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From Courtroom to Comedy Club

After ditching a promising legal career, Karen Bergreen makes a living on laughter.

January-February 2004

"I was on the subway recently," says Karen Bergreen '87. "There was a little boy crying. I thought, 'What can I do?' I felt awful. Then I remembered I had a piece of candy in my bag.

"So I took it out and popped it in my mouth, and then I felt so much better."

It's a Sunday night in November, and Bergreen is onstage at New York's Gotham Comedy Club. During the fast-paced 20-minute set, she takes shots at subjects ranging from Starbucks ("They don't have a slogan, so I thought of one for them: 'It's really expensive. But the line is long'") to high-school Latin ("It really helped when my family went on a trip to ancient Rome"). Brown ponytail swinging, Bergreen is in constant motion, mixing it up with the audience. "Like, you're hardly even a state!" she tells someone from Hawaii. "Number 50!" The audience is with her, laughing and carried along by Bergreen's air of slightly fiendish glee.

Even the occasional misfire doesn't shake her enthusiasm. "Sometimes I'm so bored at parties, I'll slip myself a roofie," Bergreen says slyly, but the audience doesn't react. "The date-rape drug!" she explains, rolling her eyes and swinging right into the next joke. Too bad they're clueless, her shrug seems to say, but at least I'm having a good time.

She hesitates only when an audience member says, in response to her question, that he's an attorney. Most comics would jump right in with a lawyer joke. Not Bergreen: she tends to steer clear of autobiographical material. And frankly, she doesn't want audiences to know that she was a lawyer--a former associate at the firm of Winston & Strawn and a former clerk to a federal judge. She's better known these days as a comic who performs regularly at New York clubs like the Gotham, Caroline's, and The Comic Strip, who is a panelist on the Oxygen cable channel's Can You Tell comedy game show, and who has acted in TV commercials for Sprint, MTV, Colgate, and Kodak.

However, being a lawyer has helped her as a comedian, Bergreen insists. "I don't think there's that much difference between writing a joke and writing a legal argument," she says. In both law and comedy, she adds, "you take a set of facts and you come up with a conclusion. In law, you come up with a position based on those facts and some other theory. In comedy, you take a set of facts and you come up with a conclusion that's, hopefully, unexpected or funny."

 

Bergreen grew up in Manhattan. Her father, Bernard, is an attorney; her mother, Barbara, owned a retail clothing store. With two older brothers, Bergreen says, "I started being funny to sort of assert myself." She discovered the power of telling stories with a punch line, but it wasn't something she considered a potential career. In high school, she did competitive public speaking, placed fifth in the National Catholic Forensic League's annual tournament, and planned to become a U.S. senator.

At Harvard, she majored in European history, did a little acting, and directed a few House drama-society productions (including A Romantic Comedy, starring Mira Sorvino '89). Her friends thought that she was funny in conversation, she says, but, it seemed, no one else did. "I tried to comp for the Lampoon, but I was rejected the first time," she says. "I didn't understand that you're supposed to comp like six times for these things.'"

After college, she tried some open-mike stand-up, but didn't love it enough to push past the backbiting and competition among comics, the long waits to go on in smoky clubs, the club owners who won't book more than one woman per night. "Everything you do in comedy is in spite of all that stuff," says Bergreen. At the time, "I didn't want it enough....I thought, 'My father's a lawyer, people I know are going to law school. I'll be a trial lawyer. That will satisfy my need for theatrics.'"

In 1989, she went off to law school at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. (Now she tells jokes about the blandness of Minnesota life: "There's no edge. Even cinnamon gum is too spicy.") Then in 1992 she headed for the New York office of Chicago-based Winston & Strawn. During her two years there, she worked on complex litigation concerning the costs of hazardous-waste cleanup. "It was actually pretty interesting," she recalls, but "I couldn't believe that [being a lawyer] would define what I would be doing when I had always thought of myself as a creative person." Bergreen also discovered that she lacked an appetite for confrontation. "I wouldn't mind doing it in the courtroom where it's civil, but sometimes [other lawyers] can get very nasty on the telephone. I would be, like, 'Okay, I'll give you whatever you want.'"

