Our latest addition to our Up Next series, New York comedian Amber Nelson! All photos as always by Phil Provencio, and thanks to Joshua Fischer and Phil Provencio for doing such a tremendous job interviewing Amber at Heavy Woods in Bushwick!
Comedian Amber Nelson has been around the world, and seen a lot of things, but her goal was always to get to New York City.
After being chased out of Greenpoint with high rents, Amber Nelson now lives in Bushwick which she affectionately calls Bushwhack. “I’ve been here for about 3 years maybe. Hopefully I won’t get priced out soon, cause a lot of kids are moving in.” Amber loves that you can get anything without going too far in Bushwick. “I can go across Maria Hernandez Park– today, I went to a dollar store and got like socks and garbage bags, you know that kinda thing. And if you want artisanal coffee, you just walk across the park and come over here.”
Nelson has a ritual before she hosts her weekly show. It involves a joint called Heavy Woods, where they have Cajun food like “Boudin Balls.” Her ritual involves stopping in for a little cup of gumbo (which she says is pretty good- on par with her mom’s), and her jokes. “I have this notebook and I usually sit at the bar and nobody really bugs me cause this is a cool neighborhood so there’s not a lot of dudes who are all ‘sup bitch’. And I have lots of jokes, just sorta’ written out and what I’ll do is, I just find a blank page and then I’ll write down the jokes I want to tell, the jokes that are new and the ones that are a little more ‘A’. Cause I generally do the better jokes in the beginning and the end and then I just kinda figure that out to see if there’s a through line or anything to them.”
The show Amber is talking about is “Live From Outer Space” at a rock club called the Cobra Club, right in her neighborhood. The show was initially created and run by John F. O’Donnell and Erik Bergstrom, but Amber took over running the weekly show when John got a job in D.C. working for Redacted Tonight, and Erik was diagnosed with cancer. “I had done the show a couple times, I had been to the show many times since I live right around the corner and John told me ‘we’re looking for somebody a little weird and kinda cool and not necessarily, umm….I don’t want to use the word ‘mainstream’ cause that sounds like I suck, but a little ‘off the wire’ and so they called me up and I said yeah, I’d love to do it.”
Hosting and producing the weekly show gives Nelson the chance to work on her own material. “I do at least 20 minutes up top and also time in between. I taped a half hour about six months ago and I was looking at it again for my new submissions for half-hours and in six months I had a new half hour, I didn’t even know that it was just from running the show.”
According to Amber, a good host is like an art dealer who curates all the artwork. For her “gallery”, she looks for comics with a really strong point of view, someone she calls a Tim Dillon type. “I just want someone to go onstage and just kinda attack it. Cause you’ll see when you get in the venue — the lights — you can’t really see the audience, you’re just kinda screaming into the void. So I need somebody who can go onstage and just be like ‘here’s my ideas – boom.’”
The show usually gets a crowd of about 60, mostly young creative twenty-somethings. And every week, Amber, she paces, worrying about whether people will come. “It’s enough to give you ulcers– ‘I hope people come, I hope people come’, but part of my job as a host is to constantly be talking to people and say ‘come to this show if you wanna see me, if you liked me at this other show then come see me perform a longer set here.'”
Born in Saudi Arabia to Southern American parents (meaning the American south, not South America), Amber spent eight years in Louisiana including going to college at LSU where she started doing short form improv and minored in Opera singing. But it was always in the back of her head that she wanted to come to New York City, and make people laugh. “Even when I was a kid I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do, but I knew it was in performing, making people laugh; I always wanted to make people laugh.”
Moving to Louisiana with her family after being “ripped away from places” her whole life, she worked hard to be able to get a scholarship, something she saw as a ticket to a different kind of life. “I did no drugs, no boys, nothing, just books. So I got the scholarship, went to college, discovered I love to act.” Thanks to that scholarship she is proud to say she has no debt, but earned that right, saving every penny, working in nursing homes, at an Applebee’s, at temp jobs, anything she could get. “I just worked, and had jobs…I remember I was always poor. I would take a salt lick cube — a bouillon cube– and melt it in a hot cup of water and just have that for lunch.”
