Sierra L. Katow ’16 has been going to clubs since before she was old enough to drive.
“I did my first open mic at a comedy club around L.A.,” Katow recalls. “I was typically the youngest [performer]. Most of the clubs don’t let you in until you’re 21, so I would have to wait outside on the sidewalk and they’d come grab me and then I’d go up and then I’d get kicked out.”
But long nights and dark sidewalks were never enough to keep Katow from the stage. In fact, after spending most of high school breaking into the standup industry on the West Coast, she’s become a major figure in Harvard’s comedy community. As co-president of the Harvard College Stand Up Comedy Society and vice president of the Harvard Lampoon, a semi-secret Sorrento Square social organization that used to occasionally publish a so-called humor magazine, she spends the bulk of her free time writing, drawing, and performing jokes.
Unsurprisingly, Katow jokes about everything––including her academics. She is a computer science concentrator, and cites that decision as the product of a childhood Neopets obsession.
“That was a big part of the shaping of my life,” Katow says. “It was how I got interested in a lot of coding stuff, and probably introduced a lot of people to HTML. I designed my homepage. All those glitter GIFs and that 90s, early 2000s web aesthetic.”
While Katow still enjoys computer science, her academic interests have recently begun to stray elsewhere. “Code jokes, theory for computer science, there’s not that much of an audience for jokes about that,” she explains. To complement that skill set, she’s begun taking classes she thinks will inform the way she uses humor. “I think that there needs to be a reexamining of what we’re making fun of. It’s not even just being sensitive about it; it’s about being up-to-date. I want to understand more before I start blabbing.”
Katow describes her style as predominantly personal. “I’m a young comic. A lot of the audience is older than me. I don’t want to be like ‘Hey, this is how the world is.’ They’re going to be like, ‘Shut up, you’re a child.’” Instead, she writes jokes that focus on her own experience, especially topics of family and identity. Within that experience, however, nothing is off-limits. “I definitely believe that there’s no topic that should be untouched.” As a result, Katow’s humor tends to range from the relatable to the truly bizarre: Her repertoire includes bits about race, relationships, roommates, and flushing whole chicken breasts down the toilet.
Her pursuit of honesty and range has led Katow to pursue standup comedy even off-campus. Over the years, she has regularly frequented the comedy clubs of Boston, signing up for open mics and coordinating other gigs with comedians she met backstage. She’s even found serious venues closer to home: The Comedy Studio, a club on the third floor of the Kong, runs five shows a week.
Apparently, this East Coast comedy scene has a very specific flavor. “People are real thinkers here,” Katow explains. “Everyone’s like, “Oh, right, that reference and then that reference. Okay. Now I can laugh.” She characterizes this brand of humor as “smart people being funny.”
While this definition clearly applies to Katow, she seems eager to explore other styles as well. In fact, after graduation, she plans to leave Boston. She doesn’t anticipate staying anywhere long: At first, she’ll be doing a college tour with three other comedians, doing standup and travelling around in an effort to make some money and get some practice. “It’s hard to be on the road and I don’t think it’s really a practical lifestyle, but it’ll be fun to start out doing that and I’ll hopefully learn something from these other guys.”
When Katow eventually throws herself into fulltime, big-city standup, she plans to go west.
“I’ll probably go back to L.A. That’s where I’m from, and that’s where I started standup comedy,” she says. “I know all these comics out there, and once I went back to school, they kept working. It’s nice to have people in the thick of it that you know and know you.”