A Conversation with Comedian Kate McCarthy about RICKY LAGOON: He Croons!

Kate McCarthy is many things. A young comedian. A college senior at the University of Minnesota. An impressive former intern for Conan, SNL, and Second City. And a singer, kind of, not really. But for one night at The Cedar, she’ll turn into a crooner from the 60s, Ricky Lagoon, to perform both lampoon and love letter to a bygone era of lush big band music.

Before Kate’s comedy concert this Sunday, May 5th, Robert Lehmann, The Cedar’s marketing and booking coordinator, chatted with her to give audiences a better understanding of what to expect and how her show originated. Read on to learn more about Kate’s comedy and vocal background, what she looks for in a comedy scene, some of the comedy gems of Chicago, NYC, LA, and Minneapolis, how young Wayne Newton influenced the show, and her time interning on Conan.

Ricky Lagoon (Played by Kate McCarthy)

Ricky Lagoon (Played by Kate McCarthy)

I want them to know, I’m a college senior and a comedian who likes to sing and I’m excited to tie all that together. If they come to the show, I think they’ll be really refreshed and we’ll have a really fun time with it, but the important thing to know is it’s not just comedy and it’s not just music.

Robert: Your upcoming show is called “Ricky Lagoon: He Croons!” A comedy concert is outside of The Cedar’s usual wheelhouse – what would you like to tell the audience before the show this Sunday?

Kate: Audiences should expect primarily comedy, since I’m a comedian. I love this idea of having music, a concert, though I want it to be mostly funny, because I'm not a singer. I haven’t really been a musician since high school when I played violin and sang with the jazz band. This isn't a way for me to invite everyone to a serious concert, because that's not what I do.

Between the songs will really be where you get a sense of what this little man character, Ricky Lagoon, is. I hope to be spinning lots of wild, fake stories like, “So the thing about Tony Bennett is he'd come into the studio … blah, blah” etc.

Robert: I always think it’s interesting to hear about origins. How did you first get interested in comedy?

Kate: I can remember a few flash moments of making people laugh – classic – and thinking, "I like that and think I could do that. That's a way that I want to communicate and a way I can be seen.”

We had an assignment in sixth grade that had the loosest prompt: “Tell a story and do whatever you want in front of the class for like 15 minutes.” I turned our morning commute to school into a story, my step dad driving me and my siblings. It became this fictionalized absurdist version where we encountered all these fake obstacles and things that happened on the way, and I illustrated that by tossing things into the audience, like wigs and props and things.

I remember my class freaking out and going totally bonkers for it. I mean they're sixth graders, what are they gonna do? I absolutely decimated them, and that was such a high. I thought to myself, "I feel so powerful right now, so warm and loved.”

Then, each eighth grade class at my school had to do a play and every kid had to be in it, which is insane. Of course, there are gonna be lot of kids who don't like this. Our class did Annie, and I got to play Annie, and I suddenly felt like, “This will be my life. This is my calling – I need to be performing.!

So in high school, I seriously studied acting and would spend my lunch in the library reading books about acting and interviews with movie directors. I remember spending a lot of time alone, freshman year of high school in the library reading. That was my special section, the theater and film books.

I was in the theater department and was a mainstay and well-liked, but I wasn't getting great roles. I was always playing characters like a funny little narrator man – sense a theme? Some sad man in an oversized suit where I would say, “You’re under arrest.”

As high school progressed, I started wanting to do improv because I was reading up on comedians. Every comedian who I loved, their commonality was improv. So when I was heading off to college, I thought, "Obviously I'm gonna go to college and do improv.”

One last moment that inspired me to pursue comedy – there was a yearly outdoor comedy show in Golden Gate Park, and I remember going to it a few weeks after Robin Williams died. Since he had meant a lot to San Francisco, my mom decided to take us to this comedy concert tribute to him. That was a crystallizing moment for me. I was watching these comedians and I thought, “I mean, I guess they're kind of funny. I think I could probably write jokes like this.”

I remember going home after that and writing a page of jokes that I still have. And I put it in my desk and said, “When I head off to college in a few months, I will do this.” I jumped into comedy as soon as I got to college.

Robert: So for the other main component of this show, how did singing become a part of your life?

Kate: There was an early moment in preschool when I sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” and I remember my mom saying, “You were good up there, you’ve really got something.” And I remember other moms coming up to me being like, “You made me cry with that rendition.” I was obviously a very small child – I couldn't have been that good! But then my mom would say over the years, “You should sing more Kate, I think you're a great singer.” So I went and I had a few vocal lessons in San Francisco. In high school, I really didn’t do any musicals. My mom always encouraged me, but singing just didn’t really do that much for me until I got to be the singer in my high school jazz band.

