• Wendy Nelson

That's No Lady: A Woman in the Comedy Zone

Amy Veltman has the courage to make you laugh. Here's how she found it.


If comedy is your go-to for distracting yourself from the world’s threats and disappointments, you may have noticed that from the big screen to all the little ones, women comics are having a moment just now.

Being the Ricardos showcases Lucille Ball as comic savant-cum-shrewd businesswoman-cum-suspicious wife; The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is a charmingly implausible confection about a wealthy young mother from the Upper West Side who moonlights doing standup, earning the support of Lenny Bruce; Hacks pairs Jean Smart’s Vegas-legend Deborah as eminence grise with uber-millennial Ava: hijinks ensue. And Yearly Departed's diverse female comics, MC’d by Yvonne Orji of Insecure, bid a jubilant and profane adieu to 2021.

Into this mix, up and coming comedian Amy Veltman is making her moment. And unlike the characters above (real and imagined), who all hit the stage young, Amy kicked off her new career at 49.

The week Donald Trump was inaugurated.

It was a knee-slapping time.

 

Why does an Upper East Side mother of two teens and a successful businesswoman, decide to expose herself in standup?

It begs a larger question: why would any of us abandon everything we’re good at—all the connections we laboriously built, all the expertise we acquired, all the accolades we earned—to try something new?

"I've always been attracted to novelty. New foods, new experiences, travel to new places. I thought a class in stand-up was going to be just another new thing, but I got hooked on the ability to make people laugh," Amy explains.

Something else happened at age 49 that influenced her as well.

"Around the time I started stand-up, I started treatment for ADHD, which had never been diagnosed, but suddenly put a lot of my past into focus: a history of poor time management, being too chatty in school, and even the movement from passion to passion. Treatment probably enabled me to stick with standup because I was seeing more consistent results and was able to manage myself well enough to organize my open mic schedule and material in a way that I probably would have found impossible before, but now is merely challenging for my pinball-machine brain."

Well….her thoughts couldn’t have been that off the rails since she graduated cum laude from Barnard and then earned an MFA from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. I wondered about the struggle to earn those elite degrees while living with undiagnosed ADHD.

“It was hard because I would procrastinate a lot and beat myself up a lot because I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to be doing. I figured out some coping mechanisms and my parents kind of struck the fear of God into me—with a lot of yelling and threats and strictness. And taunting.” She laughed. “And so I figured out ways to make things work for myself.”

“I feel that I’ve done things at a B+ level, but I haven’t done things to get myself out in the world so much.”

This is not a woman anyone would label an underachiever: she’s been a scriptwriter; a marketing guru; a director (of the documentary Beyond the Stigma: Stories of Addiction and Recovery); and co-host of the 2 Moms on the Couch podcast. And she promises there are novels afoot. She even put her husband through medical school. Yet Amy calls herself a late bloomer, because she “hadn’t squeezed all the potential out of who I could be.”


 

One first step to getting herself out there was launching her podcast. “It felt great to do the podcast and have it be something I was very proud of. I had to figure out how to do the sound recording myself and how to do the marketing myself and how to get it on all the different platforms myself. It’s very satisfying.”

And then she felt the urge to take it further. “I took this standup class and I saw it was the perfect combination of writing, performing, directing, controlling my time, and meeting new people that I would never meet in a million years.”

Amy doesn’t take living in New York for granted. “If I’m living in the city and paying these stupid, stupid rents, I’d better be doing something that I couldn’t do anywhere else.”

So she started performing.

“I was writing some angry bits about the world and things that I was seeing, and I was delivering them in this kind of ‘hi, I’m a friendly person, please like me’ way,” Amy said about developing her comic persona, which she says is still underway. She was working on a bit at a workshop, and “this fantastic comic named Yamaneika Saunders said, ‘what you’re saying is one thing but I’m looking at you and I’m saying where is that bitch? They’re not matching.’”

“The more natural and outraged I am, the better things go.”

Standing exposed on a stage, alone, telling stories about yourself designed to elicit laughter, possibly at your own expense? “The reason it’s such a good artform for people at this stage of life is, unlike an improv troupe, you don’t need to commit to six other people to show up every Tuesday and Thursday night. So when your kid has a homework meltdown, you may lose five bucks not going to the open mic that you booked, but that’s the extent of it.”

