You may know Jen Kirkman from a variety of places, from her regular appearances on shows like “Chelsea Lately” and “Drunk History” to her best-selling books and hit stand-up specials. Her latest special, “I’m Gonna Die Alone (And I Feel Fine),” was adapted from her Netflix performance into her third comedy album, out today.
Kirkman’s style of comedy is for those who maybe think a little too much, for those who spend a lot of time inside their own heads. In “I’m Gonna Die Alone,” Kirkman thinks out loud about being in your 40s, divorced, and childless. These are characteristics that apply to an increasing amount of women, and Kirkman says what many of them may be thinking, because society still just doesn’t quite get it. She has found her comedic voice and knows how to use it, whether in writing, on camera, or on stage, but hasn’t been easy. We caught up with Kirkman while on tour and talked about comedy, creative processes, and figuring out who you are.
How does your writing process differ between stand-up and a book? Do you ever get an idea for one form, then think that it might work better if you used it somewhere else? Is there one medium you like working in best?
Yes, that’s exactly what I do. I get an idea for one form and sometimes, through the process, I realize that it’s better used somewhere else. I have tried to put jokes from my act in my books — figuring that a joke is a great way to end a paragraph or even a chapter. My editor has disagreed at times and I want to stomp my feet and say, “But this joke killed in Philadelphia at the Helium Comedy Club last week!” But it doesn’t quite read the same on the page… and I’ve come around. Or, I’ll think I have such an interesting story idea, but then realize that it’s not impactful enough and it would serve better as an anecdote for my podcast. I don’t have a medium that I like more — that would depend on where I am at in life. Sometimes I just want to be quiet and write a book. Sometimes I need to speak out loud what I need to say. They both need to exist in my life.
The album is audio from your Netflix special. When you put out stand-up set as audio-only, are you ever concerned that some jokes play better when you can see the performance, versus just listening to it?
Well, now I am! Kidding. One thing I like about comedy albums is that I can sort of feel left out. I wasn’t at the taping. I can’t see anything. I am hearing the crowd laugh, but I didn’t hear the comic say something. Did she make a face? What’s going on? I love listening and trying to figure out what’s going on in the room. There’s something special to me about taking away people’s vision that forces them to experience the album as a moment in time that they weren’t at, but get to eavesdrop on, and it might not translate, but I think that can be the cool part.
Your comedy style is pretty personal, but is there anything that’s off limits, or any subject you’ve tried, but wouldn’t revisit?
Yes. Things that would hurt those close to me are off limits. And that is 85 percent of life, isn’t it? Life is mainly knowing people, keeping their trust, having secrets with people, having boundaries with myself, knowing what’s funny, knowing what would only damage me or others to talk about. And the 15 percent that’s left to reveal — it seems very personal because I always let the audience into what I was thinking while going through something that’s actually very typical and universal and safe.
How has your voice changed from when you first started doing stand-up?
Oh, I don’t even know because it’s hard to remember 20 years ago. I don’t go back and look at or listen to old things. But, I’m obviously more sure of myself just as a human being on earth, so I know that I don’t cop a posture, meaning I’m not trying to be angry, I’m not trying to be anything. I’m just being me. I think the first 10 years of my stand-up, I was really trying on different sides of my personality to see which one fit as the one to lean on.
I eventually realized that it’s not a persona I need to create; I need to strip things away, not affect a style of speaking or behavior. I’m also friendlier on stage. I have a good time telling my jokes and stories — even if I’m relating a story about a time I was upset or mad or frustrated, I’m not actually up there ranting against the world. I’m trying to connect with the audience. I think when I first started out, I wanted the audience to laugh, but connecting with them was not a concern. It’s like being a bad date. It’s basically what being in your 20s is for — to be selfish, and try on different personalities, and insist that you aren’t trying on different personalities. Your 40s in stand-up is just to begin to know who you are.
Do you have any advice for younger women, particularly those who are aspiring comedians?
My advice is that I’m 20 years older than you guys and you should have the true rebel comedian spirit and not give a crap what I have to say. You should also listen to one thing I say, which is enjoy bombing and hope to do it for years. It’s the only way to find yourself. Don’t wish for success too young. Don’t complain. Just get up and do stand-up all of the time. Learn other skills in show business too. Write scripts. Don’t bother people to watch your stuff on YouTube. No one can save you. And, try to have some goddamn fun. It’s not all torture.
What’s one thing you would tell your 25-year-old self?
You don’t deserve any success yet. Be nice. And also, you won’t be so anxious in 15 years. You’ll really learn what it means to be comfortable in your own skin. Quit smoking. Oh, and 9/11 is coming in a year — don’t wear heels to work that day. Trust me. You’ll have to walk 60 blocks to your boyfriend’s apartment. Bring sneakers.
This interview has been condensed; a full version will be available on September 22 in Inspirer’s fall issue.