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Isabel Hagen has made the rare transition from in-demand session violist to stand-up comedian. To be sure, there’s nothing funny about the New Yorker’s sonorous contributions to works by revered minimalist composers Steve Reich and Max Richter, art-pop genius Björk, and jazz-funk wizards Medeski Martin & Wood, among others. But while she was bowing her way through courses at Juilliard and at prestigious concerts and studio dates, her mind was teeming with humorous ideas—concepts so rich that she began filming videos and winning stand-up awards, including one at Montréal’s Just for Laughs festival.

All of this success culminated in an appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, a few days before the world shut down in 2020. Now, Hagen stands out from the stand-up masses with a unique act in which she can segue from finessing a snippet of classical music to cracking a snappy joke about threesomes. 

In an email interview with The Stranger, Hagen talks about her unusual entertainment-biz trajectory in advance of her May 31 performance at Benaroya Hall.

Why did you switch from violin to viola at age 10?

My older brother had a friend who played viola and I had a crush on him and thought viola seemed cooler than violin. Then after switching, I was much more in demand at my music school because not that many 10-year-olds played viola (most switch from violin at an older age), so I enjoyed being needed. I also enjoyed being the inner voice of chamber groups and the “team player” aspect of the viola.

What has been your most fulfilling musical gig, and why?

Probably touring with Max Richter and ACME, since Richter’s music is some of my favorite, so I got to play my favorite music with the composer himself. Also ACME members (American Contemporary Music Ensemble) are some of my good friends and best players.

What’s the funniest thing that’s happened to you or that you’ve observed in a musical context?

One time I played with a string quartet for a private dinner (just the couple and the quartet). We were in their mansion serenading them as they had a romantic dinner for two, and it was awkward.

Comedians who combine humor with music—such as Bo Burnham, Reggie Watts, and Tim Minchin—have risen to popularity in recent years. But—correct me if I’m wrong—you’re the only living comic who plays classical music in your stand-up sets. Initially, it seems like a dubious strategy, but in practice, the ultra-seriousness of the music enhances your humor, makes it pop harder. Will musical interludes remain a part of your act until further notice, or will they just be a sporadic thing?

I am constantly trying to grow and evolve as a comic and an artist. What I do on stage is what feels right at the time, and it’s really hard to predict how I’ll continue to evolve. So I guess the answer is, I have no idea. I would imagine the viola will always remain a little part of what I do. But who knows?

You’re making a movie based on the Is a Violist video series. Do you find that it’s innately more difficult to derive humor from a classical musician’s circumstances, compared to other subjects that you explore in your stand-up sets? From what I’ve seen so far, the humor in those Violist clips is very subtle and tinged with darkness.

So far, deriving humor from my life as a classical musician has come very naturally, because it’s the world I’m most familiar with, and it’s easier for me to find the humor and to write about what I’m most familiar with. The humor in the series is subtle less because of the subject matter and more due to the medium—with narrative on-screen material, I enjoy humor that is less contrived and that depicts what actually happens in life and how funny/weird/uncomfortable it can be.

Which topics will you never address in your act, and why? Or are taboo subjects for the spineless?

I’ll never say never, and I rarely think of my jokes within a topic, because the core of a joke is usually about something deeper, or at least is something that could be applied to a number of subjects—the topic is just the vehicle. But I try to not offend on stage, not because I’m spineless, but because if a joke is offensive, it’s more likely because it’s just not a good-enough/funny-enough joke. So if I say something and the audience tightens up, I usually think, “Okay, the joke still needs work,” rather than “You can’t say anything anymore!” 

What’s your take on bodily function jokes—lowest form of humor or universal bonding agent? Both? Are there fresh angles to be explored with them, or should we flush them down the toilet once and for all?

Again, I truly believe the topic is the vehicle. I’ve found just as much awe and wonder in a well-crafted fart joke as I have in a joke about what love is.

Is your music career on hold while you focus on comedy, or are you leaving it behind for good? I imagine the ego gratification and potential for more lucrative gigs make comedy the more attractive path, though I could be mistaken.

For many years, I’ve been gradually trying to shift where my income comes from. In the last couple of years, I’ve finally been making more as a comedian than a musician. From the beginning when I started comedy open mics, and even before when I struggled with a recurring wrist injury and crippling performance anxiety (that manifested itself as shaking, which negatively affected my viola playing but not my joke-telling), I’ve felt like comedy was more of a true calling, as it taps into a more creative part of myself. Also, I’m just more suited for the life of a comic, I’ve found. But I don’t feel I’m leaving anything behind (except for some specific types of gigs I didn’t enjoy doing), more just expanding myself.

Please hype all of your current/near-future projects. How is On a String going, and do you know when will the public be able to view it?

I have a newsletter where I write more in-depth about some of the topics these questions covered. It’s weekly-ish and it’s the best way to stay up-to-date on everywhere I’ll be performing and everything I’m up to. I’m trying to gradually shift away from algorithm-based social media and more towards the newsletter [Notes from a Successful Failure] as a slower, more intentional way to connect with those who enjoy my work. 

On a String is in post-production. We are getting it ready for 2025 festival submissions. It’s hard to predict when it will be available to the public, since we probably won’t premiere it until it premieres at a festival.

Isabel Hagen performs at Benaroya Hall Friday, May 31. Tickets are available at