Manic energy is difficult to channel into an enjoyable format. Anyone that’s spent time at a comedy open mic knows what it looks like when a completely unhinged person gets their time at a microphone. But some of the purest joy in comedy is catching a performer that seemingly exists on the absolute last thread of self-control, who then reins the entire experience in so that they’re both safe and dangerous at the same time. Emma Willmann has mastered this sort of chaos under control.
The comedian, raised in a tiny Maine township, is now entering the spotlight with a recurring role on The CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and a new mini-stand-up special on Netflix, as part of the second season of The Comedy Lineup. After a career establishing herself as a powerhouse that owns spaces both inside and outside of the closet, the puckish rogue is finally getting the attention she deserves.
Watch an exclusive preview of Willmann’s Comedy Lineup episode here at Paste.
Paste: How’s your master’s degree working out these days?
Emma Willmann: Going right for the gut. Ugh. No one has ever asked me that before. One answer for this is that I never used it. The other answer is that I use it all the time. My master was in media studies, and that’s all about how The Medium Is The Message, right? I was lucky enough to get into a liberal arts college, where we dealt with the ideas of media and its effects on race, class, and gender. I saw how things are created and how we socialize reality via these entities, while reality exists somewhere in the middle. So I think about that: how do you get people to mobilize around an idea? I’ll watch comedians that I’m shocked aren’t more popular, because they’re so funny, but then I’ll realize how they weren’t able to transition into other media. That’s part of why I left stand-up for a whole year, because I couldn’t write stand-up without focusing on the machinations of how it all worked.
Paste: I guess I have to ask then: how do you think Marshall McLuhan would react to your bit on interracial dating?
Willmann: Is he racist? Oh no.
Paste: No, I mean, what would he think of a fifteen minute special of stand-up that streams directly to most of the world?
Willmann: I haven’t watched my special. I can’t. I’m happy with it but I’m also the kind of person that can’t self-tape because I just want to keep re-recording until I think it’s what I wanted it to be in my head. On my podcast I edited our first episode and I cut all of the dead air. The breathing, the “um’s” and even the context for things I already understood, but that other people might not. And then it was way too short and didn’t make sense to anyone else.
Paste: I listened to the episode of your show that you released this morning. Your co-host was in Spain and you were on a phone, inside of a car, in a parking lot in Los Angeles. And the whole episode sounded great? It was a reminder of, again, speaking about the medium, just how far this has all come.
Willmann: Podcasts are already so personal. The phone seems to only make it more personal. Some people prefer the ones where we’re in the same place, but there’s a sincerity in the phone call version. It sounds like two people that are just catching up, and that’s what we’re doing, but those episodes are also much harder for us to keep focused.
Paste: Which is where we should tie it back into Medium Is Message theory. You’re in podcasts and you’re in stand-up but you’re also debuting a comedy special as part of a series of bite-sized stand-up specials on Netflix. Folks have been complaining that Netflix is making too many comedy specials, which feels like gatekeeping to me, but it also means that your work gets replaced quick, or never even highlighted to begin with. Is Netflix stand-up currently a boon or a disservice?
Willmann: I got into this liberal arts college as a diversity scholarship. [Correction: Willmann was referring to an “apprenticeship program for kids with learning disabilities” here, not her college program.] Because I was dyslexic. Everyone else was of a different color or religious background in that program, but I was just dyslexic. I wound up taking a music business course, and this was as everything in music was falling apart, but the teacher said the music industry could never be fully dismantled because people will always need to be presented with artists that have been made-over and reinvented as a product—
Paste: My dad and your next door neighbor weren’t going to spontaneously find the same unknown artist on MySpace and start following them on tour.
Willmann: Exactly. So the whole thing with Netflix feels the same. There’s a lot out there and the choices can be debilitating. When you’re first coming in, I think this now serves as an extra challenge that you need to do something bigger and better and more interesting. You have to do something to set yourself apart. That said, Ali Wong has a special that’s always being promoted by Netflix, and she’s a young, pregnant, woman of color who is great. So Netflix gets it right. But you’re also right about the fears of being lost here. My special is part of a series that doesn’t just have my name on it. But I think that the The Comedy Lineup series has done an excellent job of letting the performers put their own stamp on their episodes.
Paste: Taylor Tomlinson last season and Kate Willett this season, and you obviously, feel like very distinct voices and features, that are expressed clearly in under twenty minutes.
Willmann: Thanks! And yeah, Tomlinson has this life story about coming up in the church circuit and her story is just so interesting to me.
Paste: So continuing our discussion about delivery systems, you’re in all of these accessible but not refined places, but you’re also on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend now. Which is a network comedy. What was the process leading to this like?
Willmann: I found out via Instagram that I’d lost a lead role on a TV show. Right before I went on stage for a show. And then I lost my radio show. This all happened in twenty-four hours. So then there was this opportunity to audition for this TV show, but I never would have been able to take that on if I’d still had the radio show. Then I taped these auditions but I couldn’t upload them, so I had to reach out to someone from the show, and I sent two audition takes via Instagram. My second audition was with Gabrielle Ruiz, and she was just incredible. Now, I’m gone to awards shows and BBQs and everything in between with Gabrielle and with Rachel Bloom. Between seasons, it feels like we became friends. So I’m on set right now and this season feels like a different, much more comfortable place.
Paste: You really took yourself out of some comfort zones and invested yourself in learning the art of acting, on a limited timeframe. What did you learn from the experience that you could pass on to other people?
Willmann: Just like comedy, it can take a lot of work to just create a natural reaction. Just to sound like you sound. Reacting is the whole thing. I’m used to being placed against an actor who is doing the heavy lifting, but I’m getting to the place where I know I can do the heavy lifting too. Confidence, for me, is about moving away from comedy. All of comedy is about reacting in the biggest way possible, and now I’m learning that (especially on camera) you can make it very small and still accomplish what you want.
Paste: In your stand-up, you talk about something that really resonated with me, about how you come up in a small town and then apply hyper-specific stereotypes on a larger scale. But it comes with other limitations too. For me, I didn’t feel comfortable talking politics with people from Big Cities until I turned 30, because I was sure I didn’t know what I was talking about. What about your small town experience makes you different now?
Willmann: In big cities, I see people interacting with others in this non-transactional way. You don’t see this person as a person that you fully understand, so they’re just this object, and it’s easy to treat them poorly. But beyond that, I’m just so impressed by everything. I grew up 45 minutes away from the closest movie theater, so we’d just sit in a parking lot and stare. When I’m in restaurants, to this day, I’m still just so impressed to be there.
Paste: Finally, what advice do you have for up and coming comics?
Willmann: You can have no ego. Especially in the major cities. You think you’re entitled to stage time, but you’ve got to do the work. When I got to New York, I interned at a comedy club. You get to see how the business of this works, where the owner needs to put on the funniest show possible and how even the waitresses need the show to be as funny as possible, because that’s what gets them better tips. Everyone’s trying to do something, so don’t think you’re better than anything.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Emma Willmann’s episode of The Comedy Line-Up debuts Aug. 31 on Netflix.
Brock Wilbur is a writer and comedian from Los Angeles who lives with his wife Vivian Kane and their cat, Cat. He is the co-author (with Nathan Rabin) of the forthcoming book Postal for the Boss Fight Books series.