That was just a dream because I realized there was this class in school that had a whole big band and they had a singer. You would get to be the singer for the whole band, and you would just get to go up and sing songs with them. No strings attached.

Those were truly some of my favorite memories of high school because two of my best friends Samara and Thomas were in the band, on drums and sax. We had so much fun together and we just loved the music. I took it seriously and felt really at home. It felt like all my years of sitting in the back seat of the car as a tiny baby listening to Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald were coming out of me in an organic way.

I've missed that, and I think that's a huge reason why I wanted to do this show.

My mom is a huge jazz fan. She used to tell us that when she was in high school, in 1970s California, she would listen to Frank Sinatra constantly and it was so lame because that was what your parents listened to; it might have even been two generations removed. She wasn’t interested in stuff like the Eagles at all. And then she passed Frank Sinatra on to us and Chet Baker and Nancy Wilson and so much big band.

So I guess now it’s even more lame, or has neutralized, or maybe come back around to cool?

Young Wayne Newton

Young Wayne Newton

That's long been a favorite genre for me. Then listening to big band, the Franke Sinatra Capitol years, led into some of the other crooners . From him, you can get into Dean Martin, and then Spotify will show you the cheesier Dean Martin songs, and then it'll show you Perry Como, then you're gonna get to Bobby Vinton, etc., and then that eventually brought me to Wayne Newton. Now, I just earnestly listen to 60s lounge music.

Wayne’s the real turning point for this whole show. It's particularly inspired by Wayne Newton. And I know that most people aren't gonna get that from watching the show but that's where it comes from for me.

Robert: Could you say a little bit more about how Wayne influenced the show?

Kate McCarthy starring in one of her own short films, courtesy of Kate McCarthy’s YouTube channel.

Kate: When I listen to his music, I hear it in terms of montages and music I want to put in short films and sketches. It inspires me artistically and really makes me feel like I'm in my own movie.

I got really into Wayne Newton, but specifically young Wayne Newton. I'm really fascinated by him. I think he could have been up there on par with the greats. When we think of Bing Crosby and Bobby Darin, we should be thinking of Wayne Newton too, because young Wayne Newton was a fantastic vocalist.

People remember him for Danke Schoen and then they remember, "Oh isn't he that Vegas singer, like really cheesy country-esque?”, if people even think of him at all. Definitely most people my age are like, “Wayne Newton? Who’s that?”

Wayne Newton performing “Danke Schoen,” courtesy of The Scruffy Looking Nerf Herder’s YouTube channel.

I became more fascinated with Wayne when I was in New York over the summer and in the fall. Tale as old as time, surrounded by people, lonely as hell, just doing my internships and trying to do comedy at night, the greatest comfort for me was watching these Wayne Newton videos of him having so much fun singing “April Showers,” “Only You,” and “Danke Shoen.” There aren't a lot of clips of him performing, so I've seen every one of his clips from early variety shows a bunch of times. He was very effeminate looking and sounding; all of the comments on his YouTube videos are vicious.

They say things like “I didn't know he was a lesbian,” or “Wayne was a woman; everyone knows that,” which ultimately I think is what spurred him to become this Elvis, overly masculine stereotype, a walking character in later life. I think it's just a bare minimum funny exchange for me to be playing Wayne Newton, since Wayne Newton looked very much like a woman and I am a woman playing a male crooner.

I just became obsessed with the lushness of the music, the smoothness of that style of performance, and having confidence while singing such silly lyrics that are largely devoid of depth and at worst very harmful stuff like “Wives and Lovers,” which we'll be doing. A lot of those lyrics are, crazily, very bad in terms of feminism! That's very much a point that's been made a lot – “Did you know that some old jazz music is bad??” Of course it is. I wanted to do something with it and perform it as a send-up, as a lampoon and a love story. It’s something to be made fun of, but also something that’s really guiltily fun to listen to and watch.

Robert: Thanks for sharing all that.

Kate: I should mention, it's so far from just me alone doing the show. There are 10 other musicians involved. A few of them I knew a little bit, and the rest are just through those few initial people, so it's amazing that these strangers agreed to do this show with me. And I'm incredibly grateful to them and two people in particular, Tony Arias and Colby Hansen who arranged all the music. They wanted to do real Wayne Newton arrangements, and so they did that by hand – they really deserve to be celebrated for that.

