by Maria Serra
Comedian and writer Amber Rollo is known in the NYC comedy scene for her signature blonde space buns and her quirky fluorescent patterned outfits that boldly stand-out in the spotlight and against the black mic stand. She tells jokes about dark subjects such as the death of her parents and her sexual assault experience. Audiences roar with laughter because of the stark contrast between what they saw and heard. In October 2019, she took the night off from performing to be part of the audience. Rollo headed out to Actor’s Hour at Downtime Bar in the East Village to support her friend and fellow comedian Kelly Backman. She thought it would be just like most comedy shows. Her comic friends would kill their sets and they would have a great night together. Then, unlike any show, Rollo saw convicted rapist and abuser Harvey Weinstein sitting silently in the audience, with a woman on either side of him. What happened next would shape Rollo’s career forever.
“I was shocked to see him out, but not because I thought he would have shame, he is a sociopath and clearly has no shame,” she shared in a tweet. “I'm shocked because he was invited to an event put on by and for artists.”
When Bachman hit the stage, she used her set to say, “I’m a comic, and it’s our job to name the elephant in the room. Do we know what that is?” She continued, “Yeah, it’s a ‘Freddy Kreuger’ in the room, if you will. I didn’t know that we’d have to bring our own Mace and rape whistles to Actor’s Hour.” She was booed by the men in the room but was cheered on by the women in the audience for addressing the situation.
Performer Zoe Stuckless also called out Weinstein at the event during intermission. “I’m gonna stand four feet from a fucking rapist and nobody’s gonna say anything?” they cried as they were forced to leave the room, while the sexual predator in front of them remained seated.
Though Rollo’s confrontation is not in a viral video, she recalls the incident in her widely circulated Twitter thread where she fired back at Weinstein, too.
She tweeted, “Then I went in and called him a fucking monster and told him he should disappear. His friend/body guard/goon/family member called me a c*nt and I really really wanted to lunge over the table and strangle him.”
In a response following the confrontations, Weinstein’s management team released a statement calling Rollo “downright rude.”
“You know what’s rude? Rape. GTFOH,” she responded.
After the incident, Rollo was asked to appear on news channels across the nation, including Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, and is still recognized in the streets as “the girl who tweeted about Harvey Weinstein.” She amassed hundreds of new social media followers and became recognized for her feminist comedy style. In less than a year, she went from underground comedy scenes to being a nationally loved comic and fierce protector of sexual assault survivors, even in the age of COVID with no live audiences.
Now, almost a year has passed since the famous incident. This past summer was newsworthy for the comedy industry, meaning Rollo had activism to do. Several comedians and entertainers were exposed as being predators within the past five months. Chris D’Elia, Bryan Callen and Jeff Ross are just a few of many accused of inappropriate and criminal behavior.
Women in comedy were not surprised by these accounts. Rollo described how it is “the norm” for men at comedy shows to make overtly sexual comments from the stage to women sitting down, to constantly harass female comics on social media and to follow them home after the comedy club doors are locked.
She sees these as “barriers” to women and other marginalized voices in comedy. That’s why she is rarely hesitant to call out toxic behaviors in the scene, and why she was not afraid to confront Weinstein last year.
“The main reason I do end up calling out predators is because I worry that comedy is not going to be accessible to women at the level it is to men– because women are afraid to go out and do things like open mics,” she said with a sigh.
After gaining traction on social media, she began to realize just how negative some Twitter users could be. She was trolled and blasted with negative messages, including death threats.
“I had to get off Twitter for a little bit and take a break,” she said after a long pause. “I understand why comedians don’t want to bear the brunt of it, which is why women will write me anonymously.”
Since Rollo’s viral fame and openness about being a sexual assault survivor in her jokes, many women have come directly to her Twitter DM's to share their stories of abuse, harassment and more. Some women are comedians, others work in comedy clubs and a few are simply fans. All are seeking understanding.
“I feel a lot of responsibility to help women in the comedy scene, but I’m also struggling,” she said looking off into the distance, recalling tough conversations. “I want to help people and I’m very empathetic, but I always need to balance it, so I take breaks.”
NYC-based comedian, writer, producer and sexual assault survivor Kelsey Caine is also a friend of Rollo’s who discusses assault and predatory comedians in the industry on social media and in her set. In fact, she even grew her career by performing a parody of Louis C.K. following his sexual misconduct allegations. Like Rollo, Caine often receives DM's from Twitter users about these subjects.
“There are so few places that people feel comfortable talking about sexual assault. So when you do it, it makes other people feel like they can as well. And talking about sexual assault is one of the best ways to understand sexual assault,” she said. “Many people who have been assaulted don’t really understand what happened to them until they have another person’s experience to relate to contextualized as sexual assault.”
