Leah Bonnema used to get so nervous performing stand-up that she kept a wad of gum in her cheek to generate saliva for her extremely dry mouth. The gum is now gone, but the nerves recently returned. That’s because earlier this month Bonnema, a Queens-based writer and comedian, appeared on national television for the first time, doing five minutes on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.
“I freaked out—I laid on the floor the night before doing all my meditations,” Bonnema told WSWD last week, having stopped by our office to chat. And then, in a happy whisper, marveling about the Late Show‘s theater: “I mean the Beatles were there!”
The Colbert appearance was a major breakthrough for Bonnema after 10 years on New York’s comedy circuit—now it would be surprising if her killer set doesn’t lead to more high-profile gigs. She’ll have to juggle them with her duties cohosting a musing-on-manners podcast, Were You Raised By Wolves?; developing and writing series of her own, like the dark comedy MissConduct; and getting onstage practically every night in the city for decidedly less-nerve-shredding appearances. You can catch Bonnema on November 6 at the New York Comedy Festival or most nights of the year in clubs around NYC.
What Should We Do: It seems logical to begin with this two-part question: Were you in fact raised by wolves, and, if so, how much deer meat did you consume?
Leah Bonnema: I’ve never had venison, which for someone from Maine is bold to say. My parents live at the edge of the White Mountains. Gorgeous. The corner of New Hampshire and Canada. There’s probably a lot of things that I do that are wolfy. I’m not into a lot of rules. We’re a pragmatic, casual people who freeze more than 50 percent of the year.
WSWD: You focused on women’s studies and film in college at McGill University—what’s the progression from there to doing stand-up in NYC?
Bonnema: I didn’t even know it was a job [in college]. I don’t think I had any plans. I wanted to work in film. I loved storytelling. I came here and took some acting classes. And then I was in a spoken-word group, and a lot of my poems were funny. I met this terrific woman named Karen Sommers—we cater-waitered together. She’s a director, and she was putting together a show for BMCC and said, “Let’s do a show together.” She asked me to take a stand-up class, and I did a whole thing about coming from a rural area and I had to take a test to be a New Yorker. A lot of Lord of the Rings references. I was like, Oh, this is all the things! You get to tell the story, you get to perform live, you get to talk about things that are important to you. It’s a delight. Also horrible. But a delight.
WSWD: So you did the classic waiter job in NYC while trying to break big?
Bonnema: It’s a very flexible job. You call in and say these are the days I’m available, and you show up with your polyester suit that you’ve been keeping in a bag.
WSWD: In a bag? Does everyone smell terrible?
Bonnema: Well, you spray. It’s polyester. You Windex it. You spritz it. I assume everyone washed their shirts. But those suits were brutal.
WSWD: You had a funny bit on Colbert that ends with you having an epiphany: Women need to kill more people.
I get really happy a lot in general. I think if you don’t get really happy, the bad times are just going to knock you over.
Bonnema: Obviously I don’t condone violence, but hypothetically speaking, I think it would cut down on a lot of bad behavior. I wrote a script for a series called MissConduct, about a group of friends pushing back against daily injustices. It escalates to murder. But, like, good murder.
WSWD: Productive murder.
WSWD: Relatedly, in some ways you seem uniquely qualified given what you studied in school and your work, which has a feminist lens, to talk about how #MeToo has played out in the comedy scene.
Bonnema: It’s definitely complicated. I would say I think it’s important that these issues come up. I think people need to realize how much it happens to those who just want to work. I have a lot of male friends who are not garbage, who are comics, who are shocked. And the women I know who are comics—I try not to say male and female comics—they’re like, Yeah, this is happening to us all the time. My nongarbage male friends are like, What?! It’s awareness building for people to know, and it makes it so we can say that this is inappropriate and now there’s an avenue for addressing it.
WSWD: In less upsetting news, the winter holidays are fast approaching—how do you feel about New York this time of year?
Bonnema: I love the lights. The holiday lights. Fifth Avenue during the holidays is like the Super Bowl of lights. I get really happy a lot in general. I think if you don’t get really happy, the bad times are just going to knock you over.
WSWD: Which reminds me, do you have tricks for getting the audience on your side?
Bonnema: Sometimes you’re not going to. This took me a long time to be comfortable about. If they’re not with you or don’t like you, you have to be okay recognizing, hey, this is not going well and we all know it, without being angry. Then it becomes funny, and you’re like: Wow, you guys hated that one! Sometimes crowds need a little crowd work. Sometimes people are not physical laughers—they are actually having a good time but it doesn’t look like it. They’ll stifle it and you’re like: It’s a comedy club! Sometimes you aren’t going to get them on your side and you just have to plow through and do your set. And then go home and eat a bag of candy corn in the dark while you watch Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Hopefully, if you’re lucky, it’s Christmas and you can go look at the lights on Fifth Avenue. They have the show every night. Boy, have I sat and watched multiple runs of that!
WSWD: I have two daughters who are now 15 and 13 years old—if you could give girls their age a piece of advice, what would it be?
Bonnema: I have to think about this. I can’t just be like: Point your boat downstream. For me, at 13 to 19, I was so insecure. I feel like so many people tell you: These are the years of your life! And I’m like: Really?! Is high school and middle school going to be the years of my life? And then you feel this pressure and you don’t really fit in. Your thoughts are racing; you have crazy hormones. So just hang in with what you really love—just hang in there. When I was a teenager, I felt like I should be more like everyone else. But in the long run, it’s the things that are not like everybody else that are going to serve you. So don’t be embarrassed about those things that embarrass you. I also think that the skills of just working and showing up and caring about the people you work with and the work you do is the foundation of any dream. If you want to be a writer or ballerina or soccer player, you just have to keep showing up and don’t let anyone stop you. I love the Maya Angelou quote “When I knew better, I did better.” You just want to beat yourself up for all the stuff, but you couldn’t have done it any better. Also, take care of your teeth. If you’re going to work for yourself, start flossing. It’s really worth it. Get yourself a therapist and a good dentist.
WSWD: So to recap: Follow your dreams, floss, and get a good therapist?
Bonnema: Yes. And celebrate friends’ accomplishments. I really do believe a rising tide lifts all boats. And who wants to live in a world where we can’t be excited for each other?
[Editor’s note: A day after we spoke, Bonnema emailed with more thoughts on this. She wrote: “Sometimes when I am afraid to do something and thinking, I don’t look like other people who are doing that or I’m not what ‘they’ are looking for, I think how mortified and upset I would be if a young girl was told that and how I want young women to never think that way, so I just have to push through the fear. I want to be an example of someone who does not prescribe to the limits that have been set for women historically.”]