Emily Winter has written for The New York Times, The New Yorker, NPR’s “Ask Me Another,” TV Land, Fusion TV, Glamour, and The Barnes & Noble Review. She's an “NBC Late Night Writers Workshop” script judge, and co-creator of “What a Joke,” a nationwide comedy festival that raised more than $50,000 for the ACLU in 2017. Emily's stand-up has been featured on SiriusXM Radio, and she's performed at SF SketchFest, Laughing Skull Comedy Festival, The Limestone Comedy Festival, and others. She runs two Time Out Critics' Pick comedy shows in Brooklyn: “BackFat Variety” and “Side Ponytail,” and hosts a podcast that reached #1 in Podomatic training podcasts, “How to Produce Live Comedy.” Emily landed on my radar with the publication of her popular article in The New York Times on perseverance and resilience in the face of rejection.
Brent: Great to connect with you, Emily! Thank you for agreeing to share how you commit your comedy routines to memory.
Emily: For me, it’s about key words and feelings. I have shorthand words for every joke. For example, if I wrote the following, it would come out to a nine- or ten-minute set: Midwest / Softball / Wedding Rings / Guest List / Weed.
Brent: Right, a simple trigger is enough to remind you of the full, crafted anecdote.
Emily: I typically build in time to play with the crowd and go off-topic, but I do like to start with my keywords as a home base. If it turned out, for example, that my crowd was really into my softball jokes, I might veer off into sports territory for some extra minutes, and cut my wedding jokes or my weed joke.
Brent: Say more about how you steep yourself in the emotional aspect of your stand-up.
Emily: The “feelings” part is important for me. The words mean nothing without emotions attached. My comedy, like a lot of stand-up, is very personal, so when I think “Guest List” I allow myself to summon my genuine feelings about wedding guest lists, and the punchline surfaces. If I kept my emotions out of it, I might just think, “Guest List. Hmmm, guest lists are long, sometimes short. They are full of names. Punchline?”
Brent: There’s definitely a vivid, narrative flow to your material. Do you ever do a series of, say, disjointed and unrelated observations?
Emily: I’m always in awe of stand-up comedians who can memorize an hour of one-liners that have nothing to do with their lives or feelings. I don’t know how they do it. But, honestly, it’s not my favorite type of stand-up.
Brent: If your routine has ever been interrupted on stage, how have you gotten back on track?
Emily: This happens every day, and I love it! It keeps my brain working at 100% and makes it impossible for me to go on autopilot. I always aspire to being “present” on stage, and that would be impossible without responding to my surroundings. So from my perspective, I’m not necessarily looking to get back on track—unless I’m recording something for radio, for example, in which case the audience has usually been warned to keep heckling at a minimum.
Brent: I get the sense that you improvise a lot based on the energy in the room.
Emily: Every show is a unique experience. I try to pack as many punchlines as I can, but I’m also feeding off the crowd and the venue. If I plan to do a set about the workplace, but keep talking to audience members about dating, I’ll summon my keywords from my dating material and go down that road.
Brent: How do you snap back to attention if your routine gets derailed by some external distraction?
Emily: I admit a comedian hack. We’ve all been derailed by hecklers and random things happening around us—an air conditioner blasts during a moment of silence, a glass breaks, a phone goes off, etc.—and we all have our stock lines for these times. After enough reps, comedians naturally build a library of jokes that work for these times. When something unexpected happens, it triggers me into my keyword library, and I often select a joke I’ve used before. To the audience, though, it seems completely off the cuff and makes me look a lot smarter than I am.
Brent: You’re being modest! Making lightly used material seem spontaneous and fresh is a comic’s stock in trade. Tell me, what material do you find the most challenging to memorize?
Emily: Memorizing lines I didn’t write takes way more time than memorizing my own jokes because I’m not inherently connected to the emotions behind the words. Over the last year, I’ve learned that I need to give myself even more time than I’d expect to memorize someone else’s script. I’m a big proponent of doing a little work every day.
Brent: What is your work schedule like in those cases?
Emily: When I have something I know will be daunting, I like to practice it for 20 minutes a day for a week rather than, say, seven hours in one day. I know that my brain can help commit new information while I sleep, and I want to maximize its capability rather than torture myself at the last minute.
Brent: Depending on the intensity, performers tell me that their daily work sessions can range from 15 minutes to a couple of hours. They know when their brains get full.
Emily: Another thing I find hard is doing more than two full sets in a night. It happens infrequently, but when I’m lucky enough to do, say, three 15-minute sets in the same night, I sometimes forget which stock riffs and jokes I have and haven’t used, since I so often veer “off-script.” I find that making a keyword list of which jokes I actually ended up doing after each set helps.
Brent: Smart idea! A post-mortem of what did and didn’t get used is extremely useful. Lastly, what else would you like my readers to know about you?
Brent: I tend not to spend a lot of time on the web, but the hilarious videos on your site reeled me in! Thanks so much for your time and insights, Emily. You are a force to be reckoned with—in a good way—and I wish you continuing success!