An Interview With Comedian Emma Arnold


Diving Deeper with Comedian Emma Arnold

Emma Arnold is a comedian from a small town in Idaho, but she is so much more than that. Emma is an undeniably strong, resilient and genuine human being. She co-founded and directs two major comedy festivals while also raising three children, another full-time job in itself. She isn’t afraid to talk about topics that others might shy away from and approaches them with an honesty that is somehow simultaneously graceful and fierce. On top of all that her humor is perceptive and engaging. Ten years after catapulting herself into the comedy world, this Boisean woman has an arsenal of insight to share with us all.

She will be performing in Downtown Santa Cruz at DNA’s Comedy Lab Friday May 24th. There will be two chances to see her! An early show at 7:30 pm and a late show at 10:00 pm.


SUSC: What inspired you to pursue comedy?

Emma Arnold: Well, I was married for 12 years and had kids really young. I had been a “stay at home mom” and then I got divorced, he left and I had no way to support us. I had just started doing open mics at the time and was like, well maybe this could be my job! I had no education or job experience and I was good at comedy so I threw all my eggs into that basket. Luckily, I didn’t realize what a wild idea that was, went with it and it worked out!

SUSC: That’s super interesting to me. It’s a crazy thing that you decided, “okay comedy! I’m gonna do this,” and then you ran with it and it worked out beautifully. That’s definitely not the normal pattern I’ve seen. What was different?

EA: Honestly poverty is a big motivator when you have kids. I also think I was a little naive. I didn’t know who anyone was, that it was this big deal with scenes and hierarchies. I would just go in to shows confidently and with earnest, country energy. I guess people assumed I was a professional and would put me on! I also got kinda lucky when I was picked up by The TribbleRuns, which can be rough gigs but they pay. The booker saw me and signed me probably way before I should’ve been. I really got lucky.

SUSC: So you think it was a combination of earnest energy, confidence and luck?

EA: Well you know…actually, I work really hard. I think that’s a very “woman” thing to do. I say it was just luck, but I worked my ass off. I went to every single open mic, I wrote a thousand jokes, I thought about it constantly, and I treated it like a job from the very beginning because that’s what it was for me from the start.

SUSC: You’re right, that is such a typical response from women. You’re an amazing, successful, comedian and you’re also an amazing, successful parent. Those are two huge things to take on and accomplish in life and your immediate response is to take no credit or say it was luck. Why do you think that is?

EA: I was actually thinking about how so many women in my life are self effacing and constantly referencing the people around them in their success. For me, becoming a comedian did involve getting a huge amount of support from my family, other comedians, and amazing mentors. If I weren’t a woman I’d probably have an instant response about how I was just grinding and would be inclined to say it was all me, I was amazing! I want to try to have parts of both, where I talk about how hard I did work and the support I had. You can’t do it alone. People put you on shows, people take you on the road. I try to pay that back too.

SUSC: It sounds like there’s a lot of unspoken give and take in finding that success.

EA: I think there should be. I find that the people who crash and burn are the ones who don’t realize that it’s not a solo endeavor. One of the best things about being a comedian is that every city you go to, you have like four best friends there. It can be a really cool and positive thing when you realize how deeply knit the community is.

SUSC: That’s something that was really obvious to me when I started comedy as well. That sense of community is hard to describe but it’s a special thing that keeps me wanting to come back every single time.

EA: Oh yeah, it’s amazing. I’ll be working festivals with 20 of the funniest people and I’ll just sit there, listening to everyone and feeling thankful. I love being apart of it. Of course we have a larger population than normal of mental illness, addiction, sexism, and a general lack of empathy. We could definitely use more openness and kindness and less bro-culture but I do think that’s been changing a lot in the last several years. Every city I go to I see an improvement and I think a lot of that is the influx of comedians that are women, LGBTQ, POC, and just more diverse. There’s a wave of change happening.

SUSC: That must be a really hopeful thing to experience over time. What’s the change and why do you think it’s happening?

EA: I think it started like 5 years ago when festivals were having line-ups with 50 men and one woman. People started to call that out and talk about how not okay that is. Something is fundamentally, societally changing and for whatever reason comedy is often on the forefront of what society looks like. Like the “Me Too” movement, comedy was beginning those conversations before it was really even a movement yet. I think it’s that we’re loud and we’re the first people to call truth to power. Maybe that’s why it’s changing and changing fast.

SUSC: I agree. Comedy is, in part, being an observationist and bringing things to light. I noticed, in a lot of what I read about you, that you’re often described as being very vulnerable in your comedy. That’s something I admire and relate to but you do it on such a bigger scale. I was wondering what you do when you choose to open yourself up to the world and it doesn’t go well, and you’re left there totally exposed in front of strangers.

