Nomadic Performer Interview Series: Amber Nelson

Photo by Mindy Tucker.

Amber Nelson is a Brooklyn-based comedian who regularly hosts the weekly comedy showcase, Live From Outer Space at Cobra Club in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn. Other notable show performers include John F. O'Donnell, Erik Bergstrom, Max Bruno and Ben Kronberg.

Due to her father's work in the oil industry, Nelson spent her early childhood in Saudi Arabia before moving to Louisiana. After taking up improv comedy while a student at LSU, she pursued performance and stand-up in New York City. Venues she played included The Creek and The Cave in Long Island City, which O'Donnell had been instrumental in developing into a popular home for comedy. O'Donnell later recruited Nelson to be a weekly host of Live From Outer Space, which she currently balances with a busy schedule of stand-up appearances around NYC and beyond. She can also be seen on TV screens, thanks to her continuing relationship with outlets like truTV (on shows like Almost Genius and Rachel Dratch's Late Night Snack), and on computer/smartphone screens through her video work that streams on websites like Funny or Die. She also lends her voice to The Brighter Side podcast, recorded at The Creek and The Cave, which she co-hosts with comedians Ed Larson, Seena Jon, and Mary Kelly. She has also been interviewed for a variety of podcasts and radio shows, including Dr. Lisa Gives a Shit, hosted by Lisa Levy on Radio Free Brooklyn. 

In late October, Nelson hosted the taping of O'Donnell's one-hour stand-up special at the D.C. Improv during The Bentzen Ball. A few weeks later, she performed at The Bitter End in Manhatten on election night during the taping of comedian Big Jay Oakerson's new show on Seeso, What's Your Fucking Deal. Nelson's rising profile was recently explored within Phil Provencio's ongoing Up Next interview series for The Interrobang, which includes the following passage about her pre-show joke-writing ritual for Live From Outer Space:

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 goodon 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.”

I recently interviewed Nelson at Cobra Club where we discussed Live From Outer Space, her comedy career, the various formats her work has appeared in, her use of social media tools like Twitter, a recent case of professional mistaken identity involving another Amber Nelson, her thoughts on New Orleans ghosts, and so much more. 

On Live From Outer Space

"It was fun, and it made me grow a lot as a comic because I got that stage time, and I got that time to fail and then readjust myself with the room. I think it really helped with my voice, and who I am as a comic."

John F. O’Donnell straight up called me, and was like, “Hey Amber, we need a new host. We know you live around the corner. But also, the show is kind of weird. It’s at a rock 'n roll venue. We want someone that can fit that genre.” I was like, “Thank you.” It was because Eric Bergstrom was diagnosed with cancer. He had to go through chemo and all this horrible stuff. So they needed somebody to come on and host every Friday while Eric was gone. I’m very grateful for that phone call. I was here every Friday, setting it up and doing it. It was fun, and it made me grow a lot as a comic because I got that stage time, and I got that time to fail and then readjust myself with the room. I think it really helped with my voice, and who I am as a comic. So I’m very grateful to be hosting.

I’ve hosted open mics. I’ve hosted comedy shows. This one is obviously the best so far that I’ve hosted. It’s hard to host a show in New York City. Oftentimes, the venue will close or audiences just get disinterested. If the show is doing okay, then the venue will take on many more comedy shows, and that dilutes the show. I’ve seen this happen at many other bars. They’ll have a show that does well, and say it has 100 people in there every week. Once the venue starts getting more and more comedy shows, then they have 75 people, then 25, then 10, and then pretty soon nobody has any audience members at the show.

There are no bad open mics simply because, when you do open mics, you should be stretching every sense of you. It’s like a boxer. When you’re going into training, you've got to jump rope, you've got to push yourself,  you've got to strain your muscles. You've got to go a little bit crazy. You've got to have people yell at you. You've got to have people disinterested. There’s no such thing as a bad open mic. I think a comic should do every show and open mic they possibly can.

On Friday nights, I always test out something new. I try to write a minute or two of new every week. I think it keeps me healthy, and it keeps me psychologically engaged in the game. So I always do something a little new. You always put it in the middle. You want to open up with something that you know works, then you maybe do a little bit of crowd work with it, then you get into some new stuff, and then you pad it at the end with some older stuff.

"There are no bad open mics simply because, when you do open mics, you should be stretching every sense of you."

