Emma Arnold never really thought about trying to make a career out of comedy until after a very unfunny moment in her life: the breakup of her marriage.
She had been a homemaker, raising three kids, all boys, and hadn’t really been out in the job market.
“Poverty is a very good motivator,” said Arnold, who plunged into comedy about seven years ago and has been able to make a living as a full-time touring comic for the past four. “I was a mousy housewife, and then was able to find my sea legs.”
Her sons, now 15, 13 and 10, are supportive if not terribly impressed, she said. One teased her about the comedy album she released last year, titled “Yes, please.” It is available free on her website.
“He said, ‘Hey, mom, Netflix called. Oh wait, no they didn’t,’“ she recalled.
The 38-year-old is on the road doing shows every other week, performing at clubs in Atlanta, L.A. and New York, as well as in out-of-the-way places such as Lafayette, Louisiana. Her material is often personal and intimate, and it seems that nothing is off-limits, including sex, mental illness and raising a child who has autism.
“Recently, after a show, a therapist came up to me and said, ‘I’ve never seen anyone be so vulnerable on stage or off,’” she said. “Being able to mix in funny and sad, that’s my bread and butter. That’s what I like to do.”
Arnold finds time to help nurture Boise’s comedy scene as co-director of Comedyfort, the comedy branch of the five-day Treefort music festival, with longtime friend Dylan Haas. Those two also are the co-founders of the annual 208 Comedy Fest, which is Sept. 5-8 this year. Arnold was praised in a Fortune article last week for diversifying the festivals so that they showcase more female comics and emerging voices, not just white men.
“[Comedy] still feels like an old boys club, even as much as it’s changed in the past 10 to 15 years,” said Haas, a 46-year-old comedy nerd whose day job is as an engineer at a local semiconductor company.
Obsessed with comedy as a kid
Arnold was exposed to some of the country’s best comedians in her youth, but it was on the down-low.
The Salmon native, who grew up all over Idaho and graduated from Borah High School in 1998, was an avid reader and writer. Her “hippie” parents didn’t let her watch TV, other than PBS, because they feared it would stifle her imagination.
“We couldn’t watch TV, but nobody paid attention to what we were reading,” said Arnold, whose favorite author as a child was Stephen King. “I would buy boxes of books at yard sales and then just devour them ... I really liked the horror genre and the sci-fi genre.”
When she was about 10, her stepfather began sneaking her his favorite comedy albums by George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Steve Martin and others, she said.
She became obsessed with them.
Every day after school, she listened to Martin’s “Get Small” and Bill Cosby’s “Himself.” She listened to them over and over and over, possibly thousands of times, she said, until they became part of her DNA.
“I just loved the beats of it and the timing,” she said during a recent interview at a Downtown Boise coffee shop, Form and Function, where she sometimes likes to write. “I was never like, ‘I’m going to do this.’ I was obsessed with the fun of it.”
Two decades later, Haas invited her to a couple of open mic nights at a dive bar. She’d had practice speaking in front of an audience through her involvement as an organizer and participant in the popular storytelling event Story Story Night and its adult-themed spinoff Story Story Late-Night.
The third time she did an open mic night, she bombed.
Her mind went blank and she froze.
“I just stood in silence for a minute and 45 seconds. I probably wouldn’t have tried it again, but Dylan treated me like Cher. I got off stage just shaking and like, ‘What was that? I don’t like it.’ He put a coat on me and took me out,” she recalled. “Then he laughed at me so hard that I couldn’t take it seriously. He just sat and made fun of me ... I couldn’t get up in my head about it.”
Arnold now earns a living making people laugh, but she lives with a lot of pain and darkness. She told an audience at Story Story Night last year about her lifelong struggle with suicidal feelings and the history behind it.
“I’m not typically someone people associate with mental illness,” she said. “From the outside most of my life, I really looked like someone who had my s--- together. That is because I am Swedish. So when I did finally fall apart, it means I did it very politely, very quietly, and very efficiently.”
Comedyfort, and a new album
Arnold and Haas are trying to build support and an audience for comedy in Boise, inspiring local comics to up their game and attracting more touring comics to the city.
Comedyfort features 20 performers, while 208 Comedy Fest features 50 to 60.
If you’ve never seen — or even heard of — the performers booked for Comedyfort this year, including headliners Jackie Kashian, Yedoye Travis and Sam Tallent, don’t worry about the quality, the festival bookers said.
“The thing that I’ve been striving for: If it’s got our names on it, it’s really worth seeing,” Haas said. “I’d never bring in anybody who I’d be like, ‘Oh, don’t bother seeing them.’”
Comedyfort comics will perform several places Downtown: six shows at Liquid Lounge, 405 S. 8th St., #110 (Thursday through Sunday); two shows at Woodland Empire Ale Craft, 1114 W. Fort St. (Friday and Saturday); two shows at the main stage, 1201 W. Grove St. (Friday and Saturday); and one show at the Alefort Tent, 11th and Grove (Sunday). Check the Treefort website or free app for times. If you’ve got a Treefort wristband, you don’t have to pay extra for the shows; you also can buy tickets for shows at the door or online at Liquid’s website.
Arnold will be hosting at Liquid at 10 p.m. Friday and at 8 p.m. at Woodland Empire on Saturday. She does a monthly show with Sophie Hughes called “Hogspoiled” at Woodland; the next show hasn’t been scheduled.
Her next album is going to be released this Friday. The public is invited to her launch party at 8 p.m. on April 6 at Woodland Empire; it will benefit Planned Parenthood.
The album is called “Abortion. Abortion. Abortion.”
“After I recorded the album, we were bouncing names around and it was happening during all of this stuff with the Trump administration. They were attacking reproductive rights so I decided to go in that direction with the name,” she told Forbes writer Andrew Husband.
“Plus, I knew the title would make my stepdad laugh, and, to be honest, that was a big part of it. My mom’s name is Marsha and he would always quote ‘The Brady Brunch’ and say ‘Marsha, Marsha, Marsha!’ to tease her,” she said.