Words and photos by Laura June Kirsch
It’s Easter Sunday in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and comedians Emily Panic and Clare O’Kane are gearing up to host their monthly show, Windbreaker, at the iconic neighborhood haunt Union Pool. The duo gets on stage and asks if anybody celebrated the holiday—it was pretty much a hard no. They were definitely more interested in seeing comedy than hanging with the Easter Bunny.
And honestly, who could blame them? Panic and O’Kane do a great job of curating a diverse cast of talent. Each show boasts its own eclectic mix of comedians with a different vibe, keeping it fresh and interesting. In addition to showcasing up-and-coming talent, big-name players like David Cross, Janeane Garofalo, Devon Walker and Michael Longfellow of Saturday Night Live have all performed at Windbreaker (to name a few.)
As more Williamsburg venues like The Knitting Factory close and the mass influx of luxury stores and chain restaurants filter in, it’s important that people like Panic and O’Kane keep the stand-up community alive in Brooklyn.
We caught up with the seasoned comedians to talk about the show, their friendship, careers and how to deal with a badly behaved person on the fly (with class.)
Laura June Kirsch: So let’s get a little backstory. Where did you two meet?
Emily Panic: We met because I have a friend, Kendra, and she wanted me to meet her other friend. Her other friend was with Clare, and it was at a comedy show. So we just met randomly through two mutual friends.
Clare O’Kane: That was at a comedy show?
EP: You were doing Bellhouse or something. We all hung out after this show, and then the next day, Clare’s friend at the time was like, “We should all meet up again tomorrow, like the day after, and start drinking early in the day.” So we met up again the following day and we became friends from there.
LJK: You meet at the Library, then tell me a little more about how you got here hosting this amazing show together.
EP: We both were in the comedy scene. Clare had just moved to New York when I met her. I also started seeing her around and we stayed in touch.
CO: I would do your show.
EP: Yeah, you did my show that I had at the time at Max Fish.
LJK: What was that show called?
EP: It was called Dream Weavers. Then at one point, Clare asked me to help style her for her wedding. So we went shopping.
CO: Emily made herself known to be a style …
EP: Style lady.
EP: Yes. I like style and I like helping style people. So we went shopping. We picked out your wedding dress. We had a fun time. Then I went to your wedding and I don’t know, we just became friends. That was years ago. I was still running a show at Max Fish until the pandemic started, and then everything went to shit. Then more recently, I reached out to Clare, about a year ago, and I was like, “Do you want to start a show with me?” Maybe I could do it here at Union Pool.
LJK: Clare, you recently were working at SNL as a writer. Can you tell me a little bit about that experience?
CO: I was there for about a year. I started mid-season last season and ended mid-season this season. It’s one of those things where it’s like when I was 13 I thought “This is the job I want!” Then the older I got, and when I got deeper into doing comedy, I met people who had worked there before and it just sounded so strange and intense. I was like, oh, I can’t do that. So I got that idea out of my head. Then seemingly out of nowhere, I got a job there and I was like, this is crazy!
When I first started working at SNL, I was so self-conscious, like on a middle school level. Getting the job was extremely validating, though. Once I was there, I had to build up some confidence. Then I felt like I was getting kind of good at it, but it was taking up so much time, you work six days a week, and I was going through some hard personal stuff toward the end. Just exhausted all the time. I was like, do I really want to spend this much time writing sketches that I don’t really care about and will probably never be made and sacrifice my mental health and all that shit? It turns out I didn’t, so I quit.
EP: Turns out, no.
LJK: It seems very intense working there.
CO: It’s intense, and you have to really kind of want to be there. I did for a while, I guess. I just prefer writing for narrative shows where I can come in like, nine to five, instead of noon to five a.m.
LJK: Whoa. Every day?
CO: No, no, just one once or twice a week.
LJK: Would you be dead to the world by Sunday?
CO: Sunday was my only free day, which is when we started this show. I’d usually go to the after party on Saturday which could go to five. Then I’d sleep all day, and come to our show.
LJK: Emily, I learned recently that you were a touring musician earlier in your career. How did you transition into comedy?
EP: I went to music school and then I was a touring musician for years. I was a bass player and backup singer. At one point I had my own band, but for the most part, I was a hired gun. I would sometimes try to get in there and be creative within the band, but they were mostly like, “No, just do your job. Just play the bass, play the songs that we’ve written,” or whatever. That was really fun though and I really enjoyed touring but I started doing comedy because I had a break between tours and I was like “ I’m going to take an improv class.” I had always wanted to do improv or standup, and I had never tried it. So I did this improv class and I really loved it. I met my friend Amber in the class, and she was like, “Why don’t we try standup and start going to open mics?” So we started going to open mics and then she and I started the first show at Max Fish. I toured more after that but I was like, I really feel drawn to this other thing. I actually feel creatively like I have something to say or something to do, and it’s just me. I’m not being told what to do by other people. So I just was like, I’m going to do this now instead.
LJK: Clare, how did you first get into comedy? Tell me a little bit about your journey.
EP: Journey into the dark (laughs)
CO: I always liked standup when I was little and getting into high school, I got pretty obsessed with it. I was specifically obsessed with the New York scene and people like Eugene Mirman and Jon Benjamin and whatever, the alt scene in New York.
LJK: Performing can be a bit anxiety-provoking, I’m so impressed when people can do it. Can each of you tell me about your best and worst stand-up experience?
EP: Okay, I’ll start. So my best experience—sometimes comedians when they go to a different city, you’ll tweet out, or you’ll put on Instagram, “Hey, I’d love to do your show,” when you want to get booked on other people’s shows. One time I was in LA three or four years ago, and I tweeted that and this comic that I really admire who followed me said “Hey, do you want to come do my show?” I was like, “Yeah, I do.”
