By Ryan Meehan
Jen Kirkman is a stand-up comedian and a New York Times Bestselling Author. Her first book, “I Can Barely Take Care of Myself (Tales of a Happy Life Without Kids)” hit shelves in April 2013. Her follow-up book “I Know What I’m Doing & Other Lies I Tell Myself (Dispatches From a Life Under Construction) was released on April 12th, 2016. Her Netflix Original Comedy Special, “I’m Gonna Die Alone (And I Feel Fine)” is now streaming worldwide on iTunes today and was named one of the top ten stand-up specials of 2015 by The Atlantic and Time Out New York. You’ve seen Jen on her regular appearances on Comedy Central’s @midnight. She’s done stand up on many late night shows: Conan, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, John Oliver’s New York Stand-Up Show, The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson and more. Jen was a long time writer and round table guest on Chelsea Lately. Kirkman is also well known for her roles as the narrator in many episodes of the Emmy Nominated TV series “Drunk History” on Comedy Central, and also voiced many characters on the Cartoon Network cult classic “Home Movies.” Jen has released two stand-up albums Hail to the Freaks (released March 2011) which hit #13 on the Billboard Charts. Her debut album was 2006’s “Self Help.” Her weekly podcast, “I Seem Fun: The Diary of Jen Kirkman”, is often in the top 100 in comedy on iTunes. Jen tours the world as a stand-up but lives in Los Angeles, and we are very lucky to have her as our guest today in 10 questions.
RM: I read an interview you did with Zoiks! Online last June where you mentioned that whenever you did the bit about the guy who should be killed because he didn’t know what a lime was the crowd loved it, and I know that one of your favorite comics to watch was Carlin…Other than George, Richard Pryor and Joan Rivers, who were some of the other comedians whose severity really stood out to you when you were first getting into comedy? Was the use of such statements in your own act something that really took time to work for you, or have you always pretty much just said whatever you felt from the get-go?
JK: Hey there. Actually this premise that those were the comedians who influenced me to get into comedy isn’t true. I said once in an interview that as a kid I saw George Carlin do an HBO special (I think it was HBO) and it was my first stand-up comedy I remember seeing. Again I could have seen others first, but that one comes to mind as the thing my friend Shauna and I quoted to one another. He was doing a bit about doing “closed mouth screaming” around the nuns at his Catholic school. I remember that the world was a tense place with lots of talk of nuclear war and it made an impact on me – “Hmm…There’s an adult being silly. That’s cool.” But I was probably 8 or 10. In no way did that become a conscious, linear career path lightbulb moment…I probably just went back to my room and played with Barbies after that. I love Richard Pryor now, I had no idea who he was growing up. Joan Rivers’ biography that I read in college was an influence – that had nothing to do with her comedy but everything to do with her work ethic around the constant rejection. I had seen a lot of rejection by the time I was 19 and reading her book – I was in a performing arts college and lost out on parts in plays, et cetera. Actually after everything else failed to seem plausible, becoming a dancer, a serious actress, I sort of reluctantly fell in love with comedy at the encouraging of friends who thought that my every day ranting while I had my nightly cigarette on the steps of my dormitory was funny. No, I had no idea that Denis Leary was or had already done that. I think lots of people smoke a cigarette and complain – so please don’t misconstrue that – I’m so sensitive about saying anything because my Wiki page is now full of incorrect info about my influences. I don’t know why people think that stand-up is so direct and linear when we are a bunch of wandering souls who sort of stumble on to stand-up. I’m not one of those Harvard people who went to college, worked at the Lampoon, knew how to get an agent and pursued some path. I had a life of going down the lazy river and doing what I wanted. I landed on stand-up. I could concoct 50 different narratives about how I got there. I did use to listen to Lenny Bruce records to fall asleep (now it’s podcasts) when I was a senior in college in 1992. My roommate Tim had all of his records and I borrowed some. I thought it seemed cool that he riffed and talked to the audience like they were smart people. But that doesn’t mean I am anything like him. I always say the same answer now in interviews. Listening to Howard Stern a few years before I started doing stand-up probably subconsciously influenced me to talk about my parents in my act and imitate their voices. And Morrissey’s lyrics of how depressing everything is – but seeming detached from it and totally surrendered to it is just my personal sense of humor whether I’m a comedian or an accountant. Otherwise, I have no idea what truly influenced me. I never found it that interesting to analyze or pertinent to anything I do now.
