Emma Willmann is a staple in the New York City comedy community. In 2014, the Maine native was featured on the cover of Time Out NY, was a top-10 finalist in New York’s Funniest at Caroline’s on Broadway, headlined a sold-out show at the New York Comedy Festival, and appeared on a number of TV shows. Since then, Willmann has only increased her accolades, being selected as a “New Face” at Montreal’s Just For Laughs Festival in 2015. In 2016, she made her highly-anticipated late night comedic debut on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” and has performed sets on a number of TV shows since, including Fuse’s “Uproarious” and AXS TV’s “Gotham Comedy Live.” Emma Willmann is also known for her role on FOX’s musical series “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” in which she plays the lesbian girlfriend of a main character.
Willmann started her first podcast, “Inside The Closet,” with friend and fellow comedian Matteo Lane in 2017. The two aimed to discuss what it’s like being an out individual in the entertainment industry today. In the same year, Emma Willmann also teamed up with friend Carly Aquilino (a comedian known for MTV’s “Girl Code”) for “Secret Keepers Club,” another podcast in which the pair not only talk about their own personal lives but also give advice about to listeners. Now, Willmann is working on “Emma’s Diary From The Road,” where she muses on what it’s like to make it in entertainment as she travels the nation.
We caught up with Emma Willmann to chat about everything from her stint on “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” to what’s next for the performer who never seems to stop.
GO Magazine: Let’s start with the basics.
Emma Willmann: I grew up in really rural Maine, and when my parents got divorced, my dad got a souped-up cable package as like, “If you spend time at my house, you get you get a lot of channels.” It didn’t work on my brother and sister, but I was like, “I’ll be there!” So, I started watching tons of entertainment stuff, which is like a window to a bigger world. I’m from the middle of nowhere Maine, and I was really into music videos, and just like how people use words in different ways. But I never watched any comedy ever. That was just never something that — I don’t even really know about it.
GO: So you weren’t really so much into comedy as a child as you were into entertainment as a whole. When did that comedy bug bite you?
EW: When I went to college, I still didn’t know anything about comedy, and when I graduated I tried to invent something. I had a relative that was an inventor, and I was like, “I’m going to go for it too!” So I had a day job, and then I was trying to get a patent — which is a very tricky process that I didn’t know how tricky it was. I sent my product prototypes to a developer, but I didn’t research, and it turned out to be like a scam developer. I was super bummed out, and I didn’t like the job that I was doing, because I took this job it was like, “Well, I’m going to do this,” and the developer was like, “Yeah, I’m going to get you into Kmart.” It was almost like my first run-in with like a show busy sleazy type. … I was doing this job I hated recruiting construction executives — made no sense, I just responded to an ad on Craigslist. … I was doing that, the invention thing, didn’t work out. This friend of mine, Eli, had a crush on someone. He was like, “I’m at this party. Meet me here.” I get there, and he’s like, “The crush isn’t interested. Let’s go.” Then I see this girl doing stand-up in the corner at the party. She was just telling jokes on a little karaoke mic. I was like, “What is that?” And all of a sudden, it made it really accessible, because I had only seen it on TV. It’s like this whole production, … but seeing what it’s really like made it much more accessible.
GO: It seems like that accessibility point is strongly tied into the live aspect of comedy. Would you agree? Is that in-the-moment aspect what makes it so accessible?
EW: Here’s the thing: A comedian at the end of the day is in real-time in front of people getting rejected or not, and if something goes well or doesn’t go well, that’s all part of that process. It needs to go out more often than not, otherwise, you’re probably not working too much. … It’s a pretty real-time beat down. I mean, actors get that too with the addition process. … I remember one time, I was hosting at the [Comedy Cellar] and Chris Rock was trying all new jokes, and usually, if someone that famous is trying all new jokes, they can always get them back [if the jokes fail]. I forget what he was talking about, but he couldn’t, and to me, I was like, “Wow, he’s amazing.” Because he went out to try all new stuff, like that’s very brave. When I went to shake his hand, he looked at me and went, “Oh, that was rough!” … The actual live performance aspect of it, even if I bitch about it sometimes — a lot of times — that’s my favorite part.”
GO: Do you prefer live performance to taped ones?
EW: I really think of it now — to boil it down when I am doing something for taping — if you’re like, “Okay, it’s just you and the people.” People as in the people there for the live show. It’s very easy to be like, “I’m recording this. It’s going to exist in the ether long after this one live show.” It is a very different experience, in that, when you record something for TV, there’s a whole submission process, it’s edited, it’s something that you’re going to use as a tool for booking or pitching shows. … It’s very hard to be at the moment sometimes, because everything is like for another thing, but such is life. I feel like all jobs are like that.
GO: So what’s the difference between the two from a performer’s point of view?
EW: With a taping, it’s a whole production. The first time I went to the production, I remember someone started a joke and then said, “Stop! I need to start that again.” And that’s something that happens a lot, because they need to recapture. They want to say it right, and you’re able to start and stop. The audience is so hyped up on a TV taping, because they know they’re going to be a part of something. … Especially with a Netflix taping; it was a very electric feeling. It’s different too, because it’s going to be stuff you’ve said 100 billion times — which I actually like if it’s like me kind of being a little bit more off the cuff. But I felt like with Netflix that I was able to do that. When I did my taping, I changed my set around a bunch.
