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Amber Nelson
Photograph: Mindy Tucker. Illustration: Bryan Mayes

One to watch: Stand-up and sketch comic Amber Nelson

Multitalented comic Amber Nelson brings a singular style to her performances, revealing her own strange passions along the way


Winsome Southern belle Amber Nelson wears a diverse collection of hats: originative sketch writer, canny impressionist and luminous stand-up; her most distinguishing qualities as a performer, though, are her signature brass and pluck. Take a bit of her stand-up, in which she recounts abusing her mother’s good candles as a child until they broke and were rendered useless at Thanksgiving. She plays at didacticism: “If you’re a parent, realize that your kid is masturbating, and they’re doing it so hard, they’re breaking your shit.”

For their part, sketches highlight Nelson's ability to hijack the stage with a bold physicality and arresting mien. “Amber vs. Salad,” from Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre team the Prom, has her character explaining to a date she’s not comfortable eating salad in public because she inevitably makes a mess. When he avers that he likes a woman with an appetite, she ravages a head of lettuce, a cucumber and a tomato amid guttural squawking, strewing vegetable detritus everywhere. “You must think I’m a graceless monster,” she tells her date.

“There is a deep weirdness to Amber that she brings to every role. Even her straight characters seem to be damaged in some deep way,” says Colbert Report writer Eric Drysdale, who taught Nelson at the UCBT. “Despite her eccentric personal story, Amber herself is oddly normal and always in total control as a performer. She was just starting out when I worked with her, but she had [a professional’s] openness, work ethic and willingness to experiment.”

Nelson, 29, was a globe-trotting youth, raised in localities from Louisiana and Georgia to Saudi Arabia. Though she moved to New York in 2006 to pursue musical theater, she ultimately deemed comedy a better fit, making her own trifecta in sketch, improv and stand-up. She has since hit her stride, cohosting variety program the Dream Show at Comedy Bar NYC, regularly performing stand-up and even appearing on Comedy Central’s Mash Up.

Versatile though she may be, the most striking element of Nelson’s repertoire is her antic impressions. Leaving other comedians their pick of pop culture icons and public figures, she creates singularly unique impersonations by skewing familiar social archetypes. (Her takeoffs include A Selfish Person Singing “Happy Birthday” and A Guidance Counselor Going Through a Breakdown.) A character Nelson identifies as Supercool Teen Amber Smelson explains that she’s seen the world despite her lack of years; then, in a wild juxtaposition, Nelson performs as a hardened road comic doing “angsty stand-up.” Hissing and clawing at the laughing crowd and labeling them “sheep,” she laments her windowless apartment and missing love life. In this delightfully peculiar routine, Nelson connects a young comic’s projected future to an embittered veteran’s regret. Add this poignancy to her rarefied talent and compulsion, and a fruitful career seems all but a given.

Amber Nelson plays Comedy as a Second Language Thu 4.

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