After leaving tennis to serve up comedy, Hannah Berner is getting plenty of love from TikTok

Hannah Berner has lived many lives — and she’s not afraid to ask about the most intimate details of yours. The 32-year-old comedian has been a college tennis champion, a reality TV star, a New York media professional and now: an audience-heckling comic and social-media celebrity.

These career paths might appear unrelated, but each one has informed the other and ultimately led Berner to where she is today, with nearly 3 million TikTok followers, two podcasts (“Giggly Squad” and “Berner Phone”), a forthcoming Netflix comedy special, a spot on Variety’s 2023 list of 10 Comics to Watch, and a reputation for asking people about their pubic hair grooming routines.

In her “Han on the Street” video interviews, which she started doing simply to kill time between New York City club sets, Berner crowdsources answers around one highly specific — and awkwardly personal — question, typically involving sexual preferences and/or bathroom habits, among other things. Because she’s usually chatting with other comics on a shared bill, the answers tend to be uproariously funny. Her (self-edited) TikToks go viral within days of posting.

Berner’s uninhibited persona, confessional Q&As and hefty social-media footprint have resulted in a run of A-list celebrities in the hot seat. These days, a quick scroll of Berner’s TikTok shows clips of the comedian quizzing Jesse McCartney on “how many tampons does a woman use during her period?” (the singer answers: “I guess it depends on the flow”), Julia Fox on whether having a child is worth it (“or is it a cult?” Berner quips), and Jennifer Lawrence on whether she reaches for her wallet on a first date (“No! But … I’m a feminist,” the actor admits).

It’s easy to see why A-list celebrities — including Hailey Bieber, the Jonas Brothers and Kacey Musgraves — line up to be interviewed by Berner. She’s boisterous but not a glutton for attention. She’s quick with a comeback but never cruel. She’s truthful but not a pot-stirrer. Her questions, even when more fashion-oriented for Bieber, always reveal something new, wacky and relatable about the subject. She’s like a more over-the-top Amelia Dimoldenberg, host of YouTube’s “Chicken Shop Date.”

For someone so unconstrained, it’s ironic that Berner barely considered a career in comedy, much less entertainment, growing up. “I never even thought about it,” she tells The Times. Seated by the pool at the Mondrian Hotel in West Hollywood, Berner is a blast of energy from the moment she strides downstairs. “I was always the goofy one on the tennis team. I could always make people laugh,” she says. “I could always take situations less seriously. Laughter was the one common theme I always had through the ups and downs. [But] I never thought that you could make money from it.”

Originally from Park Slope, Brooklyn, Berner grew up in what she describes as a “basketball coach family.” As a kid, she dove into competitive tennis, even playing on the boys’ team in high school and joining the University of Wisconsin’s team while studying communications. By her senior year of college, however, she was struggling with burnout. To top that off, Berner was hit by a car, an event she says she “took as a sign from the world” that maybe going pro wasn’t in the cards after all.

“I really had an identity crisis,” she says of giving up a tennis career. “Also, not to go too ESPN on you, but turning pro as a tennis player is very entrepreneurial. You have to pay for all of your travel, you only get paid when you win, you have to pay for your coaches, practice, gear.” Berner says she didn’t come from wealth and went to college on a full scholarship. Considering the financial pressures of pursuing tennis helped her decision to walk away from the sport. “I just felt that I didn’t want to be financially in the negative and not even be happy,” she says. “I was like, I think I have a creative side to me that I want to search for.”

Back in New York, Berner started working for Betches Media, a female-focused entertainment brand that places an emphasis on comedy. In addition to funny Tweets, Berner would write and edit comedy sketches. Though she didn’t appear in any of the videos, Berner did start building a network of New York-based comedians appearing in the sketches she wrote.

Simultaneously, Berner launched her first comedy-meets-mental-health podcast, “Berning in Hell.” When she received an invitation to do a live podcast recording, Berner says a friend dared her to tack on a 10-minute stand-up routine. “That’s not how you’re supposed to do stand-up,” Berner says. “You’re supposed to do two-, maybe three-minute open mics for three years, and then, maybe start producing a show.”

But Berner has never been the type of person to walk a straight line to anything. “It sounds so corny, but I’ve had a lot of real path transitions,” she acknowledges about pivoting from tennis to digital media to comedy. “I’ve done so many different types of entertainment — from funny videos with Betches, writing, directing. I haven’t been in the traditional comedy space for long, but my open mic was posting on TikTok and writing videos.”

In 2018, while working at Betches, Bravo reached out to see if Berner would like to join the Season 3 cast of “Summer House,” a reality show following a group of friends spending weekends together in the Hamptons. “The cool thing about it was that they were gonna show what you do for work during the week, so they showed my podcast a little,” Berner says. “But they weren’t showing the stand-up part.” (Berner left “Summer House” in 2021 after getting a brutal villain edit.) Following her stint on Bravo, Berner “started touring like crazy,” figuring that this was her shot to show audiences who she really was, minus the camera crews.

“I knew I wanted to entertain, but I didn’t know what format,” she says. “When [‘Summer House’ producers] were letting me like be funny in the confessionals, that was my favorite part of it all. … You can try to play in that game and pray every season that you get a good storyline. [But] I’m entrepreneurial. I love taking life by the horns. I’d rather lose on my own than have someone decide my fate for me, which sounds ‘Game of Thrones’-ish. When I was 26 and single, reality TV was so fun. [But] I’m a highly sensitive individual. I don’t like fighting, and I’m a people pleaser. I want everyone to be happy.”

“I don’t think that I was actually that good on reality TV,” Berner continues. “I’ve had people who I did reality TV with see my stand-up shows and go, ‘Oh, that’s what you’re meant to be doing. I think I’m fortunate — if I did reality TV a little bit longer, I might have been stuck.”

Spending time amid the comedy community is what Berner attributes to helping her through the “Summer House” criticism. (She remains close friends with former castmate Paige DeSorbo, with whom she co-hosts “Giggly Squad.”)

“I’ve been in so many situations where I felt like I betrayed myself, or I didn’t feel like myself,” Berner says. “With tennis, there were times where I was like, ‘I don’t want to be here. I don’t like this. Who am I playing for?’ Then, with reality TV, it’s like, ‘Are people rooting for me? Are people trying to take me down? I’m scared.’ In comedy, it’s very clear to me. We’re trying to have a good time.”

Looking ahead, Berner, who also co-hosts “Berner Phone” with her husband, Irish American comedian Des Bishop, is excited to welcome more women into comedy spaces. “If you think about it, the girlies’ average night out is not to a stand-up comedy show. Stand-up comedy isn’t always aesthetically pleasing for the girls; they don’t always know if the acts are going to make them feel comfortable, especially because it’s a lot of men on stage,” Berner says. “A lot of girls that come to my shows, it’s the first time they’re ever coming to a show, period. [But] girls are the consumers. They’re the decision makers. They’re running s— right now.”

Even at the Stand in New York, where Berner performs all the time, a lot of young women have started showing up. It was a little unsettling for the comics because the crowd was different, Berner says. “I want the girls to feel safe going to comedy clubs. Ultimately, that’s why I didn’t go the traditional route.”

As a female comic, Berner says when you’re doing open mics in the Bronx at 2 a.m. it’s unsafe. The explosion of TikTok in the comedy world gives stand-ups a safe space to put out content and connect with the right people to jump-start their careers, Berner hopes this will inspire more women to try comedy. “I hope women will see me on stage and be like, ‘Oh, I can do that. I could see your career trajectory and do it that way.’”

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