When Emma Willmann burst onto the stage of the Late Show with Stephen Colbert in 2016, it took only a moment before she had the audience cheering. Usually under those tense and expectant bright lights, a comedian has to get a first laugh before the audience feels connected. But Emma’s warmth, her vibrant presence and enthusiastic greeting had them cheering inside of three seconds. She went on to get big laughs with her smart, original stories of growing up in small town Maine, coming out, the surprise advantages of dyslexia, and her mom’s endearingly quirky ways of demonstrating support.
Emma makes comedy success look easy and extremely fun, but she’s unflinchingly honest about the potholes and bumps, hard work and persistence that ultimately determine one’s path. After auditioning several times for HBO’s hit series Crashing, she wondered if she would ever hear back. When she did, there was unexpected news. Turns out, Crashing’s co-executive producer Judd Apatow had seen her perform at New York’s Comedy Cellar. He didn’t want Emma to play just any role. He wanted her to play herself.
In 2018, Netflix featured her on The Comedy Lineup and a second Colbert appearance quickly followed. This past year, she became a series regular on one of television’s most memorable and insightful comedies, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. She co-hosts two podcasts: Inside the Closet with former Chicagoan Matteo Lane and Secret Keepers Club with Carly Aquilino of Girl Code.
This week you can see Emma off screen and in person at Zanies. She’ll appear at Zanies in Rosemont on July 10, 12 and 13, and at Zanies in Chicago on July 11.
Emma kindly spoke with me by phone about the beauty of small town connections, how her early career as an inventor got derailed, what it takes to keep rising in comedy and why we’re both nostalgic for potty humor.
THEY’RE FANS IN BLUE HILL
Teme: I love your stories about growing up in Blue Hill, Maine. What do people in Blue Hill say about being part of your comedy?
Emma: This is a testament to how small our town is. When I first talked about the policeman, I would use his real name. Then I had to change it when I did it on TV. His real name is Scott. I changed it to Tom. Then I ran into some people from my hometown and they said, “How could you forget Scott’s name?!” I was like, “I didn’t! I had to change it for legal reasons.” But everyone I talk to from town is always supportive. And then I’m on the town’s Wikipedia. My dad and I are pretty pumped about that.
I actually recently ran into someone from my hometown. I was doing a show in Vegas. She was sitting right up front. Another comic was on stage first and asked her where she was from. She said, “I’m from a small town near Bar Harbor.” I poked the person next to me and said “That’s funny. I grew up in a small town up there. There’s nothing really up there.” Then right when I went on stage, she was like, “Oh my God! Emma!” It took me a second to recognize her, but it was someone I had gone to high school with. That was fun and we were both excited about that.
Teme: I love your stories about your mom. What does she say about it?
Emma [in mom voice]: “I think people will be disappointed if they meet me and see I’m not really like that.” And I’m like, “I don’t think so!” Or she’ll say, “Why don’t you talk about your father?” She thinks it’s silly because I embellish. She’ll be like, “how do you get that from what happened?” But she doesn’t mind. I always check with her first. She is supportive. I think she gets worried because I travel so much which is very understandable.
INVENTING’S LOSS IS COMEDY’S GAIN
Teme: When did you know you wanted to be a comedian?
Emma: I got into it after I graduated from college. I didn’t like the job I was doing and I saw someone doing stand-up at a party. I thought, “I’d like to try that.” So I tried it and I took a class in Boston. I had no idea what goes into it at all. I was like, “I’ll do this class and then I’ll do another class and another class and then I’ll go pro and that’s how that works.” It’s not actually how it works.
Teme: What did you want to do before that?
Emma: It changed a million times. The dream was to be an inventor. I tried to invent something and it didn’t work out.
Teme: What did you invent?
Emma: I tried to invent this thing called “Stop the Scuff.” It was a clear plastic material that adhered seamlessly to the bottom of pants and it prevents the pants from scuffing. I sent it to a product prototype developer but it was a scam, so I didn’t know what I was doing. They never sent me the prototype and then I realized that they were in a lawsuit with the Better Business Bureau. So I got very discouraged from trying to do that.
Teme: That’s a great idea though. I would’ve bought a bunch of those. If you could invent anything now that doesn’t exist what would it be?
Emma: I would want something that would help me teleport. I know that’s pretty selfish. That and the ability to provide clean drinking water and health insurance for all people. But first and foremost, I want to be able to teleport around.
Teme: Oh, yeah. It would make being on the road and touring way easier.
Emma: I’m just thinking getting around New York, but totally. It would really be a time saver. And it would be so freeing to just be above everything.
Teme: I’ll buy one of those, too.
Emma: I’ll give you a deal.
