By Cliff Hall | From the March-April 2023 issue of Strings magazine
Every string player knows those jokes.
Although Isabel Hagen, who combines stand-up comedy and viola performance, didn’t realize the path she was on when she started telling them. “I love viola jokes,” says Hagen. “When I switched to viola from violin at age ten, the first thing I did was google viola jokes and memorize a whole page of them, and I would just tell them. Obviously, there’s some thought that viola jokes give violists an inferiority complex. Perhaps it’s unhealthy… but as a comedian, I love them.”
It was more than just a few steps to get Hagen from amusing friends in elementary school to a showcase on the Tonight Show. Upon being accepted to the Juilliard School as an undergraduate, Hagen harbored ambitions that were a bit more traditional. “I thought, ‘Well, I’ll be a soloist, and I’ll have a quartet that I’ll also travel with. And maybe at some point I’ll teach and bless a conservatory with my presence.’ It was very ambitious, very naive,” says Hagen with a laugh.
But it wasn’t too long before her comedy instincts started to creep in again.
“In my sophomore year, I made a video that was inspired by YouTuber Jenna Marbles’ video called ‘How to Trick People into Thinking You’re Good Looking.’ This gave me the idea for a video called ‘How to Convince People You’re Really Good at Chamber Music.’ I felt like a lot of the things my coaches had said were all these sort of funny things, so I joked, ‘If your coach says something like “try to articulate the warmth,” then just raise your eyebrows and play a little louder,’” says Hagen.
But then something unexpected happened.
“I just posted the video with no plan or anything, but it went viral among conservatory students to the point where, at summer festivals, people would say, ‘You’re the girl from that YouTube video.’ The recognition gave me more validation that I could be funny,” says Hagen. “I thought maybe that was a path I wanted to go down.”
This direction opened up even more when she developed a repetitive-stress injury while getting her master’s degree at Juilliard. Unable to practice for a couple of months, Hagen took another stride toward becoming a comedian.
“I tried an open mic while I was still in school, and it was really fun. It was just five other comics in the room and me—that’s what New York comedy open mics are like. They’re pretty brutal, but I always just loved it. I don’t know if I was any good or not, but I definitely wanted to do it again, so I did a couple more while I was still in school,” says Hagen.
Was this ambition like the one that drives music students to practice for countless hours when preparing for a weekly lesson or a recital?
“It was something new. And I was a beginner again. And when you’re a beginner at something, it’s more exciting because your improvements are more tangible. You’re bad, and then you get less bad. Whereas with viola, I was feeling like I was terrible and wondering if I was getting any better. And the improvements were so incremental at that point that it was easy to lose faith in that process, that practicing would still make me better,” says Hagen. “I definitely had the drive to practice stand-up every day, going to open mics and trying out jokes.”
Once Hagen graduated, she employed her musical skills in Broadway pits and recording studios while she began building her comedy career. But, at first, she kept her two passions detached.
“I was a violist for most of my life without comedy. And then I started comedy and kept them separate for about four years. I didn’t know if it would be a good combination, and I wanted to know that I could do stand-up without music. I loved the craft so much that I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it on its own,” says Hagen.
After four years pursuing comedy and working as a freelance violist, Hagen was fielding questions about whether she would ever add viola to her stand-up sets. She decided to give it a try by putting them next to each other. “The first time I did it, I went to an open mic to try it, and I said to the audience, ‘OK, I need to quit either viola or comedy. I’m going to do one and then the other. And you tell me which one I should quit.’ And no one yelled out which one I should quit. They just laughed.”
The hard work and creative approach paid off, and, by March of 2020, Hagen had earned a spot on the Tonight Show. She performed her set without a viola, and, though the spot went great, the timing was not as good.
“I was the last guest to appear in front of an audience before they quickly shut it down [for Covid]. In one way, it was helpful because I got to go into Covid having a big moment and getting some attention. And I had a lot of people who found me on the Tonight Show and then started following me. And when I would do Zoom shows, they would tune in.”
As the floodwaters of Covid eventually receded, Hagen’s comedy life also started to return to normal. She started doing in-person shows again. And then she got another big phone call from the Tonight Show to perform last October. “You always hope they ask you back. So this time, I said, ‘Can I bring my viola? I’m doing this new thing.’ And they said yes.”
The rest is history, as Hagen now shares her unique brand of comedy (and, yes, some viola jokes) with bigger and bigger audiences. And another accidental delight came about as part of this unconventional journey. “The joy is that a lot of people in comedy clubs come up to me after a show, and they say they’ve never heard a live stringed instrument before,” says Hagen. “My goal wasn’t to expose people to classical music by doing this, but it is a nice byproduct that it happened.”