She left Winston & Strawn in 1994 to clerk for federal district judge Barrington Parker Jr. She thrived on the variety of cases and the intellectual stimulation, even the heavy load of legal research: finding relevant cases, she says, was like a treasure hunt. "I loved that job," says Bergreen. "That's one of the things that made me go into comedy, because the only thing that could possibly be as good would be to be a federal judge, and I knew I would never be a federal judge." Why not? "You would have to become a partner in a law firm, which I didn't have the stomach to do, or you would have to do the U.S. attorney route, which I didn't think I had the ability to do--because I have this problem with confrontation."

While clerking, Bergreen entered the Funniest Lawyer in New York contest, an annual event sponsored by the Stand-Up NY comedy club. She made it to the contest finals, besting 14 other entrants. Then she landed her first paying gig: $75 for an interstitial spot on the USA Network's Labor Day weekend comedy weekend. "I get to be funny and I'm getting paid," she recalls thinking. "This is a scam."

 

When her clerkship ended in 1996, Bergreen plunged into her new career, doing improvisational comedy twice a week, taking acting classes, honing her material at unpaid stand-up shows by night, working part-time for a law firm by day. Within a year she was getting paid for comedy consistently, had hired a manager and landed some commercial acting jobs, and said goodbye to practicing law.

From there, "I had highs and lows," Bergreen admits. At the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival one year, Seinfeld co-creator Larry David told her she was funny. "That's the kind of thing that keeps you going for six months," she says. But then there was the first time she performed at The Comic Strip, when her microphone failed onstage. Now, she says, she'd simply ask for a new mike, or maybe even treat the glitch as a spontaneous source of material. "I'd make a joke about how cheap the club is," she says. Back then, though, she simply tried to pretend nothing was wrong. The audience didn't even bother booing; they ignored her and talked to each other. "I lost control of the room within about 15 seconds," she recalls. "I went off stage and I didn't leave my house for three days."

Today, she puts that first fiasco in perspective: "Since then I've had way worse experiences, people yelling 'You suck!'" she says. "The more that happens to you, the better you get. Nothing fazes you."

That nonchalance seems right in step with Bergreen's humor, which is dry, observational, sarcastic. "She's kind of got her own quirky style without being pretentious or preachy," says fellow comic Bernadette Pauley, who has performed with Bergreen at the Hamptons Comedy Festival. That style drew praise from a reviewer for Long Island Entertainment, who wrote, "Bergreen has just the right mixture of sarcasm and shrugging befuddlement, keeping it real while showing off a sharp intellect. Keep an eye on this lady."

Though Bergreen doesn't mine her own life for jokes, she plays a sort of heightened version of herself onstage. With her glasses and nasal voice, she's a bright, nerdy single-woman-in-New-York, with strong opinions about Pier One Imports ("It's all wicker and candles, it's a fire waiting to happen"), new parents who add the baby's name to the answering machine message ("Hi, we're really uninteresting, and now there's more of us"), and the anorexic woman at her gym ("I told her, 'People would really like you if you dropped some weight'"). Offstage, Bergreen, who is 38 but looks younger, is actually married--to assistant U.S. attorney Dan Alonzo, whom she met at a party given by a mutual friend--and she's expecting her first child. (Might have to rework that answering-machine joke.)

Bergreen has also done a few acting jobs--on Law and Order, she played a witness who led the police to a witness who led them to a witness--and stand-up at private and corporate events. For several years, she has worked with the Gotham Comedy Club's Kids 'n Comedy program, coaching children to develop and perform their own comedy routines. Recently she finished one novel, which her agent is shopping around to publishers--a breezy mystery-romance featuring a Harvard-educated lawyer who defends companies that make breast implants--and has started another.

But stand-up remains her passion. It's not the money: "Sometimes it's not even carfare," she says. "It's the experience. I really like to perform almost every night. I just like doing it. I like getting up and telling jokes to people."

~Emily Barker

 

New York-based freelance journalist Emily Barker '87 has written for Inc., American Lawyer, and Cosmo GIRL! Although she and Karen Bergreen are classmates, they had never met before Barker undertook this assignment.

 

East meets West: His Holiness the Dalai Lama and President Lawrence H. Summers at Massachusetts Hall
Photograph by Justin Ide / Harvard News Office