GO: What was your experience like on “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”? It’s such an unpredictable and hilarious show; I can only assume it was great.
EW: Oh man, it was so awesome. It was a big thing. I’d done some scripts and stuff before, but never at that level of production. And I had practice auditioning. Auditioning is a very different skill than actually acting, or even acting on camera on set. I wouldn’t have known any of that before doing any of this stuff. So I had like practice audition, practice audition, practice audition, and on that particular audition, I worked so hard and so hard and so hard. Then I got on set, and I was like, “Oh, my God, I don’t know if I know how to act. Shit!” So I was so nervous, and the people there were so great. The actress who’s in most of my scenes — her name is Gabrielle [Ruiz] — she’s been a professional actor for like 13 years. She’s so good, it made it easier for me. I definitely got better as the show went on. In the beginning, I’m reacting off her because she’s such a good actor. And then we would cut, and I’d be like, “Wow, you’re so good at that.” It was all new.
GO: Do you have any stories from set that stuck with you?
EW: The very first day, there’s like a snack bar, and I thought the snack bar was the lunch bar. So when we cut for lunch, I was there, and I was like, “Oh, it’s the same food as the snack bar. Okay, whatever.” So I ate some more of the snacks and was just kind of like milling around. Then Gabrielle came in from outside, and she was like, “What are you doing?” I was like, “I’m just having lunch.” She was like, “Okay, so I did the same thing. The first time I was on ‘Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,’ I packed my own lunch because I didn’t know there’s like food galore.” She took me outside and it was like chefs making you juice, all the food you could ever want. I was like, “Holy shit.”
GO: You currently have two podcasts with co-hosts, as well as a solo show. What’s the appeal of the podcast format that keeps bringing you back?
EW: I love podcasting, because it’s just fun. You know, with stand-up, you think about everything you say, and you’re always doing it, and then you listen back, and you edit it. I f*cking love podcasts, because it’s like a conversation. The very first time I start recording podcasts, I was treating it like stand-up, where I would edit the whole f*cking thing. Like, if we record for an hour, I edit down to like 15 minutes, then people are like, “We want to hear it.” It felt weird. I was like, “Oh, people actually want to listen to like a longer form thing.” And now I get it. … I started dipping my toe and being like a guest on people’s stuff. Then I co-hosted this morning radio thing. One day a week I went to Sirius [XM Radio] and co-host a 3-hour show. I loved that.
GO: Tell me a little bit more about each of your podcasts.
EW: Matteo [Lane] and I … started doing [In The Closet], and the premise of that was just to document our experiences as queer people trying to make it in entertainment. And Secret Keepers [Club with Carly Aquilino] is where people write in about their secrets and we talk about those. … My road diary started because I’d be on the road and I’d be in between recording stuff. I started at first invitation only. I was like, ‘If you want to listen to what I wrote, DM me and I’ll send you a link.’ That’s pretty much still how it is. I never post about it, yet I’m kind of like building and getting the format down and all that stuff. I wanted something that was just me directly doing [something] while I was on the road and getting to document — if anyone’s interested in hearing it — the ins and outs of entertainment. I want to start talking to other people on it about their experiences on the road. Not even literally the road for traveling for work, but just like how you are when you’re out of your quote-unquote elements.
GO: A thread that’s been really continuous throughout all of your performances has been your openness in discussing your sexuality. On “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” you played a lesbian character. This year, you did stand-up at Levity & Justice For All, and a lot of your comedy centers around your queerness. Was that a conscious decision, or is it just something that comes naturally from talking about yourself and your life?
EW: It became very conscious because I started feeling like sometimes it’s the most conscious if I’m going out and I don’t want to talk about it. Sometimes I’d feel like, “Okay, do I need to address it in terms of addressing how I look at a conservative place?” It became conscious because you’re constantly trying to read the room, and I started being like, “Okay, are there certain things that I need to explain the context of more for them to just dive into what I’m talking about?” So much of comedy is about relating to someone, and if someone has a bunch of questions in their head, they’re not relaxing to the point where they can enjoy the show. I would think about it in terms of trying to build — how can I really efficiently build a bridge? With that stuff, I’ve noticed recently I haven’t been talking about it as much. I kind of just let that be a natural [thing]. I go to Vegas a lot to do this room in Vegas. It’s fine, it’s fun; it’s definitely more conservative. I’ll be like, “If I start up top with something gay, are they going to be like, ‘Oh, this is what the whole show is going to be about.’” Or, if I don’t, are they going to be like, “What’s up with this funny-looking straight girl?” That I think about a lot, but other than that, in terms of writing, you know, you tend to start with something interesting or weird and then build from that.
GO: What’s next for Emma Willmann?
EW: I’m writing a show! I’m trying to write my own show. So that’s what I’m doing. I mean, I’m also auditioning all the time. … It’s going on a lot of auditions. My most recent diary from the road was like, “What the f*ck are you doing?” If someone’s interested in entertainment careers in real time, I definitely recommend [checking] the road diary.”