WORDS BY PATRICK STRAIT
Despite only living in Minnesota since this past January, we’re claiming Kelsey Cook as one of our own. A stand-up comic who got her start in Washington 14 years ago, Cook spent the better part of the past decade in Los Angeles, following the blueprint of how to make it in comedy like others before her.
“When I moved to LA I knew I wanted to do [comedy] full-time,” she says of her early goals. “I connected with Jim Norton and had him on my podcast, and he ended up bringing me out as his opener for the next three years. That really changed my life and allowed me to reach that goal,” she explains. “Then I wanted to do a Comedy Central show, and then a late-night spot. I did The Tonight Show and This is Not Happening on Comedy Central, and then my goal was to start headlining. So really, each year my goals got more and more specific.”
When the pandemic hit, her goals—and geography—would take a drastic shift.
“There was such an explosion on social media with everyone posting clips of their stand-up, because we were all just staring at our phones,” she recalls. “I became really proactive trying to post all of the time, because I really didn’t have anything else to do.”
Cook saw her social media following, especially on TikTok, begin to blow up. But with no opportunities to tour or do much live comedy outside of Zoom or weird parking lot shows, she decided that the right choice, financially, was to move back to her hometown of Spokane.
“I was getting really anxious because as a comic you were always told that you have to live in LA or New York if you want to make it,” she explains. “I had been living in LA for six years and was just like, I need to get out of town for a while. So I went to Spokane thinking I’d be there for maybe like six months, and then my mom got diagnosed with dementia and was in the hospital for the next five months.”
While Cook’s primary focus shifted away from comedy and towards her family, she still kept up with her social media posting and continued to build her following.
Last June, Cook decided to record her first proper special. Though she didn’t have a major network or streaming service lined up ahead of time, she was confident that her material would find a home.
“The plan was to have my agents and managers pitch it to networks,” she says. “And all the networks passed on it. I was disappointed because you want that big fancy phone call like, ‘They bought it! They want you!’”
This spring, Cook decided to move forward with releasing the special, The Hustler, for free on YouTube. She was cautiously optimistic that the special would find an audience and receive a positive reaction. It turned out to be the best thing that could have happened.
The special received a million views in its first four weeks and is currently right around 1.3 million views. Weaving together tales of her family’s history of foosball domination with personal reflections of her past marriage and new relationship as well as reflections on the current sexual trends, Cook’s special has become one of the most highly regarded comedy specials of the year, and made her an even hotter commodity on the road.
“I see people at shows get excited if I do bits that went viral online,” she laughs. “It’s funny because I wasn’t sure if it would be like a magician where people wouldn’t be excited once they knew how it went.”
Now living in Minneapolis full-time (except for when she’s on the road, which is basically all the time), Cook is popping up at places like Acme’s weekly open mic to work out new material, and hopes to record a new special later this year.
“The thing I’ve learned is that you can make big career goals happen without following the path you’re told you have to.”