Kate Willett: What I Learned From Making My First Comedy Album
“Working on an album made me feel like I had a say in my creative destiny.”
It’s a great way to take charge of your career. In 2016, I moved from San Francisco, where I started doing comedy, to Los Angeles. It was the move every San Francisco comic knew they needed to make someday—simultaneously the responsible thing to do and also not responsible at all, because, comedy.
I missed the weirdness of San Francisco. In L.A., I spent hours in traffic wondering how I was going to get anywhere I wanted to go, literally and metaphorically. I felt bad for resenting the wonderful weather and I tried to look chill, like I had a medical marijuana card. Los Angeles is a beautiful city where many of the best artists in the world live, but it’s also a city of gatekeepers. Sometimes it felt like everything I wanted to do as a comedian depended on someone else saying yes.
I needed a goal to put my heart into, something that didn’t require approval from anyone else. Making a comedy album felt like the perfect project.
Any comic can make an album. It’s easier if you have a producer, but I’ve also heard some amazing self-produced albums (which those comics keep 100% of sales from). I worked with Rooftop Comedy/Audible, which means they paid for the upfront costs, and in return, take a percentage of sales. Logistically, Rooftop took care of all the actual recording, then sent me the recorded tracks for my input on editing. We talked about my idea for cover art, and they helped me find a photographer (Mindy Tucker) who did a great job realizing my vision of a Courtney Love-inspired album cover.
Working on an album made me feel like I had a say in my creative destiny again. Having a clear goal gave me renewed enthusiasm and concentration. I had a reason to tinker with the wording of jokes, to find a new tag, to figure out how two bits went together. There are tangible benefits too—when you put an album out, you’ll have something to promote, blogs might write about you, and you’ll probably make a little bit of money every month from sales and streaming. But most importantly, you’re deeply invested in your creative process again. You’re sending a message to other people (and most importantly yourself) that you’re serious about working on your standup.
It doesn’t have to be perfect. I first decided to do an album about a year and a half before I actually recorded. I knew I wanted to do it, but I was terrified of recording jokes that I knew wouldn’t be as good as what I’d write in a year or five years.
I listened to a bunch of first albums from comics I loved, and I noticed a trend—they’d grown as comics substantially since they recorded their first albums. Not everything about their albums was perfect. They just captured a moment in time.
Living in L.A. wasn’t for me after all, at least not that year. At the end of 2016, I decided to head to New York. Before I left, I wanted to record all the jokes that I had written about California, particularly the time I spent in the Bay Area, living in co-ops, dating polyamorous guys, arguing about conspiracy theories with stoners. I had a feeling my life would change a lot in New York—it felt like I was moving on to a new chapter. (Although, as it turns out, you find your people anywhere you go.) Plus, there was this skater dude I had a bad crush on and I had written like a hundred jokes about him. Both of us were ready for me to move on from him as a topic.
So I decided to take the leap and record. I recorded over two nights at the art commune where I produced a show in San Francisco in front of an audience that had been coming to my shows for years. Some jokes I didn’t do again after the album. Some I continued to work on and improve, and they are better now than when I recorded. It’s a moment in time. Not perfect. But a moment I’m really glad I got to capture.
It’s a good chance to think about how all your material goes together. I had written a bunch of jokes over the few years before my album, and hadn’t consciously tried to create a theme or through-line in my jokes. However, because I was reckoning with some themes in my personal life, there was a way that all my jokes were related.
For me, it all tied together around this central premise of what it means to be a female screw-up—there’s so much more space for men in our culture to rebel, be gross, make mistakes. All the jokes on the album explored one aspect of that theme or another. The process of putting it all together showed me some things about who I was at that moment. I don’t think my next album will be about the same themes—hopefully it will be about achieving wild success and also having a wonderful stable relationship. Yeah, okay, probably not. But, it’s great to let one set of themes and obsessions go, and see what comes next. Here’s hoping it’s lovely and also funny.
Last bit of advice: make sure some tracks are clean. You’ll make way more money in streaming if at least some of your tracks are radio-friendly. If only I had thought of that shit.
Kate Willett is a comedian, actress, and writer who has appeared on “The Jim Jefferies Show,” VICELAND’s “Flophouse,” and Comedy Central’s “This Is Not Happening.” Her 15-minute special will premiere on Netflix in 2018.