Screw a desk job, Jen Kirkman can’t stop touring

Chad White

For a comedian that’s been working for nearly twenty years, it helps when they get the notoriety they deserve. The recognition, the money, the shows. All of it and more. But sometimes comedians aren’t as lauded as they should be. They grind their teeth on the aluminum that is small rooms in order to fill out Madison Square Gardens or to tour across Europe. After all the hard work, they only get a fraction of the attention that movie stars get.

Jen Kirkman is one of those comedians. She’s been doing as much work as possible to prove that she is better than her contemporaries no matter the gender. Kirkman has worked behind the scenes and in front of the camera to make shows that much funnier. Her work has culminated into three albums and she’s even branched out into books. I was honored to sit down with her to talk about her comedy, career path and how to win on Twitter.

How was London and Manchester?

Jen Kirkman: Fantastic! I’d never done Manchester before and that was great. But I loved it. I forgot I was in Europe. It was great. It was all the weird people that I would’ve been friends with in high school were there.

Did the Europeans find you as funny as the Americans do?

Kirkman: I think so. I go to London a lot; this was the second time I’d been this year. I go once a year. I gotta be honest, the Europeans and Australians buy more tickets for my stuff than the Americans do. They’re not as loud as laughers -- they have a different culture that way. I gotta tell you I could not do a seven night run somewhere – in Australia, I do fifteen to twenty-five night runs – and sell like I do in America. So America has some catching up to do.

You’re not even getting too much homeland support.

Kirkman: I am. People would probably kill for what I have. I’ve never gotten a tweet from a European or Australian like “I’m broke. I can’t come to your show.” I’m like “It’s in three months and it’s fifteen dollars.” Maybe you think I’m the old lady who’s out of touch but…This is going off the rails. I get a ton of support in America but I’m just saying if I do a 300 seat theater in America, I can do one night. Whereas I can seat a 150 seater in another country and do more than seven shows. Maybe because it’s more of a treat [to them] and people in America are like “Oh, she tours all the time.” I have a big fan base outside of America. If things ever get to a big level, it will happen because of support in other countries and not America. [laughs] It’s just a gut feeling I have.

Going back to the whole price thing, people put the weirdest prices on comedy, movies and TV shows. They’re like “I don’t want to spend $15 on somebody who’s for sure going to make me laugh" but then they’ll spend hundreds of dollars on an app that’ll put dog filters on their face.

Kirkman: [laughs] This is where I feel like the old lady who’s out of touch. I’m like “You’re so poor that you don’t have $15? It’s February but you already know in June that you won’t have $15?” “Yes, that’s how bad it is.” I don’t know. I wouldn’t even be on Twitter; I would be trying to get a job every second. IT just doesn’t make any sense to me. I do the same thing you do. Where are they spending it? Sometimes I’ve gotten into it with people and they’re like “I don’t buy ANYTHING!” And I’m like “Okay forget it.” Who knows? I don’t know. It’s weird to put [a price on things]. Especially with comedy – there’s plenty of comedians [who sell for] $15 (I try not to repeat prices more than once a year) – I don’t think $15 with no drink minimum is that unreasonable. Apparently, it’s tough out there. I’m in my ivory tower. I don’t know.

You took your time to get there. You’ve been hustling since forever. I remember when I was maybe in first grade and watching you on Home Movies

Kirkman: First grade?! What the fuck?! Wait. What!

[laughs] Yeah, I’m 23.

Kirkman: That’s how old I was when I was doing Home Movies. That’s so funny. It’s so hard for me to accept that when I hear an adult voice that they couldn’t be [so young]. I think everyone’s 40 too. What do you mean you were in first grade? That’s so funny. Oh yeah. That was one of my first gigs really. That was the first year of comedy for me.

When you did your two albums and [wrote] your two books, what was it like to write between the two albums and the books?

