Ben Lomond resident Karin Babbitt grew up in Hollywood, California, where her parents Art and Dina Babbitt worked as animators. Every Sunday at 9 o’clock, Karin would get very quiet while curling up on the living room couch—so nobody would see her and tell her to go to bed—and watch The Ed Sullivan Show. Babbitt already liked comedians like Joan Rivers, Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, but on May 9, 1965, she saw Richard Pryor’s first TV appearance—and like that, she was hooked.
“I’ve always been funny,” says Babbitt over food in Felton. “I’m what’s called in Yiddish a ‘patsh,’ which means a slap. So, if you’re really funny, it’s like you wake people up. I saw Richard Pryor do it and I thought, ‘That is exactly what I am going to do.’”
But the world’s first real comedy club, the Comedy Store in L.A.—where Babbitt would eventually get her name painted on the wall, next to Jerry Seinfeld’s—wouldn’t open for another seven years. And day-to-day life with Hollywood’s famous Babbitt family was an enormous shadow to grow up under.
Babbitt’s father Art Babbitt had been one of Walt Disney’s top animators; not only creating the lovably iconic Goofy, but also revolutionizing the way animation was done. Art also believed in workers’ rights, and fought to unionize the Disney animators in a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court—and won. That story is explored in depth in a new book by Jake Friedman called The Disney Revolt.
“My father was never at home, it was way after the strike,” says Babbitt. “He was working for United Productions of America, and Art Babbitt Films. He was a mythological creature that arrived when food was served. Our house, that he designed, was two stories—crazy-ass modern, very unique—and the entire front of the house was glass. So you could see the Hollywood skyline, the Goodyear Blimp would fly by our kitchen window. When Santa Claus went down La Brea at Christmas time, we could hear him ho-ho-hoing in our bedrooms. To the left is Mount Baldy, to the right you can see the ocean glimmering and [in 1965] if you looked downtown you could see the smoke rising from the riots in Watts,” Babbitt explains.
Babbitt’s mother Dina, who moved to Bonny Doon in the 1970s, was an artist and a Holocaust survivor, and—while just a footnote in The Disney Revolt—was the subject of numerous newspaper and magazine articles, a 1999 documentary called Eyewitness and an illustrated story in the back of X-Men: Magneto with a forward by Stan Lee.
Amid the hustle and bustle of the Babbitt household, young Karin began doing what every kid growing up in Hollywood did—she took acting lessons.
“I took acting classes as a kid at a place called University of Judaism,” says Babbitt. “Taking acting classes is like a remedial thing in Hollywood. In most places, you do Little League to try to influence your behavior and get team spirit. In L.A., they put you in children’s theater, and I was in the Hollywood Children’s Theatre. Once I got to high school there was so much delinquency going on that it made it impossible for me to audition for Music Man because I was passed out from acid on the front lawn.”
During her years at the University of Judaism, Karin was friends with Cathy Warner, who later became the Harbor High School drama and dance teacher. They took dance lessons from influencers like Bella Lewitzky and acting lessons from pioneers like Benjamin Zemach. “It was the only place where I could go and feel like I was being heard,” says Babbitt.
When Babbitt was 12, she was taken to her first Renaissance Faire in Agoura Hills by an art teacher, and her life took a turn. “It was the height of the hippie days, and I was taken there and I felt at home,” Karin recalls.” I have always been an anglophile and a Queen Elizabeth freak. I got addicted to Ren Faires and started learning about dialects and Shakespeare and things I wasn’t being taught in school. That’s how I ended up on The Tonight Show.”
In fact, Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show was Babbitt’s first venture into stand-up comedy—in front of nine million people. She had created a character that she developed during her time at Ren Faire called Wench Penelope, who would come out before the queen’s show and sweep the stage and do a whole riff. What started happening was more people were coming to see Wench Penelope then would hang out for the queen. Babbitt really got into the persona of Wench Penelope, rolling in mud before she went on with a beef bone in her hand. It was there she was “discovered” and given a role on The Tonight Show in a sketch with Carson.
“Except they cleaned me up and gave me a push-up bra,” Babbitt recalls of her first brush with show-biz sexism.