Amy adds, “There have been times where my family needs me and I can pull back and I’m not letting anyone else down. Just myself.”

Letting oneself down: is that something we don’t appreciate until we get older? Which brings me back to that question about giving up competence to embrace growth.

“Standup has helped me grow because I’ve had to suck, and I’ve had to suck in public.

"I’ve always been a person who liked to sit on the sidelines and watch how something is done and figure it out. When I know I can do it well, I jump in and conquer it. And with this, that’s not an option. There are no shortcuts. The only way out is through.

“It’s been very humbling for me to know that I’m going to get up and I’m not going to be the comic I want to be and not be perfect. I need to figure out how to master the writing, my self, my emotions, my routine, my memorizing, my look – all of it—and know that they’re not all going to come together at the same time.”


 


The reflective host of 2 Moms on a Couch is also the woman in the YouTube bit, snarling at her offscreen offspring “If you’re hungry then make yourself some fucking food!” How does Amy balance these personas with her real-life mothering?

“I’m trying to model this thing of putting myself out there, for them, and making myself vulnerable to rejection, and taking it in stride. Not feeling that my identity or worth is predicated on invitations to be on shows with people I’ve admired or anything like that.”

Like many parents, Amy is trying to do things differently from how she was raised. “I think I try to create really open avenues for conversation with my kids, and to be someone who they can bounce ideas—or different ways of being—against. I don’t think I had that in my parents. They had a pretty set idea of what the good life is supposed to look like, and both are pretty risk-adverse.”

Amy reflected on generational differences.

“I think that I probably did some risk-taking behavior to self-medicate, back in the day, and didn’t know there were other options. But I want to have openness with my kids and get them strategic help for any challenges they are having, and not just go ‘well, bang your head against a wall, or drink four shots until you forget about it.’”


 

After she launched her standup career, she was elected president of the Barnard alumnae association. Contradictory? Amy doesn’t think so.

“My background in standup and my ability to be comfortable in front of a crowd and argue either a joke or a position passionately has really helped me."

"I don’t have the kind of wealth that could get me on a board of trustees any other way.” She laughed. “It’s been illuminating and wonderful to learn about how that board works.

“I still think there’s a place in the world for an institution where women take leadership roles and women’s voices are a given. You have to wait until you get out in the world to realize ‘gee, not everyone sees it that way.’”

I wondered if she was this driven when she was at Barnard. “I probably didn’t get as much from my education as I could have, and that’s kind of sad to look back on. It’s related to how I was raised, where authority is here” she raised her hand up near her head, “and you’re down here” she gestures down low, “and you do what they say.”

There was also the self-editorializing that can hold one back. “I always felt that if something’s hard it must be good, and so if I was good at something quickly I shouldn’t be doing it because it’s too easy and that’s not respectable enough. And I look back on that and think, that’s kinda stupid.”


 

Amy approaches life differently now. “I try to be really in the moment, try to get better at my craft, try to write, sometimes fail, try to take good enough care of myself so I can show up well for my family, and then if something good happens with comedy on the way, great. And if not, I’m having a good time enough of the time, and learning a lot, and I’m not bored, and hopefully I’m putting good stuff out in the world. For now, I’m content with that. When my kids are both out of the house it will be different, which both scares and excites me.

“It’s really been a rich way for me to feel alive and approach life right now. To have beginner’s mind and keep discovering and failing and growing at a young age….I mean, not at a young age, but feeling like at a young age.” She laughs. “At an age that other people might have said—several decades ago—'game over; you’re done.’ It’s an internal journey and I wish that for everyone.”

And what does she have in common with the female comics packing our streaming services? For example, Midge Maisel, her most obvious analogue?

“I have a thicker waist, I’m actually Jewish, and my apartment is a lot smaller.”

 

Wendy Nelson is a writer in Providence, Rhode Island and a contributing editor to Certain Age.

Photo credits:

Laugh by Tim Mossholder

Amy Veltman 1 by Kristina Kelley

Amy Veltman 2 by Phil Bertelsen



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