Interview: Jen Kirkman, Stand-Up Comedian

Filed Under Interview, Stand-Up Comedy

Jen Kirkman's album Self HelpAt the beginning of her new album Self Help, Jen Kirkman describes how she has a stand set up with papers on it, presumably for reference. But after listening to her stand-up, where ideas cascade so fast that you feel you’re rushing right alongside the neurons of her mind as they fire, one might wonder - why does she need the stand of papers? It’s a contradiction that plays over and over in her work - she seems to teeter on the edge of her impulses (just giving her a copy of your key makes her wonder if she might sneak in and kill you) but it camouflages an explosively funny routine that’s obviously been made with care. This slight of hand is a unique component to stand-up and it’s a joy to hear someone like Kirkman master it.

As a New Yorker, I don’t get to enjoy the Los-Angeles-based Kirkman’s work on a regular basis, so the recent release of her album Self Help by the nascent AST Records makes it that much more of a prize. You should pick one up yourself. She’s also a player on VH1’s upcoming viewer-driven sketch comedy Acceptable TV, which airs this Friday at 10PM. You can already watch and vote on some of their programing now.  I corresponded with Jen via email, where she talked about Joan Rivers, audiences on dates and the parallels of political dissent and comedic taste.

How much distance do you feel there has to be between “stage Jen” and “real Jen”?

I don’t know if there has to be that much distance. I found the more I revealed myself, or the parts of myself that I’ve come to accept but I realize might be simultaneously weird but relatable I’ve had more people tell me that they liked my set or related. Stage Jen comes from Real Jen but of course, Real Jen does not hold people hostage talking for 8-45 minutes at a time without letting the other person respond. Of course, Real Jen has emotional and personal experiences that with time, distance and a good sense of boundaries could become funny and she doesn’t let Stage Jen take them out until they are ready or else you’re really watching someone’s therapy session on stage. I’d rather tell the audience how the session went, and not invite them into it. It surprises me though that people still feel like I’m ‘baring it all’ on stage but I pick from a small pool of what I deem acceptable to reveal.

I’ve heard you talk about stripping material down to the set-up/punch or club sets. Do you feel that the gulf between mainstream and alternative comedy is very big?

The supposed gulf between mainstream and alternative comedy almost reminds me of the supposed gulf between Red and Blue state values in America. At some point, some people are big-mouths and pulling the strings on both ends. To me, comedy is comedy. I’d only call alternative comedy, something that was so experimental that it might not even work on the level of needing laughs. To me, if Karen Finley the performance artist did a piece that had some humor to it, I might agree to call that ‘alternative comedy.’ But I work with punch-lines, stories, a microphone, a red-light and an audience and the only thing that is alternative at times is that I’m not at a mainstream venue. I hate when club comics think that I’m an alternative comic – sometimes there is this assumption that I’m purposely keeping myself away because I think I’m smarter or better or that I only care to cater to some people. I think the average person on the street would have no fucking clue what alternative or non-alternative comedy is. I have to say that I’ve had a harder time getting laughs at mainstream clubs for sure, but it’s not because I’m not going for laughs. Like some guy wrote an article for the L.A. Times that pissed me off. His whole bent was that comedians are starting their own comedy rooms at theatres and restaurants because of some spiteful attitude towards clubs or “against all odds we will do this!” And it’s not like that at all. People want stage time, they are creative, they make their own room so that they can get up a lot and work out new stuff. Period.

When I’ve said that I strip material down to set-up punch in clubs it’s because those are the funniest parts of the joke, I usually have less time at clubs and the audience doesn’t know me, I’d be stupid to try to just work out new stuff on them. Also a lot of times when I’m doing clubs I’m showcasing for festivals or late-night TV shows and I have 3.5 minutes, I’d better boil it down. I tend to feel free to do more babbling when I’m at the UCB Theatre or Largo because the audiences there go to lots of comedy, which means they know me and I feel I don’t have to impress them right away and they are not conditioned for punch-lines every few seconds for the basic reason that the room is not quite a ‘comedy club’- it doesn’t have quite the frenetic energy – so I use those rooms to try out new ideas or just see how it feels to talk off the top of my head.

That material that’s there to bridge that material for alternative crowds – it helps it look more conversational and less like an “act.” But it’s just as controlled or honed as the club jokes. Do you think that crowds that are demanding less artifice don’t realize that?

I’m not sure I understand the question but I think you’re asking that crowds who like a more conversational act because it feels less controlled don’t realize that some conversational comics have made it an art form to appear conversational or improvised? Yes. There are some shows, that are work out rooms and story telling shows where people really are just going off the top of their heads and I know that I enjoy those shows too as an audience member for the honesty and risk involved. However, to make this more personal, some people, even though they are trying to compliment me, sometimes tell me that they love how I just “talk off the top of my head.” And while I guess I like that it seems spontaneous to people – I am aware of my persona, my speech patterns and even when I riff on something I’ve been going over it in my head and it’s written down – there are honest out of the blue moments but I guess I’m not as surprised by them as an audience might be?

