught energy behind much of her talent.
For many years she had blinkers on. She was working fifteen, sixteen shows a week, getting three hours of sleep a night, whilst also working a day job… yet feeling nothing the whole time. She tells me, “When I was in New York my skin was thick. I had a wall… several walls. I didn’t even know I had walls, that’s how many walls there were. I was blended with the walls, and I didn’t see anything. But I could pursue a lot. I was constantly going”.
Entertainment is an interesting one to be finding inner peace, she laughs. The industry is built on a culture of backbreaking norms, working ridiculously long hours without much pay. ‘You don’t do it for the money’ is the slogan endlessly chanted amongst creatives in all industries. “Entertainment is not an industry that you join, where people are going to be rewarded for being nice and hardworking,” she says.
Her love for comedy, or need for it, came when she was little and used it as a tool to fill the “never-ending void” left by a variety of things that happened to her over her lifetime. She used to do it because she got this “immediate, pre-approval of love or laughter and then if you didn’t, you know, you could beat yourself up about it, or that’s what I would do.”
The pandemic unlocked a lot of things and forced her to deal with stuff that she hadn’t dealt with from her life. It was extremely difficult to keep the box closed, she says, and now it’s opened it has enabled her to heal and find space for comedy in a different way.
Now, as she heals more, the underlying reasons behind being a comedian have surfaced such as its ability to make people think, ‘hey I’m not alone’. She says, “Through my kind of offbeat, dark humour I’d like to help people. I want people to come up to me and say, thank you and maybe not feel as alone in a world that can be so cold and unfeeling half the time, you know. There is no illusion, it is not an easy thing to do.” Katharyn’s dark humour shines through as she laughs at what she terms, the loftiness, knowing she’ll still be going on stage and cracking meth jokes.
Jack Carter, a leading humourist once said, “The funny part, the laughter, is given to the audience, but the comedian is left with the bitter dregs.” The healed comedian, aware of their need for comedy yet hesitant to allow it to drive them, is an unusual phenomenon. Is it possible to still do it, without the need for the comedy to fill a gaping hole?
An abundance of literature published over the years has focussed on this comedic crisis. The often-cited paper‘The great comedians: personality and other factors’ by Samuel Janus, (published in the American Journal of Psychoanalysis in 1975) investigated the relationship between comedians and their mental health to figure out its function in their success as comedians.
The paper analysed fifty of the most highly successful comedians’ dreams, intelligence and earliest memories and found that 80% of them had some kind of psychotherapy at some point in their life, despite being the most successful in their industry.
The study says: “They repeatedly expressed the fear that if they were successful in (Psychological) analysis, to the point where their suffering was greatly relieved, they would then cease to be funny.”
Katharyn jokes that she actually thinks of quitting three times a day and needs multiple pep talks to keep going. A lens on the industry rather than on her capabilities. She also draws on the continuous work of healing and how it sometimes needs to be put on hold to get on with life (and on stage).
Katharyn was born in Reno, Nevada, a city mostly known for its prostitution, heroin and meth. Also, home to Nevada’s infamous legal brothel The Bunny Ranch. She lived in New York for 15 years before moving to the UK. Leaving New York was “like a very long, crazy Band-Aid that like, you know, pulled your skin off as well.”
Settling in England was equally as challenging. Although Katharyn realises the American Dream is a fantasy, she recognises the extent to which talent and hard work get you places. In the UK, she says, it’s more apparent how much education and wealth lend a hand in securing an agent or management.
Her humour has found more of a home here, something she credits to the repression endemic in English culture, which has also produced a lot of incredible music and art. She says, “When I did the (Brighton and Edinburgh) fringes, I felt my sense of humour and the darker parts of me were embraced quite a bit more than it is in America.” When people are vibing with her she feels it’s partially because she is alluding to the parts of people they usually keep repressed. “I’m hoping to connect to people with their own version of that.”
She thinks America doesn’t always like to have the mirror held to itself. And says “you know, a lot of my jokes are about things that are considered taboo or darker or whatever. While I’ve learned from them and transcended them sometimes people are like, oh, well, you know, why are you talking about that?”
These days she is reaping the success of her hard work (made possible under the glinting American Dream) whilst also warming up to her sensitive side. Yet taking her blinkers off has meant opening up to “some of the bullshit” in the industry that she hadn’t seen before, such as the vast number of men and the challenges around that.
It is a male saturated business, and although there are women Katharyn thinks there are less women who are hobbyists. There are men who go twice or three times a week after work, who she only sees in certain comedy clubs or are just happy doing the open mics.
“I don’t blame them (women) for being concerned about entering a room, I can see why it could be difficult to enter a room where you have like 45 different versions of the same guy telling the same joke. And then being nasty to you when you get on stage like eye rolling or whatever. I’ve had that happen to me. And that is boring. But I guess I thought that is just part of it? I never thought it was because I was a woman. I just thought people are fucking assholes. You know?”
I ask her how we get more women into the industry. She nearly splutters out the sip of coffee she has just taken and cries out “no, no more comedians!” Then smiles and relents slightly: “I just think people should pursue what they love, you know what I mean? And just fuck that. Don’t think about the rest. I think if you want to do it, you gotta do it and put the blinders on.”
You can listen to This American Irish Life on Spotify or AppleMusic and find Katharyn’s upcoming shows and performances at www.ewgirlyounasty.com.
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