Catie Lazarus’s new talk show asks all the right “wrong” questions about work.
Image by Kristina D.C. Hoeppner via Flickr
By A.M. Brune
Samantha Power had already withstood a tough day: over at the United Nations, she presented a draft Security Council resolution against North Korea that had created the toughest US sanctions regime in more than two decades. Back at the US Mission across the street, she signed off on an internationally brokered, yet very shaky, cease-fire agreement for Syria amid widespread doubts that it would bring peace to the fractured nation.
And at her Waldorf Tower penthouse on Park Avenue, her son Declan, six, had been complaining about her work schedule again: “Why is it always, Putin, Putin, Putin,” she recalled for a packed house at Joe’s Pub. But Catie Lazarus, host of the Employee of the Month show, on which Power appeared last month, saved her toughest question for the end of the interview.
I don’t know about you, but I’m struggling over whether to vote for the monster I know and the monster I don’t.
“You once called Hillary Clinton a monster. I want to know, is she really a monster?” Lazarus asked Power. Power paused for thought and took her microphone: “We national security folk, we’re supposed to stay out of the thicket of politics,” she said diplomatically.
Lazarus served up a one-liner: “Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m struggling over whether to vote for the monster I know and the monster I don’t.”
The line was archetypical Lazarus: adorably innocent with a hidden edge — or agenda. By playing on a curiosity and awe with all things social, cultural, and political, while simultaneously lampooning them, Lazarus has taken her Employee of the Month show (EOTM) – described by Lazarus as a show about work and the “special snowflakes who love what they do” – from relative obscurity to a sell-out show every month at Joe’s Pub. Among her big “gets”: Jon Stewart just after announcing his departure from The Daily Show; former New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson revealing her tattoos; Lin Manuel Miranda performing the hip-hop Hamilton mix tapes; and most recently Samantha Power breakdancing.
“I created the type of talk show I want to watch,” Lazarus said after the show. “At least in the US, interviews on talk shows often feel like commercials for celebrities to shill their latest product. People, like Jon Stewart and Ambassador Power, who are highly selective about what types of interviews they do are deluged with their work and may find the pat questions from typical press junkets and glitzy talk shows mind numbingly painful…I ask questions my guests typically don’t get asked, offer a platform to speak candidly and have a bit of fun.”
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While the US Department of State portrayed Power’s appearance as just a regular stop – “Ambassador Power has worked with The Public Theater in the past on events surrounding performances of Eclipsed and Hamilton…of course she was inclined to do EOTM,” a spokesperson said – Lazarus had her eye on the controversial author and statesman for a number of years.
“I rarely invite politicians as they rarely engage in genuine conversations publicly,” said Lazarus, who interned at Voice of America while genocide unfolded in Kosovo and Burundi. “Ambassador Power made a name for herself critiquing the US government, but then chose to work within it. She’s also become a shrewd politician, willing to negotiate with Putin, even when her kids are fed up…a quintessential Employee of the Month Award winner.”
Although in hindsight, comedy may have seemed like a natural path for Lazarus – a descendant of the Midwestern Lazarus department store chain that folded into Macy’s – after finishing Wesleyan University in 1999, she enrolled in a doctoral program for Psychology. Following an impromptu improv lesson from Tina Fey at an Empower Program conference in DC, Lazarus dropped out of her degree and started doing comedy open mic nights at Stand Up New York. Duly emboldened, she went on to win standup contests across the city and perform storytelling at The Moth, The Rejection Show and Upright Citizen Brigade’s Asssscat, which features improv between UCB regulars and actors from well-known television shows and movies.
The off-the-cuff Asssscat most influenced Lazarus’s irreverent show. With more than 250 interviews since she began EOTM as a podcast in 2011, a turning point nevertheless took place in April 2015 when Stewart came on to talk about directing Rosewater, leaving Comedy Central and being fired from Woolworth’s by his brother.
“It’s so fun when people do stuff you might not know they can do. Martha Plimpton read this hilariously bad poetry she’d written for these pharmaceutical advertisements. Gloria Steinem tap-danced and is truly an excellent dancer. Bobby Cannavale sang his favorite karaoke song,” Lazarus said. The comedian books famous people almost solely by word of mouth, gaining references often from previous appearances.
In addition to the interviews, EOTM has a MC, Jelly Donut, a beatboxer named Shockwave and a house band led by Eric Biondo, all of whom play foil to Lazarus’s gags. She always opens with a monologue, usually a schtick on “cutting-edge employment news” – using PowerPoint. This time, before Power came on stage, she quipped about the new American Girl doll “Melody,” a black doll who is a “singer and a civil rights activist before the age of five.” Between bits, the band argued over who owned the intern.
“There are times when I wish I could have been heard more, but as anyone who’s had a boss knows, it’s hard to do what you want sometimes,” Power said.
Lazarus took Power back to her days as a journalist, producing a copy of her infamous book, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide (after announcing that it had gone out of print) and traced Power’s trajectory to UN Ambassador. “There are times when I wish I could have been heard more, but as anyone who’s had a boss knows, it’s hard to do what you want sometimes,” Power said.
“At the end of the day, however, I know President Obama wants me in the room duking it out and having a voice.”
After Lazarus’s asked Power to show off her talent, Power broke it down to “Rapper’s Delight,” which received a standing ovation and “prizes,” including a “Shakespearean Insult” mug and a Park Slope Food Coop bag. Lazarus’ third and fourth Employees of the Month, Tunisian singer Emel Mathlouthi and mockumentarian Michael McKean, “may not have known of one another’s work, or might seem different only on the surface, but are interconnected or are one another’s spirit animal,” she said. Indeed, Samantha Power had been an extra in a made-for-TV movie, A Father’s Homecoming, that McKean did in the 1980s. “It’s not one you’ll find on Netflix,” he joked after he and Lazarus watched her favorite scene from This is Spinal Tap.
“I live for genuine conversations,” said Lazarus, who handed out personalized “Employee of the Month plaques at the end of the show. “Every job comes with crap, but it’s fascinating to hear the particular perks, pleasures, perils and perversities of people’s particular paths.”
Adrian Margaret Brune, a Manhattan-based freelance journalist, has covered international relations, domestic affairs and culture for newspapers, magazines and websites such as The Guardian, The New Yorker, This Land Press, The Hartford Courant, The New York Times — and now Guernica. She is also the author of magazine cover stories for the Chicago Tribune Magazine, Boston Globe Magazine, and The Nation, among others. Despite the Internet economy, she remains a shoe-leather journalist who generates nearly every article she writes from pitch to print.