Kerry Coddett is a natural performer. Just a few years into her career, she has a stage presence so engaging, it’s infectious. To see her perform live, you feel you’re seeing something very special in its early stages. You just know she is going to be a star in some capacity, whether as a stand up, on television or in movies. She has an energy, a confidence, and a catlike grace when she grabs a mic– and she’s only just beginning. When she steps on stage, she engages the audience almost instantaneously, drawing them in with her brazen, yet playful personality. There are a lucky few people who are fortunate enough to find their life’s calling: Michael Phelps should be swimming, the world would be remiss if Adele wasn’t singing, and Kerry Coddett needs to be performing. She’s a New Yorker through and through, but when the time is right, she will undoubtedly find herself at home in Los Angeles. Naturally talented, whip-smart, and a determined worker; it’s a career she was designed for. And she keeps getting better.
Certainly at this stage in her career, Kerry’s not supposed to be a regular on TV. Yet there she is, winning over audience members and judges on MTV2’s Joking Off. Headed into its third season, the show has become so popular, it found a new home on MTV proper. She made regular appearances on Larry Wilmore’s The Nightly Show (RIP), and auditioned for Saturday Night Live in 2013 during the all-call for a new African American female cast member, the role that ended up going to Sasheer Zamata.
That role, by the way, exists in part because of Kerry — who can add influential writer to her credentials. Her written commentary on SNL’s lack of diversity both in the cast and in the writers’ room, published in The Atlantic, went viral and helped push the show to examine its own casting practices. It must have resonated with Lorne Michaels, because soon after, SNL hired not only Sasheer, but also writers Leslie Jones and LaKendra Tookes (Leslie has since become a full-time cast member and breakout star). A second piece went viral soon after– a brilliant satire on how the media covers black on black crime titled White on White Crime: An Unspoken Tragedy. Oh, and she’s a mainstay on the New York City comedy scene, performing anywhere from three to 10 times a week.
Except her career didn’t just start a few years ago as a stand up comedian. As Kerry tells it, she’s been working towards a career in performance since she was a little girl, landing a print and commercial agent, Adele’s Kids, when she was just 9 years old. Her road to the stage is so winding, so varied that in some ways, it’s surprising a stage and a microphone became the destination at all. But speaking to her, it makes perfect sense that she would find herself performing stand-up — or, as she likes to say, that stand up found her.
“I’ve always been driven by a need to express myself,” she tells me over cocktails at New York City’s Norwood Club one warm June evening. Her big smile reveals a gold grill on her bottom teeth that matches the foil font on her black T-Shirt: “WHEREVER, WHENEVER, FOREVER, BROOKLYN.”
“In high school, I probably took the wrong history class [because] I learned about globalization, and colonization, and I was like ‘you know what?’ The world needs to know about this!’” Not surprising for anyone who is familiar with Kerry’s work. Themes of racism, cultural appropriation, and feminism are woven so cleverly into her bits, you don’t always realize you are digesting a social message.
Also prevalent is her perspective as a born-and-raised New Yorker. She’s lived her entire life in Brooklyn, and despite the western and central neighborhoods being the new destination for up-and-coming comedians and other artist types — Williamsburg, Bushwick, Bed Stuy, etc. — Kerry grew up in East Flatbush. Her lifelong experience in the neighborhood is sometimes at odds with the way Brooklyn has been portrayed over the last decade or so.
“What I’m noticing now is that the idea of New York has changed, and the idea of Brooklyn specifically has changed,” Kerry explains. “That is where I’m kind of like, I am Brooklyn, I don’t know who is out here trying to speak for us. So that’s kind of been a challenge.”
When our server asks where her shirt is from, she’s quick to inquire, “Are you from Brooklyn? Born and raised?” He was born in Sheepshead Bay, but grew up in Manhattan since age five. She decides that still counts — “we gotta stick together, we’re the last of a dying breed.” She’s of course referring to the Brooklynites who were there before the gentrification, before Brooklyn became synonymous with hipsterdom.
“I’ve been hearing people have bits and they’re like ‘you know, I’m going to an artisanal cheese shop, which is like the most Brooklyn thing ever,’ and I’m like, since when?” she adds. “That is not the most Brooklyn thing ever. Just stop.”
