Written by Jess Alaimo
Jen Kirkman is a national and international touring comedian, probably best-known for her work on the series Chelsea Lately. Her 2015 Netflix Original Comedy Special I’m Gonna Die Alone (And I Feel Fine) was named one of the Top 10 comedy specials of 2015 by Time Out New York, New York Magazine, and The Atlantic. Now Kirkman is back with a comedic vengeance with her new comedy special Just Keep Livin’?, now streaming on Netflix.
In this exclusive interview with Pop Break, I had an in-depth conversation with Kirkman to discuss her new special, her upcoming tour, and more.
Despite the question mark in the title of your special, Just Keep Livin’?, I found it to have a really a positive and inspiring message overall. What do you do to keep yourself positive? Especially lately with all the craziness that is happening in the world?
Well, I try to stay away from staying positive. I’ll give an example. I used to know this guy who was “Mr. Positive.” He worked out all the time and he was so obviously suffering inside. And it’s like, “Dude, you’re not fooling anyone with the positivity.” So, I think the best thing people can do is just stay very neutral. There’s always going to be suffering in the world, at the same time there’s going to be good things going on. Both in the world and in our lives. So, I just rather stay neutral. I try to stay like an anchor in the water instead of a raft.
So for me I really do meditate. It was a joke about how it sucks when you don’t feel the results right away. But I really do. So I do that every day. I try to be nice. I try to put out what I want to get back. I don’t always do that very well.
I try to keep my life really simple. I was really obsessed with changing the world after the election and then I realized we’re up against a lot. You can only do what you can do, and you should do it, but not get discouraged. You know, I just think you have to remember that even when things are going really well worldwide we’re still not in control of it. I cannot personally stop Donald Trump.
I don’t think we should calm that negative feeling. I think we should feel our feelings and don’t be a drain on other people. If you can’t get past something and you’re sad and unhappy, just work through it but don’t bother people with it. Go to therapy. I think everyone should go to therapy.
Have you found that your writing has changed over the last couple months, whether intentionally or not?
No. Mostly because I don’t write my stand-up. I say it. I put down a couple words and then I improvise and speak it. Then I tape it, and if anything good comes of it I transcribe it, write it down, and then I keep building on it. I’ve been doing new material shows here in Los Angeles once a month. I guess you could call that writing, but it’s really performing. So mainly, no, because I’m trying to come up with material for a tour that I’m doing next year that maybe someday would be another new special. I can’t talk too much about exactly what’s going on because it’s not going to make any sense in a year, and things change so fast.
Nothing’s really changed. I’ve just accepted that the lane that I am in in this comedy life is talking about what it’s like to be a woman, or just be me. I happen to be a woman. Maybe that will humanize being a woman to some people and it will make them think. One of the most disturbing tweets I’ve ever gotten was from this guy – and it’s not that disturbing — but he said, “I want to buy your book, but I’m afraid I won’t relate because I’m a guy.” It’s like, oh my God, what would you not relate to about traveling and dating and crazy neighbors and family. It’s a human story. I just happen to be a woman. How many books have we as women read of male memoirs?
Would he write to a person of color and say, “Would I relate to your book?” I probably shouldn’t say that. But when people think of women as however they want, I feel like part of me thinks, oh I should be writing about policy and Trump. But I also think that’s not my expertise. So if I just keep humanizing what it’s like to be a person, or a woman, then that’s my contribution to society.
But it did effect my writing in that I didn’t want to do anything creative. I haven’t done shit for three months. I was kind of despondent for a while. I didn’t do anything after the election. Nothing. I was done with my special, I was done with my tour, and then I was like, okay, I’m going to write a script and I’m going to write all this new stand-up and think about it, blah, blah, blah, blah. But then I did nothing. I was like, nope I am shut down for the season. I am so depressed. So, I am trying to come out of that now but it’s slow.
I think so many people can relate to that right now…
I think that’s a good thing, and I think that’s why comedians should be talking about whatever they want to talk about. I do forget at the end of the day people like to hear that other people feel the same way. I’m always surprised when people are like, “Thanks for saying that. I didn’t know anyone else felt the same way.” I’m always like, you didn’t? So I feel like it’s important. We can’t forget that people do need comedians to at least relate with them. I don’t feel like a lot of us are cheering anyone up right now. But I think our voices help make people feel like they’re less alone.
In your special you talk about being a woman and traveling alone, despite being in a relationship, and people’s reactions to that. Do you have a dream destination that you would like to travel to by yourself? And do you have any upcoming trips planned?
This year there’s no traveling for me because I usually tie in my international travel with gigs. I don’t have any international gigs in 2017, so I think 2018 I’ll be back in London and back in Australia. I want to see more of Italy. I would like to go to Rome. I also want to go to Greece. I want to go to Spain. I haven’t been to the most basic places. Not basic, but you know what I mean. Nothing outrageous. I’m probably not going to go to India by myself. I’m probably not going to go to China or something.
