Living in a Material World
by Jay S. Jacobs
This year is comedian Jen Kirkman’s 20th year doing standup. Just don’t expect her to do anything big to celebrate that fact on her “All New Material, Girl” Tour.
“No! No, no, no. Just touring is always special,” Kirkman laughed to me recently as she was preparing for her latest tour, which will be stopping at the Trocadero in Philadelphia on September 23.
“In standup, 20 is kind of a baby. Jerry Seinfeld got his show in year 20. And I’d think the average person may not understand that 20 years isn’t a long time, so they might be like: ‘What’s the big deal? I don’t see her selling out stadiums.’”
Besides, there is another, even more important reason for the restraint.
“We standups care greatly about what other standups think of us,” Kirkman admitted, good naturedly. “If I did anything like that, I would be made fun of.”
She laughed again. “It’s just something I like to note, but I won’t be making any big deal about it. It could be misconstrued by everybody.”
Well, no one wants to be misconstrued. Still, Kirkman has put time in the trenches. She has been a road warrior for years, not only doing standup, but also toiling in all sorts of comic tests. She was a writer and performer for the TV show Chelsea Lately. She studied improv with the Upright Citizens Brigade. She has filmed two popular specials for Netflix: I’m Gonna Die Alone (and I Feel Fine) and Just Keep Livin’.
She’s still out there. Just like she imagined 20 years ago.
“I did [think I’d still be doing standup], but not in a true way where I really appreciated it,” Kirkman said. “A lot of standups, when they start out, have very big egos. They are completely unrealistic. I thought: Oh, I’ll probably have my own Broadway show in a year. It was really delusional. I thought by now I’d probably be a living legend.”
Time on the road tends to change perspectives, and it did for Kirkman.
“As you actually work in the industry, and you decide to stay in it, and it doesn’t reject you, there is more of a: Wow, I can believe I’m still interested in doing it. I’m so lucky. I can’t believe that I’m still going. I have that now.”
Not bad for a girl who never even considered comedy as an option. Growing up, Kirkman wanted to be either a dancer or an actor. She even went to college to study drama. But things change.
“I could be wrong,” Kirkman said, “maybe unless you’re an astronaut – or the other thing kids say they want to be, the President – I don’t think most people know when they are a kid, oh, I’m going to turn this into a career.”
Comedy just seemed out of reach.
“I went to college in the 90s, before anyone had email,” Kirkman said. “There are people who got a degree the year I went to college that completely missed out on getting to study things that would have been useful in their future. In a weird way, it wasn’t available to me.”
However, dancing and acting were things that anyone could do, no matter their age, or size, or sex, or anything. There were children on TV. She saw kids performing The Nutcracker. It all seemed viable to her. It was something she could do as a kid. And then when she grew up, she could continue to do it.
“When I saw standups on TV, I thought they were so magical,” she continued. “But, I thought: well, that’s who does that. I don’t even think I was consciously thinking this, I was like: That’s who does that. I’m not doing it. How could I do that? I loved standup, but didn’t think about it.”
So, she threw herself into acting. And, she acknowledges looking back, it wasn’t going very well. People kept telling her how funny she was, but she didn’t buy it. She just thought it was a vibe she was putting off because she took things a little too seriously.
“You know how sometimes people are trying to be very serious, and you want to laugh at them?” Kirkman asked. “I think I had that quality. I’m very serious, you guys. People were like, ‘You’re actually funny, because you’re very passionate about what you’re saying, but I’m not seeing you as a serious actress.’”
What could she do? She decided to give comedy a shot.
“It was with the encouragement of friends that I joined a sketch comedy group,” Kirkman recalled. “Then when I went to see standup, something clicked inside of me. When I saw it live for the first time, I thought I want to do this. I can’t just sit here passively. I don’t want to be just an audience member.”
Which is just as well, because looking back, Kirkman prefers working solo to being part of a team.
“I prefer standup. I love improvising alone. I have a podcast. I could technically get on stage and talk off the top of my head and have no fear or anything.”
However, she admitted that improv comedy “was not turning me on as much.” She loved it, and she took all the levels at Upright Citizens’ Brigade. She got on to a team. Then she quit. She liked taking the classes, but she didn’t like doing the shows.
