Catie Lazarus, a writer and comedian who hosted the popular live talk show and podcast “Employee of the Month,” died Sunday night at her home in Brooklyn.
The cause was terminal cancer, which she fought for several years, according to friends who knew her. Lazarus was 44 years old.
In an anecdote she recounted publicly, Lazarus was inspired to drop out of her doctorate program in psychology to pursue a career in comedy after seeing Tina Fey at a conference, in which she suggested improv theater at the Upright Citizens Brigade. That’s where she eventually started “Employee of the Month,” her live interview show with notable people. By around 2014, it had moved to Joe’s Pub at New York’s Public Theater and became a popular ticket for audiences and guests alike. Recordings of her more than 250 interviews were also made into weekly podcasts by Slate.
“The way she interviewed people is almost indistinguishable from the way she interacted with people in general,” Trevor Williams, a director and longtime friend of Lazarus, said. “She loved people and getting to know everything that was going on in their head.”
Her interview guests over the years included Jon Stewart, in his first interview after leaving “The Daily Show”; Jill Abramson, just before she was ousted at The New York Times; David Simon; Jon Hamm; Gloria Steinem; Martha Plimpton; Daveed Diggs; Tom Colicchio; Lin-Manuel Miranda; Rachel Maddow; Sheila Nevins; Samantha Power; Sarah Silverman, and Titus Burgess, among so many others over several years of the show.
She also wrote for various publications, including The Atlantic and The New York Times Magazine, but when her interview show started to take off, it seems she wrote less often.
As for her show, it essentially came to an end earlier this year, given the inability to stage it live under public measures to combat the coronavirus pandemic. Previously, on occasion, the show was put on hiatus due to Lazarus’ illness, which she largely kept hidden but from a few close friends. But she always came back to it.
“We could never figure out how she figured this show out, because in every other area of her life she was so scattered,” Williams said, laughing. “But she did it all. She booked it, produced it and wrote it. And you show up and she’s got Jon Stewart on.
“The show was sort of what she lived for, and I mean that quite literally,” Williams said. “She was always hustling, figuring out a way to feed the show.”
Part of the show’s appeal was its vibe of being of another era, like the Catskills comedy scene in the Sixties. But it was also hailed in reviews as simultaneously funny and thoughtful, even as it tended to drill down into the work lives of her guests. The New Yorker wrote that Lazarus’ “unorthodox interview style and background in psychology” helped her to “get stories out of her subjects which others cannot.”
But the writer and comedy community of which she was a part took to Twitter on Monday to grieve Lazarus as a person.
Dana Gould called her a “sweet and beautiful human being.” Sarah Larson of The New Yorker called her “kind, original and so funny.” Miriam Gottfried, a reporter with the Wall Street Journal, wrote “the nights I attended her show were among the best I’ve spent in NYC.”
Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote: “Catie was the funniest, kindest and sweetest. Grateful for every #EmployeeOfTheMonth show I got to see, she was never less than brilliant. Heartbroken for her friends and family.”
In a story Larson wrote on “Employee of the Month” in 2015, after Lazarus landed the Stewart interview, she admitted “people say things they don’t normally say.” Larson noted that, in their interviews with Lazarus, “Lewis Black teared up; the playwright Adam Rapp referred to the Times critic Charles Isherwood as an ‘asshole’; Gloria Steinem talked about the ‘f’ word and did an elegant little dance.”
In an interview with 6sqft in 2016, Lazarus said she started the interview show because she could not figure out how to break into writing, but also because during her time as a comic, she took a lot of odd jobs. “We spend most of our lives at work, so learning about people’s work lives is fascinating, and it’s the only talk show about this. I look at people and how they define success and what that means to them,” she said.
“Mainly, I see it as a privilege to spend time in someone’s world,” she added. “It’s generous of them to open up and I love that they have fun. That’s my favorite part. It’s so rare to have a calling, but even if you have a sense of purpose, which is not quite the same thing, you’re on the right track and you’re still luckier than you might realize.”
On her fathers side, Lazarus is descended from Simon Lazarus, who founded in 1851 F&R Lazarus & Co. a large Midwest apparel retailer. He also founded Federated Department Stores, and eventually the holdings became known at Macy’s Inc. She is survived by her parents and two brothers.