Chatting one-on-one with Jen Kirkman is a little bit like breaking into the Museum of Natural History after hours. It’s an act that manages to be both nerdy and rebellious, where one could simply wander unsupervised through the halls, soaking up every ounce of information while giggling openly over the placard that says “homo erectus.” That’s because Kirkman – author, podcaster, and most importantly, comedian – seems to always be the smartest, most astute kid in the class. It doesn’t hurt that she’s funny as hell.
Perhaps best known as a writer and round table panelist on the now defunct Chelsea Lately, Kirkman has been busy authoring a bestseller (2013’s I Can Barely Take Care of Myself), touring relentlessly as a stand-up, and, perhaps most stimulating of all, providing commentary on her podcast, I Seem Fun: The Diary of Jen Kirkman, that is so utterly sharp and on-point, you’d almost swear her words were made of arrowheads. Now poised to become one of the most relevant voices in modern comedy, Kirkman is about to achieve a major milestone: her first filmed hour-long stand-up special, which she films Jan. 31 in Austin. Taking a break between gigs in what must be a very full appointment book, Kirkman caught up with Laughspin to ruminate on the contrasting nature of geographically differing stand-up crowds, the new book at which she’s plugging away and all those cavemen Cosby apologists.
Let’s dive right in and talk about your special. Specifically, why did you pick Austin as the filming location?
I picked Austin – and no offense to Austin – but I don’t really have a relationship with this city, insofar as a favorite restaurant or family or friends here, but I really love that venue. I performed at the North Door back in 2013 on my book tour, and I came back there to do a podcast taping. I’ve noticed that there are a lot of podcast listeners in Austin, and that’s usually a sign to me that there are a lot of comedy fans here. It’s really all about the North Door: I just really love the way it’s set up, and the people that work there. They do really thoughtful things when someone comes in [to perform] from out of town: they make posters, they make drink specials with your name in them, they put flowers and candles in the green room which, to me, goes a long way.
But then the other thing about Austin and the North Door is that the audiences are just so good. They make noise for you, but they’re not rowdy drunk. (And I’m sure they’re drinking). They’re just really respectful comedy fans, and I feel like I just knew this was the place. During my podcast taping I even announced onstage that, hey, if I ever do a comedy special, I’m gonna do it here. The North Door kept following up, like, when’s that special?
Do you expect the, let’s say, ambiance you just described to come forth in this special? Was that another reason you picked the location, because you wanted to set that tone in this special individually?
No, but I do think the acoustics will be good, and the look of it will have an intimate feel. You know how you sometimes see those specials where it looks like a comedian is suddenly playing Carnegie Hall? Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but for my special, I wanted it to look like it was the kind of place I’d normally play. I’m sure the intimacy in terms of the space and audience-performer relationship will be there, but viewers might not get to see all the little touches I get to see. One thing I think is really cool, is that with the North Door, the backstage is actually upstairs, so when you come to get onstage, you have to walk down this set of stairs. So, whether the audience likes it or not, you’re taking your time with your introduction, and it makes for, well, not a dramatic entrance, but a nice entrance, certainly. It’s kind of my favorite part, and I made sure to let everyone at the North Door know how much I loved it and wanted to include it in the special.
Are you planning to walk in singing, like you do on your podcast?
[Laughs] Oh god, no. That’s definitely specific to the podcast. What a treat that must be, for everyone. I’m mostly planning to walk in as though I’m not embarrassed to be getting applause.
Do you think of your podcast persona and your stand-up persona as two different Jens, in a way?
Yeah, absolutely, because my podcast is literally me. And, well, my stand-up persona is me, but it’s crafted with punch lines, and I also talk about things that I have worked through. Sometimes, on my podcast, I might mention something that I have not worked through yet, emotionally. That aspect is different. A lot different. The podcast isn’t always funny, either. Just like in real life. My stand-up persona is, I would think, that I’m funny and I say everything in a certain way, and it gets laughs. Much different from the podcast.
What would you say is the theme of this special? How long have you been putting the material together? What does it cover?