RM: Taking a look at the track titles on your latest record, I absolutely love the fact that you continue to address a life lived without children…Why do you think a large portion of society tends to lash out against people who have simply made a choice to not have kids by labeling them as “child-haters” or relaying the ever so popular “You’re not a parent, so you wouldn’t understand” mantra that all of us who don’t have offspring have grown so accustomed to hearing?
JK: It’s funny to me because – God those routines are years and years old but they live on – on my album and I just assumed things had changed. But it’s probably not true is it? It’s probably just that I’m 42 now and no one bothers to ask me if I am having kids and why or why not because I’m sure I can’t physically even get pregnant anymore. (Insert humor emoticon there) I don’t know. I think people give women crap about it because we have the hormones and machinery to make a baby and I think there’s an assumption based on knowing nothing about women’s emotions that all women have an urge to have a baby and it starts there. And if you haven’t had your urge yet perhaps it’s just late! And you must have a baby NOW just in case your urge shows up when you’re sixty and if your urge shows up when you’re sixty and you haven’t had a baby you’ll be miserable and old and your house will smell like moth balls. Men get the same crap because it usually means they haven’t “grown up” yet. I think that – if you want me to go full on jerk here – people are mostly boring and if there is one, big, biological, popular thing that everyone seems to be doing, people will do it without much thought and maybe somewhere deep inside they know that they never gave their own choices consideration and what’s easier – admitting that or just telling other people they can’t understand? Also, maybe some people are stupid. I equate people who have kids and then suddenly realize that their lives aren’t all about themselves sound just like the people who take acid once and go, “We’re all one in the Universe.” No, shit. I’ve always known that and I didn’t have to come down off of a trip or give birth to realize it. I think we have to just start being condescending right back to these people – the thing is – we’re too busy to bother.
RM: Did your experience writing comedy in a group setting on Chelsea Lately teach you anything about writing comedy alone and for the sake of your own projects? Do you ever run potential bits by other comics you are close friends with; and if so, who are some of the people you can trust to give you honest feedback?
JK: It sure did! It didn’t change the way I do my stand-up because that for me remains solitary and even if my friends give me funny tags for jokes, if I feel it’s not in my voice or it’s not the kind of laugh I want to get, I don’t use them. But now I realize that there are times – and for me it’s more when I’m writing scripts – that it is so much better if things can be a bit of a team effort, get help with punching up jokes, ask friends to critique your story-structure, etc. I used to have a hang up that it wasn’t really my work if I had help. At the end of the day – nobody watching gives a crap. They just want to be entertained.
RM: You had a tweet back on Friday, July 8th which read “I’m a grownup. I couldn’t give less of a fuck if you approve of what I do. I’m so sick of people I can’t believe are fans of mine on here.” How much of the attitude you see from people on Twitter after these shootings do you attribute to people actually being delusional enough to think they can change your mind on such a sensitive subject with a social networking post?
JK: Hey, I deleted that one! Now you’ve brought it back to life. No fair! That’s okay…I do mean it so I’ll own it. I don’t even think people are delusional enough to think that they can change my mind – I just think they aren’t smart enough to be nuanced. I’m not saying any more about this because I’m not in the mood to read death threats or things of that nature online when this comes out.
RM: Your new one-woman show is based off of you most recent book “I Know What I’m Doing” (And Other Lies I Tell Myself) and you just did a week’s worth of dates in the UK at the end of July…What were some of the struggles associated with condensing an entire book down into a single live show, especially considering that you were probably also finding new taglines and other material to add for the live set? When you began writing the book, did you do so assuming the likelihood of an eventual live adaptation?
JK: On the contrary – the tour and show title are the same as the book, but it’s not based on the book. It’s based on the theme of thinking I knew exactly how do to go about things at certain points in my life. This one woman show was more about my childhood, teen years and early twenties trying to figure life out. It is in no way a live adaption. It’s one hundred percent separate. I wouldn’t charge my audience to read a book and then do a live adaptation. Not that I couldn’t do a live adaptation of my book but I didn’t feel it was right. It’s hard enough to sell books as it is – I didn’t want to perform the book for people and then ask them to physically buy it after the show. When I was writing the book – as with any book – I’m just writing the book. It’s hard enough to sit down and write without plotting anything else. Once any book by a performer is completed it’s really easy to see how it could be the basis of a sitcom pitch, a movie script, a one-woman show so it’s not even something I would have to think about while writing the book. Because adapting a book for something else is its own beast anyway and the book would need taking apart, as the logic of scripts is different than the logic of narrative essays.
