Talking with the Late Show's Emmy Blotnick about truth, salmon, and the beauty of myth busting

When I asked Emmy Blotnick what her comedy says about her, she said: “A lot of my comedy is trying to reevaluate things I learned and took as fact.” And just like that, I had my New Year’s resolution. Challenge assumptions! Question beliefs! It’s the path to liberation. In Emmy’s comedy, it’s also the expressway to laughter.

Emmy’s stand-up ingeniously clears away the pop culture smokescreens that create self-doubt and obscure who we’re meant to be. She makes a very funny, convincing case that pop music, halter tops, dating apps, food rituals and even Amazon’s pushy recommendations are all complicit. She blasts away culturally-generated anxiety and replaces it with joie de vivre.

Emmy Blotnick

Emmy Blotnick

This Northwestern grad is uniquely qualified to point out what’s false and leave us laughing. As former head writer for The President Show and current staff writer for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, her day job involves combing the news for absurdities and transforming them into fodder for a nightly national catharsis.

She is also the brains behind The Late Show’s bestselling parody children’s book, Whose Boat Is This Boat?: Comments That Don't Help in the Aftermath of a Hurricane. If you watch The Late Show, you’ve seen Stephen Colbert reading it aloud and announcing that sales have raised over a million dollars for hurricane relief.

Emmy will be at Zanies in Chicago this Thursday, January 3 to Sunday, January 6. The audience will get a sneak peak of the new album she’ll be recording in late January.

Emmy kindly spoke with me about her journey from Northwestern to The Late Show, her Comedy Central special (named one of 2018’s best by Uproxx.com) and the life of a late night writer.

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STARTING OUT AT NORTHWESTERN

Teme: How did your comedy career begin?

Emmy: At Northwestern there were so many improv and stand-up groups on campus and of course, there is a lot of great comedy in Chicago. I think I was just drawn into it and have been running with it ever since.

Teme: Where was your favorite place to hang out when you were at Northwestern?

Emmy: We used to run around Wrigleyville a decent amount. I saw a bunch of great shows at iO [when iO was on Clark]. I'm not even a sporty person, but ended up going to a handful of Cubs games and loved them.

Teme: Yeah! Wrigley Field is special. I don't like baseball, but I like being there.

Emmy: Exactly. I’ll take any excuse to eat the Chicago dog which is the correct hot dog to me.

Teme: Yay! I agree.

AT THE HEART OF STAND-UP

Teme: What does your comedy say about you?

Emmy: It’s trying to make sense of things that don't make sense. I like to keep it pretty silly and fun. It's a chance to explore things that you don't get to talk about every day.

 

Teme: One of the things I love about your comedy is that you're excellent at myth busting. You point out harmful beliefs that aren't true. Cosmo magazine is not gospel and pop songs have logical flaws! Also, at the end of your special on Comedy Central, you get the audience to agree that smoked salmon doesn’t have to be saved for guests. Enjoy it now!

Emmy: Thank you for watching the special! A lot of my comedy is trying to reevaluate things I learned and just took as fact, and realizing you can throw out or keep as many rules as you want.

Teme: It’s so liberating to hear that.

Emmy: I feel the same way. It's good to realize, "Oh, I can free myself from this weird notion that I just inhaled from the ether."

Teme: What's a recent thing that you've observed that might make it into your comedy?

Emmy: I've been on a kick of buying a lot of vitamins and supplements, and I'm trying to understand what it means and what makes me keep buying these things. It's an area that is weirdly trendy right now. There are all these unregulated supplements that Gwyneth Paltrow sells. All these health food stores have giant aisles full of mystery pills. I've been asking audiences for recommendations on what to take, and it's always really interesting to hear what advice people give. And then I'll be like, "Can you tell if it's working for you?" And they never can.

Teme: What are some of the recent answers you’ve heard?

Emmy: Well, one person at the show said he was taking zinc and I asked if it was helping him and he said, "Sometimes." He goes, "Some days I feel like getting out of bed and some days I don't." And I was like, "You're putting a lot on zinc." That's a pretty high bar to set for a vitamin!

Teme: Ha! That's so true! And what are you usually thinking right before you go on stage?

Emmy: Sometimes I get in my head that it's going to be an uphill battle and I always like to remind myself that all of us left our houses to have fun, so to try to just show everyone a good time.

Teme: What is your favorite joke that you've written?

Emmy: Let’s see … my favorite joke … The bit that you brought up earlier about smoked salmon. I really, really enjoy making the crowd yell stupid things all together and getting everybody to chant “I deserve salmon” feels both delightful and dumb and I think that's a good combination.

Teme: Yes, it’s resonating with me. I sometimes let smoked salmon go bad in the fridge because I can't come up with a day that's smoked-salmon worthy.

Emmy: Yes, like, "When will be the special occasion? What needs to happen to me?" Right?!

Teme: Exactly! Who are the stand-ups that make you laugh?

Emmy: So many! Being in New York I get to see a lot the comedians I grew up watching like Dave Attell, Gary Gulman and Colin Quinn. Then there are lots of younger comics. Liza Treyger, who is originally from Chicago, is one of my close friends and also one of my favorites. Jo Firestone is hilarious. Janelle James is really funny. There are a lot of really good young comics doing good things.

 

NIKKI & SARA LIVE

Teme: How did your writing career begin?