“You have to be there for your other players,” Kirkman laughed. “I go into a zone when I perform. I don’t know how to explain it… I get into a presence, a Zen state. I kind of zone out. I’m not really paying attention [to what is going on around me], so I can’t help other people with their [work].
“It’s like I’m a sniper. I work solo,” she laughs again. “Improv people are more like on-the-ground troops. They support each other. Men would be left for dead if I were still doing that.”
One team she did fit in with though was in the writer’s room at Chelsea Handler’s TV series Chelsea Lately.
“That was cool,” Kirkman said. “Being in a big writers’ room, where every single person in the room was a standup, it was great. We all had our individual sense of humor, but we all had one common goal, which was writing for someone else’s voice.”
However, when the opportunity arose, Kirkman wasn’t sure it would be right for her. One day her agent told her that the show was hiring and maybe she should write a packet – a short sample episode. If they liked it, they would call Kirkman in for an interview. However, Kirkman was thinking to herself that she really didn’t care about pop culture, would she want to take on this kind of job? Thing was though, she needed a job. What did it hurt to give it a shot?
“Just write the packet and it will put good energy out in the world,” Kirkman said. “Just do it. I was really surprised that I got hired. Then, thank God, when I got there I found out that nobody that worked there really cared about pop culture. It was just a job.”
Kirkman laughed, “I pictured it as if – have you ever seen those live videos of the TMZ offices where they seem really into it? ‘We’re breaking news! Justin Timberlake is cheating!’ I didn’t want to be around people who really cared about that. I got really lucky with that group that randomly came together. It was good that all of us felt like it was a funny show, but we weren’t taking it too seriously.”
Beyond the pop culture aspects, Chelsea Lately was also very political. However, in her standup and specials, Kirkman does not really touch on politics so much, even as it has become the bread and butter of a lot of comedy in the Trump era. That does not point towards apathy on her part though, there is a much more prosaic reason behind her lack of political jokes.
“I’m a political person,” Kirkman explained. “My Twitter is always political. It’s funny, but it’s always political. Chelsea has a nightly show, or a couple of nights a week. It’s easier to be political if you have that kind of outlet, because the news dies the next day and it’s not really standup.”
However, without a regular show, when Kirkman is touring, she is working out sets for her next comedy special.
“Let’s say this tour turns into a Netflix special in 2018, or 19, I can’t be talking about [things happening now],” Kirkman explained. “If I filmed it tomorrow, it would be already old news. I can’t be like: Trump did this…, you know?”
Kirkman also explains that everything she talks about is very personal, even selfishly personal. Her entry into politics is also, always personal. However, on her new tour she has found a novel way of mixing the personal and the political.
“I do have some material coming up on my new tour about what I did on election night,” Kirkman explained. “Whether people wanted her to win or not, it was all bets Hillary Clinton has got this. I’m planning this whole future with a female President. My life is going to change. To sit there, watching the numbers come in, and that feeling. I do a bit about that feeling, and how I ended up changing the channel and watching Hallmark Christmas movies.”
That’s an interesting angle to humanize the whole thing.
“I don’t get into day-to-day policy, because as we see it’s insane and keeps changing,” Kirkman continued. “I do talk about it, but for the stage show it’s very generalized. If you catch me on Twitter every day, I’m making the same political jokes that by tomorrow are out of style, or out of time.”
So, politics is not taboo, per se, just not a big part of her act. Is there anything that is taboo for her?
“I’m only moved to talk about something… it’s just a little feeling I get inside where I go this is what I feel like expressing,” Kirkman said. “I hope people relate. Usually it never ends up that it is something too controversial.”
But is there anything that would be?
“I guess if I sat down, I could make a list of things,” Kirkman admitted. “Obviously, what’s off-limits is discussing other people’s lives that don’t want their business made [into a bit]. If I’m talking about other people in my life, I have to make sure it’s [about] me, me, me and me. Not, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got a fucked-up brother who is in prison.’ I don’t. That’s my example, but I don’t have a brother who is in prison. I wouldn’t say that, because that is his business, in this fake brother scenario. Then the obvious things. I’m not going to make fun of people less fortunate than others, but I don’t really know any comic that does that anyway.”
Speaking of her fake brother who may or may not be in prison, Kirkman’s mother, father and sister did cameos in one of her Netflix specials, having fun with that very idea of how they relate in her standup. Kirkman knows her family is very supportive of her comedy and knows that when she mentions them it is not meant personally. However, she still is very conscientious not to offend or insult them.