Teme: Thank you!
PODCASTING WITH CHICAGO’S MATTEO LANE
Teme: You and Matteo Lane have such great chemistry on Inside the Closet. How did you meet? I’ve been a fan of his since he was in Chicago.
Emma: We met doing open mics and then we would also see each other at a lot of clubs. There are a lot of gay comedians doing more of the alternative circuit, but he and I were in the most hetero environments and integrating into that space. It’s a lot easier to be gay in the alt scene. He and I stood out in those mainstream settings and we hit it off. It’s harder [as a gay comedian] to come up through the clubs, but I think whatever makes it hard for you as a beginner makes you stand out more in the end. We talked about how we both are all about trying to make it, so let’s document what we’re trying to do on our podcast and our ridiculous lives that go along with work.
Teme: You have a great joke about people mishearing your name and thinking that you said, “I’m a woman.” That made me laugh so much. I relate to name humor for obvious reasons. What was the story behind that joke?
Emma: I actually haven’t done that joke in years. I stopped doing it after I did the Colbert set. The true story was that I had done a set and at the end I said, “Thank you guys so much. I am Emma Willmann.” Then the host went back up and said, “Oh, I thought you said, “Thank you guys so much. I am a woman.” And I was like, “Oh God. I would never say something like that, but I could see some comedians doing that.”
Teme: I’ll say my name and nobody knows what the heck I just said, so I loved that!
Teme: How did your first Colbert appearance come about?
Emma: Colbert’s booker saw me at the Comedy Cellar. I had just done a college that was in New York state and I didn’t realize how big New York state was. I thought it was like two or three hours away. The college was six hours away. I drove there and drove back. I got in late, missed the rental car return, and had to figure out some place to put the car, didn’t go home in between, ran in, did the show, and left. You never know who’s going to be in the audience.
The next day I got an Instagram message, “I’m the booker for Colbert. We should talk.” My second Colbert appearance was pre-taped. But the first time, Colbert was there and it was live.
Teme: When I see comedians on late night, they often don’t connect with the audience until their first laugh. But you came out and you connected instantly.
Emma: I actually felt much better about my first set with that than the second one. The second one I think that the material I did was mismatched for late night and I should have saved it for an hour. I did the first Colbert, then I did Netflix, then I did Colbert again, so I think I was more in a longer-form mentality the second time. Some of that stuff would have been better formatted for a longer set, but it is what it is.
Teme: I thought both were great, though I could sense a difference in style.
HOW TO CONNECT WITH AN AUDIENCE
Teme: What is your secret for connecting with the audience?
Emma: I used to research books about body language and I would definitely say I’m a people person. If you go out [on stage] with that energy, you’re in the moment and there to see them, that really helps. That said, sometimes I fall short of that, like if I’ve got personal stuff going on. In my second Colbert appearance I was less confident with what I was doing, so I didn’t have that energy as much. But I always try to think of it that you’re with a group of people at a party, what would be something you would open a conversation with?
Teme: How about Crashing? What is your favorite memory from being on that show?
Emma: I auditioned for Crashing six or seven times for different roles and I’d never gotten anything. Then I got a call and I thought it was from the audition, but it was because I met Judd [Apatow] at the Comedy Cellar. I got to play myself. My favorite part was getting to hang out with Whitney Cummings because she was so cool. She was a class act and really nice.
CW’S CRAZY EX-GIRLFRIEND
Teme: I’d love to hear about your work on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, too. What was the most memorable thing that happened?
Emma: The very first thing that comes to mind is my first day on set. They’ve got a snack station and at lunchtime I was like, “Oh, it’s just the same snacks we had earlier. I thought they would have brought out different stuff for lunch.” Not really thinking anything of it, just I was kind of surprised. The snack table had hotdogs, so I’d eaten a hotdog and then I ate another hotdog, and was like “Okay, no big deal.” Then I ran into the actress who plays Valencia on the show and she’s like, “Emma, you know there’s lunch outside, right?”
So then I opened the door to go outside and it’s giant amounts of food! There’s a chef that makes meats and salads and stuff. And then I was like, “Oh my God.” I’d never been on a big production like that before so I didn’t have any sense of scale. There wasn’t even silverware where I was, I just thought they were giving us hotdogs 24 hours a day.
Then I got cut from a dance scene with a bunch of kids. I just couldn’t get the dance down and all these kids were getting it. So getting cut from that was pretty funny.
TAKING YOUR COMEDY CAREER TO THE NEXT LEVEL
Teme: What is your advice to comedians for taking their career beyond the local scene?
Emma: If you want to take your career beyond the local scene, then you have to get ready. You should never have any ego in entertaining. There’s always going to be someone better than you and more famous than you. You always have to remind yourself that you’re competing with yourself.