She gets territorial over New York, and it irritates her when newbies talk shit about her city in their act. “If where you were from was so great, then you would go and make it there,” she says. But, Kerry admits, it is nice to see an outsider’s perspective on New York. To her, it’s all she’s ever known.
If growing up in East Flatbush wasn’t enough to help shape her voice — “I’m straightforward, to-the-point; all my friends think I’m aggressive [but] I’d like to think that I’m passionate” — being raised by immigrant parents definitely has. Her parents are both Caribbean, which she says adds another layer to her upbringing. Not only does she have an insane work ethic and ingrained entrepreneurial spirit; she has a different perspective even from her peers growing up in the neighborhood.
“I don’t have the same New York stories as everyone else,” she says.
Her adolescence and young adulthood included a hodgepodge of creative endeavors. Anything that combines intellect, creativity, and business smarts, Kerry has been drawn to it. She started acting in junior high, and it didn’t take her long to find her next big love: Poetry. Reciting poems gave Kerry the realization that she had a talent for acting. “But then I was like, oh I want to write poetry,” she says. “So I started writing poetry and that’s when I realized, I had shit to say. And it moved people.” She became a slam poet and performed in showcases around the city.
Growing up, Kerry was always smarter than others around her — intuitive of her surroundings, yes, but also incredibly book smart. Enough to skip two grades in elementary school, and land herself as valedictorian of her 8th grade class (“there were only nine of us,” she insists, downplaying the achievement.)
The sweatshirts caught the eye of Jay-Z, who wore her designs. Kerry was soon customizing clothing for the biggest rapper in the industry.
This led to her getting into fights, skipping class, and running around with a troublemaking crowd from the neighborhood. She wasn’t always getting into trouble when she missed school, though; the teen acquired a vendor’s license, and would head to Houston Street in Manhattan to sell the politically-charged T-shirts she created: “Fuck the Police” and “Jesus is Black, Get Over It” were slogans accompanying some of her designs. “There were always two sides of me where I’m really book smart, but I’m also street savvy,” Kerry says. She only returned to school after hours for the creative extracurriculars she was so involved in.
But no amount of high school plays or poetry slams could keep her in line enough to remain an active student. It didn’t take long for Kerry to be asked to leave. “You can’t be at a specialized gifted high school for long, beating people up and ruining their legacy,” she observes. She ended up attending four different high schools, and by the time she landed at her last for senior year, her districted school, Kerry only had sophomore credits. It was a major wake-up call.
“I went to my guidance counselor, I was like ‘I know I messed up, and I went to all these different schools, but I need you to give me every single class you can give me so I can get the fuck out of here,’” she reveals, emphasizing her desperation at the time. The guidance counselor laughed in her face.
”For the first time I remember thinking what it must feel like to be another average black kid.” she says. “At Brooklyn Tech, there was a small amount of black kids, but everybody knew that you were smart… if you had behavioral problems, or you were acting up, you were just a ‘misguided teen’ and the structure was set up to help you get back on track. When I went to my zone school, we were treated like animals.”
After getting her mom to give the school an earful, Kerry was able to take on a jam-packed schedule to let her graduate within the school year. She worked her ass off, more than any high schooler has a right to say they did: Taking night classes, forgoing a lunch for another academic credit, coming into school on the weekends. Whatever it took to finish high school in four years.
“When people ask me the thing I’m most proud of, it’s not auditioning for SNL, it’s not doing any of this shit. It’s graduating from high school on time,” she says earnestly. “I didn’t get skipped twice to get held back twice.”
After Kerry graduated high school, she went to CUNY Baruch College, which she completed in just three years. But during her senior year, her creativity led her down another path. She started designing hoodies and, almost by accident, they caught on. They became a popular purchase with classmates at her school, so much so that by the time Kerry graduated at age 19, she and her sister teamed up to design sweatshirts and other casual fashion pieces to be sold in boutiques. The sweatshirts caught the eye of Jay-Z, who wore her designs. Kerry was soon customizing clothing for the biggest rapper in the industry. She naturally assumed that’s what her career would be; despite a love of performing, she felt like fashion designing was a great way to combine her work ethic, business savvy and originality.
It was like an out of body experience,” she says. “I felt my hands tremble. From the first laugh I got, it was like electricity. And I was like, ‘shit, I want to do this forever.’”
