The Bay Area comedy scene can be an unforgiving place.
For her first show, Nori Reed performed in a church for a crowd of 600 people. Most people would probably prefer six or seven generously intoxicated souls for their inaugural set, but nothing about Reed’s career has been by the book. Perhaps her holy debut was a sign of things to come because these days, her sets are fast becoming a standing room only affair.
In 2019, she’s already performed as part of San Francisco Sketchfest and at Clusterfest, where she appeared as a guest of headliner and Parks and Recreation star Amy Poehler.
At Sketchfest, Reed participated in a handful of unconventional sets that were staged in North Beach’s immersive Speakeasy venue alongside the likes of Neil Patrick Harris and Janeane Garofalo. For Clusterfest, she told jokes to a capacity crowd of 8,000 at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. Next up is a set at Outside Lands, where Reed will perform as part of Barbary tent offerings.
Originally from Christian County, Ky., the 31-year-old Reed confirms that the name of her place of birth pretty much tells you all you need to know about it. There have, she notes, been a few notable exceptions.
“There’s something weird that happens every so often in Christian County,” Reed explains. “Edgar Cayce, this famous astrologist, is from there, and so is bell hooks. We’re all from the same town.”
After attending school in Ohio, Reed moved to New York. Though she regularly attended comedy shows, it wasn’t until she moved to Oakland in 2014 that she first considered the idea of doing stand-up. Her introduction came courtesy of Peacock Rebellion, an Oakland organization for queer and trans artists, activists, and healers of color within the San Francisco Bay Area.
“They had a program where they taught trans women of color to do comedy,” Reed says. “I thought that was really cool. I’d always wanted to do comedy, and it’s a great program.”
While Reed will occasionally draw on her identity as a trans woman for material, she wants to be known as a comic that is trans, not the other way around. As she’s worked her way up from open mics to sets at spots like Comedy Oakland, Reed has continued to experiment with her audiences when it comes to the necessity and methods of disclosure.
“I had all of these question marks when I first started,” Reed explains. “Are my jokes relatable? Do trans jokes work for people who aren’t trans or queer? I was really relieved to learn that it does translate. People are interested and curious. They’re ready for stories that are not normative and for material that’s not normative. That’s been a really nice thing to know: that audiences are interested in my point of view.”
Perhaps nothing has encapsulated Reed’s improbable career surge like Poehler’s invitation to do a tight 10 minutes for a giant crowd at Clusterfest this June. When Reed first received the invitation by email about two weeks prior to the festival, she initially assumed it was a prank. That was easier to believe than what her computer was telling her: that Amy Poehler and her Wine Country co-star Paula Pell had found all of Reed’s videos on YouTube and wanted her to perform as part of Poehler’s set.
“I only use YouTube as a hosting site for my videos for when I apply to festivals,” Reed says. “It’s not a channel. The only reason it’s not password-protected is that I didn’t really know how to do it. The point is that it’s not for people to watch. That’s why it was very confusing and amazing and why I wasn’t sure if it was real.”
It was, indeed, for real. Reed rose to the challenge, delivering an incredible set.
Unable to discuss any currently pending projects, Reed confirms that she’s excited for the future and whatever comes next after Outside Lands. One thing she may need to get used to: being recognized in public. Recently, Reed was in Portland for some shows and was shocked when a stranger at Powell’s Books asked if they could get a photo with her. She recounts the voice she heard in her head as the whole encounter occurred.
“This isn’t normal,” she laughs. “This isn’t my life. This isn’t what I do. This is crazy!”
Nori Reed, Friday, Aug. 9, 5:50-6:50 p.m.,
The Barbary Stage Saturday, Aug. 10, 2:40-3:40 p.m., The Barbary Stage