One of your blog posts talks about the difference between younger and older audiences. As a younger person yourself, do you feel like you ever fall into the same traps that audiences make when you watch comedy?

Not really. Only because I’m not just an audience member and it would be hard to pretend that I am able to watch comedy objectively. The young people I was talking about are part of this weird generation that is simultaneously blogging, video-taping and revealing themselves constantly online but in a club setting any sort of honesty is very much an affront to them or foreign or they don’t really get irony that well and they tend to feel bad for me when I’m up there – it’s like they missed out on learning to laugh at pain or fear or confusion. And if I take a faux-cocky stature on stage, people also tend to get riled up like I’m challenging them and they don’t laugh. They are responding as if I’m not joking and as if we’re sharing a room together on Real World. I myself prefer to watch older comics who are autobiographical, maybe because that’s the style that I want to continue to improve on. If anything I feel older than a younger person because things are changing so fast I sometimes don’t get the references that younger comics make and I’m like whispering to the person next to me, “What is wi-fi?”

Talk a bit about Joan Rivers’ influence on you, because I imagine for some readers that she’s become such a caricature that it’s hard for them to understand what the fuss was about.

I can’t imagine how much more difficult it was for a woman comedian who wanted to do comedy the way that ‘boys’ did it back in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Most female comics worked with their husbands or just dressed all crazy and didn’t really do traditional stand-up as it was done by men. Joan was really honest and she says she was heavily influenced by Lenny Bruce’s honesty. Her first years in comedy were spent doing USO tours and cheesy little sketch show routines and songs, etc. And it wasn’t until her life just wasn’t working anymore, she’d suffered a divorce, watched all of her male counterparts go on to fame (Bill Cosby, Dick Cavett, Woody Allen, etc.) and she was still in NYC living with her parents at age 32!!! She was on her 10th year of stand-up and it didn’t dawn on her until then to start talking honestly about her life and she talked about being single and gynecologists and what it’s like to fly alone on planes and travel the country – sounds hack but not when you’re the first one to do it. Watching her at the Museum of TV and Radio on an old Jack Parr show where he’s touching her knee the whole time and calling her a girl, even though she was 33, and had just SLAYED the audience – her joke-writing was amazing…was a really powerful image for me. She’s ballsy and even though I may get sick of “can we talk” or what not, I don’t care. She blazed a trail for women and for comics who wanted to talk honestly about pain and failure. I don’t care if she’s had plastic surgery – she can do what she wants. Bill Cosby has sexual harassed people and Woody Allen married his daughter – and yet the stigma of “give it up, you’re pathetic” is all on Joan for her surgery. I still listen to her on Howard Stern (who is also a hero of mine) and I think it’s a perfect marriage. She’s fearless, nuts, bold and fucking truly loves comedy. Not many people keep doing comedy into their elderly years and not many people keep doing comedy after reaching a certain level of fame and I’m seriously hoping to grow up to be just like her – except I have no interest in going anywhere near red carpets.

One thing you seem very aware of is that people go to comedy clubs on dates. What do you think they expect from a comedian?

If there is one thing I’m aware of Todd it is this! I’m like a super-hero, I can detect comedy clubs dates from miles away. I think they expect a comedian to be funny and maybe even flirt with them a little if that makes sense. If they sit up front, I think they want to be talked to, have the ice broken for them. I’m sure they want to hear about topics that mean something to them so that they can watch and observe how their date reacts. I know for sure that if a date of mine laughed at certain things at a comedy club – if I didn’t approve it could be a deal breaker and I’m sure vice-versa. And they probably want to get as drunk as possible but that’s up to the waitstaff and the drink specials.

Your comments about the lack of women on the Daily Show are interesting. In many of the things I’ve read by you, you talk about how there’s still a sexism in lefty/alternative crowds. Is it a lack of people putting their money where their mouth is or do you feel people don’t believe what they say?

