What do they say about New York City: There are eight million stories, and sometimes it seems as though eight million of the people telling them think they’re comedians? No, that’s not it. It is a fact, though, that America’s biggest city is also its biggest comedy mecca. Hollywood may be Hollywood, but New York City is where comedians are born funny, become funny or arrive to thrust their funny upon us. I think we should meet some of these people. This is a recurring feature, a mini-profile of newcomers, up-and-comers and overcomers of New York’s vibrant comedy scene. It’s called Meet Me In New York.
On this day of meeting Montreal’s New Faces of comedy for the Just For Laughs 2016 festival, what better time to check back on one of last year’s New Faces, Emma Willmann. Especially since Willmann is paying it forward in her own way, hosting a monthly spotlight series introducing new comedians to SiriusXM satellite radio on “The Check Spot.” In fact, she’s recording a live edition of The Check Spot tonight at New York Comedy Club.
Willmann also was featured in a photo spread in July’s “Women in Comedy” issue of Elle magazine.
Willmann just got back from performing at the Green Mountain Comedy Festival in Vermont. In addition to her SiriusXM show, Willmann also has a video podcast with GO Magazine. Let’s go and find out more about her New York story.
Name: Emma Willmann
Arrival From: Maine via Boston
Arrival Date: 2011, and again in March 2013
Where and when did you start performing comedy? “Boston. The first place I did comedy was Boston. I had just graduated Simmons, where I went to undergrad. And I was trying to invent something, and I was working at a call center. I had this string of awful sales jobs when I graduated but I was putting all of my energy into trying to do this invention. Then I found out the product prototype I was trying to get made, wasn’t going to work out. I was totally crushed. I went to a party. A girl was doing comedy at the party, and I was just transfixed.”
Wait. Someone was doing comedy at a party? “Yeah. They were doing comedy at a party.” That sounds horrible! “It was horrible for the poor girl. I mean, I remember her saying something I thought was funny, and people were getting offended. Getting angry at her. I went over to her and I was like, ‘I really liked it. How did you do this?’ And then she told me a couple of places to go in Boston, and then I went and started watching comedy at The Comedy Studio. I’d just go and watch. Then the first open mic I did was at my friend’s poetry open mic in Jamaica Plain.” When was that? “About 10 months after I graduated Simmons.”
“You know what it is? I try to block out dates, because I get like, oh God, that makes me feel very old.”
What was your best credit when you moved here the second time?
“Well, the first time it was I had won Dick Doherty’s Beantown competition. It was a little competition Dick Doherty had. I entered that after I’d been doing comedy – this was the second time that I won it. The first time I did it, it was a disaster. I’d entered it, I’d been doing comedy maybe three months, and I’d only get up once a month at my friend’s poetry open mic, in Jamaica Plain, where people couldn’t have been more supportive. So I was like, this is great. I entered this competition. It did not go well. At all. I think I was heckled. Someone said I looked funny. I didn’t know how to handle it. Didn’t even know how to take the mic off the thing. Disaster. And I remembered walking around afterward smoking cigarettes, and then it started raining. I walked back to where I was renting a room at, and I must have fallen asleep with the cigarette in my hand, and water got in my bed, and wet cigarette all over me. It was awful. I remembered thinking, if I keep doing comedy, someday I hope I win that competition. And then a year later, I ended up winning it. I was like, I’m ready for New York! Then I moved to New York, and it was tough.”
“When I left after I graduated New School, I don’t think I had any credits then really when I came back. But it was my first year back that I got AXS (Gotham Comedy Live), and then that’s when I started. I took AXS and used that tape to get me a college agent. Then I got into a bunch of NACAs. That helped me get a manager, who helped me get another agent.”
How long did it take you to get paid work here in NYC?
“Funny enough, the first time that I moved here, at an open mic I met a comic named Chris Calogero. One of the first couple of open mics I did, and he said, ‘I want to have you on my Valentine’s Day show.’ I remember running out and calling my mom, going ‘Oh my God! I’m already getting on shows in New York.’ This is it! My timeline was, this was great, oh, this is awesome, right away. I think he gave me $20. So that counts. That was my first time coming here. I’d say it was maybe four or five months, and then a long stretch after that. You always get a taste of stuff right away. Because the first time I got up, it went pretty well, and then the times after that were awful. I’ve heard other people say that, too, where the first time will go really well. That’s how they get you!”
Why did you pick New York over Los Angeles or anywhere else?
“I picked New York because my sister lived here, and I also wanted to really focus on trying to get good at stand-up. And I went to grad school at The New School. I studied media studies. So I was looking for a reason to – I got my master’s in media studies – so I was looking for something, kind of like a safety net to be, I’m in school, I would leave class at the New School and go do the 4 o’clock open mics on a break. I would go run out of class. Actually, I would even cut class sometimes, to be totally honest. I would cut class plenty of times if I was in a big seminar. Go run. Do the open mic. And I got a scholarship to go to grad school. It was a great situation, but I was so focused on comedy. I was just doing open mics. So I’d leave, I’d run, go do the 4 o’clock open mic at the (Village) Lantern, and then go back to school. I’d finish my class, then go do a 6 o’clock mic, and then go watch a show. Which is insane. I just shouldn’t have gone to grad school. Or focused on grad school and not done comedy.”
How is this scene better/worse/different from the scene you moved from?