I’ve been doing stand-up 17 years, so this will cover 17 years. I mean, there are two jokes I wrote when I first started that are funny, and I don’t know where they came from, but they’re pretty good, and sometimes I think they’re funnier than stuff I can write right now. So you’re going to see stuff from the beginning. There are a few things even from my albums, like my bit on masturbation, that have become longer, five-minute things, so that will be in it. And of course, there will be new stuff that has to do with, well, the fact that I just turned 40; being divorced; marriage (both other people’s and my own). I know the exact hour I’m going to do – it’s what I’ve been doing on the road the past two years. I’ve added a few jokes that have had tuneups recently. I think everyone’s first special is kind of their best, because it’s taken organically from over so many years. If I were to do another next year, I don’t think I could have the same… well, who knows, but it might feel less worked on.
Have you gone back and listened to your albums to prepare?
No, I don’t like having to listen to my past self. I don’t want to know anything about that performer. I don’t want to look, because there’s nothing I can learn except ‘don’t do that.’ [Laughs] I guess I just wasn’t myself yet, and I’m sure I’ll keep changing all the time, but I really wasn’t myself on those last two albums. I’m not saying that I was lying or anything; I just wasn’t the person I’ve become over the years. I’m not really a scholarly stand-up, per se: I just do what feels right.
Okay, okay! I think Joan Rivers would love it! She’s watching down from heaven! That kind of thing, there you go. No, I’m sure she would love it – I have it on good authority that she did think I was funny. I would hope that she would appreciate that the stuff I talk about is not that taboo anymore, thanks to her. Which she would never say, thanks to me. Oh wait, maybe she would actually. So yeah, I hope she would like it, but I refuse to speak for her.
I hesitate to use the phrase ‘carrying the torch,’ but do you feel a certain amount of responsibility, as an admittedly huge fan, to maintain the boundaries that she broke and the artistry that she represented?
No! No, no. Because honestly, the people that actually ARE carrying her torch are people like Kathy Griffin. I’m millions of miles away from [Joan]. I don’t feel a responsibility; I just do what I feel is funny, but that’s really any comedian’s responsibility. And I feel like that’s all she ever did, too. She just did what she thought was funny, and people would put it on her that what she was doing was controversial. Just like any comedian, she fought for what she thought was funny. I remember when Mike Myers was on Marc Maron’s podcast, and he said that it had to be “Bohemian Rhapsody” in Wayne’s World. He said, I just know that’s what’s funny. It’s going to be the funniest song for them to head-bang to; I’m telling you, it’s the right song. And after all this fighting, he turns out to be absolutely right.
So every comic is constantly fighting for what’s funny. Sometimes, you end up fighting for something that ends up being a cool story on a podcast later. It’s like, oh, I never would’ve thought the suits didn’t like “Bohemian Rhapsody”! Sometimes what you’re fighting for ends up being this bigger thing, that makes people say, oh, she broke down boundaries by talking about abortion, or whatever she talked about that seemed controversial back then. Nobody is ever consciously thinking that you’re doing anything of that sort. Most of the time, we’re always surprised, by either audiences or television executives or whoever, when they say ooh, you can’t do that, or you shouldn’t do that. I’m not looking to think of material that breaks any boundaries – I’m just looking to do what’s funny. I might just end up thinking farts are funny, and I might just end up talking about that for the rest of my life. No, actually: I promise I probably won’t do the fart thing.
But! It’s not just Joan. I can think of so many comics and so many examples, where the comic is right, and they know in their gut, but people push back on certain things, and you always have to push back further. I think of people like her, and I think, this happens to even the best people. But I never sit down and think, oh, I’m going to be the next Lenny Bruce with this.
You’re in the middle of writing a new book. Is this going to be a follow up to I Can Barely Take Care of Myself, or are you switching tracks entirely?
I actually don’t have a title yet; I have a working title, but it’ll probably change. When I was writing I Can Barely Take Care of Myself, my life was exploding and going crazy. I had quit a job, and I was going back to work at Chelsea Lately; I was starting to tour; I was getting a divorce, and my friendships were changing; I was dating again. I couldn’t believe that I was sitting here writing this book, that I’d already sold, about not wanting to have kids, when so many other things were going on. But that book had to be about that. So I kept notes, you know, while I was writing the first book, thinking on a second book deal. I was like, I want this book to do well so I can write this other book. [Laughs] I got the book deal about a year and a half ago, and I asked for a couple [deadline] extensions. I was like, I just need a few more things to happen and be experienced. This book is about getting married, and being at the altar and just knowing that it was so wrong; it’ll be about getting divorced, and turning 40; it’ll be about friendships changing, and choosing to rent instead of own, and how to just be a conventional adult. There will be some nods to the fact that I don’t have kids, but I don’t harp on it. I’m a little more vulnerable in this book, I feel like.