Emmy: At the end of my senior year of college, I did a couple of shows in Chicago and then moved to New York and started doing open mics and improv and sketch classes. Jumping into the community got me in a daily habit of writing. I used to go watch Nikki Glaser and Sara Schaefer’s podcast. Then they got their own show on MTV in 2013 called Nikki & Sara Live and that was my first writing job. I feel so lucky that my first writing job was for two kick-ass female hosts. So that was a very fortunate aligning of the stars.

THE PRESIDENT SHOW

Teme: As head writer on Comedy Central's The President Show, what sorts of things did you do and how does a writer become head writer?

Emmy: I felt very passionately about that show. Anthony Atamanuik, who played Trump, was one of my improv teachers when I was first getting my bearings in New York. I think he's a genius. We had a female head writer, Christine Nangle and I was so excited about that, too, because a lot of writing staff is still mostly male. The President Show was pretty much 50-50, which was so cool.

So during the second season, one of the executive producers moved back to L.A. to be with his family and Christine was promoted and then I was promoted.  She is a razor sharp writer and they were big shoes to fill.

Head writing for The President Show meant making sure that each segment of the show was in good shape and getting done. The show had lots of small moving pieces to it. There were sketch bits and pre-taped bits. I also made sure that everything was right in our Oval Office set. The writing staff was a lot of really experienced, great people so I felt very lucky with them.

THE LATE SHOW WITH STEPHEN COLBERT

Teme: How did you decide to write for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert?

Emmy: It was right around when The President Show started to wind down a little bit last year. They changed it from a weekly show to one-hour specials every few months and that's a harder work schedule to sustain for most of us. So I had the opportunity to jump over to The Late Show staff and it's been really cool to make a show every single day here.

Teme: I wanted to ask you about that because I am in awe when I watch The Late Show. I apologize that I'm going to gush, but the show is consistently brilliant and hilarious and I’m sure it sometimes has to be written with little time to spare. So how do you that? Write so brilliantly, consistently, but in a really short time?

Emmy: Thank you for saying that! We have a bigger bunch of staff writers than on a weekly show. More cooks in the kitchen, so to speak. Everybody is keeping an eye on the news and we are talking all day long about what it looks like and how it feels watching the news unfold. It's a very well-oiled machine and it's very much a collaborative effort. Stephen is an insanely gifted performer, so that actually puts it over the top.

Teme: What is the writing day like there?

Emmy: We usually have two rounds of pitch meetings in the morning, one starting at 8:30 and one starting at 9:00. Then we all break off and write portions of the monologue and other bits in the show that need doing for that day. Usually it's two people assigned to the story. You work through telling the story together and try to make each other laugh which is always very fun.

Teme: What is the shortest turnaround you've ever had to write a joke?

Emmy: The pace of the news has been so insane for the last two years that there are some days, both at The President Show and The Late Show, when we are writing truly up to the last second. There's a thrill to it. A lot of times something crazy will unfold right at the end of the day and it's like a storm at sea, all hands on deck, and we usually get it together.

Teme: What would you say are the elements of a great late night show opening monologue?

Emmy: For me, I like watching monologues where it feels like you get a catharsis. Before I worked on shows like this, I was obsessively reading the news. Hearing somebody else go, "Yes. This is crazy," was, to me, insanely comforting. I think Stephen and everybody at the show does a really good job of parsing the news for its absurdity. It's like when you see something crazy on the train and you just need to make eye contact with someone else to confirm, "Yes, this is crazy!"

THE BEST AND CRAZIEST THINGS!

Teme: What is the best or craziest thing that’s happened in your career so far as a comedy writer and as a comedian?

Emmy: One crazy thing has happened recently at my job, actually. As a writer for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, I pitched a bit for the show a few months back that was based on some quotes from Donald Trump visiting the hurricane site in North Carolina. We turned it into a children's book, Whose Boat Is This Boat?, and there was enough demand for it that it is now printed as an actual book and has raised a million dollars. So that's been a real thrill to me to see what started out as just some jokes turned into something that's actually making a difference.

Teme: That is very cool and awesome! How did the idea come about?

Emmy: There was a story in The Washington Post that described Trump's visit to one town and every quote out of his mouth was at the reading level of a child. I mean, they always are, but there's something especially childlike about being obsessed with a boat. It was just sort of an impulse to try to connect those dots and I'm so glad that it has turned into something.

Then, [the craziest story] about stand-up was a show I did last year in Boston, which is my hometown. The front row was full of my teachers and pediatrician. Going home and performing for my childhood dentist and people like that has been kind of a trip.

 

ADVICE TO UP-AND-COMING COMEDIANS

Teme: What is your advice to up-and-coming comedians who would like to write for late night television?

Emmy: I think watching lots of stand-up and lots of late night shows really helps. I grew up on these shows and came to really love and know the format well. Also, go to live shows. You can see and hear everybody's material on their taped specials and albums, but a live show is its own experience. One of the things I love about stand-up is the unpredictability of the particular crowd and place. I think it’s helpful for anybody who's starting out in comedy to watch how comedians handle uncertain circumstances.

ZANIES!

Teme:  I want to ask you about your shows at Zanies! What can audiences expect? And will we get a sneak peek of your new album?

Emmy: I'm getting material together to tape the album on January 20th. So these shows in Chicago are lots of material that isn't available online or on specials. I think it will be insanely fun. I'm very excited to do these shows and I'm very glad we got to talk.

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Emmy Blotnick will be at Zanies in Chicago from Thursday, January 3 - Sunday, January 6, 2019. Tickets and all details at chicago.zanies.com.

Emmy recently starred in The Late Show's "Anxiety Baking":

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