Kirkman: My first album came out in 2006 so there was no book yet. I didn’t get my book deal until 2011. I’d already done two albums by then. It really was just me living the life of a standup and then I was writing a book. I really wasn’t going in between; I kind of do everything at once really. It wasn’t that weird, if that makes sense. I’ve always been a writer as well but it just never happened [until] I got a book deal. It’s just kind of not anything to write home about. Just sort of time management: going on tour while writing a book, writing on a plane. I was also working on Chelsea Lately at the time so it was a lot of working seven days a week for almost a year. I had a slight freak out after but…I probably wouldn’t do that again.

How did you find writing for someone else like on Chelsea Lately versus writing for yourself during these sets?

Kirkman: I love writing for someone else. Once you get in the rhythm of someone else’s voice, it’s almost…it’s fun. It feels like a game. It comes to you easier. It seems like there would be more censorship because you’d be worried: “I hope they like it” and “They’re my boss” and “I don’t want to get fired.” But that’s where you tweak it before you hand it in to make sure it’s good. Just the thought, letting a thought come into your head and writing it down, there’s no censorship.

Whereas, if I’m writing for myself – not that I really write out my jokes but let’s just say I did – I’d probably just sit there and go “No, not that.” If I’m writing for someone else, I’ll just write it out to see what it looks like and then tweak it. I didn’t know how I was going to be able to write for someone else. It’s so clunky at first. Once you get into the writer’s room, it’s easy. You’re writing with a bunch of people. Every once in a while, she’d pick a joke that wasn’t totally in her voice but then you realize it is technically, literally, in her voice. Some jokes weren’t things she would normally say but they sounded alright coming out of her. It does get easy. It’s actually, I think, easier than writing for yourself sometimes. It was a really good thing to do. I felt creative all day but I wasn’t spent. Then I would be able to focus on me.

After Chelsea [Lately], or during Chelsea [Lately], you’ve proven yourself to be a really good performer – [especially] off stage. You did five Drunk Historys and you’ve been on @midnight for like 12 episodes. It seems to come natural to you.

Kirkman: I’ve always been a standup and it’s always been the goal. But I had to take a writing job. For me, I don’t know how you get road gigs if you’re living in LA and no one knows you. I didn’t want to do the thing where you do a one nighter on the road and you get paid $50. I was kind of neurotic and afraid of traveling by myself, which is insane because it’s all I do now. I just was trying to get writing jobs. And I’ve always been a performer; I went to college for acting and stuff. But it’s nothing. You know, it’s just ten years of auditioning and pounding the pavement. I was on the show Acceptable.TV. I always did stuff here and there but those examples are not “I chose to do that.” Those were the only things that came through out of hundreds of rejections. Then getting the job writing on Chelsea [Lately] was the thing that got me a standup audience…because I was appearing on the show. [laughs] People weren’t like “I heard she’s a writer, [let’s go see her]!” From appearing on the show, all the comics a road following.

That’s what was cool. I was touring while I was on that show. Then it started to [become] “I’m really falling in love with touring and we can’t take that much time off of work.” Chelsea Lately is what gave me the road career but now it’s hindering the road career. It was kind of a relief when she decided to end the show because I was dying to get out there. Writing on a TV show is great but for the performer type of person, like me, I’m still at a desk forty hours a week starting the day in a conference room with bosses. It’s very corporate even though it’s a little more ridiculous than your average corporate office. I was like “I can’t sit behind a desk anymore; I have to get out there!” And so I haven’t stopped touring since. It’s been exactly two years. When you tour that much, you become better too.

What was it like when you were first getting paid for starting standup? Was it this feeling of “I can actually do this because I’m a kickass comedian?”