Eventually, the hype died down; the economy hit a downturn, and people weren’t so quick to shell out $300-$400 on hoodies. She used her experience in the clothing industry to talk her way into store manager gigs at big chains like United Colors of Benetton. Still with a passion for theater and performance, she used the money to pay for improv and sketch classes at The Pit, but it didn’t feel like the right fit.
“I’m competitive,” she says. “I want to learn with the best to be the best. So I left and I went to UCB.” After doing both the full sketch and improv trajectory, and performing regularly with an improv troupe, she also realized that particular form of comedy wasn’t meant for her. For starters, she was way too intense for her fellow improvisers.
“I used to have my sister come with a camera and record improv,” she recalls. “No one else records these things, which I didn’t know. I was like ‘guys, we’re athletes. Athletes watch the tapes.’” Unfortunately, that didn’t catch on with her teammates. She also knew that the final destination for improv didn’t look like the career she wanted to have. Getting on a house team, then teaching improv, the end? Not for her.
This led to her finally finding the creative performance she was always meant to do — stand up. Like poetry, it involves being clever with words. Like acting, it requires engaging stage presence and plenty of memorization. And like fashion design and selling custom T-shirts on the street, it commands a necessary business savvy and unparalleled hustle. Comedians are writers, directors, and CEOs of their own companies: Themselves.
“I liked stand up because I got to have autonomy,” she says, “If I killed, it was because of me. If I bombed, it was because of me. And I get to tape myself ad nauseum, and watch. And I do obsess over it, I tape everything, I watch everything. I like that.”
Her first time on stage, Kerry says she crushed it. Originally only scheduled to perform 15 minutes, Kerry stretched that out to a full 30, and a solid $500 paycheck at the end.
“It was like an out of body experience,” she says. “I felt my hands tremble. From the first laugh I got, it was like electricity. And I was like, ‘shit, I want to do this forever.’”
Stand up comedy has seen a resurgence over the past several years. Whether that’s thanks to the internet and social media, more people falling in love with the art, or because it’s an avenue for fame-thirsty people to find theirs, Kerry doesn’t really care. She’s not worried about anyone else or their motives. She certainly can’t identify with the people she calls “secretly salty”; the comics who can’t be happy for anyone else’s success and instead stew with jealousy and blame the industry. That’s just not in Kerry’s DNA.
“I think that your success is an independent variable, and it has nothing to do with what is going on. Somebody else being funny does not make me less funny, that’s just not how it works,” Kerry insists. “If you are great, there is room.”
It also helps to have an insane work ethic. Lorne Michaels has said the problem with making comedy look easy is that people believe it’s easy. Kerry makes it look easy, but the path to get there is anything but. On Joking Off, Kerry says the performers must write three jokes for every picture, but she usually writes anywhere from six to nine. “That way if someone has a joke that’s similar to mine, I still have more jokes to play with,” she told me. “Joking Off isn’t merely about showing up; you have to show up and show out. It’s about showcasing and highlighting the things you’re great at, that you won’t be able to do on other shows.”
She fully embraces the business side of show business too, implementing the entrepreneurial spirit she employed as a kid. Her drive is evident. “Closed mouths don’t get fed,” she tells me. “You have to ask for spots.” She sets aggressive goals for herself, one month, three months, six months, and a year from now. It’s a great way to look back and see what she’s accomplished. Right now, that’s focusing on putting together a tight hour. She has a solid 45 minutes, which she’s constantly retooling, rewriting and adding tags, with the hopes to have that finished hour soon.
It also means working on her monthly show, Brooklyn Stand Up, which she hosts and produces.
The Paper Box in Brooklyn is a steamy sauna box on a hot early July evening. It’s a laid-back atmosphere, but roomy, a perfect setup for performances like this. One bartender commands the full bar, while a hot food buffet in the back serves up homemade Caribbean fare. A real DJ, DJ Nightmare, sets the mood with modern pop and hip-hop remixes. As people casually file in, Kerry makes the rounds, giving hugs to friends that have come see her perform, and regulars she recognizes. It was a particularly muggy night, with both doors open, no air conditioning to be felt, and audience members fanning themselves with programs in anticipation of the show.
She escapes to the back patio at one point. “I like to get away from the craziness and just mentally prepare,” she tells me. A good-sized crowd fills in most of the seats, around 30 or so people. When Kerry returns inside to take the stage, people forget just how much they are sweating; they’re more focused on the show and, specifically, the host.