[Live From Outer Space hosts] do have different sensibilities, but I think that the core of what unites us, and Max Bruno as well, is that we all have this sort of rebellious rock 'n roll, let’s have fun, let’s talk about what really matters to us and what’s really at our core attitude. Sometimes you go into a club in the city, or in the Midwest, and people want to hear men and women are different (things like the very base stuff), which we are of course. But there’s nothing deeper than that. I think this show strives to go a little bit deeper than that. 

Eric is very funny. He can be kind of like an introvert sometimes. It seems like he killed [his Comedy Central half-hour], and the audience loved him. I think it’s because he spent years just trodding through New York doing the Creek. I think he does less club spots. But really, if you find your niche and you go for that, you can do it, like Kate Berlant-style. I’ve never seen her at Funny Bone, but she’s still doing fantastic.

Max is like the fun guy at the party. He’s obviously very passionate about [Live From Outer Space], so you want to put passionate people up there. He runs the sound, and we give him spots every now and then. Sometimes, if I’m out of town and Eric’s out of town, he will do a hosting spot. I think it's good to give him chances.

John is definitely one of the founders of the New York comedy scene. He founded the Creek. He came to Cobra Club. He’s very smart with people.

On hosting John F. O'Donnell's one-hour special

It was great. I was nervous because I wanted to make sure I did well for John, because I wanted John to do well. If it was my night, I think I'd be less nervous. But I met a lot of people that were great. I had a good experience in D.C. I think I had some weird stuff there before where the crowds didn’t like me or something. I think I was younger and I was like, “Maybe I’m not ready for it,” or “Maybe this just isn’t my town.” It does have a sense of a White House Black Market about it. Have you heard of that clothing store? It’s like that sort of person embodied. You just have to get to know that person.

On Creek and the Cave

It’s a great place to perform and to start out. I see it as a good jumping-off block for a lot of comics. I’ve done a one-woman show there and I’ve done many little experimental shows there. I think that’s what the place is for, and I love it for that. But you also have to work on going to a comedy club, getting that sort of vibe down. Your jokes should be able to work across the platform. You should be able to go into a Funny Bone in Poughkeepsie, and also work at The Creek and the Cave. I think the Creek is good at just getting the wildness and the weirdness out.

It definitely has the lights, the microphone, the chairs, but it also definitely looks like a theater more than a comedy club. I think the aesthetics of itwhen an audience member goes in there and sits down, they see that and they feel like it’s going to be something a little bit different.

At The Brighter Side, I really just sit in a studio with my friends and have a great time. The whole meaning behind the show being called The Brighter Side is we take generally darker topics and then try to find some positivity in it. We interviewed somebody that had tried to commit suicide twice, then just made jokes with them. At the end (and I don’t mean to sound sappy, or whatever), he was like, “Thank you for making me laugh because I was just really sad and in my head, and then I got sadder and sadder.” It's like a vicious cycle when you get sad and you can’t get yourself out of it.

On hosting What's Your Fucking Deal on election night

"I think I said something like, 'My liberal friends always didn’t like guns because they’re like, 'Well, when is the government ever going to turn against us?' And I’m like, 'Huh!'"

What’s Your Fucking Dealthat kind of show I love because it’s all crowd work and off-the-cuff, which I like to do. But that was election night, and people are not going to be in the moment in the room. They’re thinking about their future, their childrenespecially that night. My biggest fears did come true. I was like, "I know what’s going to happen. Donald Trump is going to take the presidency, and then they’re going to call my fucking name up there," and that’s exactly what happened. I think he took Florida, or something like the last nail in the coffin, and I was like, “Well...” Which is fine. I don’t think it’s the end of the world, but I do think that we couldn’t really talk about politics that night because this is going to air in three months. I still did, but I was like, “This is going to get edited, right? Hey... guys?” So it was very interesting.

I think I opened with like, “Hey, who’s ready for the Apocalypse?” Then I think I said something like, “My liberal friends always didn’t like guns because they’re like, 'Well, when is the government ever going to turn against us?' And I’m like, 'Huh!'”

On Lisa Levy

I love Lisa Levy. She’s interested in comedy, she interviews comics, and she has a comic sensibility. But she seems like a working-class sort of girl. She works, and she knows what she’s doing. [On Dr. Lisa Gives a Shit,] we were talking about my family, my mother, my fathertherapy stuff. It was really invigorating.

"They were very serious artists, they were getting naked, and they were looking at her and presenting her flowers."