I have no idea how they did it. They banged out eight tunes. So if anyone should be explicitly shouted out in this interview it should be them.

Robert: You brought up gender conventions earlier when talking about Wayne Newton...

I do think it’s interesting commentary to encourage audiences to ask, “Well if it’s that easy for a 22-year-old woman to slip on the performance of a 40-year-old, macho, ‘60s crooner, what does that say about being a man or a woman in general?”

Kate: It's easy to say that these kind of shows are brave because of exploring gender but really, this isn't courageous or anything like that. This is a character who happens to be a man, and me dressing up as a man is a means to an end. It feels funny or ironic to me that my big show in May is me as a man, because it's the thing I've railed against for so long. I've resented every time someone's said, “Great, so we'll just tie your hair back in a ponytail and put a hat on you.”

In every show I've done on the main stage at the University of Minnesota, I've only ever played a man and so I almost don't want any of my teachers or peers at school to come see this, because I don’t want them to get the satisfaction of seeing me play a man of my own volition!

I'm not particularly overjoyed dressing as a man, or playing up masculinity, but it is a skill set that I lean into pretty well. I have kind of a little man vibe, the energy of a little brother. And so if I like the music from this era and think I could get a lot of great jokes out of this character, I might have to really take a look in the mirror and say to myself, “You're kinda good this, so do it to great effect if you're gonna do it. Do it at The Cedar and do a really good, big show out of it.”

It’s more of a celebration of this music, more than it is a satirization of masculinity, but shows like this have already been done before. I'm not making any new crazy points about gender, but I do think it's interesting commentary to encourage audiences to ask, “Well if it’s that easy for a 22-year-old woman to slip on the performance of a 40-year-old, macho, '60s crooner, what does that say about being a man or a woman in general?” If you can just switch these on and off and if you can perform these experiences, then what does that say about the way we're clenching onto them so much in daily life? But that's not the main focus.

You want to feel playful competition, like, “Man, that joke is so good, You’re killing me out there, man. I wanna write a joke, as good as that.”

Robert: Moving away from the show and more back to your own perspectives on comedy, what do you look for in a thriving scene?

Kate: Boundless interdisciplinary creativity, as well, as a sense of, I won't go so far as to say family, but a real sense of... “Oh, I love these people and we're all pushing each other to be better.”

What I love in a comedy scene is to feel like there's always an exchange and a blurring of lines of performance, so that someone might be doing something that's part-sketch, part improv, part stand-up, part song.

It's pretty easy for things to segment out. You go to this theater to see improv, you go here to see stand-up, and you go here to see music. There's so much fantastic talent here and in so many cities that I really love a scene that feels like you could go to a show and you'll just be spinning over what you saw and how unthinkable it was. How weird, new, surprising, innovative it was. But also on a personal level, it’s crucial to have people who are gonna bring others into the fold.

It's no fun to have a cliquey scene or a negative scene, that runs on toxic competition. You want to feel playful competition, like, “Man, that joke is so good, you're killing me out there, man. I wanna write a joke as good as that.”

I'm really lucky to have been taken care of as long as I've been doing comedy. I was 18 when I came here for school and started doing comedy, and people have been nothing but encouraging and shepherding of me. I’m so grateful for every time someone took a moment to message me on Facebook and say, "I saw you last night. You're really good. Keep it up.” Or to have someone put faith in me, and have me on a show when I was really new, or then give me a bigger show. It’s really special to feel like people would list you on their fingers as a real local comic. Especially as a college student, it’s been important to feel like I'm not just a college student, who sometimes does comedy stuff. We all want to be beloved parts of our scenes, so that's important.

Robert: My apologies, this is the classic college senior question: what do you see coming next?

Kate: Well, I'm already preparing for the extreme comedown of not having this show to prepare for or my senior thesis show, as well as my monthly variety show ending in May. Come June and July it'll be really a fallow rebuilding period, which I think is necessary. I will be moving in a couple of months, and so I need to take this summer to make money.

I've also never been in Minneapolis in the summer. I've done an internship in a different city every summer, so I'm very excited to just ride my bike and hang out with friends I don’t get to see enough. To finish college in a college way, because I think I spent all of college preparing for after college. I have been pleased in my choices, but also feel like I've missed out on a fair amount.

Everything has its pros and cons. Again, I'm pretty happy, but I'm excited to just work this summer, to read in the grass, and to keep going to open mics without having to do any homework after. What’s next is to figure out what’s really next, and I’ll be throwing out a lot of junk in more ways than one.

