A Tour is a Place in Itself
by Jay S. Jacobs
Jen Kirkman is a road warrior, a standup comedian who has been hitting the clubs and auditoriums for a couple of decades now. In fact, we spoke with her a couple of years ago when she acknowledged that it was no big deal for her to wake up in a new town, hit the club, hit the road and move on the next place.
However, Kirkman is a big deal, and getting bigger. Beyond all the time she plays in theaters worldwide, she has released three comedy albums, two books and two Netflix specials. She has a podcast and a newsletter and is very active on social media. She has written for the TV series Chelsea Lately and more recently was part of the writing staff for the hit Amazon series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
But for now, she’s back on the road. About a week before Kirkman’s comedy tour touches down at Union Transfer in Philadelphia on April 25th, we caught up with Kirkman again to chat about the show and her career.
When you were growing up, you wanted to be either a dancer or an actor, not a standup. How did you eventually make the move to comedy?
I don’t know. It wasn’t a decision. It wasn’t a career path. It was just that I had some friends in college who wanted to do standup. They took me to some open mikes. I was appalled at the bits, at what [that] comedy was. (laughs) I was not interested in it. Then I saw some actual professional comedy and there was just something in me that felt curious, like “Hey, I want to do this.” I knew in the back of my head that it starts with those open mikes that my friends were doing. It was an overpowering urge. It was truly like being struck by lightning. I can’t tell you exactly what happened, but it became a really big deal to me.
Who are some of those comedians who inspired you to take it up?
It was just being in comedy. I don’t know who they were. Does that make sense? I was just at comedy clubs watching more professional people do it. I did see Norm McDonald on stage. But it’s not that there is the reason. It could have been anybody. It could have even been Gallagher if I saw him do well. It wasn’t like I saw a comedian and then wanted to do it, and then saw what their career [was]. It just was I saw comedy that wasn’t a bunch of drunk people signing up and telling dick jokes. (laughs) I get what happens when this works out. It was more the feeling in the room that inspired me than the comics themselves. It was like you can feel this way on stage. It was very electrifying. I loved live theater. I thought this seems another extension of that, really.
Last time I talked with you, you played at the Troc in Philly, which they just announced they are closing down after over 100 years as an active theater. Have you heard anything about the Union Transfer? It’s a very cool place, but I still remember when it was a Spaghetti Warehouse.
That’s interesting, because I asked my agent if we could go back to the Troc, and now I get why we can’t. I’ve only heard other comedians who have played [at Union Transfer]. I heard it’s a cool place. (laughs) But I didn’t know it was a Spaghetti Warehouse.
As a comedian, what theater was the biggest thrill for you to play? Do you ever get into one of these old rooms and think about all the talent that has played there before you?
Yes, sometimes I get that sort of historic feeling. It’s weird, there have been places in Vegas I’ve played. I don’t remember the name, but there was one place I played, and I saw there was a real history to the place. It’s more like the little things. It’s never comedians. (laughs) I was at the Fillmore in San Francisco with a group of other comedians and Nirvana had played there. For me, I never really idolize comedians, but anytime I’ve been anywhere that a band I’ve known has played has made me feel incredible. Playing the Wilbur Theater in Boston is pretty important to me because it’s just such a beautiful theater and I used to work there as a ticket person. Things like that excite me. I imagine I haven’t played those venues yet that would give me the biggest thrill, like you’re part of the history or whatever. But for me it’s more of a band thing than a comedy thing.
Beyond your standup, you are also very active in social media, you have a newsletter and a podcast. Is it tough balancing everything?
No. I mean, my newsletter I write like twice a month and it’s literally just “These tickets are on sale.” It’s not some op-ed piece. (laughs) My podcast, it’s like, sometimes you do [it]… I’ve always worked my whole life since I was 14. I was bagging groceries, going to school, taking dance class. I don’t know what it’s like to have free time. I’ve always done a million things, so for me it’s just like there’s no balance really. Sometimes I have to take an hour to do a podcast. Sometimes I’m writing a script. I don’t just do comedy. I never have. To me it’s just a way of life.