So I think those are the three places I have in mind, and I hope to try to get to one of them in 2018. But this year I’ve been running around the globe for two years and I feel like this year I just have to be a little more still and home and quiet. But those are my next three goals. I think I will accomplish that. But I usually like to start from, “Hey I’m already in Europe anyway for a gig…” instead of just flying by myself somewhere.
You had different day jobs when you were starting off your career in comedy. What was your worst job and do you have any crazy stories from that time?
Oh God. Some of the day jobs I had when I first started were really awesome. I worked at Boston Ballet, and then I worked at this theater company in Boston where I sold group sales tickets and I was an assistant manager. If I had to go back and do an office job I would love that.
Then when I moved to New York City it was when it started being like job hell. I think the worst job I had was I was temping at one of those investment firms but it wasn’t a fancy one. The mean boss had a landline and he would throw his phone out the door. It was kind of funny.
When I moved to L.A. I was a waitress at a golf club, and I grew up on a golf course. My dad’s a greenskeeper and I waitressed at our golf club and I thought, “Oh this will be the same thing.” But the golf course I grew up on was really friendly and working class people that just like to play golf. And I got a job at this ritzy country club that used to exclude black people and Jewish people in the ’80s. Ronald Reagan used to be a member. So it was all old money, and you couldn’t join if you were someone who just got rich. You had to be from the Hilton family or your last name was Carnation, like as in the dairy products.
So the people were awful and it was almost like a movie. I was the only white person on staff. Everyone else was Filipino or Jamaican and Mexican. I didn’t fit in with anyone I worked with because they were all like, “You’re white. Why are you doing this?” I’m like, no, I’m white but I’m not from a privileged family. They’re like, “Come on.” And they didn’t believe me. Then the people that I waited on were all racist and they didn’t want me to wait on them because they didn’t want to be waited on by a white person. This one woman grabbed me by the hand and she goes, “Honey, are your parents dead? Why are you doing this?” And I was like, “I’m an actor/comedian. That’s what you do. You’re a waitress.” She’s like, “Couldn’t you do catalog modeling? Couldn’t you do that?” And then this other guy just grabbed me and said “Don’t become one of them.” It was really disruptive.
Then I am waiting on Caspar Weinberger, who used to be in Ronald Reagan’s presidential cabinet. He was having a secret meeting. This was before the Iraq war, the second one in 2003. He was having a secret meeting with all these important political people and I was the private waiter. And he didn’t even look up at me once, and he assumed I didn’t speak English because I was a waiter. So what was supposed to happen was I was supposed to fill the coffee, clear the plates, leave the room, and every time I came in they would stop talking because it was confidential information. When I came in he was just like, “Anyway, I think with Iraq what we should do…” and someone was like, “Mr. Weinberger, we’re not in privacy here”, and he goes “she doesn’t speak English anyway.” It was horrible, horrible. Just to let him know that I did I just said, “Would you care for more coffee?” So it was just like, “Oh my God, I’m actually seeing institutionalized old school racism.”
And I waited on the astronaut Buzz Aldrin who was an asshole. He slapped my hand when I tried to reach a water glass at a wedding.
That is so disappointing!
I know. He goes, “How much water do you think I need?” I was like, “I’m sorry.” Anyway, so I quit that job. That was probably the worst one. The rest were just soloist temp jobs that I don’t even remember. I worked all those kind of jobs until I was like 35.
When you were doing open mics in New York when you were younger, is there some advice that you wish someone told you, looking back?
I did get advice. I got unsolicited advice from the older comics all the time. Their advice was always just like, “You got to get up there and bomb.” They would tell you the most horrible horror stories of their gigs. I was like, “If I don’t bomb I’m not a real comic.” I knew there was no advice they could give me. They trained me that way. “You got to just go in and do it, kid.” So I knew there’s nothing anyone can tell me except what they told me. Which was basically, go bomb. So I felt like I had all the information I needed.
One thing I wish I didn’t do was listen to people who told me what my act should be like. It’s a fine line between knowing when someone’s giving good advice and bad advice. If it’s comedian who’s really well established giving advice, you might want to listen. But if it’s a television executive who’s like, “You need to do this. This is the hot new way to do comedy,” probably don’t listen. I kind of got caught up for a while in trying to be someone I wasn’t. So I was always a babbling person who stayed on one subject for a while and had jokes within that. But there was big trend in being a one-liner, Mitch Hedberg-type comic when I was starting out. This television executive at Comedy Central told me if I don’t do one liners then I am never going to have a career in television because people can’t pay attention for too long. So I was trying to do short absurd jokes that just weren’t me and I was bombing them. I couldn’t figure it out. “I used to do pretty well on stage but I guess I’m not funny,” I’d think. And it didn’t dawn on me until years later that I wasn’t doing well because I wasn’t doing what I was good at.
That’s just me. It takes me a long time to learn things. I don’t know if I would have listened if someone said, “Don’t listen to that guy.” I would have been like, “But he works at Comedy Central.” Who knows what I would have listened to.
A lot of people look back on their work when they were younger and may cringe a bit. What is something you look back on and think, “Oh, that was something that was really good! I wish more people saw that.”
