Idaho comedian Emma Arnold used to loathe the photo that now graces the cover of her third comedy album, Abortion. Abortion. Abortion. Growing up in a working-class home, there wasn’t much money left over when senior picture time rolled around, so her mother took her to a boudoir-style studio in the mall called Headshots running a free-senior-photo-with-every-makeover deal. The woman in charge backcombed Arnold’s hair to the heavens and covered her in makeup, but the then-17-year-old was too shy to admit she wasn’t a fan of the look. After all, it was 1998. Big hair was firmly out of fashion.
“I look so much older in that picture,” the comedian recalls. “I don’t look seventeen. When we got the pictures back I hated them. And I told my mom, don’t buy these, I don’t want these, I just won’t have a senior picture.”
While Arnold had hoped the photo would die a quiet death, her mother thought she looked beautiful and had it sent in to the yearbook. Despite finding the picture embarrassing for years, she has now grown to love the headshot so much that she selected it for the album cover.
“It’s such an honest picture and I look so sassy in it. I look so 17, and just full of it, and I kind of fell in love with it. We decided to use it just ‘cuz I thought it would be very funny but also I thought it paired well with the album title,” reflects the co-founder and artistic director of the 208 Comedyfest.
Arnold says she mostly chose that title to normalize the word “abortion” itself. In fact, she started volunteering at Planned Parenthood as a teenager, around the time of that headshot. It’s a topic she’s still passionate about, especially as reproductive rights are increasingly at risk in the United States.
“What needs to happen is that we need to start treating women like we’re capable of making our own decisions,” she tells me. “I feel like the legislation of women’s reproductive rights is so infantilizing.”
Of course, being from Salmon, Idaho, Arnold has long felt like a “blue speck in a red sea,” but navigating those waters has aided her as a comedian. There’s a joke in the Boise-recorded Abortion. Abortion. Abortion. about Donald Trump; when it doesn’t get the unanimously positive reaction it would in a more liberal city, she acknowledges that the town draws a mixed crowd.
“Even if people disrespect you politically, if you go in planting your flag, they still respect that,” she says. Indeed, Arnold, who also serves as the co-director of Comedyfort, engages with the audience quickly in her new album. She is downright hilarious, and even during the segments that you can tell make some of the purple audience a bit uneasy (there’s an “abortion or cancer” bit that comes to mind), they are sitting up in their seats and paying attention. Having worked the Tribble Runs as an up-and-coming comic—“places where they won’t turn the TV off and people are mad that you’re doing comedy, or like really small casinos or people are just trying to eat some shrimp and you’re standing four feet away from them”—Arnold’s been through worse. The mother of three considers a heterogeneous crowd a challenge of sorts, hoping that they’ll first grow to like her, and then each other, and afterwards go home questioning their preconceived notions.
Arnold first got her start in Boise’s small but burgeoning comedy scene when a friend pushed her to move into stand-up after she’d done storytelling shows.
“He kind of dared me to try it, and that’s a good way to get me do to anything, honestly,” she recalls. “And at the same time, I happened to be going through this very messy, very sad divorce. I was a stay-at-home mom, I had three little boys, I had no education, no skills, no experience. And I got into comedy and the first time I did it I was like, ‘Oh, you were built for this. This is what you were made for.’ ”
She dove into the scene head-first, both out of love for the craft and to stay financially afloat, she notes. “Of course, you know, poverty is a very good motivator because when you have three little kids you’re not goofing around at the open mics. I was like, I have to have a feature set now so that I can go on the road. I wrote really, really fast and hit the ground kind of running.”
One of her other gigs around this time, which Arnold briefly touches on in the album, was as an author of erotica. While she’s pulled most of the material since entering the comedy world, Arnold told me that for a period of time she was “pumping out” (you can see her natural talent) lucrative BDSM novels. I had to know more—primarily about the different monikers she used for genitalia.
“On my desk I had a list of euphemisms for penis and vagina, and I would just kind of go down the list because it’s very easy to get fixated when you’re writing erotica on making sure you’re using a different word every time, when really cock and pussy are what people want,” she explains. Arnold told me that she did use some of the more outlandish terms, too, though, throwing in the occasional “turgid” or “member” or “hammer.” She doesn’t shy away from much, which is part of what makes her so damn funny.
Listening to her latest album, I found myself admiring her endearing audacity more and more. She riffs on topics including a sexual move she dubs the “frontsy backsy,” abortion, the dangers of trying on too-small clothes, and teratoma (don’t Google the latter until after you’ve eaten). The jokes, while often light-hearted, quickly delve into the intensely personal.
When asked how she decides what to keep private and what to include in her set, Arnold admits it’s not always easy. She describes it as a “tightrope walk” of sorts, one that she crosses with purpose on her new record. “That’s something I’ve really struggled with, because I do try to be deeply honest and authentic in what I talk about. And sometimes it takes telling a joke before I’m like, oh no, I don’t want to tell people that,” she admits.
“I had a joke I was doing for a while about being a sexual abuse survivor and it was deeply personal,” Arnold continues. “It always got a big laugh, but every time I would do it I would kind of feel like I wanted to die later. And then I kinda was just like, hey, you don’t have to do this joke. It’s okay for certain things to be too sharp or too painful to talk about.”
Arnold also knows the value in making herself vulnerable. Once, when she told that particular joke in Wisconsin, a “gigantic, like six foot five guy followed me to my car”—yes, alarm bells are sounding, but never fear.
“He came up and gave me this big hug and he was like, ‘I’m so sorry I scared you, but I’m a survivor also. I’ve never told anybody. I’ve never told my wife, never told my therapist, and just seeing you be so brave about it helped me realize I don’t have to be ashamed. I can be public’,” she says. “So then sometimes I’m torn because—I’m like, if you take these risks, then other people can, too. I try to balance that, and I try to balance being honest with being safe.”
Abortion. Abortion. Abortion will be released on March 22 through Blonde Medicine.
Clare Martin is an intern at Paste.