From Canvas to Comedy: Interview With Kayt Hester on Her Pivot from Tape Art to Stand-Up

by Ed Magdziak • February 11, 2021 • Arts & EntertainmentComments (0)812

When we first met Kayt Hester she was celebrating her 10 year anniversary as a tape artist. Her visually stunning and instantly recognizable work with masking tape became a hot commodity and she found herself quite busy with showings and commissioned pieces. By the time my wife and I arrived at one of her gallery openings in her hometown of Jersey City almost all the pieces had a sold sticker on them. And this was the first night. Her favorite band is The Pixies and they were so impressed by her work they used some pieces from her ‘Caribou’ series as a stage backdrop. It was an impressive trajectory.

Fast forward to 2019. Hester took stock and decided at this point she had accomplished all she could as a tape artist. It was time for a creative change. Would she switch to paint? Would she work in a different medium? Maybe return to her initial creative passion of photography. Nope. She chose the cutthroat and challenging world of stand-up comedy.

Upon reflection the choice is an obvious one. Anytime we have gotten together she was always the funniest person in the room. Sharp and insightful, in her company you find yourself laughing pretty much all the time. On her personal Facebook page she would riff on odd ads that were targeted to her and I would literally laugh out loud. Stand up was calling. In a short time she has appeared at many respected shows including the Jersey City Comedy Festival, the NY Underground Comedy Festival and Boston Comedy Fest.

She even injured herself in an amusing way. Celebrating Biden’s victory with an impromptu dance, she threw her knee out by twirling wrong and recently had surgery. What else would you expect from a comedian who has been told she looks like a young Ruth Bader Ginsburg? “At least I’ll get some good material out of this” she explained via video chat. While recuperating she graciously spend an hour with us. I hoped we weren’t bothering her too much. “It’s a knee. I mean it’s not like I got a baboon heart.”

Why did you decide to pivot from tape art to comedy?

I’ve always wanted to perform comedy since I was a little kid. Yearly my school had a talent competition and I auditioned as a comedian but I never got through. Jokes about my drunk mom, having to take care of my little brother all the time, tampon jokes. It was all just very depressing. And this was like the 6th grade. I was heartbroken when I didn’t get picked.

Fast forward I was burning out on the tape art. I was like this is not fun anymore, this has become a chore. The deadlines were killing me, killing my back and neck. Also, sales were starting to drop off. Every citizen in New Jersey owns a Kayt Hester piece. I turned 45 and decided if I want to try comedy it was now or never. Showbiz is not kind to old ladies. So it was a good point of burning out on the tape art and the panic of getting older.

Did you start performing by going to open mics?

My friend Josh Wells, who is a New Jersey comedian, was doing comedy nights at LITM (art gallery/lounge in Jersey City) where I was working as a waitress. I got to know him and one night I was watching the comics and I told him “I think I can do this. I want to do this” He told me you have to write five minutes and you have to start hitting as many open mics as you can get your ass to each week. He said at least 3 open mics a week. I said I will hit 3 open mics a night if I have to. So I was doing about 15 mics a week, including in Manhattan. I was hard on myself to get better which is one of the hardest things for a new comic. I had to learn how to tell myself when something sucks.

Still from Joe Pontillo’s video short “Social Media Killed the Super Villain”

How do you come up with your topics?

I’m constantly working on material that I draw from my everyday life. I find that is where you get the most unique stuff. There is nothing worse than comics who do the same material over and over again. Everyone talks about dating apps and Pornhub and I don’t want to do old lady married jokes. I try to talk about things that not anyone else is talking about. I mean there’s nothing better than a good blowjob joke but I try to take it from a different approach. Of course now my whole set for a few weeks will be about my knee surgery. Before this I was doing jokes about my job in pedestrian safety but those were very hit or miss.

Are there any topics you won’t joke about?

Yes, there are. I tread very lightly with the race stuff. I won’t do rape jokes, pedophilia jokes. There are comics out there that love to be super edgy but I’m too terrified for that. First cancel culture is very real and that scares the shit outta me. There are some female comedians who are good enough to joke about their own experiences which is different. I had a friend who’s boyfriend was physically abusive and she turned that into a very funny set but that’s because she is so gifted.

How do you handle it when a joke bombs?

This is why you have to be a friendly comic. A lot of comics like to be dicks to each other. You gotta be nice to each other so you can ask each other questions. I try to ask one of my better comedian friends “I thought this joke is great. Why isn’t it working?” Hopefully they will be able to help you through it. I’ve been lucky with that and have had a lot of really good comics help me out with writing or rewriting.