Kirkman: No I stopped thinking I was a kickass [early on]. I thought I was amazing when I first started. My first year I’m like “I’m so good it’s amazing.” [laughs] Everyone is super cocky that way. As I try to find myself and try different things and fail at other things and reinvent myself again, I’m never sure of myself.  I’m sure of myself. I know I’m a competent, good comic. But that doesn’t mean what I do is what anyone in the country wants to see. It’s kind of like I don’t have that blind confidence. It’s “I’ve been in this industry for 20 years and I’m very confident.” I have that. But I’m not a dick; I’m not full of ego. When I started getting paid for it, I was like “What?! I can’t believe it!” You would think that after ten years of not getting paid for it, you’d feel like “Yeah, no shit. I deserve this.” But it doesn’t. Now, of course, I’d like to get paid more for it. I’d like to get paid so much that it seems immoral. I would like to do one show and get about six figures for it.

[both laugh]

Kirkman: It’s one of those things where I’m not saying I’m that good. I’m saying I’ve worked that long for free that I think I’ve earned doing one gig and getting a hundred grand. [laughs]

If Kevin Hart can do it, you can do it.

Kirkman: You know what I need to do? I need to do Kevin Hart’s act. Why didn’t I think of this?

That’s the easiest way!

Kirkman: It’s brilliant. And no one will know because I’ll bill myself as Jen Kirkman. But I’ll do his act and then word will spread how good I am. There we go. I’m glad I figured it out with you.

I’ve been following you on Twitter for a while and you’re very polarizing on that platform –

Kirkman: I am not! No one ever asks dudes about this! I don’t think I’m polarizing at all. I’m just fucking with people.

[laughs] Either people really like you and support you or someone is a complete asshole and you call them out on it. They [become] afraid and delete the tweet.

Kirkman: I think the people that follow me like me and most are indifferent. When you think about it, so many people follow me, I hear from the same ten over and over. I’m like “Is anyone else paying attention? Have everyone muted me?” When I tweet about things that people don’t like, it’s usually the Bernie Sanders people – I love Bernie but I’m talking about the psychos that think I don’t know what at this point… “Hilary killed someone” or something. They search his name. They don’t even follow me. And then they just write crazy stuff. Those people, sure. This is really funny actually, I wrote a tweet a few years ago. It was an anti-war tweet. I’m not saying I’m brilliant, “Oh Lenny Bruce is in the house.” You know when people write in all lowercase because it’s supposed to indicate I’m totally kidding?

Right.

Kirkman: I did that and I wrote “i think we should go to war in iran. we always go to war in iraq. let’s do something new and fun.” Obviously it’s a joke, not at the expense of the soldiers. At the time, Obama was deciding if we should go into Iran. I was making a “That’s how we treat war anyways. It’s a fun thing we do.” A bunch of millennials, – sorry, no offense to your generation – the idiot ones, found it and were like “you support Hilary” and “No wonder you’re in the war machine.” I was like “Why are hundreds of people retweeting a joke form 2015?” Someone had put it on Reddit. They were like “She’s disrespectful to the soldiers. She takes war lightly because she’s rich.” I’m like “I’m not rich,” again as I said I’d like to get paid more for my gigs. So I was like “What is happening?” It made me really pissed and I went off.

Then I deleted it. People look at your Twitter. I don’t ever want to not get a job because they’re like “She seems insane.” The thing that sucks about Twitter is that tone does not reach. If I’m on my couch laughing hysterically and I’m like “What idiots!” no one knows that that’s what I’m doing. It looks like I’m crying, screaming, angry, coming undone. That’s what I think sucks. I look at Andy Kindler, Michael Ian Black, Andy Richter – all my friends that go hard all day long on Twitter. They never get asked about it because, I think, people understand their tone. People ask me about it and I’m like “I’m just using Twitter like everyone else.” Why is that interesting? I don’t care. But I do delete it because I don’t think people can be trusted to understand tone. But they don’t even understand a joke form 2015. I think it’s fascinating; I love it. I like to use it as not-comedian-Jen but as human Jen. It’s where I go to talk about politics and stuff.

Follow Jen Kirman on Twitter. Check out her latest special I’m Gonna Die Alone (And I Feel Fine) on Netflix and buy the album here.