23-Year-Old Karen Chee Needs To Be Your New Comedy Obsession

Sitting on the couch of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Karen Chee gives Keegan Michael Key a huge hug. The Key and Peele star explains that he kissed the then-Colbert intern because the improv scene they were both doing called for it.  Chee gives a huge smile and explains that the star was only the second boy she had ever kissed and then joked, “I used to tell everyone 50% of my kisses were with Keegan Michael Key.” The host, the veteran sketch star, and the audience erupt in laughter.

That was in 2016 and the comedian has been putting in work since her TV debut. She ended her time as an intern on the Late Show and started writing. At only 23-years-old her work has been published in the New York Times, NPR, McSweeney’s, Reductress, and she is a regular contributor to the New Yorker. She also worked on the upcoming Reductress pilot for Comedy Central. As a standup, she performs regularly in New York and recently opened for Daily Show correspondent Ronny Chieng at Carolines on Broadway. This year she was also named one of OnMogul’s 20 comedians to look out for in 2018.

Chee originally had aspirations of being a speechwriter but by the time she started attending Harvard, she was interested only in comedy.  “I knew I really wanted to do comedy and so in my mind, the most fun thing for me was doing political satire. It felt like a mix of comedy and politics, which is what I’m still most interested in.”

Chee grew up without a TV in her home but remembers needing to watch the White House Correspondents Dinners live. “I would go to the gym to watch, that was like the one time of year I would go to the gym. I would go an hour before it started and just get on a treadmill and then end up walking for two and a half hours because I wanted to be in charge of the television,” she recounts, “just so I could see the President, Barack Obama, being funny and a comedian being funny.”

Chee explains how she first started out in comedy by saying, “I approached comedy very methodically, almost as if it were an academic class. I would watch [something] and then I would take notes on why I think jokes worked or didn’t work.” She continued, “And then I would Google for who wrote for them and who produced. And then I would try and follow the careers of people online based on who I thought was funny.”

Chee’s parents are immigrants from South Korea. When she told them she wanted to pursue comedy during her time at Harvard they supported her even if, as Chee explains, they “don’t really know what American comedy is like.”

By her sophomore year, she had started submitting to notable comedy publications like McSweeney’s and Reductress. “I just started submitting to a lot of different publications because I could recognize that they had different voices. I couldn’t figure out what my personal comedic voice was. I figured if I tried to write for as many different kinds of voices as possible, I would sort of organically realize which one I enjoy doing best,” she explains, “And based on that I could figure out what my personal voice was.”

She found a home in writing political satire. She often jokes about gender and race in her material, which put her a good spot to work on the upcoming Reductress TV show, The Reductress Hour. While the show is still fairly hush-hush, Chee opened up about a day on set where she had helped write a segment being performed by SNL alum, Abby Elliott. Chee recalls Elliott elevating the jokes she had written. “And I remember looking around at the writers like, ‘oh my God, she’s saying my words.’ And of course they were veterans of TV who were just thinking, ‘yeah, okay, yeah, this is her job.”

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