Standup Comedy: Truth be Told

Amber Rollo, a comedian, writer and actor who was one of the people who confronted Harvey Weinstein at a New York comedy show in October, speaks out.

I used to work in marketing and we often spoke of “knowing our audience,” which was shorthand for crafting your message to fit the people you are trying to appeal to. I brought that idea with me when I first started standup comedy, but I quickly learned that knowing myself was much more important. When I tried jokes that exaggerated my authentic self, they never seemed to hit; it was as though the audience could smell the lie. I used to tell this joke about my name: “Hi, I’m Amber, and despite that name I have never taken my clothes off for money.” It was simple and to the point, and it used to work well. Then something changed. Truth be told, I became a stripper to make some extra money. Don’t judge me – New York City is not cheap and standup comedy does not pay much. Just like that, the joke stopped working. I knew it wouldn’t work, because I didn’t believe it when I said it anymore. For two reasons: First, it wasn’t true; second, I realized it was mean and made strippers the punchline. Some comics can get away with being mean; I can’t, because it’s not authentically me, and that was the problem.

In standup, you are performer and author, object and subject at the same time. It is a supremely personal and brutally honest art form. If you are insincere or pandering, an audience can feel it. They won’t laugh because they’ll be too caught up questioning your authenticity. I once performed on a show with a very funny comedian, who I won’t name. Most of his material crushed, but there was this one joke where he talked about a family member having a serious illness, and it just didn’t land. The joke was technically very good, but the audience was tight. I asked him about it later, and it turned out the premise of the joke was completely fabricated. He was typically an autobiographical comedian, so the audience could smell the inauthenticity.

I find the more I tap into my feelings on stage, the better I am a gauging what I can say. It is constant work, because it changes from day to day. Hell, it changes from minute to minute – I am not the same Amber I was when I started writing this. When you tap into your feelings on stage, you also become hyper aware of the room, the audience, the lighting, the sound of kegs being loaded into the back of the bar. If there is something distracting me on stage, it is almost certainly distracting the audience too. It is our job as comedians to “call the room” – to say out loud the weird thing that is happening; naming it releases the tension so everyone can move forward and stop thinking about that thing. Whether that thing is a loud air conditioner, jazz muzak coming from the front bar, or an infamous predator in the audience, it is a comedian’s job to name it and then, like magic, relate it to something funny.

I am, of course, referring to Harvey Weinstein showing up at the Actor’s Hour show in Manhattan a couple months ago. I confronted Weinstein at his table that night, after my friend and colleague, Kelly Bachman, had confronted him from the stage. I don’t envy Kelly’s experience. I spoke to her before she got on stage that night; it was an awful position for her to be put in as a performer and a survivor, and it should have never happened. When she asked me what she should do, I told her I was in two minds. On the one hand, it is a comedian’s job to “call the room,” but on the other hand, it is not a survivor’s job to make the room safe – that responsibility lies with the producer and the venue. In the end, she decided to call attention to the monster in the room and I’m so proud of her for listening to herself. It was authentically her and the world saw that.

This need for authenticity in standup makes it an appropriate art form for speaking truth to power. Just by being me and making jokes about my experience in the world – as a queer woman, as a former sex worker, as an orphan, as a sexual assault survivor – I am speaking truth to power. Standups write and perform our own material, so naturally we speak about our own experiences. Instead of molding myself to the audiences out there, I have found it most effective to be as “me” as possible. When I am quintessentially myself, I am on fire, and every micro gesture and expression becomes a punchline. The struggle is finding that true me in front of an audience that might not be ready. Standup has long been a genre dominated by white cis straight men, so theirs were the stories being told. The standup audiences have been hearing those stories for a long time, and it is jarring and upsetting to some audiences now that they are hearing other types of stories. Sometimes you get booed, just for being unapologetically yourself.

However, after every show where I’ve struggled to be myself in a room that felt like it was not for me – the hundreds of times I was the one woman booked on a show with 10 men – there was someone who came up to me after that show. They’d say things like, “I used to be a stripper – you were so funny! I felt it so hard.” Or, “My parents died too and it felt really cathartic to laugh about it – thank you!” Or, “I’ve never been to a standup show before. I thought it would be too mean, but I loved your jokes!” This was at shows where I felt like I’d bombed, but these people still identified with what I was saying. They turned up at other shows and told their friends about me, and slowly I started building an audience, a community. Each show, there are more and more cheers, because the right audience is out there if we keep being unapologetically ourselves.


The featured image, showing Amber Rollo performing her headlining set at the New York Comedy Festival event Rape Jokes by Survivors, is by Zak Travis and is used with permission.

Amber Rollo is a standup comedian, actor and writer. She earned the title “Downright Rude” by confronting Harvey Weinstein when he showed up at a variety show in Manhattan; Weinstein’s spokesperson described her actions in that way and she has worn those words as a badge since. She was recently a guest on Full Frontal with Samantha Bee to comment on that interaction. She is the creator and co-host of Stoked Comedy (with Kelly Bachman, Davidson Boswell and Julie Piñero) in Brooklyn and co-host of Gilligan Comedy, a pop-up comedy show with Gabriel Pacheco. Though standup is her first love she is also a musician and actor, she the drummer in Boys Drool (a moody band made up of four comedians) and is a cast member of the sketch comedy show Sofa Kingdom. She is the co-host of Daddy-less Issues: The Orphan Podcast, with Chanel Ali, where they talk to comedians and artists who have lost one or more parents about how they succeed in life despite that. (Picture by Mindy Tucker.)