Kerry has a magnetic, contagious energy all the time, but especially when she gets on stage. The microphone doesn’t just amplify her sound; it amplifies her essence. She’s so confident, so comfortable, it’s a wonder she even thought about pursuing any other career — the stage is where she truly comes to life. She starts the show by reflecting on a painful day in the news; the Alton Sterling shooting had just happened, and the somber news of yet another unarmed African American man killed by a police officer hung in the air like a heavy presence. Like the crowd, the roster of comics is diverse; it truly feels like the melting pot of New York, and Brooklyn specifically, is coming together to escape the problems of the world, just for a night.
The lineup for these shows involves a lot of strategy, as Kerry told me during our interview. She doesn’t just pick comedians she likes and respects; she wants to have a good overall balance, and create a good vibe to keep the audience coming each month. She’s also looking out for her career, too — if she lands a big headliner and they form a friendly rapport, it could lead to them working together in the future, maybe even her joining them on the road.
On this night, it was an eclectic mix of familiar names in the New York comedy scene: standard 30-something married stand up (Greg Stone), the young up-and-comer who always kills it (Neko White), the quirky alt comedian (Jo Firestone), the energetic comic who is somehow as attractive as he is funny (Jourdain Denzel Fisher), and the relatable single female comic (Sydnee Washington). The combination bodes well. The audience, many of whom seem to be local Brooklynites who have been to the show before, give generous laughter to each performer.
Kerry keeps the show moving at a quick pace, taking her hosting slots as time to throw in some of her current bits. She hits the broad spectrum of what some corners of the internet might dub as politically incorrect: Trans jokes, race relations, feminism, and people being “woke”. But Kerry doesn’t deliver these jokes in a gratuitous manner for shock value; she really has a point to get across, especially in the face of this outrage era where everyone loves to be offended by everything.
“Everyone thinks their opinion counts. It doesn’t count… Oh so you’re offended? Good, move on. It’ll be fine, but the world is not going to change because your feelings were hurt,” she told me during our interview. “I say things that women would probably not like me to say, I say things that black people would probably not like for me to say, I say things that Christians would probably not like for me to say. But in my world, everything is fair game.”
Caroline’s on Broadway on a Monday night is for the new talent showcase, a set in which Kerry had a pro feature spot. She’s the only female performer in a lineup of nine, something Kerry says is usually the norm with comedy shows. The room was a typical smorgasbord of a weeknight comedy show audience: Locals, friends and family members of the performing comics, tourists pulled off the street by barkers in Times Square. As soon as she grabbed the mic, it was clear Kerry stood out. The crowd, which had a steady buzz of scattered polite laughs, was quickly enthralled.
Almost instantly, her material resonated; the locals (“native New Yorkers?” she asks), people from Jersey, and the tourists from Niagara Falls all laughed when she observed the audience looked like a Trump rally, save for “the table of black Republicans in the back.” The laughter continued during her popular catcalling bit, which she sells, and finally tags “transgender lives matter.” She has fun messing with the crowd, calling them out playfully between each bit and tagging them into her next joke with such ease, it looks scripted.
Whatever the makeup of the audience, Kerry’s material dives into taboo topics without regard for what’s waiting at the bottom of the pool. But it’s the way she delivers her jokes as if she’s not in on the hidden meaning that makes them relatable. Commentary on whitewashing race relations masquerading as a joke observing pantry food when she’s high. Pointing out the white male privilege inherent in Caitlyn Jenner’s transition, which she delivers from the perspective of an annoyed woman in show business. Kerry’s fresh viewpoint and raw delivery connects her with the audience in a way they can grasp the message while also laughing, even if some circles call it offensive. To Kerry, that’s just comedy. Her brand of funny is known to carry with it important social commentary, which she’s proud of. But she wants to venture into sillier territory, too.
“I genuinely don’t care if I offend people, but I still want to have fun,” she told me. “And I want people to have fun. It kind of seems like when I pull back, my jokes are about issues. It’s about feminism or racism, and I just want to have a joke that’s about not trusting [people] if you can’t see their top teeth when they talk.” She hopes these more lighthearted bits will help round out her full hour set. Knowing Kerry, she’ll be able to pull it all together in a way that’s smart, honest, and most importantly, hilarious.