From Inventor to Standup with Emma Willmann

Emma Willmann broke out as a standup when she was selected to perform at Just For Laughs Festival in Montreal last year. She now has her own comedy show, The Check Spot, on SiriusXM and was named by Time Out NY as one of the “10 Funniest Woman in NYC.” Originally from Boston and now working rooms like The Comedy Cellar in NYC, Willmann talked with me about her early roots as an inventor, cheating throughout school, and why standup was the best thing for her.

Who are you?

My name is Emma Willmann and I’m from really rural Maine. I am a standup comic, an actress and my ultimate goal is to be happy-ish and successful, doing interviews and on camera are some of my favorite things…so combining that with standup is the ultimate goal.

How long have you been doing standup?

I started in Boston, and did it for a little over a year… I came back to NYC and have been back really doing it for three years.

It was never my goal to be “The Best in Boston.” It means you capped out in Boston and they are trying to find a positive way to spin it. If that’s your goal good for you…if someone is happy, then good for them – full respect. Boston has a great comedy scene, but…that was never my goal, I wanted to really give myself a shot and being the best version of myself comedically…and that meant scaling myself to a much bigger pond.

I won a local comedy contest and thought, “I am ready for NYC!” so came here and started grinding it out but I was also in grad school at The New School, studying Media Studies where I did a thesis on “Celebrity Construction and Monetization as it Relates to U.S Capitalism,” basically studying the mechanics of entertainment which gave me an existential crisis creatively, seeing how brutal it is to really make it make it in this business. For better or worse, entertainment is the business for me…

What were you doing before standup?

Sales! I had day jobs in sales, which was great because I learned lots of sales techniques…called lying. I really wasn’t very good at sales, I was always down for talking but could never close the deal if the person was ambivalent. I just didn’t care. My real care before standup was as an inventor. All of my free time went into trying to get an invention off the ground, I went to MIT Young Inventors Meetings, Boston Inventors meet-up groups…I was all about it! I tried to get a patent pending and product prototype made so I could take it/them to trade shows but I ended up spending all of my money on a developer who was a scam developer! He took my money, never sent me a product prototype. It took about seven months for me to figure out what was going on…I was crushed.

What was the invention?

Stop the Scruff.

Stop the Scruff?

Do your pants ever scruff from the friction between them and the ground?

No, not really. My pants are usually too short, they shrink.

That’s good. But do you ever see people with pants get frayed?  Stop the scuff is a clear plastic material that prevents the pants from scuffing from the friction between then and the ground – it adheres seamlessly to the bottom of the pants. The other invention I went for was called The Granny Grip, which was a glove with traction that old People could wear to help lower themselves into the bathtub. “Don’t slip the granny grip.”

That’s good. It also sounds like comedy.

Yeah I did a commercial where the old woman fell over and I was like, ‘Do you want your grandmother to fall over?! Don’t slip, The Granny Grip!”

You were a funny inventor. It sounds like an SNL ad or something.

I would go to pitch meetings and everyone would be laughing at my pitches.

One of the things I love about standup is that it’s like inventing in that each one of your jokes, your overall act, and you as a performer are like an invention, your team is like your invention support, back-up and distribution, and ultimately you are able to get ‘product’ feedback every night. And comedy ultimately is always honest, people are into it or they’re not. Then you take it from there.

I was talking to Chris DeStefano who says he treats a great set and a bad set the same way in his head. And that’s how he copes. If a set goes well now, I will never say to myself, “That went well.” I have always put the same amount of pressure on myself. I will still go to open mics but I am not haphazard about it. No matter what you’re always back at square one.

Were you always meticulous about your work?

I was kind of meticulous about the wrong things: finding ways to cheat in school, or figuring out where to go to parties, how to get elected to student government – but then not actually learning anything in school. I didn’t think I was going to end up in college but I ended up in grad school, actually. In high school I was in a lot of trouble. My parents had a pretty brutal divorce, I was in the closet… couldn’t concentrate and got put in special ed for being dyslexic. All my friends were in honors classes and I applied myself by always doing student government, but was always getting in trouble.  Once I got out of a chaotic home environment, I came out of the closet and was able to get to be more myself.

After my parents got divorced I started acting out, then when I started feeling weird in my body – maybe for being gay or who knows. I was like a little tyrant and my grades plummeted. I felt like I could never do well academically, so started looking around at other less academic “career options.”

I would cheat in school, constantly scheming…I would spend more time finding ways to cheat then it would have taken to just study and learn the material. Take two hours carving brail into an apple? No problem! Take 20 minutes to just learn the states and capitals? NO WAY – are you crazy?! I was always trying to find ways to plot and cheat, which is so interesting because with comedy, you can’t cheat…there is no cheating in comedy. Standup is the ultimate equalizer, it has to be one hundred percent original to you, and if it’s not, people will see that immediately and not respond to it the same way as if you’re being authentic.

You have to do all the brutal stuff, and you have to keep doing it, there’s no way to cut out the “studying” equivalent in trying to make it in entertainment, there’s a set list but no cheat sheet.

Because as a comic the last thing you’d want to do is steal.

I think when I found what I wanted to do, it changed. I would spend hours figuring out ways to cheat and other hours networking to set up a system for cheating. I even got an Adderall prescription just to have something to barter. Clearly if I had just taken the Adderall as prescribed, we all would have been better off.

When I stopped cheating is when I started really doing comedy. It’s the ultimate equalizer.

How would you react if someone stole a joke from you?

I would one hundred percent give them the benefit of the doubt, I get it, there are so many comics and so many observations – I would never assume anything I write could ‘not be thought of by another’ however, if it was clear that they were having an identity crisis and doing some of my material, it would depend on who and the context, but I would confront them about it, and if they then proceed to be a dirtbag, I’d probably break their knees and/or find a way to put Nair in their shampoo.

From Inventor to Standup with Emma Willmann