Jen Kirkman Explains the Finer Points of Jen Kirkman Livin'

Comedy Features Jen Kirkman
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Jen Kirkman Explains the Finer Points of Jen Kirkman Livin'

Jen Kirkman is someone you’d want to get stuck next to on a plane—not because she would rattle off witty one-liners for your amusement, but because, if she decided to talk to you, you would be blessed with a rambling conversation far more entertaining and insightful than any paperback you brought with you. Four hours would fly by like fifteen minutes and, by the time you landed, you might not have doubled over laughing but you would begin to suspect that she is probably the funniest person you will ever meet. The next day, you’d be sure of it. (Kirkman, incidentally, is a New York Times bestselling author, if you’re looking for a substitute for this experience.)

Kirkman’s stand-up comedy captures captures that same wonderfully meandering feeling, albeit punched up a bit for the stage. Her first Netflix special I’m Gonna Die Alone (And I Feel Fine), which Paste contributor Robert Ham called “discursive in the best way,” established her as a force in conversational comedy. Those of us who followed her career for years—on Chelsea Lately, on Drunk History, on her albums—knew she was a talented comic storyteller, but getting an hour of comedy about divorce, dating after 40, and pubic hair at the top of the Netflix splash page was a major milestone. Suddenly, everyone else knew her name, too.

Free from the burden of introducing Kirkman to a larger audience, her second special Just Keep Livin’?—available today on Netflix—covers new territory: tattoos and tampons, meditation and Matthew McConaughey, being in a relationship and traveling alone. If that sounds like a disparate array of topics, it is, but Kirkman’s talent lies in weaving all of those threads together in a way that never feels forced or abrupt. Like her first hourlong, Just Keep Livin’? breezes right past the 60-minute mark—proof of how easily she fills the time.

I caught up with the comedian in advance of Just Keep Livin’? for a far-ranging conversation about her career, the challenges of being a longform comic, and doing stand-up under President Trump. Below is an edited and condensed version of our chat (which unfortunately took place over the phone and not on a transatlantic flight.)

Paste: When my editor assigned this interview, I was thrilled. I’m a fan, my partner is a fan; we’re your queer fans who are “tell[ing] the other gay people that [you’re] funny.”

Jen Kirkman: Thank you! That’s right, per my request in my first special.

Paste: So I read your “Hot Tips on How to Interview a Comedian” and then stared at a blank document for an hour trying to devise a question you’ve never been asked: If you could be any animal with any superpower on any drug (like a dog on acid who can fly) what combination would you choose?

JK: I’d be a cat. I guess I’d be on catnip because it would increase my stamina, my energy. (I wouldn’t name a human drug. I’m being very strict with this because I don’t want to be a cat who doesn’t know how they would interact with human drugs.) My superpower would be to be invisible and then I could just attack anybody that I wanted and have the super strength to do it.

Paste: The title of your special Just Keep Livin’? is tattooed on your ankle and it’s also Matthew McConaughey’s personal motto. Which do you prefer: rom-com, Dazed and Confused Matthew McConaughey or dramatic, True Detective Matthew McConaughey?

JK: I’ve never seen True Detective but I do prefer dramatic Matthew McConaughey. I think that’s what he was meant to do. I love him in Dazed and Confused but him in rom-coms makes me uncomfortable. It’s weird when someone is too talented for what they’re doing. It can almost come off like they’re a bad actor. And so it wasn’t until dramatic acting that I realized what a force he was. So I’m more of a Dallas Buyers Club Matthew McConaughey gal.

Paste: I love that “j.k livin’” isn’t an ironic tattoo. Is there more of a backstory behind it than we hear in the special?

JK: It’s kind of a boring story. I’ll keep this brief and try to make it interesting.
My initials are J.K. and when I used to work at Chelsea Lately we obviously read a lot of tabloids, so we heard about Matthew McConaughey’s foundation just keep livin but he just calls it “j.k. livin’.” So I started just saying it to mean “Jen Kirkman livin’.” Anything I do, I call it “j.k. livin’.” If I had a lifestyle magazine, I’d call it “j.k. livin’.” So it just became a private joke that—as private jokes are—is not funny at all.

I would travel with a lot of the people from Chelsea—we would go on tour—and weird things would happen where I would have the best luck and they wouldn’t. We would both be getting on flights at the same time and theirs would get delayed but mine wouldn’t. Or my hotel room would weirdly be a better one than theirs. And they were like, “You have the best travel luck. It must be that j.k.l.—that Jen Kirkman luck, that Jen Kirkman livin’.” It was just a dumb thing we kept saying.

And I never thought of myself as someone who is lucky. It’s not my first instinct to be positive. Growing up, I’ve always been more of a “woe is me,” “everything is terrible,” Charlie Brown kind of person so it’s very interesting for me to start saying, “Good things happen to me a lot! J.K. Livin’!” So the dumbest things like putting my Christmas tree up months before Christmas—I call that “j.k. livin’.”

It grew from that and then I researched what the quote actually was and it was something about how our only choice is really to just keep livin’. (I guess the other choice would be suicide.) So it means something to me but it’s also a dumb private joke about my initials. And I put it on my ankle as more of a way to remind myself that I have two choices: I can look at myself like I’m Charlie Brown or I can look at myself like somebody who has good luck. And why not choose the luck thing?

So that obviously is much, much too much to put into a joke so I’ve boiled it down to the essence which is that something that Matthew McConaughey said weirdly inspired me more than something someone I actually know said—enough to put it on my ankle.

