Jen Kirkman is a hard-working presence in the contemporary comedy scene. The Massachusetts-born comedian and writer has a resume that includes years spent writing and making panel appearances on Chelsea Lately, voicing a character on cult classic Home Movies. She’s written two books and starred in two Netflix specials, the first of which is available via Rooftop Comedy on Bandcamp. Kirkman’s standup is exceptional—her timing is great, her style is conversational, and her Massachusetts roots add a blunt bristliness that keeps audiences on their toes. She draws her material from whatever happens to be orbiting her life—street harassment, experimenting with meditation, or society’s expectations of independent women. She took time out of her presumably busy day to talk about her newest special, the benefits of nonstop touring and her one-person podcast, I Seem Fun.
Having seen both specials recently, it was very easy to see a big change between them…
Huge. I like the second one (Just Keep Livin’) a lot better. Y’know, I had about two years of touring between the two specials. I did about 200 shows, so my natural presence is different. The first special—a lot of the jokes were not current. I was already on tour while I was taping the first special, doing material that either never was seen again or became Just Keep Livin’. But I was already over [the material] when I taped the first special. I was giving everyone my greatest hits to date, as a kind of, ‘Hello, I am introducing myself to the world.’ This one is exactly where I’m at now. I even regret I didn’t tour more before the [taping], but it was just time to do another one. Also, I think the second one is less about my personal life. I mean, if I’m going to talk about street harassment or meditation, I’m going to talk about my experience with it, but it’s not like talking about my love life or kids or whatever. So I enjoyed Just Keep Livin’ more because—not that I was overly personal before, but because most people don’t get up onstage and tell people their thoughts about their divorce, it seemed really personal to people. I have no regrets, I didn’t step over any boundaries, but it turned into a year of doing press talking about my personal life and I was like ‘Oh, this is so boring!’ and talking about stuff that happened four or five years ago. It’s not even me anymore. No, I don’t have some hatred of marriage. No, I’m not anti-kid. But now, I can talk about whatever topics are in my special and I don’t have to be a spokesperson.
For Just Keep Livin’, you were keeping it personal in terms of your perspective, but you weren’t self-cannibalizing. I think there can be an expectation of comedians to share trauma onstage.
I was on tour for two years. I didn’t have much of a life. I mean, some of the things that happened, I put in my book, because they were better as stories than jokes, or because they involved other people. There’s a fine line between, ‘Oh, this person’s an idiot,’ and making it funny onstage, and writing it out… and it not being ‘ha-ha’ funny stuff. [But] there wasn’t much going on other than just noticing the world around me.
What is the distinction between working out your jokes and sitting in front of your desk, writing a book?
Honestly, writing is something anyone can do. I can’t just go do comedy—I need an audience; so in that sense, writing is actually quote-unquote easier. I’ve been writing all my life. I’ve written short stories. When I was in college, I was writing personal essays and stuff like that. I was always trying to get a book deal, so writing was a discipline I already had. It’s nice to have both. You get to go onstage, and then you get to go home and write. I don’t actually like driving around and doing spots. They’re both so different; it’s like comparing a dentist and a brain surgeon. Neither one influence the other, and I don’t think about one when I’m doing the other. Except that I might have a joke from my act that makes a nice button for a chapter, but a lot of the time I’ll do that and go ‘That doesn’t work in a book.’ It’s interesting how funny on the page and funny on the stage are really two different things, and it’s almost offensive when you read a book by a comedian and you see one of their jokes on the page. I try not to do that. There’s a little more freedom in a book, because you don’t have to control someone’s reaction. Like, I can control people when I’m onstage. I have to make them laugh. If someone’s reading my book… I don’t have to do anything besides make them turn the page. So I don’t have to craft things a certain way to create a physical reaction. I can just hope to elicit an emotion. I don’t need to hear from my book ‘I laughed out loud.’ I don’t really care if they laugh.
A book is more about just sustaining interest.
Yeah—and I’ll write a whole chapter and be like ‘That’s so boring, I can’t believe I just wrote that’. There are chapters I didn’t use that were so boring people would have to take their own lives, just for some excitement.
Your podcast I Seem Fun is a solo podcast—it’s just you. What are some challenges with that format?