Speaking of writing scripts, I kept seeing your name several months ago when I was watching The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. How did you end up working on the show?
I just got involved with it because they had seen my standup. The pilot was written before the show creators had ever even known I was alive. It was already up on Amazon. They did this weird thing where they put the pilot up and a year later put the whole series up. After they made the pilot and they hadn’t made the other episodes yet, there was an executive at Amazon that knew me. I don’t know the behind-the-scenes story, but I’m in the business and out and about. The show creators had heard of me and probably watched a little bit of my standup and thought they need some standup comics to help consult about the world of comedy. Not necessarily to write Midge’s act – that’s a common misconception. So, they hired me. I had a Skype interview and I went to New York and wrote on the show for the first two seasons. It was fantastic.
When I spoke with you last time, we discussed the fact that you didn’t really touch on politics too much in your standup, though you are very political on social media.
That’s right. You can put that as the headline.
Why do you do that?
Because my outlook is very self-focused. That’s the style of comedy that I do and have done for 20 years. I always say, if I were a dermatologist, and somebody went “but pancreatic is where it’s at,” are you just going to change your business? (laughs) I’m not trained in it, you know? If I wrote on a late-night show, I’m sure I could whip up some jokes from the newspaper that morning. But it’s not conducive to building my art and who I am. Who I am is not a reaction to Trump. I am an artist and somebody who talks about their life and uses it as a way to make other people feel okay about their own lives. He’s never been a part of my life until two years ago.
I can totally get that.
I’ve been very political my whole life. I just don’t have the jokes for it. They don’t really age well. It used to be you can’t use them a year later, now you can’t use them a day later. So, there’s really no point. Also, let’s be honest, I’m a woman traveling alone on the road. Do I want to talk about politics on stage when I don’t know who is going to attack me after the show? That’s what I think about. It isn’t even to be a woman, just a person, you know. I do not feel like going out and poking the bear around the country.
You always hear stories about how tough touring is for comedians; you don’t know what city you’re in, you don’t know what the local scene is like. Do you get time to explore the cities you’re visiting, or have you hit the point that you’ve been enough places and you just want to hang out in the hotel?
(laughs) Yeah, you’ve got me. I never care about seeing anywhere [while working]. I’ve traveled America as a person. I’ve seen a lot of it. Sometimes if you’re in a comedy club gig, you’re there for three days, then yeah, you’ll go see something. [Normally] I’m doing a one-hour show, with a one-hour meet and greet, and I go to the venue before to do soundcheck and we get all the merchandise out and this and that. Usually a show date is a travel date. Most humans don’t travel, do a show, and then sight-see that day. I will get into Philly at 3:00, after having traveled all morning from the show the night before, and I have a show in three hours. I want to do nothing but save my energy. I don’t even want to speak to another [person].
That makes sense.
I’m reading a real great book; I think it’s called This is the Real Magic. [ed. note: it is Here is the Real Magic by Nate Staniforth.] It’s by a magician who was doing well, but he was on tour. He wanted to really find himself. He went to India and then came back. He said, “Tour is a place within its own self.” Tour is a place. It’s hotels, airports, and whatever. You are not technically in Pennsylvania, or in Boston. You’re on tour. (laughs) You don’t really know where you are. Luckily, I don’t have to mention where I am for any reason. To me [comedians who do that are] just starting out. They aren’t sure of their own acts. They think they have to do lots of jokes about local stuff. They research it. They are like, “Oh, my God, the traffic on Eighth Street,” and everyone is laughing. I have my fan base now, so I can just go be me. They don’t need to hear the local pizza place joke from me. (laughs again)
Copyright ©2019 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: April 22, 2019.
Photos © 2019 Nick Bergmann. All rights reserved.