by Ryan Meehan
New York City comedian Amber Nelson has appeared on TruTV’s Almost Genius, as well as Montreal’s “Just For Laughs” festival, AXS-TV’s Live at Gotham, and MTV’s Girl Code and Guy Code. She was recently a featured performer at the soon-to-be famous Skankfest in mid-June, and we’re delighted to have her as our guest today in 10 Questions.
RM: You’re of Saudi Arabian heritage but you grew up in Louisiana…How did your family originally come to the Bayou in the first place; and what about your surroundings sparked your initial interest in making other people laugh? Were there any immediate family members of yours that had a real knack for humor?
AN: I was born in Saudi, but my heritage is Southern. In the 70’s my father got a job for Aramco, so my family went over there not really knowing the cultural differences. I was born there in the 80’s and came to America when I was around 7 years old. It was hard for my family to find a home and acclimate in the states, so we moved from Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, then Louisiana where I went to high school and college. It’s all very confusing, so usually to make the conversation easy I just say I’m from Louisiana. I’d say the moving around helped me become a comedian because I like being alone in unusual situations, and in Saudi I remember many moments making people laugh, even though there was a language and cultural barrier…those moments always stuck with me. Also my mother is hilarious…I’d say I get my style from her.
RM: You’ve done a lot of work and training at UCB – on both sketch and house teams – and it has ended up being extremely beneficial to your career…What would you say is the most important thing you’ve learned about yourself as a performer from all of your time there? What exactly is Murderfist; and what do we need to know about that group of individuals?
AN: I’d say the most important thing I learned at UCB is the concept of ‘yes and…’. To take an idea and evolve on it. People usually don’t like saying ‘yes’ because it puts you in a vulnerable situation. It’s easy to say ‘no’, but it’s not as funny because the idea stops there. Also consistently getting up in front of audiences and developing new characters on the spot is invaluable. I worked as a cocktail waitress to pay my way through those classes. Those were manic times, but I loved every minute of it. Murderfist is a group of friends you want to invite to your house party. Sweaty, loud, and hilarious. I was very lucky to work with them for a few years. They still have a monthly show at the PIT. Check it out. They really break a lot of the rules of sketch comedy.
RM: What are some of the aspects of your training in sketch work which have had a direct hand in consistently helping you become a better stand-up comedian? Do you believe that most comics today could benefit from some type of improv training, or you think it depends on each humorist and what they are trying to accomplish as an artist?
AN: I think it depends on the person. For me, improv was a great base as a performer, as I learned what my voice and style were. Also, I find in stand up, the audience is my scene partner. They don’t have to speak, but you as a performer know what they want and feel. For sketch, sometimes a joke works best being seen. Whatever is funniest for the idea: Sometimes it’s a one liner, sometimes it’s a three page character sketch.
RM: You just got done doing “Skankfest” in New York City the third weekend in June, after Big Jay Oakerson had a monster hour premiere on Comedy Central and the festival booked huge acts such as Doug Stanhope and Todd Glass…How would best summarize that weekend’s gathering and the atmosphere surrounding that entire event? Who were some of the comics you thought had killer sets; and how do you think yours went?
AN: The festival was a lot of fun because the audience genuinely likes comedy. Many times you’re performing for people who don’t know what stand up is, so most of your set is guiding them on what is funny. Also the audience had a vibe of ‘anything goes’, which is awesome. Nick Turner was great because he’s like a loose cannon on stage, you never know what’s going to come out of his mouth. I thought my set was fun. I never do much crowd work, so it was fun to talk to people about crazy topics like 9/11 or Who Was Molested. Doesn’t really sound funny on paper, but fun for the crowd and I.
RM: Speaking of Skankfest…If you took The Creek and the Cave out of the equation, what are three other clubs in New York City that you can say you are most comfortable when it comes to trying out new material?
