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How Emily Heller Learned It Was Okay to Step Away From Stand-up

Emily Heller. Photo: Getty Images and Vulture

For decades, it appeared stand-up was governed by a set of rules not like Dua Lipa’s (new) but more like Bill Maher’s (saying they’re new but are actually quite old). Rules like: A comic must make every audience laugh. Or, a stand-up must perform every night or they aren’t a real comic. Recently, however, comedians have been more likely to question these conventions.

One such comedian is Emily Heller, who over the last few years — after being diagnosed with ADHD — has personally accepted that maybe stand-up isn’t something she must be working on at all times. Like a visual artist who might focus on painting for a few years and then sculpture for the next few, Emily tries to treat stand-up as a medium available to her whenever she deems it the best means of expression for what she’s going through. And right now, Emily and stand-up are on a break.

This came after Emily released her most recent hour of comedy — the Kill Rock Stars’ album Pasta and Comedy Central Digital special Ice Thickeners — which puts her sharp writing, unapologetic stage persona, and deceptively political and sneakily silly material on full display. On this week’s episode of Good One, Vulture’s podcast about jokes and the people who tell them, Heller talks about this hour, her joke about trying to join a gym, and how her struggle with ADHD influenced her getting into and eventually stepping away from stand-up. Read a short excerpt from the conversation or listen below. Download the episode from Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Overcast, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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You pretty deliberately worked on your last hour. Knowing you would have essentially a year between working on Barry seasons, you set up to build and tape a special in the interim. How did you come to that decision?
I had been doing TV writing for a few years and I had been trying to do stand-up at the same time, and I was just finding that I was creatively divided. My creative process is such that my brain’s like a rock tumbler where I put something in it and then I wait a while, and then something else comes out. When I’m working on stand-up, primarily the thing that comes out is a joke or a joke premise or something to talk about onstage. While I was working on TV, the things that were coming out of the rock tumbler were TV ideas. I was no longer working on stand-up unconsciously, so I had to really consciously focus on it.

One of the things you did, which you know I am very interested in, is you held writing retreats. What were they like?
I started doing these writing retreats. I’ve done three so far. Me and like four or five other comedians go off and Airbnb a house for a weekend. I built this schedule kind of loosely based on this performing-arts summer-camp schedule that I used to go to and work at where we would do warm-ups and then creative exercises and then workshopping. It was all really structured. The day was totally full. One of the writing exercises was writing down some things that I hate and then trying to write a joke about what I like about that thing. We would all write down things we hated on cards, and then we would shuffle them and hand them out to each other. So I ended up with other people’s cards, and I would have to write a joke about why I like the thing that they had written down that they hated. The joke I have about kids on leashes came out of someone writing it down. I was like, Okay, now I have to write a joke about why I like kids on leashes. I noticed that when I watch stand-up a lot of times, the jokes that I like are when people sort of surprise me with their perspective on something, and often it’s something that’s surprisingly joyful about something about life that’s kind of hard to deal with. It sort of justifies why you’re listening to that person talk for an hour. It’s like, Oh, yeah, you have something interesting to say about a very common thing that we all don’t like.

I got two other jokes from this. One of the prompts was “exercise classes,” and then I ended up just writing a joke about workout clothes and why I don’t like them because, hey, there are no rules in a writing exercise. You don’t have to stick to the assignment. That turned into the joke that opened that section. Then the other joke was people saying, “You look tired,” and I stuck to the assignment of trying to make it a positive thing.

It’s surprising that those jokes come before the story of you and the personal trainer. What is it about the personal-trainer story that made you want to put it onstage?
This doesn’t come across in the joke, but I came home and I was very upset. I don’t usually write jokes about things that really upset me. The thing that drove me to get my ADHD diagnosis was being in a really low place and realizing that there was something wrong with me and that I wasn’t functioning in the way that I wanted to. So when I made this very genuine attempt to improve the way that I moved through the world — not in a New Year’s–resolution, time-to-get-that-beach-body-in-shape kind of way, but to be like, I want my brain to work because it’s the most important thing to me. [And then] to be met with this very weird obstacle? I was already at a point where everything is frustrating and overwhelming to me, I just want one of the people who I’m reaching out to for help to not be a fucking asshole. I realized soon afterward that it was a perfect demonstration of this thing that I had been trying to articulate, but it came at a time when I was really struggling.

Does it feel weird to talk about stand-up this much, considering you haven’t been doing it?
It does feel weird to talk about stand-up. But I gave myself permission to just say, “I’m taking a break.” I really put my heart and soul into that special, and it was a frustrating process trying to sell it. At the same time, TV stuff is going really well, to be perfectly honest. I really like my work, and it’s the thing that’s really getting me going creatively right now. I am trying to stop thinking about stand-up the way I used to, which is this very dogmatic [approach of], Get up every night or you’re not a real comedian. It’s who you are, and instead think about my life more in terms of, Day to day, what is exciting me, and what do I want to be working on? I’ll come back to it when there’s something I really want to say, but I want it to be a creative decision and not a business decision or FOMO.

How does it feel now that you don’t have that same compulsion to get up? 
Stand-up attracts people who have ADHD because there is a ton of accountability and feedback, and you don’t have to work for long spurts. You can write one joke, get up onstage, and get that stimulation you need. It’s one of those things where I was like, This feels like the only type of writing I have the discipline for. Now that I’m aware of my condition and I take medication, I have successfully learned how to write longer things without feeling like a failure every fucking step of the way.

Stand-up never felt like anything I was settling for. It was the only thing I could do, and now I’ve learned how to do things I wasn’t able to do before. I know how to write a TV script now. I still truly love being onstage. I do panels. I do anything where I don’t have to prepare, but I don’t like getting up and doing my old material. It’s fun, but best-case scenario, I have a great set and I write a new tag and then I can’t put it on the album. But I don’t feel as utterly dependent on stand-up as I used to.

Obviously you don’t have an exact time you plan on getting back to it, but what do you think the situation will need to be for you to return?
When I get onstage and work on an hour, it’s because I have entered a new phase in my life and hopefully have something to offer. I am also aware that there are things about my life that are a little redundant to what other people are saying. If there are other people saying it in a more interesting way or with a more interesting perspective, I want there to be room for that. If I get up onstage, I want it to be because I have something to say that no one else can say.

Why Emily Heller Decided to Step Away From Stand-up