Just one week after graduating she said, “Fuck it, let’s do it” and moved to Washington Heights with her best friend from college and started doing improv classes. She remembered being told she was not funny for a long time.
“New York is the best for comedy,” according to Amber. “You can get up as many times a night as you want and people will be brutally honest with you. You’re going to experience as many different kinds of venues as you possibly can, as many different kinds of audiences.” Nelson also found the value of criticism in New York. In LA, she says the industry audiences are always polite because they don’t know who is going to be the next big thing. But in New York, you will hear people tell you something sucks.
She laughed remembering starting off at The Creek and The Cave. “That was a lot of people pushing each other and saying ‘that sucked’ or ‘you gotta work on it’ and I was running over from day jobs, getting no sleep, bags under my eyes just sorta’ wildly throwing ideas in the wind and seeing what stuck.” She remembers people like Mike Lawrence and Dan St. Germain being brutally honest. “This one time I went on stage and I did a Southern accent through the whole thing and then Mike Lawrence approached me afterwards and was like ‘why did you talk like that? You don’t talk like that.'” And I just responded, I just wanted to have a character onstage, cause I feel like once you have a character people understand who you are and then I can get somewhere faster. And they were like ‘don’t do that. That’s not who you are. Just talk about who you really are’, which is some of the best advice.
Despite it being great advice, Nelson still loves characters on stage. “I would say because I lived around a lot of places, that I’ve met a lot of different people in my life (laughs) and I’m only 32! (laughs) I sound like I’m 50. I like characters. I like to look at some people and mimic what they do and get in their brain and kinda’ why they think that way and why they made those decisions. I like to take an idea and think about it from all different sides.”
Nelson finds inspiration for her characters and her stand up from the streets of New York. “A lot of bits I have, come from just not wearing earphones and just watching people on the subway. You’re just sorta surrounded by people who are not like you. Different ideas than you. Different life than you. And you’re sitting right next to them and their ass cheek is on your lap and you gotta make contact! In LA, you don’t have that, you’re sitting in a car all day, you don’t talk to anybody and they’re all in the entertainment business which sucks. It doesn’t really breed character. I wanna talk to like a middle-aged housewife who’s just getting back into mannequin-ing.”
Right now, when Nelson isn’t hosting her show, or performing stand up around the city, she’s got a great gig with truTV on the show Almost Genius. The show pays the bills, and allows her to do a lot of character work. “They basically just hand you a wig or a t-shirt, it’s pretty simple, just goof around on camera a bit. It’s the best job I’ve ever had. It frees up a lot of time for me to write scripts, I’m working on scripts. I’m working on a pilot right now.” Long term goals include touring more, having more material, and maybe a TV show or two of her own. “I’d like to have a character based show,” she said. “The Amber Nelson Show, you know what I mean? Like the Kroll Show.” She’s also really into old school sitcoms- Cheers, Designing Women, and Seinfeld are a few favorites.
She describes her comedy as traditional in the “set up – punchline” kind of thing, but not traditional in terms of what she talks about, or what she looks like. “Women are raised to be very dainty and raised to be polite and to listen and to agree and to be the yes man, and that’s not funny,” she said. She attributes her uniqueness to her mother being what she called “criminally” hard on her. “Hard on me like, ‘buck up, don’t cry! Shut up! Nobody wants to hear you complain’– things like that at a very young age. I’d fall down and scrape my knee and she’d just tell me to stand back up, she wouldn’t run to me and ask ‘Oh my God, are you okay?’ I think a lot of women are raised to be kind of sweet and polite. Sweet and polite is not funny.”
“My mother’s a very tough woman and I was not tough. I was born with jaundice,” she said. “I would scream, I would cry all the time from moving around. I was always upset and I had no friends so I can identify with being a helpless woman. I think very early on, I always found myself in an abusive relationship because of that, but I was able to have the foresight to pull myself out of them and move to NY. I worked very hard to get to NY. I mean we don’t just come from a place of a dog food mill and move to NY to think just like one day, you know?”
Well she’s here now, and you can see Amber Nelson every Friday at 9pm at the Cobra Club, and she’s got gigs all over the city. Follow her on Twitter @AmberSmelson to find out where and when to catch her performing!