She did this art gallery piece [The Artist is Humbly Present], and it was making fun of art. It even said in the pamphlet [for the show] that [the piece] is talking about [Marina Abramovic], the woman in the red dress who sat and looked across at you. It’s a very famous art piece. Granted, I love that piece, but let’s make fun of it. So Lisa sat on a toilet naked, and you sat across from her on a toilet. I think the real artistry in that piece was the audience because how they reacted just showed what you want in your real life as a human. People were getting naked, and they were very serious about it. They were very serious artists, they were getting naked, and they were looking at her and presenting her flowers. It was like a whole thing. Granted, good for you. But when I was standing in line, there was a dude next to me, silver hair, with sort of like a leather handbag man purse. He looked at me and he said, “You know, I was the first to get naked.” I was like, “Good for you.” He looked at me next, and he was like, “You should get naked.” I was like, “What?” He was like, “I just feel like it puts us all on the same playing level.” I was like, “No.” He just wanted to see me naked. This little fucking piece of shit just wanted me to take my clothes off, but he was trying to make it all artsy. 

On the South

Nelson at The Creek and The Cave. Photo by Mindy Tucker.

Nelson at The Creek and The Cave. Photo by Mindy Tucker.

I think they’re the same people as up here. We tend to think that the South or the Midwest is stupid, and they’re not. They’re really not. They’re smart people. I feel like some people don’t know what comedy is because they haven’t seen it, because it’s like another vicious cycle with the clubs. They’re like, "Let’s get Larry the racist in here," and he kills because I don’t think the audience has ever seen other comics go up. Then when they do, and someone like Sam Morril goes down there, he’s a big road comic, and then they’re like, “Oh, now I see.” That kind of opens up the gates for other people.

"We tend to think that the South or the Midwest is stupid, and they’re not. They’re really not. They’re smart people."

I consider myself a Southerner. My family is from the South. That just feels like a blip in the system for a second, and it also made me not want to stay there. I love the South, but I was like, “Oh, there’s a whole lot of other things I could just go see.” The Southern sensibility without the limited perspective.

My father taught people how to use the big rigs over in Saudi Arabia. He used to work as a sandblaster of submarines in Mississippi. In the ‘70s, they were like, “Hey, we got this job over in Saudi Arabia. You want to come over and teach dudes how to work in the same machinery you do?” He and my mother were like, “This is a crazy decision to go to Saudi Arabia. Let’s bring our family to the world. Let’s get them out of Mississippi.” They were in Mississippi at that time. Now, every single one of their children, me and my three brothers, we live all over. But everybody else in the family lives in Louisiana and Mississippi.

My brother, Ben Nelson, taught me how to draw an eye one time. He also taught me how to draw a head, and I think this is very poignant for other things. He said, “Amber, when you draw a head, people expect to see a neck, or otherwise it’s a head floating in space.” He said, “You need to have it relate to something, and live in some kind of world.” I think that’s good for an idea. It’s got to be attached to a somewhat relatable thing to get it across.

Nelson in New Orleans. Photo courtesy of the artist.

My brother lives in New Orleans, and I visited him once for like two weeks because my show was on sabbatical. There were once two women living in his house, and here’s the whole story. The first woman was married to this dude, and they had a pretty good family, and then the dude died. Then after he died, she found out he had a mistress. So she found the mistress. The first woman was such a sick fucking New Orleans bitch. A very kept perfect sort of petite sweet woman. But there’s a painting of her in the hallway, and you could tell she’s a vicious bitch. She found this second woman and was like, “I understand that we both love this man. I would like for you to please come to have tea in the attic.” Then she locked this bitch up in the attic and left her to starve to death. She died, and that’s the room I stayed in the last time I went there. I took up my suitcase and was like, “S’up bitches, I’m back.” Because like 30 years later, the first woman died in that house. There’s two women in the house, and they both murdered each other. I remember one time the door was open, and it had been open for a while. Then I remember I thought to myself, “Oh my god, a woman died in this room,” and the door went bam! It slammed shut, and I was like, “I get it.” But I took it as like, "Thank you for reminding me. Respect." I love ghosts. I believe in ghosts. Because why not? It’s fun.

I’d love to see the person that’s very sketchy about ghosts to obviously be around ghosts. Like a ghost is in a human form and is like, “I’m a ghost,” and disappears. And then they’re like, “Well, you know… robots now. I don’t know. Probably a drone.”

On television work

I was on this fabulous show called Almost Genius on truTV. They gave me a light script, but it was like a feel-free-to-improvise sort of space, which is why I really loved it. Basically, it was a very low-budget production. You were given something like a cardigan as a prop. It was very minimal, and then you just got to go on, and you had a light script, but then you could improvise within the character, which I love. Sometimes it would say, "Amber does something funny," and then I would just do something funny.  It was my favorite job I’ve ever had. I know people hated on it online, because they were like, “It’s stupid TV.” I’m like, “I’m having a great time. Please let me keep having a job. Watch the show, people.”