I don’t really care about the reception, but I do want people to relate. I get letters from people about things I’ve discussed on my podcast, where they say they can really relate to what I’m going through, so I hope it elicits that kind of response. Look, I’m not like Ernest Hemingway – I’m just a comedian who writes. I want it to sound like the voice of someone who is relatable and not boring.
Was there anything you learned in the process of writing the first book that you then applied to the process of writing this one?
Yeah, I did this cool thing – well, cool to me – where I took the chapter I was most excited to write, I wrote it first, and then I didn’t look at it again for a year. It’s the chapter I’m revising right now, and as it turns out, it’s broken down into six shorter chapters, so that’s what I’m working on for the next couple weeks. When you start out writing, and I’ve heard this from other writers, too, you start out in this “writerly” voice and it doesn’t necessarily feel like you. When I went back and looked at what I’d written, there were so many things that didn’t need to be there, it was like, just, no, get to the point. So I thought that was kind of cool; I accidentally did that last time, so I purposely did it again when I wrote this one. I’m also pacing myself a little better; I just took a two-month sabbatical to New York where I vowed to work on nothing but this, though I did work on stand-up, too. I also found that I was cutting a lot, that didn’t seem to have to do with anything.
Since you bring up New York, you’d mentioned on your podcast a few episodes ago that you were thinking of moving back. Is there something about the New York comedy scene that nourishes you as a comedian, apart from the LA scene?
If I do move it’ll take a year, because I have so much to do. So much traveling, and so much to figure out. I know I can’t move like when I was younger, where you just hop on a train or plane and say goodbye. Here’s what I know from having been there two months: I want to be really financially and in other ways assured before I move, because it’s not the kind of city to be comfy in. I’m way too comfy in LA. For me, I think a big part of feeling creative and stimulated is, you know, getting annoyed at the subway because you smell urine. And I don’t mean I would talk about that in my act – I just mean that things pop into my head easier when I’m in New York. You’re walking around, there’s real life happening, you might see something that reminds you of something; in LA, it’s like, I get in my car, I go to the parking garage, I drive around the Valley a bit. So yes, moving to New York is certainly a consideration, or at least maybe somewhere I’d like to end up. I’d love to be bicoastal, if I could swing it. And yes, I certainly think the comedy scene is way different in New York, because the crowds are like road crowds. I was performing at this one venue, three times a night, and throughout the course of the night, three different types of audiences would come in. People come out more in New York. New York also seems like it has more older comedians working a lot; in LA it seems like they’re younger. In New York, I think there’s just more grownups there.
Would you consider taking a day job, like you had with Chelsea Lately again, or do you plan to just be Jen Kirkman Enterprises, from here on out?
Well, my goal and my dream is just to be a stand-up, and to be an author, maybe with some TV work as a performer. My goal would be to doing clubs on the weekend, but also touring to 1,000-seat theaters and then having two months off. That’s the goal I’m working towards – it’ll happen in the next few years, I just know it. It can’t not happen; it has to, correct? The alternative is to move home to my parents’ basement, and it’s not even a finished basement. They just have a cellar.
But anyway, that’s the goal. I would take a writing job on TV, but I do not desire one. I’m really good at it, I know I can do it, and it’s great money. I’ll probably have to, but it’s not like ugh, woe is me. I’m just not someone who likes to sit at a desk all day; that’s kind of what I’ve realized. I like performing and being my own boss, and these writing jobs are so not about being your own boss.
Would you say that’s the biggest take away you’ve gotten from Chelsea Lately? That it wasn’t the lifestyle for you?
Hmm, no. That show was the lifestyle for me in one way, because I got to be on the show, too. But, you still had to be there writing five days a week. And, because Chelsea is a comedian, it means you’re constantly affiliated with another comedian. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it takes some time to disentangle. As a writing job, though, it really doesn’t get any better than it was on Chelsea. You get time off to tour, you’re on the show constantly promoting you’re own shit. That would be ideal, but because I was touring a lot, doing a full time job on top of it, it was a little much. But if we had to say I could only do one writing job for the rest of my life, it would definitely be that show, or that type of show.
