When Cortney Warner left her small hometown in Aurora, Ohio, and moved to Nashville, she thought she would become a musician. The music city had another stage for her.
Seven years later, Warner is working to support the quickly eroding reproductive rights as a board member for Abortion Care Tennessee and keeping Nashville laughing through the madness. Part comedian, part spokesperson for the Nashville Reproductive Rights organization.
“I started doing comedy and it just felt like meeting a soulmate,” Warner said as she sipped her iced coffee across the table from me at The Red Cat–the coffee shop where she performed her first stand-up gig in Nashville. “Everything just clicked. The first time I did it, I was like, oh, this is it. Like this is what has been missing from my life,”
As the interview progresses, Warner answers with half sincerity, half-effortless jokes that flow as easily as breathing.
“People say comedy is like a parasite in your brain like what happens when people get cats. Maybe that’s what happened to me with comedy. I sniffed the cat litter and now I’m in love,” she said.
Warner released her first live album, “Pointy Boys,” last fall. She addresses what it’s like to date as an Asian woman, her religious childhood as an adoptee and how she is finding her own way despite her unconventional upbringing.
She was raised in a typical suburban Ohio household, but Warner wasn’t like her family or her peers. Warner was born in Seoul, South Korea and was part of a wave of babies adopted by white American parents in the 90s.
“I was adopted by two very well-meaning white people from a suburb of Cleveland. I had a very religious upbringing. I didn’t even know I was Asian until I was older. No one really brought it up or told me,” she said.
But as she started working and forming her own friendships as a teenager, she realized other kids asked questions they didn’t ask other kids.
“I would get ‘Are your parents Chinese?’ Like, no. I’m Korean,” said Warner, whose unique perspective and hilarious jokes make her one of the most exciting comedians on the scene today.
She never knew any of her Korean family and was not exposed to much of the culture growing up. This experience of being not white enough for her white friends and not Asian enough to feel like she fit in the Asian community has been lonely, but that’s why she has to keep talking about it.
“My Asian friends will talk about their mom’s classic dishes, and I’m like, my mom made salmon loaf. Do you know what that is? It’s where you take canned salmon and mayonnaise and you roll it up and put it into the oven with canned mushroom soup, hard boiled eggs and peas. And that was an Ohio delicacy.”
When the pandemic stopped entertainment in its tracks in 2020, Warner resolved she may never do stand-up again. Her day job was working as an associate at a grocery store, where customers who were once nice began avoiding her checkout line or staring at her for simply being Asian in public.
“I couldn’t even think about being funny,” she said, reflecting on 2020. “We could die tomorrow and I guess no one will ever hear my great epiphany on coat hangers. I did some Zoom shows and realized I still love this.”
“I still feel like I have something to say and things that I want to talk about.”
Comedian by night, 9-5 remote worker by day and reproductive rights advocate by night, Warner views her work as a comedian as not only fun, but also a way to create the community she felt she was missing out on.
As someone dedicated to the work of restoring reproductive rights in Tennessee and educating people about the reality surrounding abortion rights, she recognizes there’s a certain line to toe when it comes to her comedy.
“It’s kind of frustrating when comedians are like, I’m gonna educate you about this and this. That’s fine, but how are you gonna make that funny? A statement isn’t always a punchline,” she said. “I think the best way to get perspectives out there is just to share your own. I don’t know any other perspectives, so I have to talk about it.”
You can catch Cortney and some of her favorite Nashville comedians at Third Man Comedy in Nashville June 17.