For about two months, we'd do it about once a week, and it’s about four hours from going in to when I leave. About an hour for hair and makeup. But with that show, you had to be quick with the jokes. A producer from the truTV network told me, “This station, you want to turn it on in the morning, then leave it on, and then just do laundry, cook some food...” But that means quick jokes. You've got to be like, "da da da, ta da, ta da... boom!" You can’t just meander around. Someone’s going to be vacuuming, and then they've got to change out the bag in the vacuum. They look, and they hear like, "ta da, ta da... boom!" and they are like, “Ah, that’s funny,” and then they charge up the vacuum again, and they leave the network on.

truTV offers a lot of platforms to young artists, which is great. I work with them, so it’s a continuing relationship. I wouldn’t say directly with truTV, but the artists that work through truTV. I know a lot of them, and truTV is like kind of a revolving door of people right now.

Nelson in "Ask a Man" on Rachel Dratch's Late Night Snack

Nelson in "Ask a Man" on Rachel Dratch's Late Night Snack

[Late Night Snack, Ask a Man]they wrote it and did it, and they just asked me. It's great. I like the fact that I feel like I’m getting on a place where people know who I am, so when they have a project that asks for something with my personality, then they can just call me up.

On online video work

[For You Should Feel Guilty About That,] I just thought it would be funny because it was part of a whole series called "People We Hate." I did a couple of them, and it was people you just generally would walk away from, but for some reason you’re stuck with in a conversation. One was a bitch at a bar who is just super militant and everything, like nothing’s ever loose. Just a militant soul, confrontational. But there’s a birthday party going on in the back, so you can hear other people walking in like, “Hey!” But you’re stuck in that conversation. That was what’s funny to me. It was fun.

On the name, Amber Nelson

There’s another Amber Nelson. She lives in Philly. I think she’s going back to college. But she was in SAG before me. So when I joined SAG, I have to go under Amber Sophia Nelson. But when you bring me on stage, you can still call me Amber Nelson, because Amber Sophia Nelson just isn’t funny. It sounds like a little child beauty pageant girl.

She wrote me and was like, "I went on audition because they called Amber Nelson." The casting director just straight up didn’t do their research and they called her in, and then they showed her my headshot and she was like, “That’s not me.” Then they didn’t even bother to call me in. So there’s a lot of people on the production side who never want to admit they did anything wrong.

On Twitter

I just post what I find funny or interesting. If it’s not a joke, then it’s at least an idea and I know a joke will come from that idea. Honestly, the photos or the tweets I do, I really use them as a time log. Sometimes I’m going through my material and I think, "What is something that I haven’t really talked about recently that I sort of forgot?" Because you get so many ideas, so many go on the backlog. Twitter is a time journal of that.  So you can look at it like, “Oh, a week ago I had this idea, and I’m still very passionate about it. I’m going to go on stage and talk about it.”

On jokebooks and set lists

"I dropped my set list accidentally into a civilian’s bag once. I remember I meant to write 'TV show idea' on the page, but I didn’t write that. Instead I just wrote, 'The government follows me, but I’m crazy, and weird, and stupid, and no one knows what’s going on.'"

What I’ll do is, the first half of the notebook I’ll just write new jokes. But I put a line because I want to make sure I keep it tight. "What is it about," like, "Country Mayo?" I know this is about me being in the South, and there’s mayonnaise involved. It’s very country. 

I dropped my set list accidentally into a civilian’s bag once. I remember I meant to write "TV show idea" on the page, but I didn’t write that. Instead I just wrote, “The government follows me, but I’m crazy, and weird, and stupid, and no one knows what’s going on.” So they just saw that. They didn’t see the "TV show idea."

Generally, if I’m working on things, I’ll put them in the notebook sporadically, and also jokes I like. I sort of find the set list by how I feel, but I'm also free to maneuver it around stage. But I do write down key points in a notebook, and there’s maybe five. I take a sip of beer, and I put it down, and I look, and then I just come back to people.

On her favorite book

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. It’s about a young girl coming of age at a bad time, and I love it because it relates to me. I think it’s all about the will of the human spirit. You are born into a certain condition, and you are expected to live this way. But to mentally break free of that and say, “I want more” takes a lot of hard work. There’s even a job she works in the book where she’s working in a factoryand you do a lot of horrible shit, but you can break free of that, and you can live your own life. The life that you’re passionate about but are also hardworking about in your own way. That’s the beauty of capitalism. USA! USA!