I mean, I love the Daily Show and I hear they have lots of women writers but it’s just a basic function of our brain at this point in America, we think of something generic like “We need a reporter” and everyone’s minds-eye goes to a guy and then at some point when things seem uneven eventually it becomes, “We also need a female reporter.” I think that people who are in the younger generation than me have not had strong voices in the post-feminist movement and sexism to them might sound harsh – they might think that I’m suggesting that people hate women or think all women should be moms. Sexism more subtle than that now and so it’s more dangerous. It’s hard to fight against something that is not clearly defined. Usually the woman ends up looking insane or like she’s jealous if she complains and the conversation can turn to “funny is funny, so there just aren’t funny women.” And it goes in ugly circles. I remember the good old 1990’s – lots of rock stars and other people that I liked actively helped women, like playing pro-choice benefits or speaking out against sexism the way people would about racism or any ism. Recently there was a thread on a message board that was called, “Are women funny?” And some people on it, as college-educated and liberal as they were did not know that the question in itself sets up some unfair thing and when I suggested that they replace the word “women” with “black” and see how that reads, some people accused me of overreacting as if one civil right is more important than the other. I think some people think that to write a woman into something that you have to “think like a woman” and buckle down real hard. My example is if you write a TV sitcom called, “Good Cop Bad Cop” why couldn’t one cop be a woman? And not a “woman cop” or a cop who has exclusively concerns related to women. Women in comedy have to be seen as an everyman. I’m really lucky, I have men who enjoy my comedy and they never mention that I’m a woman, they just like the themes that I touch on. So all I have to do is get really famous and maybe I can put MY money where MY mouth is and change things. Joss Whedon has a video online where he talks about the inane question always posed to him, “How do you write such strong female characters?” He’s like, “I write a character and then I put a woman’s name on it.”

Tell me when and why you founded What did you learn from doing it?

Becky Donohue, a funny comic in NYC and I started it because we didn’t want to sit around and wait on the treadmill of auditioning for festivals and shows and etc…we wanted to become better writers and encourage more girls to write. One thing about feeling like there are still threads of sexism is women can get discouraged and we wanted girls to write funny stories and we wanted to interview famous female comics to let their stories get out. It was meant to be positive and cool and we included men on the site too. THANK GOD the site is not up anymore because I was not a good writer yet, I mean whether I am now is debatable, but I took my short story writing seriously, and hadn’t learned how to use humor. I think at one point I called myself an “essayist.” Kill me! I learned that I don’t like sifting through essays and I hate type-editing and that as I said before I was a bad writer at that time. But I also learned it’s easy to get stand-ups to talk to you and open up. We even interviewed Gloria Steinem, which was pretty cool – she’s super old school and I think we even taught her a thing or two.

What is the difference between the New York and Los Angeles comedy scenes for you? Many comics would find New York more nurturing but you feel the opposite if I’m not mistaken?

I wasn’t in NYC long enough to really say and I wasn’t working as hard when I was there. I was sort of an idiot and a slacker and a jerk. I do think that there are more rooms now in NYC, more comics running shows and getting good attendance. When I was there I did Luna Lounge and all comics hung out there Monday night, more in a spirit of drinking than real camaraderie? I do remember more shit-talking in NYC than I see here. Me, being a big shit-talker about other people at the time. I think there is less work in NYC so there’s an innate competition and most people don’t have an outlet for that kind of fear and jealousy. Out here, in Los Angeles, it seems like everyone is doing more on the side to help their sort of mental health. There is more work, so there is more hope. And my other theory is that in NYC if you have a TV job as a writer or actor you can sort of be a star, but out in L.A. you look kind of lame if you brag or pull rank because you’re on TV because LOTS of people are on TV here and the real high status performers are on the cover of US Weekly and we have to live within a 5 mile radius of those people – it’s naturally humbling so we tend to all stick together out here. I’ve never felt like I had more of a community in my life. It’s awesome.

There’s a lot of distaste for comics like Dane Cook and Larry the Cable Guy. The interesting thing for me is how often when people phrase the criticism, a lot will say, “He does this thing that George Bush does…” Do you see the parallels? Or is it just people connecting two things they hate?

I’m the one who said something like that too I think. First of all, I have to say I’m sick of people telling me that I’m not a fan of certain comics because I’m jealous of their success. It’s insulting to me. It suggests that I’m at a place in my mental health where jealousy tears me apart and I’m vocal about my rage. I don’t live my life that way and I do a lot of stuff to stay that way. I have tons of favorite comedians that I’m sure are millionaires and could never work again if they wanted – I’m not jealous of them. In fact, I want more of them. What bothers me is that the art of debate or dissent is lost in America. If you don’t like Bush you are not patriotic – there is not an option for people to try to hear you out. There seems to be one definition of patriotism and the original one, the right to dissent, is lost. So if I don’t want to buy a ticket to see Dane Cook and people are accusing me of being jealous of him, it’s like trying to argue with a bully. Big name industries like Cook or Larry are loved by many and I think honestly, some people don’t have their identities in tact and when they meet someone who doesn’t happen to like what everyone else likes – they are threatened. I have an identity and then I have my taste in comedy and politics. I’m not personally hurt when people disagree with me tactfully and with thought and I don’t feel the need to take them down. But I’ve been attacked on a personal level for saying that I really don’t like watching DC or Larry. I like Seinfeld a TON and he’s rich and famous and I’d love his career – same with Roseanne, Dave Chapelle, Joan Rivers, Chris Rock, Bill Cosby, Tina Fey, etc. I’m not jealous. I’m inspired.

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Posted by Jim Haagen on 04/05  at  11:11 PM

I’d suck Jen Kirkman’s dick any day of the week.

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