That’s a hard one. I could tell you what I cringe at! There’s a joke on, “Just Keep Livin’?”, where I say I’m a soul trapped in a body. I didn’t ask to be born and I’m afraid to die, and that’s the shit I live in everyday. That is a joke from my first album called Self Help. That is a very limited audience that heard that joke. So, comics always think that everyone’s heard everything. We’re so self conscious. So, I was like, no, I like that joke and it fits what I’m saying. I’m going to put it in the special. So what if someone’s like, “Hey isn’t that from ten years ago?” So I have done it. There’s a couple good jokes in my life that nobody has heard except some people that were in open mic in New York City. I think that’s one of them.
Actually, one of the jokes from I’m Going to Die Alone, my other special, is one of the first jokes I wrote from 1996. It was just a joke about my parents having a fight and my mom telling my dad that the house was haunted from the way he twists things in a certain way. There’s some good jokes I wrote when I was first starting out that I think I might actually comb through some of my old material and see if there’s a joke here or there.
That was my favorite one that you mention in Just Keep Living. By the way, that was so funny.
Oh thank you. I’m getting so much feedback on that line. I’m glad I put it in. It’s like the only thing people quote. It makes me so happy.
Was there a single moment in your career when you realized you had made it as a comedian, or was it an accumulation of different moments?
I still don’t think I’ve made it because I have a definition of making it as being so financially secure that you don’t have to work again if you don’t want to, where everyone knows you and you can sell out theaters and. So I haven’t “made it” because I’ve got tickets on sale right now, places that aren’t sold out. There’s people who put their tickets on sale and they sell out immediately. They’re playing 10,000 seat whatevers. I actually don’t like playing really big places, but I’d like to play bigger than I do.
But when I actually became a comedian for a living — I did notice that. When I stopped working at Chelsea Lately in 2014, I would tour part time when I wrote on that show, and I thought, “Thank God I have this writing job because touring doesn’t pay the bills.” Then when the show ended I was so sick of sitting at a desk that I told my agents, “Don’t try to find me another job. I’m just going to go on the road for a few months.” Then it turned into two years, and then I realized I could have made a living on touring. I was like, oh, I actually do this for a living.
There’s a moment where I walk into a comedy club and I feel like I’m supposed to be there. It’s always nerve wracking to meet the owner or the Booker of the comedy club. But then you get out on stage and people are laughing or they applaud like maybe they’ve heard your name before when the host introduces you, and you’re like, “Is this really happening? I guess I’m a comedian for a living.”
I wouldn’t say I made it but I definitely noticed it, maybe two years ago that I actually can say this is my job. So, yeah, that’s kind of cool. I noticed it two years ago.
Did you ever get to show Matthew McConaughey your tattoo, or would you?
I would. He’s with the same agency I am. We don’t have the same agent, but we’re both at CAA, and I told my people over there, “Can I just get a photo op with him? Wherever he is I’ll go to him for ten minutes.” And they were like trying to hook me up with it. I don’t know the progress on that. I know he’s on a press tour for a movie and probably doesn’t care. But I really wanted to show him and tell him. But then I was also like, “But I don’t want him to watch the special because he’ll think that I’m making fun of him.”
Then right around when my agents were really trying to push this meeting, he said, “Let’s all support Trump. Hollywood just has to…” I don’t necessarily think he’s a Trump supporter, but he was saying we have to stand behind the President and I was like, “No!” Then I felt embarrassed that I had this tattoo. I almost had a joke in my special that was like, “I’ll have to get this thing removed if he’s a Trump supporter.” I wish I’d said it but I still love him, even though he said that. I still stand by my tattoo. But I feel like I told them to cool it after that because I sensed people will just make fun of me even more if I’m like, “Here I am with the guy who says let’s support Trump.” But yes, I want to meet him but I don’t think he’s interested.
I think your special was very flattering towards him. I don’t think it came across that you were making fun of him at all. It seemed very genuine.
Oh, that’s good. I know celebrities can be very suspicious because people always want a piece of them. I’ve known a few celebrities in my life and I’ve always been surprised at where they’ve been insecure at things. So I was just assuming that he’d be thinking I was saying it’s actually a dumb phrase, but I really like it. And it is kind of dumb phrase. I actually am saying that too.
What do you fans have to look forward to in your upcoming tour?
Well, more will be revealed because I’m writing it as of now. But I do promise people there will be 80% new material. Maybe I’ll do one bit from the special, because I’m sure some people coming to see me won’t have seen it. I’m working on a bit right now about this month I’ve had off where I went and visited different spiritual healers and how badly it went. I think that is going to turn into be a funny bit. Yeah, so just more stuff that’s pulled from my life directly. So, not to be cheesy but I have to just keep living and then see what comes up and write about it. Then that’s what I’ll tour with in September, October, November, and then the tour will send me to 2018 as well.
Who is your favorite Spice Girl?
I was like full-on into grunge and riot girl by the time they came out. They weren’t my generation. But I guess, because I appreciate her fashion sense, it’s got to be Posh Spice. I did meet her once. She’s as dim as a sunset, but she’s very stylish.