‘Mrs. Shandy’: The life and opinions of Julie Klausner, comedian

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Julie Klausner. (Photo by Mindy Tucker)
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Julie Klausner taught Thomas Frank how to play “Fuck, Marry, Kill.”

The occasion was a Baffler magazine release party a couple of weeks ago, which featured an event called “Ayn Rand: The Game Show.” While Klausner pleaded ignorance of Rand’s oeuvre, Fuck/Marry/Kill was right in her wheelhouse—in fact, she used to write a Fuck/Marry/Kill column for The Hairpin.

The Baffler game show’s particular version involved choosing which prospective partners to screw, wed, or murder on the basis of Randian self-interest, but no matter: Klausner breezed through her round (“You fuck Patrick Bateman because he’s strong, and you kill Sydney Carton from Tale of Two Cities because he’s poor, and you marry Tristram Shandy so you can be Mrs. Shandy!”) and then offered assistance to her floundering fellow contestant, Frank.

“It’s easy,” she assured The Baffler’s founder.

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“I have to use up all three options?” Frank asked, after attempting to fuck all three choices on his first try.

Klausner—her red bob sleek, her black dress low-cut—gave Frank a crash course in two of her specialties: Fuck/Marry/Kill protocol and young adult novels. Claudia Kishi of The Babysitters Club, she explained, was “quirky”; Jessica Wakefield, of Sweet Valley High, “alpha”; Margaret, of Are You There God?, “normal.” Under Klausner’s guidance, Frank wisely chose to kill Claudia, marry Jessica, and fuck Margaret.

Klausner had wondered, in a phone interview before the Baffler event, whether she ought to have agreed to participate. She hadn’t read any Ayn Rand and she wasn’t sure exactly what the magazine had planned.

To anyone in the audience that night, though, Klausner’s role was clear and crucial. She was the personality on duty. She was on hand to keep what the magazine admitted was a “high-concept” evening from deteriorating into an hour of belabored nerd-jokes. While an Ayn Rand impersonator in a skirt-suit—another of the night’s featured guests—strained for laughs, Klausner worked table scraps into serviceable stage patter.

Do not worry, her presence told the audience, I am a professional, and I will burden you with no vicarious discomfort. That’s been the hallmark of her career to date, exuding confidence while gently carrying things along with her prompt wit and humor. Klausner takes care of business, and she does it with confidence and swift wit. Her ability to serve as her own best marketing department has offered an unconventional path to comedy success.

That night, she taught Thomas Frank to play “Fuck, Marry, Kill,” and then, when the bit was over, she reminded him to plug his new book.

KLAUSNER HAS FORGED A CAREER OUT OF pop-culture smarts, genially brash humor, and disarming self-promotion. And if the Baffler event was perhaps an unexpected use of her resourceful charisma, she’s also landed another, more auspicious gig as a freelance personality: last month she became the face of New York magazine’s Vulture blog.

It’s a new kind of arrangement for both Klausner and Vulture, and they’re still figuring out all the particulars of their collaboration, but essentially her role will be spokesperson for the site when TV news shows need someone to come on the air and discuss, say, Honey Boo Boo. The job seems like impressive validation for her web-savvy approach to working in comedy.

“To be the face of Vulture is a great opportunity,” Klausner told me, “because I have sort of a lumpy Jewish face and they’re a very sleek website. So I think it balances out nicely.”

Recently she inaugurated her role by appearing on the “TODAY” show to present New York’s Approval Matrix, explaining the brilliance of Liz Lemon’s wedding and why Liz and Dick was just sad.

“We did fill the studio with the smell of roasted meat for you,” said “TODAY” host Willie Geist as they started her segment.

“That’s part of my rider,” Klausner said.

In addition to her TV duties she’ll also be producing short videos for the site every other week, filming late-night type bits like man-on-the-street interviews or (one recent clip) a “Twilight horniness focus group.”

Over the course of her career, Klausner has performed live, written for TV, written for magazines, and published a dating memoir called I Don’t Care About Your Band. Since 2010 she’s hosted How Was Your Week?, a podcast that’s won praise from Rolling Stone and GQ. She’s also (why not?) written a young-adult novel that will come out next spring.

