JFL40: Rosebud Baker finds catharsis in dark humour

Pop Goes The News – “The subject matter of most comedy is tragic,” the late Steve Allen said in a Cosmopolitan interview 65 years ago. “Man jokes about the things that depress him, but he usually waits ’til a certain amount of time has passed. I guess you can make a mathematical formula out of it: Tragedy plus time equals comedy.”

Rosebud Baker, who returns to Montreal’s Just For Laughs festival, has done the math.

The New York City-based comedian has spoken about having a childhood eating disorder, inheriting her mother’s battle with alcoholism and the drowning death of her sister. Her debut comedy special Whiskey Fists takes its name from an abusive ex who was too drunk to land a punch.

Clearly, Baker isn’t afraid to make light of dark situations.

“There’s a catharsis and a bravery to kind of just really laughing at everything that we’ve been through,” she told Pop Goes The News while out walking her dog. “I can think of the saddest parts of my life and it just feels like I have to laugh. And that’s where my comedy comes from.”

In Whiskey Fists, which is available on YouTube, she joked about believing abortion is murder (“The only difference is, I’m fine with it. The way I see it, if somebody invaded your home and demanded 18 years of your income, you’d kill that person”), putting a famously aloof pet to sleep (“The only way I could tell that my cat was dead was that she was letting me hold her”) and admiring the ways Michael Jackson allegedly groomed boys (“As a woman in my 30s, I was like, ‘He’s kind of a gentleman.’ No straight guy has ever taken me on a Ferris wheel, let alone built me one on his front lawn”).

Dark? Yes. Uproariously funny? Yes!

And, for the most part, Baker isn’t going for laughs at the expense of others.

“I like to make things personal. I’m speaking from my own perspective,” she explained. “I’m not going to tell jokes about being gay and Jewish, you know what I mean? That can be done – you can make jokes about other people – but it’s best, for me, to keep it personal.

“The more I’m sharing with people the more license they have to really be themselves and to laugh at the things they’ve been through, and there’s a catharsis there. That’s what I’m hoping for.”

Is there anything she wouldn’t put in her act? “No,” replied Baker. “There’s bits that I’ve been, ‘I’m not ready to write about that yet,’ but I’ve never had something happen in my life where I’ve been, ‘Oh I’ll never write a bit about that.’

“I wouldn’t be a comic if I thought that way.”

Baker admitted she has noticed a slight shift in audiences since returning to the stage following COVID-19 lockdowns.

“Before the pandemic people were a little sensitive regarding subject matter. Now, I feel like people… I wouldn’t describe it as sensitive… I would say people are a little squeamish,” she explained. “They’re just uncomfortable. They’re not necessarily offended, they’re just kind of squeamish… like nervous to laugh at things.”

But, Baker gets it. “There’s part of your brain that shuts off when you haven’t been around other people. It’s going to take some time,” she said. “I also feel that people do need… they want to laugh, they want to get out there, they want to reflect on everything that’s been going on and they want some relief from it – so that’s what I’m hoping to give people.”

Baker will have plenty of opportunities during JFL. In addition to appearing at The Marc Maron Gala and the Variety 10 Comics To Watch showcase, she is doing her new show for five nights at the deliciously seedy Café Cleopatra, where fans will see how she follows Whiskey Fists

“It took me nine years to put that much material together so the speed that I put this new hour together has kind of shocked me and I’m just hoping that it delivers,” she said. “It is very current. It has to do with everything that I’ve done in the last year-and-a-half and everything that I’ve been thinking about.”

Pressure? Not really. “I like having people look forward to my shows,” Baker admitted. “It’s more encouraging than anything else.”

The comic said she is “so stoked” to be coming back to Montreal. She made her JFL debut in the New Faces show in 2018, an experience that was captured on camera for the Amazon series Inside Jokes. (“It was a very memorable experience and if I didn’t remember it, I could go watch it now,” she noted.)

Baker said she is looking forward to “spending time with other comics, goofing off and exploring the city.”

Soon after returning home, she will begin her second season as a writer on Saturday Night Live. “You’re with people who are at the top of their game, they are so good at what they do,” she said of working around Studio 8H. “You are learning so much every day, not just the writing but in production and how a show really works.

“I really feel very, very lucky. Very lucky.”

Rosebud Baker performs her new show July 26-30 at Café Cleopatra. She also appears in The Marc Maron Gala on July 30 at Théâtre Maisonneuve at Place des Arts. Click here for tickets. Just For Laughs runs July 13-31. Follow @JRK_Media on Twitter for more coverage of the festival.