If you can create a following in whatever scene you’re in, then you’ve got leverage. Ask “how can I start making money at this?” For me, it was doing colleges. Once I was going to colleges, I was able to get a manager because I had money coming in, so I had something to offer them. Then my manager helped me get an agent who helped me get auditions to raise my profile. Then I can get a new manager to help me get a bigger agent. So it’s never really what you get, it’s what you turn it in to. You have to always keep it moving forward.
Teme: How many sets do you usually do in a week?
Emma: I did six on Friday, three on Saturday and then three on Sunday. So that’s twelve sets in three days. Normally, when I’m in the city (New York) I’d say one to three a night, although sometimes it’s less. It really depends on what city I’m in.
Teme: How do you keep your energy up?
Emma: I drink coffee and I get energized from doing shows, too. I always try, even if I’m traveling, to get a good amount of sleep. I don’t drink or smoke and that helps a lot. I used to drink. I don’t know how I would with my schedule now. I’m always auditioning or podcasting or pitching stuff or doing meetings during the day. There’d be no room for me to be lethargic. Honestly, I drink a lot of coffee.
Teme: You’ve accomplished so much. What are your time management tips?
Emma: I really appreciate that. I’m so bad at time management because I just prioritize work stuff, so then I get really overwhelmed and have a breakdown and then have to figure out how to put personal stuff in there. I’m able to do it because I’m single and don’t have kids.
I really try to see friends. If you let your physical, mental and spiritual health disintegrate, it will negatively affect your work. So I have a constant ebb and flow trying to make sure I get enough sleep – that’s big – and then exercise sometimes. I’ll do boxing. Seeing friends helps. Those are the things that fuel you because everything else is up and down.
THE LAST THING THAT MADE YOU LAUGH
Teme: What was the most recent thing that made you laugh?
Emma: Just being in the car with my niece who’s two years-old. She kept saying that she had dirty feet. We were listening to rap music in the background and the juxtaposition of her saying that with the rap music made me laugh. I’m a pretty easy laugher. I don’t usually laugh when I watch comedy because I see so much of it. Then I’ll just more be like, “Oh, interesting.” But with my niece …I laughed because she also kept saying “poop poop poop” over and over and that she had pooped her pants.
Teme: I love that kind of kid humor. It’s like I became an adult and forgot what’s funny.
Emma: They just cut right to the chase. You’re like, “You want to get lunch?” “No, I pooped my pants.”
Teme: Exactly. You’re not going to get that kind of great humor from another adult probably.
Emma: Right, totally. Unless something has gone horribly wrong.
WHAT QUESTION WOULD YOU ASK YOURSELF?
Teme: If you were to interview yourself, what question would you ask and how would you answer?
Emma: I would ask, “If I knew how hard it was going to be getting into comedy if I still would have done it?” And yes, because I think you’ve got to do it if you feel like you’re manifesting what you’re supposed to manifest. I’m into stuff like vision boards and bringing things into existence. My answer would be yes.
Teme: What kind of things are on your vision board?
Emma: I’ve got to update my vision board. I had a vision board for a while and had on it what I would want in a partner. Then I had someone coming over who didn’t meet any of that criteria but we were going to hook up so I took my vision board down because I didn’t want her to feel self-conscious that what I was looking for clearly does not match up with who she was. So I’ve got to do a new vision board, but I’ll keep you posted.
Teme: What should the audience expect at your upcoming shows at Zanies?
Emma: I love Zanies. I’ll be doing very autobiographical humorous stuff, like about a wedding in the family. [My material] has been updated because I have had more life experiences since I was there last. So it’s just a feel-good clusterfuck of a time.
Teme: What’s your favorite thing to do in Chicago?
Emma: I love walking around Old Town and walking around Chicago. I’ll be exploring. There’s a singer I really like, Banks, who’s doing a show on Thursday so I might try to go catch the end of that. I never get to go to music shows, but when I do I love it. Such a treat. I’ll be at Zanies Chicago on Thursday and then at Zanies Rosemont on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. I’m open to suggestions for things to do, so if anyone has any suggestions they can DM me.
Emma Willmann is at Zanies in Rosemont, 5437 Park Place on Wednesday, July 10, Friday, July 12, and Saturday, July 13. Tickets here.
Emma is at Zanies in Chicago, 1548 N. Wells St. on Thursday, July 11. Tickets here.
More about Emma at Emmacomedy.com.
Stay up to date with Comedians Defying Gravity by typing your email address in the box and clicking the “create subscription” button. My list is completely spam, spam, spam, spam free, and you can opt out at any time.