Robert: Would you tell us more about your time interning for Conan?

Kate: Yes, so I did Conan, then Second City, then Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, then SNL, and then I also did Baby Wants Candy at the Edinburgh Fringe.

Conan was my first internship. I was 19, living alone in LA for the summer and I had a great time. I got to pull up to the Warner Brothers lot every day, and it was such complete independence in both a refreshing and scary way.

I loved working on Conan. I was a research intern, so I had a specific job to do for the show, which really gave me a sense of purpose. It was also bizarre to be suddenly in a professional comedy environment, and learning how to walk as quietly as I could to observe as much as possible without being noticed and messing up. I got to watch rehearsal every day and watch Conan give notes to writers on the fly and watch him and Andy Richter joke around, and I had lots of moments where I was like, “Where are we, right now? This is so cool.”

Conan is just so cool. He himself. I wasn't a huge fan of the show. I wasn't not a fan, I just honestly don't watch that much late night at all, but now I'm so fond of him knowing what he means to so many people, comedically. And knowing that he's not a jackass is awesome, he's very classy, always funny and respectful, and I was a huge fan. I'm very proud to have worked on that show as an intern.

One point to make – internships are stupid. They don’t set you up for any kind of artistic job. Just because you're an intern, doesn't mean you're gonna be a writer for a show or a performer on a show. You're not gonna be a movie star just because you were an intern! If you want to be a producer or something like that though, an internship is great, because that truly is how you work your way up the ladder.

I realized that the internships, were more of a means to an end of getting myself in these cities and sampling their comedy scenes. I also met tons of people so that over the years, they can watch what I'm doing and I can watch what they're doing. And from afar, you're slowly putting this net down around the country as far as New York, LA, and Chicago, because those are famously the only three cities in the world.

I got to see so much. LA is where I saw the famous comics. John Mulaney would drop in with long hair to run new material. LA is where I saw shiny UCB improvisers doing their best stuff. Then Chicago is where I saw a weirder, more interdisciplinary mix. That summer really changed the game for me, because I came back for my junior year and started up two shows, one of which was Midnight Shit, inspired by stuff at The Annoyance Theatre.

My best friends, Nick Saxton, Andrew Frieman, Steven Kreager, and I started Midnight Shit, which was a weekly sketch show on Fridays at midnight, and it was an hour of brand new material each week. We’d have guests come on and do new stuff, anything but conventional stand up. We had some great visiting comedians come through town and watching them do something weird and new was really fun. Then I also started my monthly show, Who Is She, which is a variety show hosted by me as a new character each month.

Chicago gave me the freedom to even think about doing that. Chicago made me feel like comedy doesn't just have to be in one of the three slots of sketch, improv and stand up.

New York was where I got to see my favorite comedians, who I have been a fan of from afar. I saw so much of the Brooklyn alt scene and groups like Three Busy Debras and It’s a Guy Thing. People like Catherine Cohen, Patti Harrison, and Mitra Jouhari are just my favorite comedians. Not necessarily the most famous comedians but my favorite comedians, were in New York.

Getting to see them, and then even getting to share some line-ups with them was really gratifying. And you can do so many sets there each night; it's like a real way of life.

Robert: You mentioned before that your mom was a writer and journalist for The Associated Press. Do you feel like that has influenced you?

Kate: Not directly in so far as desire to be a writer or any pressure from her, but she’s given me a general sense of independence. She traveled around the world alone up until she had me at 30, and she was a single mom for a while. I've always thought of her as someone who could really get by on her own, and I think that that has given me a latent sense that I can figure situations out on my own too. If I have an idea, I have all the skills inside me to carry this out and involve the right people and make it a reality. I'm very grateful to have that.

Robert: Any last things to share?

Kate: After watching that live stream video you all did of our rehearsal, I realized that I didn't say at all what the show was! So, people watch that and are going to think, “Okay, so she's singing, but they're singing ‘Girl from Ipanema,’ so that's the show? You're just gonna sing basic standards, you're just gonna do a high school jazz band concert?” Usually, you guys get amazing musicians through your doors, who people are beyond excited to see in Minneapolis.

I want to make clear to people that don't know, I’m a college student and a comedian who likes to sing and I'm excited to tie all of that together. If they come to the show I think they'll be really refreshed and we'll have a really fun time with it, but it's not just comedy and it's not just music.

… And I'm Kate McCarthy!

And there you have it. Tickets to Kate’s upcoming comedy concert Ricky Lagoon: He Croons! on Sunday, May 5th can be purchased, here.