“I tread lightly in a way that it wouldn’t even dawn on me to be cruel to them or reveal their secrets,” Kirkman said. “It’s not even: should I do that? It wouldn’t even dawn on me.”
She points out that a good way of thinking about it would be imagining you were on a first date, or on a job interview. You’re not going to say, “So, my mother’s an alcoholic. Don’t worry, she only beat me twice.” It would be completely inappropriate. Kirkman feels the same way, it is inappropriate to say some things to some people. It would just make her look crazy.
“And by the way, that was just an example,” she explained. “My mother is not an alcoholic. I feel like even if I did get into this dirt about my family – every family has dirt – selfishly, I would look like a jerk instead of it being funny.”
So, what is in bounds?
“My mom very well knows I’m going to make fun of her accent,” Kirkman said. “I’m going to make fun of the generation gap, where she has said the weirdest things to me. My sister has asked me, ‘Can you please not…?’ I had a joke that I did. She didn’t like it. I can’t believe she didn’t like it. It was so innocent. And I was like, fine, I’ll stop doing it.”
Kirkman laughed, sensing she may be in dangerous waters.
“Every time I use this as an example, I end up telling the person what it was, and then it’s printed,” she said. “And she’s like, ‘That still counts!’ So, I can’t say what it is. But it was very innocent.”
She is excited to get on the road to test out her “It’s All New Material, Girl” Tour material.
“It’s like doing a little one-woman play,” Kirkman explained. “This tour, all the material is very new, so it’s going to be a different show every night. Not like I’m doing different material in Houston than I’m doing in Dallas. Certain things will be more developed. By the end of the tour, it will really be tight.”
And if you can’t wait for some brand-new jokes, hot and fresh, there is always her Twitter feed. This is where she uses her jokes that aren’t right for the shows.
“I’ve been doing standup for longer than Twitter has been around,” Kirkman said. “Suddenly this thing, 140 characters, write a joke. It’s like, well, it’s not going to help my rhythm anyway. I don’t end up tweeting jokes I would use on stage. Luckily, that’s another way to be funny.”
Still the best way to appreciate Kirkman is to see her entire act, or one of her specials. She doesn’t even feel it captures her when little snippets of her act show up on YouTube or something.
“I always say to people, if you don’t think I’m funny, you’ll probably like me on tour. It’s not my natural voice to be so brief,” Kirkman laughed.
Luckily, she has found a place to share her voice, beyond her tour dates. As much as she loves those, Netflix has been a game changer for her. This is all the sweeter after years of bashing her head into a wall with Comedy Central, with nothing to show for it.
“I love saying this: Comedy Central has done nothing for me,” Kirkman admitted. “I have pitched them 70,000 late night shows. They just don’t seem to want it from a woman. They never gave me a standup special, you know those half-hours or one hours. They blatantly told my manager that they don’t think I’m funny.”
At the time, Comedy Central was pretty much the only game in town, but Kirkman didn’t allow it to dispirit her.
“I didn’t have a special for a long time,” Kirkman said. “I made albums and I kept thinking there’s going to be something other than Comedy Central someday. I have to keep practicing hours. I have to keep writing one hour [shows]. I’m not just going to be a comic that does five minutes. I’m going to have a special.”
Then, suddenly, a woman exec who Kirkman had known forever got a new job at Netflix, and she wanted to talk about doing that special.
“It just came together,” Kirkman said. “They liked the material. The first one did so well they just let me do another one. They didn’t have to approve anything. It was just like [do it]. It’s just so funny. Standups arise to a special with their material. America has laughed at it around the country. Then networks like Comedy Central, they edit it for time and they ruin the timing of the jokes. Netflix, they don’t do any editing. You can say whatever, and it’s worldwide. Now I have audiences in other places because of them.”
She turned a little philosophical.
“I got lucky by being rejected for ten years, because I wouldn’t have had any new material left,” she laughed. “So, I love to say that, because it’s fun to make fun of Comedy Central. I don’t think other people shouldn’t work with them, it’s just for me I think what was meant to happen happened. I just wish that the universe had told me, ‘Something’s coming, don’t worry.’”
Copyright ©2017 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: September 19, 2017.
Photos © 2017 Robyn Von Swank. Courtesy of Shark Party Media. All rights reserved.