At the height of her success, there was much made of the fact that Chelsea Handler was the only female host on late night television. Do you see yourself stepping in to fill those shoes? Or do you think you’re more of an acting type comic – movies, TV guest spots, that sort of thing?
I would love my own show, and I have had meetings and pitched ideas, but it hasn’t gone anywhere. I get questions like “what’s your angle?” I’m like, why do I have to have an angle? There are seven white guys with the same show on TV right now!
Yeah, what’s their angle?
My angle is that my name isn’t ‘Jimmy.’ I don’t have a mind for production. Though honestly, I think at this point, if another guy were to try and have a show, they’d say the same thing to him: ‘What’s your angle?’ You need to pair up with a good producer, who says, ‘this is the angle, Jen,’ and then go into the meeting with them. I was just so fucking busy when Chelsea ended, with the book and the tour, that I couldn’t really sit down to think about that. If it’s something I pursue, I’d do it after I get all this other stuff off my plate right now. I did film a pilot this year that would be a show with me and Michael Ian Black; we don’t know what’s happening with that yet, but it would ostensibly be a talk show.
I really love that stuff, though. I love talking to people; I love interviewing people. I just don’t know if the world wants the kind of show I would want to do. I’m not really sure I’d like the environment that much – you get to work, and the network isn’t happy because the ratings aren’t good, and they want you to go viral. Like, okay, we’ve gotta have Drew Barrymore spin on her head while you’re hosing her down with water. But I’d be like, um, can I just interview her? I need a time machine. I really loved the way Joan Rivers did The Tonight Show; not only was she the first female host, but she did the show differently. She came out, in her Bob Mackey designed clothes, and came right up to the audience. So many talk show hosts aren’t actually stand-ups, but she sat on a stool, like Lenny Bruce would do, and she’d just talk to the crowd. The camera would go into the crowd, and she’d talk to the mother of six in the front row. I watched a clip the other day where she went, ‘six kids? I can’t take it!’ Then she went to Johnny’s desk and pulled a bouquet of flowers off it, and gave it to the mom. You never see that on late night shows now. Maybe on Ferguson.
I’d love to do something like that, but who wants to hear a pitch that’s like ‘I want to do something similar to what someone did in the ‘80s?'” But I would much rather do something like that than act in something. It would be great, but I don’t really foresee it happening. Everyone you see with their own show has been trying forever.
I feel like that’s something almost unique to comedy, in a way. Bands seem to spring up overnight, but almost every comedian I can think of who’s made it was at it for 20, 30 years before breaking.
Yeah, I feel like most of my friends have been at it 20 years or more. I have some friends that are a little older than me, and I wouldn’t exactly call them my generation, and they give me hope. Something is going to happen. If you’re not shitty, you’ll get some kind of job. It is one of those weird things – you can break really soon with music, but I almost feel like you have to get to know yourself a little more to do comedy.
I have this theory that comedians are largely considered to be at the lowest rung of the entertainment field, just in terms of how society sees them. It’s kind of always been that way, hasn’t it?
That’s not even a theory – I think it’s a fact! Just hit the nail on the head, right there.
I see so many people on Twitter – liberal, progressive people – eager to shut down comedians immediately for saying the ‘wrong’ thing, while movies and music could say something very similar and get an artistic license pass. Comedy almost seems like an art form that breeds feedback and invites commentary.
Yeah, because I think so many comedians make it look easy. I look at a musician, and I know I can’t shred the guitar, or sing as well as someone with a beautiful voice. But with comedy, everyone can be funny in their own right: at work, at home. People don’t often realize how much work it took to put a seemingly effortless stand-up set together. It’s not easy, so your feedback isn’t necessary, and your chiming in isn’t necessary. Whether it’s a heckler or an online person. No one asked you! And I think that’s why they’re upset, because nobody asked them.
I feel the need to ruin this otherwise pleasant conversation by bringing up Bill Cosby now.
Sure! Let’s talk about Bill Cosby. Why let Hannibal Buress have all the fun?
Let me put it this way: as a comedian and a feminist, what was your initial impression when you first became aware of the reports?
