Comedians tend to only work on one or two projects at once. Some focus on television after landing a show; others try to sell that movie script they’ve been working on. And a select few are capable of channeling all of their waking energy into stand up.
Jen Kirkman is the (non-gender normative) queen (or other aristocratic leader) of the (comedy) stage. With every breath, she’s able to captivate the audience either and make them see what she sees. Institutionalized sexism? Catch 22’s for women? Verbal disgust of the terrible things that a certain sex does without consequence? It’s all there. These are all admittedly uncomfortable topics but that’s only because they’re not talked about often. As an added bonus, she makes the sick truth funny to watch. Kirkman and I recently chatted about her latest Netflix special, Just Keep Livin’?, to talk about her demeanor on stage and traveling through Europe alone.
Last time we spoke, you were just coming off of a British tour (of sorts) in London and Manchester. With this special finally out, are you getting back to writing more material?
Jen Kirkman: Sigh. No. It has been really hard to write more material. I only toured with what the Netflix special “Just Keep Livin’?” ended up being for under a year - normally I tour with an act longer and right now starting over is hard because I want to keep talking about the topics I already hit on with JKL. I have some work out nights in Los Angeles that I’m doing where I talk off of the top of my head to try to come up with new ideas. It’s just been hard because I’ve just been really busy watching America fall apart as a democracy.
You come out in full force in the special, which is a notable attribute. I’ve seen a lot of standups take their time to get to the jokes. Your first joke even revolves around you being high strung. I think that’s a pretty admirable quality -- to take hold immediately -- because so many people came to see you.
Kirkman: That bit used to be a closer because it’s a longer thing that really builds but I decided to open with it because it explains who I am, how I see things and where things go in my mind, and it’s a way of showing who I am. There are other bits I could have started with but a lot goes into deciding what to start with in a special. I wasn’t going to start with a bit about my period - because then people who haven’t bought into me yet will turn it off thinking, “I don’t want to watch some chick talk about her period.”
Or if I start with a bit about street harassment - again before I’ve let people get to know me - it can seem like it’s an all socio-political special. The mediation bit to me is a way to talk about a both relatable and not relatable thing and take people on the journey inside of my head. There’s no time to waste in getting to the jokes these days. People tune out after a minute if they’re not engaged and I’m not at an open mic so I’m not going to stand there shuffling my feet saying, “Um…what’s next” at the start of a special and any comic who does should have to give back all of they money they were handed. I know it sounds like I’m mad but I’m not - just very serious about not fucking around.
Watching this special and listening to everything else you’ve done, I noticed that you’re able to comfortably paint the picture of the story you’re telling. Of course, it gets better over time. But it’s a feat others seem to struggle with.
Kirkman: I don’t know if they struggle with it! You would have to ask them. I’m certainly not aware of anyone who is struggling in the sense that I judge other comics. I’m just really comfortable on stage - touring for a few years straight will do that to a person. It’s the whole 10,000 hours Malcolm Gladwell theory. If people don’t know what that is - just Google it. I won’t bore you. But you get the idea - the more time doing something, the more comfortable you get doing it.
Most comedians falter when they do their longer sets. You pull it off easily and probably have more stuff swimming around your head. But it’s 2017 and attention spans are incredibly short. When you post a Twitter joke or do a 10 to 15 minute set, do you find yourself tripping over what you can/have time to say?
Kirkman: I don’t really post jokes on Twitter that I would say in real life so that’s no problem and lately - the jokes I’m posting on Twitter are so stupid that if I said them out loud I hope people would just shut the lights off on me and turn off the microphone. I’m great with longer sets and I find that the attention span theory goes both ways. If you hook people right away they’ll stay. It doesn’t mean that they want shorter content. If you think about it - podcasts are huge now and usually it’s people just talking in really in-depth ways for an hour.
I don’t really trip up with much because in my twenty years as a comic I’ve had to become skilled at all of the different kinds of sets….but what I DO NOT LIKE doing - are the five minute stand-up sets on late night - I would rather have a funny conversation on the couch with the host. It’s hard for me to pick five minutes that I have fun doing - once I’ve ramped up to where I feel like I’m in the groove - it’s over.
You also have this tendency to, after leading the audience in with great personal anecdotes, follow it up with essential feminist truths. The story about you touring somewhere in Europe and your Italian guide being a dick in regards to your career and life as a comedian. Or, prior to that, your friends being worried because you’re boyfriend couldn’t come with you on a trip to London. Your frustration is immediately present in both situations.
Kirkman: Those bits were for sure cleverly disguised bits about what it’s like to be a woman in the world - very deliberate. Every woman’s experience with being a woman is obviously different - mine is clearly more privileged than most but there are essential truths to how people react to a woman alone and with comedy my job is to relate my story and make people laugh and ease them into the bigger picture, otherwise it’s a TED TALK about traveling alone. Not that I wouldn’t totally do that. But I would make it more about how to pack like an expert because I’m really, really good at packing.
You’ve been doing comedy for 20 years with the last few years really being a boon for your career. But there are, of course, a wide swath of younger comedians each trying to claw their way to your position. How are you staying above the fodder of a million other comedians?
Kirkman: I’m probably not! Plenty of younger people are way more wildly successful than I may ever be. I don’t think about it - I truly don’t. I’m just on my path and younger isn’t necessarily the enviable position to be in as a comic - I have my own place and no one can take that place away from me since I’m so me. They can overshadow me but it’s so stupid to worry about. I truly just don’t think about it. If I had nothing going on and couldn’t get stuff going for myself and had no career, I might be worried about younger people for sure. But I hope someone would remind me that there’s no right age to be in comedy.
I just learned of your “How to Interview a Comedian” post. Is it too late to start this over? I hope I didn’t fuck it up.
Kirkman: You did not fuck up! :)
Also, please don’t stop kicking ass on Twitter.
Kirkman: I won’t!