From Simmons to Standup: Emma Willmann '08 Arrives on Netflix

September 13, 2018

We joined Emma during Boston's Women in Comedy Festival and learned about her journey into comedy.

Emma Willmann performing stand-up at the Comedy at the Knitting FactoryPhoto courtesy of Yoko Haraoka

Hours before headlining a show for the Women in Comedy Festival, we sat down with Emma Willmann '08 to discuss her journey from Simmons to the entertainment industry. Eagerly discussing her college days, Willmann shares personal anecdotes from Simmons and jokingly reminisces about the feeling of learning in higher education.

"You know when you go to the dentist and haven’t flossed in a long time?" Willmann muses. "When they finally floss your teeth it’s a weird massage on your gums, but it feels kind of good. That’s what it feels like when you learn things you’ve never imagined. When you go to college, you feel your brain getting stimulated in a whole new way."

Now a seasoned comedian, Willmann’s success on the stand-up circuit has led to The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, The Comedy Lineup: Part Two Netflix special, and roles on HBO’s Crashing and the CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Not to mention her widely successful podcast, Inside the Closet, which Time Out New York listed as one of its favorite NYC podcasts.

Surprisingly, Willmann didn’t plan to enter the entertainment industry after graduation. She intended to pursue an entirely different career—as an inventor.

"I had a great grandfather who was an inventor and I wanted to try my hand at it," she explains. Unfortunately, after developing her invention, she sent her prototype to a scam developer. "I was crushed," says Willmann.

Headshot of Emma WillmannPhoto courtesy of Mandee Johnson Photography

Feeling defeated, Willmann attended a party where a woman performed a comedy routine. This fortuitous performance put the wheels in motion and changed her life forever. Instead of creating a product, Willmann decided to invent something else entirely: her career as a comedian.

"I started doing comedy once a month for four months," she recalls. "I called myself a comedian, but it doesn’t work like that. Then I entered a comedy competition at an actual club and I did awful. I got heckled—it was a total mess."

Willmann describes these early days as isolating and embarrassing at times. But instead of accepting failure, Willmann kept her goal of success at the forefront of her mind—a tactic she learned at Simmons.

"I had taken this great entrepreneurship class with Teresa Nelson," Willmann says. “I thought about that class a lot when I started out because no one tells you how to bridge the chasm between stand-up and television. It seems insurmountable and insane, but like an entrepreneur, you need to cling to your vision. So I remember thinking 'cling to the vision, cling to the vision.' And that’s kind of what I’m still doing."

Her determination has paid off. With a growing repertoire of stand-up, acting gigs and radio appearances, Willmann’s refusal to accept failure has catapulted her career into what it is today.


"There’s such an importance placed on intersectionality at Simmons," Willmann says. "You’re constantly deconstructing race, class, gender—and you see it in every class you take. Simmons cultivates critical thinking and I try to be very critical of that lens when doing stand-up."


"Failure to me is not what you get, it’s what you turn it into," Willmann explains, "and Simmons is a very luxurious place to fail. Even if you don’t get something, there’s a supportive net to catch you. If you want to try something out of your comfort zone, you’re not going to get a better environment than Simmons—now’s the time to really go for it."

Emma Willmann performing stand-up comedy at UNDER St. Mark's TheatrePhoto courtesy of Hunter Peress

Although Willmann's anecdotes from Simmons haven’t made it into her stand-up routine, she acknowledges that her experience at a women-centered institution has influenced how she approaches her comedy.

"There’s such an importance placed on intersectionality at Simmons," Willmann says. "You’re constantly deconstructing race, class, gender—and you see it in every class you take. Simmons cultivates critical thinking and I try to be very critical of that lens when doing stand-up."

Willmann asserts that these lifelong lessons occurred everywhere—even outside of the classroom. Whether it was her time in the Student Government Association or spending all day in Bartol Dining Hall among good friends, these lessons and memories impacted how she navigates her career today.

"The people that are attracted to Simmons are just awesome," Willmann says. "It was amazing to learn and grow with such a core group of people."

So what’s next for this thriving comedian? From her return to the final season of Crazy Ex Girlfriend to the premiere of Netflix's The Comedy Lineup: Part Two in August—Willmann’s career is showing no signs of slowing down. We’ll keep watching as this former Simmons Shark continues to make waves.