This is why both Rollo’s and Caine’s activism is so important to the comedy community.
As a way to help her own community stay safe as well as share their art, it’s important for Rollo that she breaks the mold of predominantly white male lineups. Not only does she give platforms to diverse voices, but she also serves diverse audiences, too.
“My shows are usually attended by a very diverse audience and that’s the beauty of showcases. You get to hear a lot of different types of voices. If one comedian doesn’t speak to you, doesn’t tickle you, doesn’t make you laugh, then eight minutes later, a new comedian will be onstage and you will,” she said brightly.
Of course, comedy has shifted immensely for women who perform, as live entertainment completely halted when quarantine was first instituted. Though it may be safer for comics, crowd reactions are not the same.
As someone who has performed stand-up for a decade, this felt like a missing limb for Rollo.
“I miss connecting with the audience the most,” she said.
However, Rollo has found a silver lining in virtual comedy that few other comics have: you can make fun of audience members’ homes.
“I think the people who do best at Zoom comedy shows are the people who take advantage of the format and take advantage of the fact that you are literally in peoples’ living rooms with them. It’s a very intimate moment and it’s a fun time for audience interaction and crowd work and calling out their handle or what type of couch they’re sitting on,” she joked.
Just like a show at a club, Rollo gets ready in the mirror by carefully patting down her blonde bangs, making sure they’re perfectly coiffed. Rather than hopping on the subway to travel to a venue, she just has to sit down, put on her headphones and hit the Zoom link. Even while performing on the web, she still gets nervous every time it’s her turn to share her jokes.
Beyond navigating virtual comedy, another new venture happened for Rollo when lockdown hit. She was forced to isolate with her ex-fiancé.
They had only broken up two weeks prior and she had no time to move out. In order to make the time go faster, she asked, “Why don't we make a podcast?”
Enter The Next Binge Thing, a series where Amber and ex-fiancé Gabe Pacheco binge entire series and discuss them at length. It wasn’t just about episodes of Tiger King and Waco, however.
“Really, it was a podcast about what we were going through and we used the TV shows to talk about our experience with COVID and quarantine and living with our ex,” she shared.
As one could imagine, doing creative projects with an ex has its peaks and valleys. After all, once the podcast ended, they only had a thin paper curtain dividing their railroad-style apartment.
“It was awkward at times. There were times when we were clearly not getting along and we had to record a podcast and you could feel it,” she said. “Then, there were times when it was very cathartic and definitely it helped give me closure for that relationship.”
Pacheco noted how he and Rollo used the podcast as a platform to process history as it happened.
The two witnessed how the toilet paper shortage took over the city, how Black Lives Matter protests unfolded and how New Yorkers banged pots and pans together at 7 p.m. every day on their balconies to thank essential workers at their shift change.
“It’s a cool document of the moment, and I’m glad I’ll get to revisit it in the years to come. Maybe when Ken Burns’ grandkids make an eight-part documentary about the pandemic of 2020, they can sample video footage from our podcast,” he joked.
Similarly to Rollo, he believes this podcast helped establish a platonic relationship.
“It was cool to gently, consciously uncouple over a few months,” Pacheco said. “And I think, long term, it will make a lasting friendship outside of our romantic entanglement possible.”
Fortunately, Rollo has gotten out of Pacheco’s apartment and is in a new place. The Next Binge Thing wrapped in September.
In their final episode, they exchanged bittersweet goodbyes and wished each other well. Pacheco thanked her on the podcast and even admitted, “I was just willing to grow out my facial hair and lie down on the carpet and not really worry about being productive or creative, and you pushed me.”
The two remain friends today. “But not best friends, that’s weird,” she chuckled.
“Now I’m onto something new, but I don’t know what yet,” she said hesitantly. “I’m sort of in a cocoon phase waiting to come out and see what’s next.”
As of now, she has been enjoying her time on Zoom comedy nights and is even co-hosting a recurring internet show with Judah Friedlander, a comedian and character actor well-known for his role as Frank Rossitano on NBC sitcom 30 Rock. She always starts off the show engaging the crowd through the screen and now has Zoom show regulars in the audience, some even tune in from countries like Japan. You can find upcoming shows here.
With secret podcasts in the works, Zoom shows in preparation and unofficial Twitter therapy sessions always taking place, she will still be busy despite not having her path set in stone.
Even though the year has been a whirlwind in a myriad of ways for Rollo, she knows that comedy is always her safe haven. “I’m laughing as it’s all going on,” she said.