AN: I always like performing at The Stand. Those people really know how to treat comics well, and the vibe always feels like you’re in a bunker after the world blew up. Caroline’s is great because it’s been there forever and you can feel the ghosts of great past performers. Lastly, The Cobra Club. I co-run a show there on Fridays with Erik Bergstrom and John F O’Donnell. That place is a sweaty, alcoholic mess where anything goes. I love it.
RM: You had the opportunity to do Just for Laughs in Montreal a few years back…Even though that event is billed as a festival, at any point did it feel like it was a competition to you given that there are so many featured performers who are all trying to have breakout sets in such a short span of time?
AN: I never felt like it was a competition. I just wanted to do the best I could and meet new and interesting people. It’s like Bilderberg for comedy. You’re talking to someone about donkey ass and find out they’re the president of CBS or something.
RM: You played the role of Gilbert Gottfried at this past year’s “Schtick or Treat” and as usual you killed it…With the exception of nailing down the volume of the voice itself, what were some of the other aspects of his personality that you really had to go over with a fine tooth comb in order to really ace that impression? Did you ever hear from Gilbert himself about what he thought about your performance; and is there any available video from that night’s show?
AN:I’d say to get the impression, you really have to have a ‘fuck it, I’ll say it anyway!’ attitude. I don’t know if there’s video outside of the Seeso thing, but if there is sent it to Gilbert! I’d love to write jokes for him!
RM: “The Brighter Side” is a podcast you do on Cave Comedy Radio with Ed Larson and Seena Jon that “finds the positive light in this horror show we call Earth”…In a time where there is so much violence and racial tension, how much more challenging has it become more challenging to see the glass as half-full as we see humanity fucking crumbling around us on a daily basis? Could you elaborate a little on the description of the show as “A cynic’s look at optimism”?
AN: Sometimes it’s difficult to find positivity, but you have to…unless you want to give up and die. We have guests come on and try to take the harshest topics (suicide, parents dying, ect…) and find some brightness to it. You should be able to laugh at anything. Speaking as a person who gets depressed/angry consistently, laughing is how humanity wins.
RM: Another “silver lining” undertaking you’ve become involved with is TruTV’s “Almost Genius”, hosted by April Richardson and Chris Fairbanks…When it comes to television shows in the talking-head format, how do the producers go about making sure that two different comics don’t end up having the same takes on whatever viral video are being shown? Are all of the comedians typically on the set at the same time or do they film you individually to work around everyone’s chaotic schedules; and how does the production of that show differ from similar programs you’ve done for MTV Networks?
AN: All the comics are scheduled the same day, but different times. I go into hair and makeup while another comic is shooting, and by the time they’re done, it’s my turn. The show is an interesting format. We take videos and act as a character in the video. I have a script, but am able to improvise in character. It’s the most fun job I’ve had. PLEASE WATCH THE SHOW I’D LIKE TO KEEP DOING THIS 🙂
RM: What do you foresee being the biggest threat to the industry of comedy as a whole from this point forward? As a performer what can you do to make sure that this can be prevented; and as a fan what can I do to see to it that the business of what I love doesn’t suffer permanent damage?
AN: I think the biggest threat is the industry is looking at social media numbers in order to gauge a comedian’s success. Not that there’s anything wrong with social media stars, but sometimes a Vine celebrity will be cast over an experienced stage comic, just because the studio thinks their Vine followers will tune in…Which they won’t. For fans, it’s important to keep seeing live comedy shows. It’s something humans have been doing for a long time; sitting around a camp fire and listening to stories.
RM: What’s up for you in the remainder of 2016 and beyond? Anything big in the works that we should know about?
AN: I’m doing more road gigs this year, which is great because I get to work on my act in front of new people. I’m working on an album, which should come out around the end of the year. Working on a sketch pilot. You can see one of my characters on the Paul Downs Netflix special.
Amber on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/amber.nelson.9440
Amber on Twitter: https://twitter.com/AmberSmelson
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