“Boston has a lot of great – Boston’s a neat city to start doing comedy because, even though it’s expensive, it’s very blue-collar, so it’s not easy crowds. You’ve got Boston, which is more blue-collar, and then you have Cambridge, which is more MIT/Harvard crowds, so you’re not getting a huge cross-section of audiences. But you can also leave the city and do New Hampshire, and go – you can get a lot of stage time starting out in Boston. And there are a lot of veteran comics around, so you’ll see other veteran comics. But the ceiling is being the best of Boston. Which is never attractive at all. If anything, being called the best of Boston seems almost like, you’re the smartest kid at your dyslexic school. Just say you’re a good comic in general, you wouldn’t want to be – there are so many good comics in Boston that that is still a good credit. But it was never something that I truly desired. So it’s a nice place to focus on your writing, and getting up. It still is competitive, because there still are a lot of good comics at different levels there, but the ceiling isn’t…in New York, you can go a lot higher, and you can scale yourself against different. Not against, but with people that maybe you only come into Boston a couple of times a year and headline, there’s the Wilbur, now there’s Laugh Boston. You can see a little more mix. But they’re only coming in every now and then. New York, you see those people constantly, all over the place. And you can just get up more. I found I could have a nicer quality of life in Boston. I had more friends. It was easier to date. There’s more balance. At 11 o’clock, everything’s closed down, so you go home, have a life and focus on yourself. In New York, it’s never closed. So unless you can self-regulate – which takes a while to learn how to do, and is definitely a process – you can just be going all night. I do like that a lot about Boston. It forces you to turn off at a certain point. I think that’s something that’s really hard about New York. If you don’t have yourself turn off, then everything can always be going. I wish I could articulate the best way to describe the difference between Boston and New York. Because there are people who are going to be frustrated in every city. Everywhere you go, you’ll find people who say, ‘I wish I was doing this,’ or ‘I wish I was doing that.’ I think when you’re in New York or L.A., it’s easier to see the mechanics and the context of comedy in the rest of the entertainment business. When you’re in a city that isn’t necessarily an entertainment city, then you don’t really – like, when I was in Boston, I had no idea. I remember, say someone had a late-night credit. I would, in my head, picture that their life was just paved in gold. Oh, they have this late-night credit, so they must headline all over the country. I didn’t really think about what it meant for someone to be a draw. I just pictured, oh this late-night credit. One of the first shows I did, I remember the Boston Comedy Festival was such a big deal. In my mind, if you even get into the festival, that means you’re just doing great. I remember I got to New York and someone messed up my credit, saying she placed in the Boston Comedy Festival. And I was like, ‘No I didn’t. I didn’t even get in!’ And they were like, ‘No one cares. No one even knows.’ And that was, you get these New York wake-up calls. Oh. I thought that was the biggest thing in the world. So in Boston, you don’t really realize the scale of stuff.”
Do you have an “only in New York” experience that you cite to outsiders?
“The other day I got to my apartment in Harlem, and all these guys were waiting outside. I got to the door, and a guy was, ‘No no no, don’t go in there!’ I was, ‘I gotta get into my place.’ ‘Don’t go in there!’ I’m like, ‘Argh.’ They were looking at each other like, should we tell her? ‘What? I’m going in.’ He said, ‘Don’t go in there, motherfucker. There’s a raccoon on the stairs.’ ‘What?!’ ‘There’s a raccoon.’ ‘I’m going in.’ And I live up in Harlem. So I went in, and there was this big fat raccoon. I yelled, ‘Ahhhhhh!’ and I ran. ‘Well, what the fuck do we do?’ One of them said, ‘I called Animal Control.’ So I sat there with these guys from my building, all just scared about the raccoon, trying to hypothesize about where it came from. A raccoon? And we were all so scared about it. There was also just that ‘only in New York’ thing because you can just, there’s so much you can do in such a condensed space. I do really like L.A., and I do really like Boston, but I just love – even if New York stresses me out – I do love that about New York. You can really get around and do a lot of stuff.”
What advice would you give any comedian who’s moving here?
“I would say, even though there’s so much you can do – at least for me, it really wore me down and was part of why I had to go back to Boston for that year. It’s good to always have, to focus on quality over quantity. Because I think you can get into a mindset of just, quantity quantity quantity, so much in New York, and just run yourself so thin that you never stop and look at what you’re doing. It’s so hard to even keep afloat here. Keep moving and kind of make progress, that if you don’t ever stop and balance yourself out a little bit, it can get easy to burn out. So I guess my advice would be to figure out what you really want to do. You don’t need to be everywhere all at once. Keep on trying to get good. So then when you are lots of place, it’ll be a good thing.”
Where do you see yourself five years from now?
“If you had asked me a while ago, I’d have been: In five years, I want to be in movies! I want to sell movies. I want to have a late-night talk show. So, right now, it’s all just scaled back. I really want to work on a late-night set. And I’m trying to shop around some show ideas. So in five years, I’d like to be looking back at the projects I’m working on now, and happy with how they brought me to the next thing. And have $10 million. And $500 million.”
So, two separate piles. “But also enough inner peace, that if I don’t have those piles of money, I’m OK with it.”
You can see Willmann perform at comedy clubs around NYC. She also posts scheduled gigs on her website.
Which NYC comedian would you like to see me style and profile next for Meet Me In New York? Send your nominations to: thecomicscomic AT gmail DOT com