RM: What was the biggest difference between the way you approached “I Know What I’m Doing” and the manner in which you compiled stories for “I Can Barely Take Care of Myself”; and what’s the most significant improvement you’ve seen in yourself as a writer over that three year period?
JK: I didn’t mean to approach them differently and I can’t say that I did. I wrote both books while working other jobs – writing scripts, working on Chelsea Lately, touring, etc. so my literal approach was WRITE WHENEVER I CAN. Write first thing in the morning before a million things happen that day that I have to do. My editor, Sarah, who gave me my first book deal, had a much lighter edit the second time around with “I Know What I’m Doing…” I think one thing I learned was how to create some sense of suspense with essays. The key for me, is to write what I thought was going to happen, what actually happened and how those two differing thoughts impacted where I’m at now. And on the second book I didn’t have such a strict assignment to stick to one topic – like not wanting kids – so I probably had more fun writing the second book. I knew even if this sucks I’ve already written one that was successful and I can sit back and tell a bunch of different stories that I think are hilarious – even if they don’t go together.
RM: What percentage of your stand-up would you say is based off of political and social substance as opposed to stories involving your own life experiences?
JK: Zero percent is political. However, I’m a woman in the world and sometimes my experiences are about dealing with that – like a new bit I have about street harassment that will be on my next comedy special. It’s only about my personal experience with this one incident that turned out not to be street harassment and I don’t get into the issue overall – just very lightly as a way to explain the overall premise of the bit. Politics doesn’t travel well or keep well. It’s like traveling with probiotics. Hard to keep it fresh every single day without a writing staff. Okay, the writing staff part has nothing to do with probiotics.
RM: You’re a pretty outspoken advocate of feminism…What are the most common misconceptions regarding that movement as a whole; and what can be done to change those inaccuracies moving forward?
JK: I don’t think this is a question I can answer in this kind of funny interview – I mean, I’m a woman. Of course I’m a feminist. I have no idea what can be done to change inaccuracies or misconceptions. I sure as shit know that women have done all they can do – so maybe it’s time for men to step up and teach each other. There’s nothing I can say on this that sounds funny or that won’t again, invite harassment into the comments or my Twitter.
RM: Staying on the topic of feminism, one of the more repeated arguments from well-to-do white men who are trying to explain away the wage gap is that it exists because there aren’t a great deal of women in high-paying technical professions…When you hear counterpoints such as that one which ignore the fact that upper management in most Fortune 500 companies is predominantly male, what is your first response? If elected, do you think Hillary will be able to make serious progress in this area given the way she’s discussed the issue during her candidacy?
JK: It’s the same thing with the Black Lives Matter movement. People who understand it get it and people who don’t will not get what I’m about to say. So because I’m not the most articulate person in this area – knowing things and writing them in a comedy interview are two different things. I hope Hillary can make progress in this area but seeing as she can barely seem to get the nomination without people accusing her of being a murderer responsible for all of the wars ever, I don’t know. You’ve caught me on a particularly hopeless day.
RM: What’s up next for you in the remainder of 2016 and beyond? Anything big in the works that we should know about?
JK: I think just surviving as a comedian is pretty big to me – so that’s always the number one goal: Be a comedian. I have another comedy special I am taping (I am not allowed to say who it is with yet) – but I am taping that in 2016…and I’m always working on things but if I mention things that are in their infancy right now – in a year I’ll be answering interview questions about it. “So, how’s your TV show about candy coming along, Jen?” “What? Did I say that?” “Yes, back in July of 2016.” “Oh, I don’t know, I was just saying shit.”
Official Website: http://www.jenkirkman.com/
Order Jen’s Book: https://www.amazon.com/Know-What-Doing-Other-Myself/dp/1476770271
Link to Album on Rooftop Comedy via Shark Party Media: http://rooftopcomedy.bandcamp.com/album/im-gonna-die-alone-and-i-feel-fine
Link to album on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/im-gonna-die-alone-i-feel/id1125058934
Jen on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/JenKirkman/
Jen on Twitter: https://twitter.com/JenKirkman
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