Aack! A Millennial’s Audio Odyssey Through the ‘Cathy’ Comic Strip

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For some stand-up comedians, podcasts resemble an open-mic night with no red light telling them to wrap it up. The medium presents an opportunity to chat with friends and riff on whatever strikes their fancy, for hours and hours. Not so with Jamie Loftus.

With limited-run podcasts like “My Year In Mensa,” a descent into the sad and strange world of Mensa membership, and “Lolita Podcast,” a deep dive into how American culture has perverted the meaning of the Vladimir Nabokov novel, Loftus, 28, has branched out into a new medium with unexpectedly gripping explorations of niche subjects, infused with her biting comedic delivery. This approach grew directly out of her fear that her comedy shows were pigeonholing her as “Gross Woman.”

“My standup routine involved eating dog food onstage for years.” Loftus said. “I have a very strong digestive system. It was built by Alpo. But I was afraid I backed myself into a corner: Do I need to eat dog food forever? I can’t do that. I’ll die!”

Her most recent podcast, “Aack Cast,” about the much-maligned “Cathy” comic strip that ran from 1976 to 2010, should quash any lingering concerns about typecasting. “Aack Cast” — named by the strip’s creator, Cathy Guisewite, herself — is a frustrated millennial’s journey to understanding, though not necessarily forgiving, the working white women of the “rightfully despised” Boomer generation and their second-wave feminist struggles. “Cathy is a symbol of how women’s anxieties and concerns can be considered embarrassing, and not worthy of discussion, if the character in question isn’t a perfect role model,” said Loftus.

Over pizza and Aperol spritzes in late August in Bushwick, just before the 11-episode series aired its final episode, the typically Los Angeles-based Loftus talked about how she found grace for the generation she still struggles to understand, the surprising lessons for her own feminism she took from her boomer subject matter, and where the generations may never see eye to eye. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

How do you decide to dive so deeply into what might seem like random or perhaps un-zeitgeisty subject matters like Mensa, “Lolita” or “Cathy” comics?

I automatically gravitate toward topics that people have strong opinions about, but never really think about why they have them. It’s really the only thing that connects all three of the shows. I like that space in people’s heads, where they don’t feel so strongly about it that they’re going to pick a fight with me before hearing me out, but there is some ground-level emotion to meet them on.

In “Aack Cast,” Cathy’s workplace and body-image episodes made me actually have sympathy for boomer women, which for a bitter millennial, is a real feat.

I know. I don’t want to go too far in that direction either because, well, they’re deeply unsympathetic for a reason. Part of what’s so amazing about the “Cathy” strip is that it was a way of watching their story unfold in real time, and I wanted to talk to as many women as possible to track their version of that journey, from how second-wave feminism influenced or excluded them, to how it was replaced by consumption and apathy.

Was your mom’s love of the comic strip the impetus for this series?

After “Lolita,” I wanted something that’s fun and light and not the darkest place to possibly go. And then just talking to my mom, because she’s a freak for “Cathy.” She was the target audience.

And I wanted to make a show that had some sort of recurring cast [the strips are acted out during the series], so it becomes a sort of familiar mini TV show.

When it’s not pandemic-prohibited, you’re a stand-up comedian and TV writer. What makes podcasting different?

The community-building aspect is so cool — and terrifying. Those intense parasocial connections. I get it; I listen to podcasts and have that personal connection to people who have no idea who I am, too. I think where I struggled with it was “Lolita Podcast.” I imagined when people listened to the show I might hear very personal things from them. But I felt I was ill-equipped to deal with it. People who had survived childhood sexual assault, people in support groups to prevent themselves from offending — it was incredibly intense. I’m very grateful people were so open with me, but that’s when I found it very overwhelming. Contrasting that with the “Bechdel Cast” community, which is mostly college students and sometimes moms of college students, it’s a very wholesome, enthusiastic movie community. [“The Bechdel Cast,” which Loftus co-hosts, is an unscripted-conversation podcast about the portrayal of women in a different movie each week]. For “Cathy,” this is my first boomer crowd and that’s been wild.

You somehow walk the line of condemnation and compassion for that generation.

I felt myself being so unsympathetic to boomer women to the point that I was being deeply unsympathetic to my mom. And I always want to make sure I understand something fully before I decide it’s garbage. The valid criticism of the boomers stems from the amount of power and entitlement they have, but there were some experiences they had that I just can’t imagine having. I wanted to honor that as well, so it was tricky.

I wanted to see, can I meet my mom where she is, who has a good heart and wants to do right by people, but doesn’t always quite get it. And it’s been so nice to talk to Cathy herself. I hate to endorse a boomer, but I hope to be like her someday. She’s so sweet and so genuinely curious.

You made a special minisode called “Take the ‘Show Your Mom What a Podcast Is’ Challenge.” Did it work? Have you heard any critique from them?

I had thought that the biggest obstacle to “Aack Cast” would be the fact that it’s about a visual medium, but it was actually that much of my target audience has no idea about the medium I’m working in at all. But once you tell moms it’s the radio — my mom was like, “Oh, so it’s on demand?”

The few critical messages from boomer women I’ve gotten can be best described as “gentle mothering.” They were very like, “Sweetheart, I love what you’re doing, but …”

There are some things I’ve been encouraged to see the boomers in my life have made progress on — like talking to Cathy about the lack of diversity in her strip. But then there’s other stuff that I don’t know that this is going to change in their lifetimes, like women downplaying the workplace harassment they dealt with or even defending it.

Like that whole “pride in suffering” badge — if I had to endure this huge problem in my life than everyone just has to too, and if they can’t, they’re weaker than me. That boomer mentality — it sucks because I feel it in my own head.

[But] understanding them better has made me more thoughtful as a feminist, because I do think there’s a tendency to throw the baby out with the bath water when it comes to past movements of feminism. I felt a connection to the women I spoke to, even when we disagreed. I cannot endorse their actions, but they have knowledge to impart.

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