How Emily Heller Balances Standup with Writing for TV
In her new Comedy Central Half Hour, which premieres this Friday at midnight, comedian and writer Emily Heller wastes no time letting the crowd know that she is very self-aware. “I was not a very cool kid growing up. I’m not a cool adult, it just doesn’t matter any more.” Embracing her self-proclaimed uncool has allowed Heller to develop a confident and hilarious perspective on a wide assortment of things that matter to her, from Frasier to feminism, 90s hip-hop to present day singlehood, relationships to racism. Recently Heller has been seen on Late Night with Seth Meyers, Conan, The Meltdown with Jonah and Kumail, and Inside Amy Schumer. In addition to standup, she cohosts the popular podcast Baby Geniuses and is currently writing for TBS’s People of Earth. Part of why Heller stays so busy is because of the fleeting nature of success in the entertainment industry. As she puts it, “The hardest part is that you have no fucking idea about what’s about to happen next.” I sat down with Heller in New Orleans before the taping of her Half Hour to discuss the special, doing the road, and the selling power of stick-on googly eyes.
You’re the last of 17 comedians to tape your Half Hour.
I hope the late show on Saturday night isn’t entirely drunk.
Well, no promises. New Orleans is always kind of drunk, but 10:15 is still early here. People can people can still pay attention at 10:15 even if they’re a little drunk.
Okay, that’s good to hear.
When did you get the news that you were doing a Half Hour?
A couple of months ago. This was my third time submitting, so this year I just sent them my album instead of doing a new tape.
You’ve been working with Comedy Central for a while now.
Yeah, I had done a couple of sets on Comedy Central and I’m a regular on @midnight, so I knew it was a possibility.
Your debut album, Good for Her, came out in November of last year. Were you pleased with the response?
Yeah, it’s been positive. It hasn’t gotten as much buzz as I kind of hoped it would. I’m really proud of it. It’s a true and solid representation of the work I’ve been doing for the last eight years. But it came out sort of quietly and has been building. I’ve been selling it a lot on the road.
It’s nice to know that people are still buying physical copies of albums.
I think people are excited about buying a physical copy instead of just getting it online because I can sign it and it looks nice. A lot of them have actual googly eyes stuck to them because on the cover I’m wearing googly eyes on my glasses and the album is the exact right size for small googly eyes to fit over the picture. There’s definitely some charm to the physical copies of it.
How much time do you usually spend on the road in a year?
It depends. Not as much as I like because I’m usually working full-time writing for TV. It’s nice though because making most of my living writing for TV means that it takes the financial pressure off of standup being my livelihood. I can be selective about going to the cities I’m most excited about and doing shows that I think will be fun.
Does having a full-time day job — even though it’s in comedy writing — make it hard for you to develop your next hour of material?
Absolutely. It’s really hard to write new material while I’m working on a TV show because I’m more creatively focused on it and I’m not doing as much stuff to draw from for new material. It’s hard for me to work on new material when I’m not on the road. But that makes me excited about going out. When a job is about to end I’m already scheming on where I’m going to go next.
When you’re on tour and arrive in a new town, what do you like to do? Are you a touristy kind of person, or do you get into the weird shit?
I really like to find the good vegetarian restaurants in town. I’m vegetarian and there are always new places popping up. I like doing weird touristy shit. I went to the butterfly conservatory when I was in Scottsdale. If there’s a water park I can go to I’ll try to do that. In Salt Lake City I’ll go see all the Mormon stuff. I think the last place I went on tour was Bloomington. I went with Chris Thayer and he’s really good at finding all the stuff you’re supposed to do. Usually I try to keep up with friends. I like to see my friends from college and other parts of my life. I have a friend in Baltimore who is a puppeteer. I like to see her when I’m out there.
How do you prepare for a big show like this?
I’ve been running the set a lot. I’ll glance at my set list and go over any transitions that have been hard for me to remember. But other than that I’m just going to go out there. Luckily I’ve been working so much that I haven’t had time to worry about this yet. I haven’t had a moment of down time to have a panic attack. Maybe that will be what I do before the taping. Sometimes before big shows I’ll throw up or poop a lot, but I can’t really plan for that.
Maybe you’ll get lucky and have your panic attack the day after when everything catches up to you and you’re wondering what happened the night before.
Yeah, I’ll have all my regrets at once. I’ll remember a joke I forgot to tell or something like that. But I think it will be fine. I feel really good about the material that I’m doing. This doesn’t feel like a situation where I’m putting this material out there and seeing what happens to it. This feels like a victory lap for this material. This is what I’ve been working on for a long time. It’s the material I’ve honed the most and am the most proud of. I don’t feel nervous about it all. I’m at the point now where I don’t really get nervous about doing a set on TV. But the first one I ever did was for John Oliver’s New York Stand-Up Show and I was so nervous. I fucked up a joke. And I don’t know why, because I don’t know who told me I could do this, but I just stopped and said, “I’m going to start that over since I messed it up.” The audience loved it. They were so on my side, rooting for me. Ever since then I’ve never been nervous about it again, especially with Comedy Central because I know they’re going to edit it and make sure it looks good. When I’ve done Conan or Seth Meyers you don’t have that ability. So this is a much lower pressure situation. It’s an audience that is there to see standup. You know it’s going to go well. it’s not a late night set where they’re there to see the Jonas Brother who was on before you. It’s smart people who like what they’re about to see.
What’s the hardest part about your job?
It’s generally a very easy, fun job. But the hardest part is that you have no fucking idea about what’s about to happen next. You have no control, no foresight as to what your year is going to look like. Everything I’ve done has been fun and rewarding, but I’ve never been able to predict it.