High school proved troubling for Babbitt’s renegade teenager energy. Finding herself getting kicked out of school constantly for mouthing off to teachers, it was beyond her ability to auto-correct. “I could never stop with the punchlines,” says Karin. “It’s kind of a form of OCD with me. It’s something I do to relax myself. I think in joke structure.”
Karin started joining groups like the Students for a Democratic Society and “different commie clubs”; she didn’t know anything about Trotsky, but she was mad, and trying to find something that meant something to her. Despite low grades, Karin was forced to graduate at 16, because, “they just wanted me to leave.”
Babbitt has a learning disability called Dyscalculia that was undiagnosed at the time; it’s like Dyslexia, but with numbers reversed instead of letters. So after attending college at Cal State L.A. for four years, she still couldn’t graduate because she couldn’t pass math. Always the rebel, she bought a class ring anyway, and “of course, it had the wrong year on it,” Babbitt remembers.
In order to earn some money, Babbitt started working at the coat check at the Starwood, a nightclub at the center of culture in West Hollywood.
“I would sleep during the day, and at night I would visit a bunch of hooker friends that lived off Sunset, and we would hang at the Starwood and drink all night long and go home with people,” Babbitt recalls. Just 19 years old, Babbitt got married—and was abandoned by her husband after 90 days.
“After that person left me, I was in the same apartment, and there were a lot of holes in the walls where I put my fist through, and I could just not wake up and not be high. I always felt sorry for myself, and wondering why people didn’t understand what a prodigy I was. I had never even done comedy at that point, I just knew,” says Babbitt.
Although Babbitt was sneaking into the Comedy Store and feeling fulfilled basking in the glow of laughter, she was also an addict sinking down into her own morass. It took some trials and a lot of errors, but at age 21, Karin Babbitt got clean. “I tried three more times to pass the math class in college, and the professor ended up giving me a courtesy C, so I could graduate from Cal State L.A.—which, if you say it fast enough, people think you said UCLA and are really impressed,” Babbitt jokes.
There comes a moment in one’s life where dreaming has to match up with reality, and on an amateur night in 1978, Babbitt got onstage at the Comedy Store. The owner, the legendary Mitzi Shore, happened to be there and loved her act. “She said, ‘Oh Karen, I’m making you a regular. Keep calling for your spots.’ I remember going home in my beat-up car just screaming, ‘I did it!’ I would go to work during the day at this little health store and then go to the Comedy Store where I was up until 1 or 2:30 in the morning in the Belly Room,” says Babbitt. The Comedy Store had three rooms you could perform in, and the Belly Room was the broom closet where often only two people would be in the audience.
After four years of performing, Babbitt was starting to make a little money so she didn’t have to work so many jobs during the day. At five years, Shore promoted Babbitt to the more prestigious Original Room and Main Room shows. “And I became able to survive, barely,” Babbitt says. “If you got the Main Room on a weekend, you would get a cut of the door and be able to pay your rent. At the time it was the best showcase in town—for men. When I was there, on the roster there were 200 regulars and only 12 of them were women. I was fortunate enough to be one of them. And there was a much prescribed type of comedian that women were allowed to be. You needed to be very self-deprecating, but if you were attractive in any way, the only person that would take a chance is Mitzi. She loved the really absurd, attractive women who would get onstage and play against type and be loony.”
Comedy is tribal, and while the other female comics in the sea of male comedians bonded over drinks and drugs, Babbitt started a 12-step meeting at the Comedy Store. Richard Pryor even stopped in once or twice.
During this time, Shore was producing a TV special called Girls of the Comedy Store and chose Karin to be one of the “girls.” So Babbitt began the process of working out her new material, some of which was based on her intense childbirth experience.
“I gave birth to a critically ill child in 1984,” says Babbitt. “She was in the ICU and I was doing comedy, because you have to earn a living. So I would go to the Comedy Store, and after go straight to Cedar Sinai ICU to be with the baby, run home, crash and then back to the ICU until it was time to go onstage again.”
In preparation for the TV show, Babbitt was working out her new material onstage at the Comedy Store, including a childbirth bit. “And Robin Williams comes in every night and sits front row and watches and talks to me afterwards and tells me how great the bit is and asks me questions about it and the birth experience,” says Babbitt. She says he put some of her jokes in his hit special Live from the Met—without her permission.