Is there ever a time a joke bombs with one audience but slays with another?

Yes that is how it works almost every time. You can do a set on Monday night and it kills and perform the exact same set on Tuesday night and get crickets. I call it the tides. “Well the tide wasn’t in tonight.” Sometimes it’s the audience or maybe your delivery is off that night because you had a bad day.

Have you ever been heckled?

Oh yes, many times. I address it briefly and then I move on and pretend I no longer hear them. That’s all I’m really equipped to do right now. I’m only two years into this so I’m not the roastmaster general. Some comics I know go right at hecklers. You heckle him and you will leave crying. He will change you as a person. Rip you ten assholes so brilliantly. I’m not built for that stuff. I’m too nice. If I went after someone for heckling and it was good and juicy I would still go home and have an anxiety attack over it. I’m gonna have to find that person and apologize. They just want to be part of the show because they think they’re the funniest person in their lunchroom at work.

Are there any comedians you’d consider influences or look up to?

Of course there are the big ones that you hope to be like one day but there working comedians that I look up to. I love Michelle Wolf, Christina P, the women who have things on Netflix now. Then there are some comics a little above my level who have been doing it for a while who are so at ease on the mic, so brilliant. People like Tobin Miller and Jason Choi. One of my big requirements in comedians I look up to is they have to be supportive of newcomers.

As a female comic have you ever been exposed to sexism? The idiotic “women aren’t as funny as men” attitude?

Luckily not from club owners but you definitely hear it from other comedians. There are guys who seriously post that women aren’t as funny. I’ve had guys tell me I’m only getting booked because I’m cute. I actually had one guy inbox me asking “How are YOU, you in caps, getting so many shows?” I was like I’ve been busting my ass, hard work. He said he was too and implied my looks was the reason. Guess what guy? You’re not funny! I had a guy tell me I’m so adorable and said I should have him write my jokes. He had no idea that was offensive. He sent me awful jokes that men think women should talk about. Unfortunately sexism is alive and well in this industry.

How has performing on Zoom been different than performing on stage?

It’s a totally different thing, different energy. Thank God there are some really good Zoom shows that keep us going. Some are not great and there are only 4 people online and they’re silent but other times you get a nice turnout and everyone is laughing. It’s like being onstage but your cat is there and you can go to your own bathroom. When you are a new comic you have to work three times as hard to build a name for yourself and get a reputation and have people give you chances so I dove headfirst into Zoom shows. It is really important to keep your name on people’s minds. I also don’t want to backslide on the progress I have made so far. A couple of comedian friends were like “I’m not doing Zoom gigs” when this first started. Then when park and rooftop shows started up they were surprised I was getting calls and they weren’t. I was like “Well, you were too good for Zoom. You’re not Dave Chappelle, dude.” Of course we’d all rather be on stage but you don’t get to have a year long pouty fit.

Do you see any correlations between tape art and comedy?

Only in a bigger, broader sense. The rush of an opening night at an art show is similar to the adrenaline of going on stage. I guess I’m all about that buzz. Maybe also the fact that hard work does pay off with both crafts. If you work your ass off for something you deserve the accolades.

How has social media affected getting gigs?

It’s actually a really frustrating component that me and some of my comedian friends have to deal with. Sometimes when you’re applying to festivals and showcases they ask you how many followers you have on social media. I’m like why don’t you look at my set first then decide if I’m worth putting on the bill. See if I’m better than Becky Ann who might get the spot over me only because she has 19K fans. I’ve never looked at a number of followers and said I better check this person out tonight. Look at all the people that follow them.

Your package thief video was quite a hit on Facebook. Do you want to do more video?

I would love to. Whenever someone comes at me and asks me to be in one of their videos I say yes before I even know what it’s about. “I’d love to!! Oh wait, you’re not gonna put anything up my butt, right?” So I’m trying to learn to get the details before saying yes. Actually Alex and I were supposed to be lead characters in this little independent film but that ended up being cancelled unfortunately. So yeah I’m super excited to get into more video projects.

What do you love about Jersey City?

I know most everyone here. I was just at physical therapy just today and this nice 80 year old man that used to hang at a social club was there getting his back worked on and we had a nice chat. Jersey City still feels like a small town even with all the development. It’s easy to know your neighbors. It’s easy to be friendly to people and have that friendliness returned to you. In Jersey City you get out what you put in. A lot of us OGs are working hard to stay. I love it here.


Hester is currently co-hosting and producing The Nice Guys Show on Zoom with fellow comedian Aaron Ring.

Kayt Hester: Instagram | Twitter

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