By Creig Ewing
Isabel Hagen is a rarity in the standup comedy world. On her website you can see videos of her performing standup on network television as well as playing viola on an NPR Tiny Desk concert.
Isabel has appeared on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, most recently on Oct. 26. She also was featured as a New Face of Comedy at the Just For Laughs Festival in Montreal.
As a violist, she has performed on Broadway and toured internationally. She also has a comedy web series that she wrote, directed and stars in — Is A Violist on YouTube.
Isabel took the time to answer 5 questions from Louisville Laughs.
Louisville Laughs: You started standup after earning a masters in viola performance at Julliard. Were you always trying to make your fellow Juilliard students laugh? Are they a tough audience?
Isabel Hagen: Yes, I used to write for a Juilliard student newspaper that my friend started called “The Yard.” I would write the funny back page, or the “Backyard” as we called it.
I would also say funny things in my recitals. I’d talk about the piece I was about to perform and make some attempt at a joke before starting to play. I think classical musicians are the best audience for comedy. We’re all so on edge and have spent so much time alone in rooms practicing, that any opportunity to laugh is a welcome relief.
Is it more intimidating to play viola for a group of strangers or do standup?
Definitely more intimidating to play viola for strangers. I’m always trying to prove myself and my ability as a musician. It stresses me out. And on the flip side, I actually only like performing comedy if it’s in front of strangers.
It doesn’t work quite as well doing jokes about yourself when the audience already knows you personally. It just gets awkward.
What is the most unusual viola or comedy gig you have had?
I was once hired to play background string quartets in a mansion in upstate NY for a couple’s private anniversary dinner. It was just us four musicians and the couple in a giant house. It got weird.
If Juilliard had a program for comedy, what should they teach?
They should teach how to bomb over and over again and not want to quit, because that’s what it takes to become good at comedy. You have to be willing to take risks and bomb, over and over again.
What is your comedy horror story?
I recently did a show on the road, and there were only about 10 people in the audience (and the show was in a big theater so it felt really empty). And the 10 people included two of my distant cousins who happened to show up, and a mom and dad and their two kids who were in middle school.
And I had a really dirty set planned. And I was supposed to perform for an hour. I got through it, but I was very sweaty by the end.
Don’t miss Isabel Hagen at Planet of the Tapes on Nov. 11 and 12. Get your tickets here.