“There’s nothing more personal you can rip off from a woman than her birth story, especially with a kid in the ICU,” she says.
Girls of the Comedy Store, released in 1986, didn’t do much for Babbitt’s career. There was an industry bias against female comedians, one that still haunts comedy clubs across America. “It wasn’t until Brett Butler that there was an attractive, female comedian allowed into the circle and given a career in comedy on TV,” she says. “People would mention Rita Rudner, but she was simpering and talked in a baby-talk voice, and smiled and wasn’t a threat. Comedians like Lois Bromfield and I were very similar, kind of dyke-y. I mean I have never been attracted to a woman, but there’s nothing feminine about me. I’ve faked it when I had to, but I was always just one of the fellows, and that was not OK at the time.”
Most people don’t recognize that 90% of being a comedian is waiting to get onstage. And while Babbitt had great times at the Comedy Store with friends like Charlie Hill, Johnny Witherspoon, Arsenio Hall, Jimmy Walker and her close pal Andrew Dice Clay, there were too many drugs and too much alcohol to be there for longer than her set. “So I didn’t go do all the socializing after-hours or on weekends,” she says.
After her daughter stabilized enough to move, Babbitt relocated to Ben Lomond in 1988 and started all over in the comedy world. Trying to hustle and get gigs at the SF Punchline and Cobb’s, Babbitt was promoting herself through radio, doing shows with Live 105’s Alex Bennet and Paul “The Lobster” Wells. But soon, she began to hear the same biases and sexist attitudes she heard in L.A.
“During the first comedy competitions in San Francisco, I made it to the finals in 1990, and was the only female finalist, and thought that would finally make me a bookable comic that could get gigs without having to hang out. And still, I wasn’t getting the gigs. I could get a feature spot every now and then, but never a headliner set and because I ‘didn’t hang out,’ and that can be interpreted a lot of different ways, because it was always a male manager that was saying it. There’s a glass ceiling, and people say, ‘We’re thankful to you for paving the way for us, we’re grateful that you did all that.’ And I’m glad I could be of service, but I’m not going to get a tattoo that says ‘no regrets,’ because I have regrets. I really regret that there was a ceiling. It’s been very painful hitting it over and over,” Babbitt says.
In 1989, after the Loma Prieta earthquake, Babbitt produced Laughquake, a night of comedy to benefit those hit hardest. The benefit oversold the Catalyst and was held at the Civic.
In 1992, Babbitt was doing a little more TV, getting on A&E and The Rosie O’Donnell Show and “this whole time I still have this child who is not doing well,” says Babbitt. “My ass gets so kicked from this glass ceiling and other events in my life, I can’t do it anymore. I remember driving out to Tommy T’s in Pleasanton, and the owner shakes his head and says, ‘Not a fan, sorry.’ I remember sobbing on the highway, eating these chocolate-covered coffee beans to stay awake and having an anxiety attack at 2am, and realizing life has kicked comedy’s ass for me,” Babbitt says.
Within a year—while working on the cleaning crew at Scotts Valley’s Mission Springs Conference Center, and eating a lot of ramen—she had a soul-searching moment where she thought about what else she had wanted to do in her life besides stand-up comedy. Babbitt thought, “I’ve always wanted to be a high school drama teacher. There’s got to be disenfranchised, screwed up kids like me who need some sort of place they can be themselves,” she recalls. “And I did that for 20 years.”
Teaching originally at San Lorenzo Valley High School and then at Scotts Valley High School, Babbitt built a little comedy club in her classroom where the students could put their own names on the wall. Working as a drama and video productions teacher, Karin directed over 50 productions and won numerous awards. In 2019, she began working at the Options for All Film and Media Studio in Sunnyvale, helping students with special needs learn how to make movies.
Babbitt is currently working on a project for the Disney Family Museum—where she has been a guest lecturer—with her neurodivergent students.
And after 20 years, Babbitt recently returned to perform comedy at Tommy T’s, and the crowd went wild. “It feels good to finally be back onstage and waking people up again,” she says.
Karen Babbitt will perform at Greater Purpose Brewery on Saturday Dec. 3, at 7:30pm. $10.