It felt very nice and validating that a really big person asked me to do their show. It was at Largo, which is a pretty legendary club in LA for music and standup. It was a big, packed show and I did really well, and I worked hard to prep. It went really well. I don’t know. So that was a good experience.
The worst one—I think I had just come off a bunch of shows where I was doing well or whatever, and I was like, I got this, this is going to be good. It was for another comedian I respect a lot, who’s in New York and is a friend of ours, he’s very nice. I was excited about it. I got up there and the crowd was dead. They were just not very responsive so I started trying to make little side talk or something, instead of just doing my material. That kept bombing too.
Then I lost my confidence and I started fumbling over my jokes … It just snowballed and it was terrible. The last comedian was in the crowd because his whole thing was that he came up onto the stage from the crowd, and that was part of his thing. So he also watched me bomb, and he’s a big comedian, and I was just like, Jesus. It just felt terrible.
CO: Best experience. I don’t know. It’s hard. All the good sets kind of blend together because the only ones I really remember are the bad sets. I will say one of the best sets, I’ll count it as one of the best sets was for the same friend [from Emily’s bombing story] I was opening on Long Island. It was an independent movie theater that had a venue and a stage. My husband’s parents are from Long Island, so they came to watch and I did really well. They were very complimentary.
So that made me feel like, oh good. My in-laws think I’m funny. I did really well. One of the worst sets I had was one of the seven auditions I had for the Just for Laughs Comedy Festival. I want to say it was probably the third or fourth.
EP: They make you do seven in a row?
CO: Yeah, I just had my seventh audition.
CO: It’s the only real kind of prestigious thing you can get in the comedy world now. It’s like the biggest comedy festival. There’s all this industry there. Anyway, I ate shit so bad, and I think I started to just have an audible existential crisis. They say very clearly when you audition for that show, it’s like, just stick to your set. Don’t riff. Do the set you would do in Montreal, which is where the festival is. The guy who books it was sitting in the front. I started to bomb. At some point I just started saying Bernie Mac’s line “I ain’t scared of you, motherfuckers.” The guy who books the show was on his phone the whole time in the front row.
LJK: Luckily you’ve both bounced back! Tell me a little bit more about your process for the show. What do you look for when booking talent?
EP: We recently hired a producer, Luisa Diez whose job it is to book the show. Now the way it works is that Clare and I each have a list of comedians that we want. There’s a spreadsheet, we have comedians that we want and a do not book list. I think it’s mostly comedians who we admire and like their material and who we’re friends with. Before we had a booker, it was a lot of our friends.
CO: Yeah. No duds.
EP: I’ve always wanted a producer because this is the third comedy show that I’ve run. I feel really bad when people reach out and I don’t want them on the show, or I have people I want more or something. I don’t want to outright reject people. So what most people who run comedy shows do is they just don’t respond, which sucks. One time I did reject somebody, and I don’t think he took it well. I said, “I don’t think your style is consistent with what we do on the show,” or something. I saw him once in person and he beelined away from me. I was like, okay, so maybe next time just ignore.
CO: This is why we outsource to a third party.
EP: Exactly. Truly the dream has always been to have someone else who can take the fall for that. So I’m not the bad guy. Clare’s not the bad guy.
CO: Yeah, because not everybody should be on our show. It’s kind of a specific show.
LJK: It is. I think you do a really great job curating it. I really enjoy it. I love that you have a lot of women on the billing.
EP: Yeah, I would say there’s a certain type of male energy I do think that we avoid. We have plenty of men on the show and there’s also a certain type of energy that we’re like, yeah, this isn’t really what we want.
LJK: How many people are on your “do not book” list? Is it more about their material or people who’ve done inappropriate things?
EP: I think just a handful.
CO: Material or vibe.
EP: A couple personal vendettas. I’ll be honest.
CO: Mild beefs.
LJK: What are your strategies for being on stage and dealing with difficult audience members?
EP: One strategy is flattery and kindness because if you’re dealing with a heckler, I think it can go south real quick if you’re too aggressive. I also will ask that person a lot of questions. At some point, they’ll say something that I will think of something funny to respond to, and I will use what they’ve told me and I’ll respond in a funny way that isn’t too harsh so that people will laugh at them.
One time we had two women here who kept talking and I was like, “Hi. Excuse me. Thank you guys so much for coming. I love that you’re here. You guys are beautiful. Please stop talking now. We’re going to talk now.” I was like, flattery, nice. Not too aggressive.
CO: It’s almost like if you’re too mean when they haven’t done anything overtly bad or haven’t said anything, the rest of the audience will turn on you for being mean to them. If they’re assholes, then everyone’s like, “Yeah, fuck them.” Ultimately you want as many people in the audience as possible on your side to watch the show. Sometimes people don’t know how to act at comedy shows.
EP: Sometimes you just have to get them kicked out and you have to placate them until a security guard can come. For your purposes, I find that sometimes asking questions will disarm people. You’re flipping it on them if you’re asking them questions. As far as a heckler, I mean, sometimes they’re wasted, sometimes they’re just out of their mind and you just need to get them kicked out.
LJK: Who are some of your dream guests?
CO: Maria Bamford.
EP: That would be amazing.
CO: I think she’s one of the best.
EP: Yeah. I love Maria. I love Tig Notaro too.
LJK: She’s so funny.
CO: Zach Galifianakis is doing standup again. That’d be cool.
EP: Eugene Mirman.
LJK: What’s next for the two of you? What’s next for the show?
EP: I wish I could tell you. Who knows?
CO: We have our fingers in a lot of different pots.
EP: A lot of different pies.
CO: Is that the saying? Pots? Pies?
EP: We’re sticking our fingers in a lot of places. No, I have no idea what the future holds for me. I can’t wait to find out.