This is not the “linear” path she imagined when she got her start in comedy.

“I was so cocky,” she says now. “When I started at [Upright Citizens Brigade], I thought it was going to be, ‘Oh, I’m going to take levels one through three … and then I’ll audition for 'Saturday Night Live,' and then I’ll get a movie deal, and then I’ll have my own show’… I was so clueless! I thought that there was a formula; I thought there was a quick fix; I thought that I was going to be taken care of in institutional terms.”

As an undergrad at New York University, Klausner had an internship on Amy Sedaris’ offbeat comedy, “Strangers With Candy.”

“I was like, ‘This is the closest I’ve ever been to exactly what I want to do,’” Klausner said. She graduated from N.Y.U. shortly after U.C.B. opened their New York outpost in 1997, and she began to take improv classes. “I have no idea how I would have gotten started if it hadn’t been for U.C.B.,” she says now. U.C.B. gave her the sense of having a community and an alma mater—but rather than depending on any one institution, Klausner has had to rely on her own attention-getting ingenuity as a platform. And that ingenuity finds its ideal outlet in her podcast.

How Was Your Week? is the only thing (besides tweeting) Klausner does for free, and it’s also her favorite.

“If I could do that every day for the rest of my life,” she said, “I’d be thrilled.” It provides “the truest manifestation” of her sensibility, she says; it also gives her a place to promote her other projects, and has won her a devoted fan base. Klausner declines to share numbers, but says her audience is growing every week.

How Was Your Week? consists of a 15-minute monologue followed by interviews (with writers, filmmakers, reality TV types, and fellow comedians), followed by an extended journey through Klausner’s email inbox. She encourages listeners to send in photos of their pets posing with her book, so there are usually a number of those examined and discussed, plus nominations for the Redhead Hall of Fame, book recommendations, and questions about Klausner’s cat, Jimmy Jazz. Recorded in her kitchen, the podcast lets Klausner slide into an easy intimacy with her audience, and part of the appeal of How Was Your Week? is its agreeably meandering rhythm. (A rhythm that exists even on the level of individual words: on the show, Klausner habitually pronounces sneakers “sneakairs,” producer “produceair,” lizard “lizaird,” etc.) But if her style is loose, she’s always thoroughly prepared. When her guests have written books, she’s read them; when they’ve made movies, she’s seen them. She gets lists of talking points from her visitors in advance (for Gawker editor Max Read: favorite weird internet phenomena?).

“A lot of podcasts can be just shooting the shit,” Klausner said, “and it kind of drives me insane. You don’t just want to hear comedians hanging out, shooting the shit all the time.”

Klausner’s style is natural but never sloppy. And in fact, the work that goes into cultivating her projects frequently seems like part of the joke—like when she launched a grassroots campaign to be permitted to pet Duke, the Bush’s Baked Beans mascot, inspiring a fan Facebook group called “25 Million Strong for Julie Klausner to Pet the Bush’s Baked Beans Dog.” Although Klausner did not ultimately get to pet Duke, she did get to memorialize her quest in a column for The Daily Beast.

Likewise, the butt of her jokes is often the self-promoting foibles of others in the entertainment world—like “NCIS” actress and How Was Your Week? “enemy of the show” Pauley Perrette, who once tried (and failed) to get Klausner kicked out of a dog show and whose sanctimonious Twitter presence Klausner deems unacceptable. Or former Real Housewife of New York Jill Zarin, who once tweeted a link to one of Klausner’s Vulture “Real Housewives” recaps (Headline: “Bring Back Jill Zarin”) oblivious to the fact that Klausner had compared her to Hitler.

Self-aware but unabashed, Klausner has mastered an effective brand of enterprising hustle. She hates, she says, the ubiquitous disclaimer “shameless plug.”

“Just do it,” she said. “You can hem and haw about it, or you can just do it, and assume everybody knows that you’re doing it, and then just keep going.”