There are zero challenges, because I’m a loner and I don’t like other people’s input in what I do. So my podcast is totally my freedom, and I started it because I was doing so many things publicly that weren’t necessarily what I do, like appearing on Drunk History or Chelsea Lately. I’m not a drunk, and I’m not someone who necessarily likes to make jokes about celebrities. And a lot of people were going to my shows that wound up liking my material, but didn’t wind up knowing me going in. So this was a way for people to get to know me, and I purposely wanted it to be a solo podcast. Of course, I’d already heard Bill Burr’s, it’s not like I made up that concept, but it’s really easy for me. I can talk for an hour—I never shut up, and my mind’s always racing. So yeah, I don’t care if it’s funny, I just want it to be honest and have people feel less alone. The thought of doing it with a friend and they’re like ‘What’s your schedule?’ or interviewing people. I do a few episodes where I interview people, but just the thought of having to do something once a week with someone… ugh. I work way better alone on most things. There’s a lot of stuff I don’t work alone on, like writing gigs and stuff, but that’s plenty for me. The more stuff I can work on alone, the better for me.
Do you think that’s why you enjoyed two years of touring? It can be a solitary venture.
It’s not so much that I want to be by myself—it’s that I want to be by myself onstage. I like to be in total control of the comedy that I’m putting out there. I don’t do well with network notes. I don’t do well with sharing the stage. I don’t do well with input from others. Touring was great after working on Chelsea Lately for six years, and in between that I wrote on a sitcom for a year, so I had a sit-down writer’s room job with only two weeks of vacation a year from 2008 to 2014. Both jobs were amazing and I loved them and I would do them again in a second, but it is after all driving your car to a lot, getting inside, staying inside all day, sitting on your butts and writing. It’s the same kind of office job as anybody else. You’ve got the boss—and I’m not talking about the stars of the show—you’ve got other bosses you think are dumb that are making you do stuff, you’re working all day, there’s too much food in the kitchen, you’re overeating… you’re an office drone. People are like ‘It must be so much fun’ – I mean it’s more fun for us than probably being a banker, but we’re not having fun. We’re not like ‘Whooo!’ For me, if I sit behind a desk for more than a second, I want to kill myself. I wanted to physically walk more than 500 steps a day. I wanted to get out there. For my soul, I was so happy I was touring for two years. Every day was different, I was going to festivals in different countries and meeting new people and other comedians all the time. Seeing the world is such a stark difference from sitting behind a desk. I think I would’ve lost my mind if I hadn’t done that.
Do you believe in social media breaks? I read recently you stopped using Facebook.
I didn’t really get off of it, because I have a Facebook fan page, and in order to have that you need a personal page. But I just started a new page with a fake name, and I just have like 20 people on it. I don’t look at either. I don’t look at the comments on my fan page. I post and run away. I get very annoyed when I post where I’m touring and people ask ‘What about this city?’ If you click the fucking link, you’ll find out where I’m going! I’m so dramatic, I look at that and I’m just like ‘Oh God, my life is so hard…’
You’re as annoyed by general stupidity as you are sexism or racism.
I would rather someone call me a dumb c*nt who should be in the kitchen than someone say ‘When are you playing San Francisco’ right after I play San Francisco! Go to my website! It makes me crazy. I mean, I really wish I cared about important things—and I do—but I don’t get this passionate about it.
I heard you say that you have no time for fans that are rude anymore—that it means they’re not actually fans.
Oh yeah, you gotta weed out all the people who expect something from you. There’s a lot of people that think I’m that girl from Drunk History that’s gonna get wasted. And they come to shows, get drunk and scream out ‘I love you!’ That’s good, you love me, but if you really loved me, you’d shut the fuck up and not be drunk at my shows. Imagine you had a girlfriend or boyfriend who always said ‘I love you,’ but they were also getting drunk and pushing you?’ Show me the love with your actions. I’ll kick them out, I don’t give a fuck. I’m trying to cultivate an audience. It’s not a free for all. I feel like a lot of us comedians are getting people who are going to comedy shows for the first time, and we have to train them. It’s not a party, and the people that are making it a party are fucking it up for the rest of us, who are trying to do a show.
So you‘ve never done shots onstage?
I did one shot in my life. I was 21 and I did a goldschlager shot, and I threw up and I locked myself out of the house in my pajamas in the winter in Boston, and I’ve never done a shot since. If you’ve ever seen the Rush documentary—I’m Rush. I am boring and I have a little wine with dinner, and I’m reading silently after. They have a private jet and I don’t, but that would be me—reading silently on the private jet. I’m bo-ring. No one should want to party with me, because they’re not gonna get a party. There’s no party!