I was embarrassed as a feminist, because they’d been around for so long. On my podcast once, I talked about how when his special came out last year, I loved it. I was saying on my podcast that I really like when grownups talk about grownup things, like married life. I knew that he had been accused of infidelity, and I was like, grow-up everybody, people cheat, sorry he’s not a saint. But I didn’t know he’d raped anybody! I just thought he’d had consensual affairs. I was thinking, the guy’s in show business and he’s been married to the same woman for years – of course he’s cheated! I didn’t really look into it further, until Hannibal’s thing came out. And that’s when I remembered there had been some rumblings about all this. I was embarrassed because I forgot about it. As a feminist, I’m fascinated by all this – and I love Hannibal, he’s a great guy – but what if a female comic had said this? Would it have been taken as seriously?
I know it’s heartbreaking, and it feels like Cosby was part of the civil rights movement in our culture, but we have to have better role models than him now. I know it’s heartbreaking to have that all taken away, but I don’t think it takes away The Cosby Show. I do, however, think that he’s a sociopath. It’s not even the amount of women that convinces me – it’s that he had to drug them. I hate when dumb people say, ‘He could’ve slept with anyone he wanted, why did he need to drug them?’ Because that’s what a sociopath does. That’s what he wanted: the drugging, the control. And now he’s going around the country, telling people not to get upset – that’s what a crazy person does.
It’s similar to OJ golfing, and writing a book called If I Did It. And I don’t mean to use another black man as an example, it’s just sociopathic behavior. Part of me was like, god, I loved his comedy so much, and I wonder if that’s why I loved it. A sociopath can tell a goddamn good story, and they can be really charming. Everyone says to separate the art from the artist, but I cannot with him. I think part of his charm is because he’s a sociopath. [Laughs]
The other thing about sociopaths is that they have no empathy; they can’t understand human suffering at all. But they’re very good at miming emotions they don’t really feel.
Yeah. I mean, you’d see him onstage, wearing a sweater-shirt that has to do with a charity related to the death of his son, and that seems like a very sympathetic thing. He’s an old man and he lost one of his kids. So, it’s hard to see someone like that and say, ‘You’re a rapist!’ It’s tragic all around. And the other thing I hate is when people say, ‘Oh, what if he just did one of them?’ Why do we even have to say that? Let’s just say he did all of them, because that’s where the accusations stand. I don’t want to hear some guy trying to justify it somehow.
Janice Dickinson is a perfect example of this: she was a party girl back in the day, a model, she was abused as a kid. So he went after her. I myself have probably avoided a few situations where I could’ve been lured into something dark. And I don’t mean that it’s her fault – that’s not what I mean at all. It’s just that, when people say that she’s lying, I’m like, no no, that’s exactly the two types of people that would find each other: she was in trouble and needed help, and he knew she wasn’t going to say anything about it, because she had this reputation.
The whole thing just makes me really sad. I had a club owner say to me recently, ‘I think maybe one of them is telling the truth, but the rest of them are in it for the money.’ And I replied that, as a woman on the road, in your care, would you believe me if something like that happened to me? He said, ‘of course I’d believe you,’ but I really hate that we as women now have to sit around listening to men debating when and where we are to not be believed. Those are the conversations that disturb me the most. When people are like, ‘why didn’t they come forward?’ well, that says it all. I’ve been in situations where a man has tried to take advantage of me in a vulnerable spot, and it’s always super scary, and I didn’t tell anyone. If I told anyone now, I’d get accused of trying to take him down, so I would probably never fucking do it.
And that’s why these women haven’t said anything, until now. We don’t say anything, because we always look bad when we do – the perpetrator never does. This has really dredged up some old hurts for me, and I really want to see the conversation change from being about Bill Cosby to being about, you know, why is it okay to ask the same stupid questions over and over again? Why does it only have to be two women to absolve him? That’s the very definition of a sociopath, or serial predator – if he got away with two, why not two more? And so on. So yeah, that’s my rant on Bill Cosby.
What do you think of him making jokes about the allegations onstage?
It’s sociopath shit. It’s not about him being a perv or a creep – it’s purely sociopathic. He’s not feeling any empathy, and I swear to god, I wonder if he even thinks he actually did it.
I think 2014 was kind of a rough year for comedy, between the deaths of Robin Williams and Joan Rivers, and then all the Cosby allegations that started coming out.
Yeah, let’s hope for no more disappointments. Usually the comedians help us through the bad stuff. This last year, it’s more like they were causing it. Of course it wasn’t Robin and Joan’s fault, but you know what I mean.