EA: What I’ve found is that vulnerability is a currency. In comedy it can feel like a one way street but it can actually be an exchange. I try to create moments for the crowd where they have to take that leap with me into the next level of connection. When it doesn’t work it feels awful but I just try to take a moment. Dana Gould, who’s been one of my biggest mentors, told me to remember that audiences want to like you. If you mess up just give it a second, take a breath, and go on to the next thing because they’re ready to come back to you. As far as the crowd is concerned, if you don’t show otherwise, you’re crushing! Afterward is when I really struggle. I often obsess over trying to figure out what I did and never do it again. Now I try to allow myself to only pick apart a set for 30 minutes, then it’s done and I move on. You can get so wrapped up in criticizing yourself but in your lifetime you’re gonna do so many sets, will you really remember this one mess up?

SUSC:  I notice that you aren’t afraid to talk about mental health, and I think that’s so important. Especially in comedy communities.

EA: I think it’s easy to be a bunch of hyenas and get gossipy when comics lash out because of what they’re going through, instead of pausing and wondering what’s really happening. I wish we could be kinder but maybe that’s the mom in me.

SUSC: Is it that, or is it that you have a different kind of empathy that not everyone inherently has?

EA: Actually, that may be. I think that my fearlessness and empathy comes from having a really rough childhood, because after that there’s not much left to fear. When I see someone being atrocious I wonder how they’re hurting. A few years ago I was assaulted by a male comedian and his scene came to me asking what they should do. I told them he should have therapy, and honestly there should be a support group for comedians who have assaulted people. In my perfect little world we would have comedy health care and clubs would have resources for mental health.

SUSC: How do you experience something so horrible, being assaulted in a place that you’re supposed to feel safe in, and come back from that?

EA: It was rough. I almost didn’t come back. After I was assaulted I tried to get “justice” but nobody seemed to care. Everyone kept telling me to be quiet. Then I wrote a thing about it that went viral and about half the people were supportive while the other half  were basically telling me I deserved it. I got an insane wall of hate that typically happens to women after coming out. I fell apart. I relapsed, I was suicidal and I had to go to rehab for a couple weeks. It truthfully almost killed me.

SUSC: How did you pull yourself out of such a dark place like that and how did you find the strength to continue comedy?

EA: It was through the love of the people around me and a lot of therapy. I wanted to quit but I just kept working. Even that night I still went up and I still performed. I feel like that’s common of a lot of survivors. It happens to people and then you hear them say, “and then I just did my job!”. I kept working but I really fell apart. I did eventually take a break and when I came back I was fearful. It took me awhile to feel safe. Women have to live with this expectation of getting treated like less than or dealing with creeps, not just in comedy. But I did what I think a lot of people have to do. You just pick up, you keep moving, and you’re sad but you keep going every day. When I saw that this guy was still getting booked I was heartbroken and angry but eventually I forgave him. I moved on and focused on making things safer and better for women in as many ways as I could.

SUSC: Like you said, we have this unspoken expectation. What can we do? What can women and men who support women do to eliminate that?

EA: It’s a numbers game. People don’t like talking about it but there will be 20 dudes on a show and one woman. When you have that atmosphere it creates an energy that makes those bad men feel okay sexually harassing women. If you’re in a scene that’s half women that doesn’t happen as much. We change the tone and create a safety net. I’m always quietly checking the numbers of scenes. If there’s only ever one woman around that’s a toxic thing. I went forward and started my own festival to have the chance to book women. We can buy their work, we can book them, we can continue to support them.

SUSC: Thank you for sharing that with me. I think it’s really important for women to know these things, especially when they’re new. It’s good to know that you can come back from horrible things that happen and that we need to prioritize supporting each other.

EA: You also don’t have to come back either. You have choices. I’ve known people who have gone through something similar and chose to quit. Whatever makes you feel safe.

SUSC: It is typical for women to forget we have the power to make choices. I’m glad there’s women like you to remind us. If you were back in my spot right now, just starting out, what would you want someone to tell you?

EA: I would want to hear that I didn’t have to do what everyone told me because they seemed like they were further along. You don’t want to get too far away from your own inner voice. Seek solitude and spend time alone. The only way to hear yourself is to be quiet and away. Tell the jokes that make you laugh.

SUSC: I think we all need to hear it’s good to be alone. So now…Santa Cruz! You’ve actually performed at the Blue Lagoon before correct? I gotta hear about that. It’s a huge pillar in our scene here!

EA: Oh my gosh I loved it. It was so fun and the crowd was great, I had a great time. I even stayed at a yoga retreat AirBnB!

SUSC: Sounds like Santa Cruz! So you’re excited to come back?

EA: Oh absolutely! It’s gonna be great.


Emma Arnold’s newest comedy album, “Abortion. Abortion. Abortion”  is available on iTunes, Amazon and Spotify. She also keeps bees at her home in Idaho and you can buy her honey on her website!

Interviewed by: Mac Ruiz




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