Paste: So I’m going to attempt a risky McConaughey-inspired segue but if I had to draw a parallel between you and him, it would be that after long careers—this is your 20th year of doing stand-up—you’ve both been hitting major highlights in your 40s. If you could control the way the industry worked, would you rather have hit those milestones earlier or do you like the timing?

JK: There’s reasons I like the timing and reasons I don’t. It’s still very hard for me to say, “Oh, I have all this success,” because, to me, success means that I would never have to work again, I would have all this money, and, if I wanted to work, I would just make a call and say, “This is what I want to do,” and even if it were something crazy like hosting my own show on QVC, they would be like, “All right, I guess!” I have such a limited definition of success. It’s really a definition of success that most people won’t ever achieve so I don’t know why I have it.

But I think, for me, the road to success—I have been doing stand-up for 20 years and that includes the first few years of open mics and only doing five minutes at a time. Doing 200 hours a year of stand-up is probably the last five years. But I would say for the road stuff, yeah, I kinda wish it happened a little sooner because as I get older I don’t feel like travelling all the time. It takes a toll physically that it probably wouldn’t have in my 20s. Then again, I probably wouldn’t have taken it seriously in my 20s. I would have been maybe going out after shows.

I mean, there’s nothing that points to being younger as being better for success. Because I think for the kind of stand-up I do, I didn’t know myself as well. I didn’t have much to draw from in my personal experience. There’s no reason that gearing anything younger would have been better except for, yeah, being richer now or I’d be ready to retire. But I think that I’ve been a late bloomer physically in my life and with other things so I’m not surprised, in a way, that I’m starting to pick up steam in my 40s.

And then I worry, “Oh my God! There’s only a few years left before the younger people take over!” But that’s not true. There’s always room, I think, because everything is happening at once. Some younger people are more successful than me, some older people are, and other people are less. So I don’t have to worry.

But yeah, I think ultimately, it’s better that it’s happening later. There’s no reason why being younger would be better for this kind of stuff.

Paste: Having seen the special, it seems to only be getting better from here.

JK: I think there’s something to getting older where your presence is just different and people take you a little more seriously. And as our faces age, we look older. It’s just a little easier to take someone seriously as an expert on their own opinions. When I see someone who’s in their 20s, I can think, “Oh, that’s a clever joke,” but I don’t really believe anything they’re saying about themselves, which is horrible but that’s what happens when you get older. You’re like, “Oh yeah, they’ll change their minds.” So I like being older as a stand-up. I think, unlike gymnastics, you get better as you get older.

Paste: And one of the things that’s great about you getting these Netflix specials now is that your comedy works so well in longform. Other comedians have hourlongs that are more like 50 minutes and even then, they’re stretching to hit that mark. Both of yours are an hour and then some. What’s the secret?

JK: I can write a [shorter] joke if it’s for paper, if it’s for someone else, if I’m writing a script. The jokes in my script writing—you wouldn’t think it was me who wrote them because I’m so blah, blah, blah longform when I’m talking about myself.

I think it’s just my personality. It’s definitely nothing that I tried to do and, more so, it’s just something I learned to embrace. The short jokes will be peppered in with what I’m saying but the thing I’m saying is a five-minute long story. And I think it’s harder to do it the other way. I can’t imagine 50 minutes, 60 minutes worth of short jokes that keep changing topics. That’s a lot. I don’t even know how people memorize it. So, for me, it just comes so naturally.

Paste: Do you hate filling shorter times? You really excel in longform but you’re also in an industry where, to get success, you have to start out doing these tiny little snippets of comedy…

JK: That was hard for me at first. Starting out, that’s totally true. I think now it’s changing but getting on a late-night show and doing five minutes is always gonna be a rite of passage. It’s so strange because it doesn’t translate into ticket sales on the road, nobody really gets discovered anymore from that, so I don’t really know why it’s still such a big deal. But you cannot get on one of those late-night shows unless you have five minutes. And they don’t mean a five-minute story with one punchline; they mean come out, a joke up top, “I know what you’re thinking,” bop bop bop, more jokes. And I have some jokes but they didn’t all go together when I was starting out so it didn’t feel right to me and, if something doesn’t feel right, then I don’t perform it very well.

And these late-night shows—If you see a comedian on a late-night show, they have been working on that set with the person who books it, being micromanaged for months. And it’s very easy to make people laugh on a late-night show. They’re there to have fun, they’ve been given candy behind the scenes, they’re excited, they’ve just seen celebrities, they’re in the presence of Conan or Fallon or whoever the person is, so they’re going to laugh. But the way that you audition for these shows is that you do a five-minute set at an open mic in front of ten people and no one’s laughing. And it’s the same story every time from the booker: “We’re not looking at the crowd reaction; we’re just looking at your jokes.” But if you bomb, they never ever book you. So it’s just a lot of that for years and years.

And for me, it was very hard to put five minutes together that made sense. I always wanted to do a little longer form thing. I have a few sets out there on late-night shows but I don’t like them. It wasn’t until I started doing Conan a few years ago, where they kind of let you do whatever, and you can do a little longer than five minutes and I happened to have some chunks of material that worked really well for it. And now, because I’m more known and experienced, I can do what they call “panel-only” where you’re basically doing your jokes with the host but it’s a longer segment and it doesn’t look like you’re doing your routine.

But yeah, that was a big challenge—to be a longform comic in a five-minute world—and I think it really messed with my head for the first ten years. It was like, “I guess I’m not ever gonna be a comic!” I didn’t have the self-confidence to say, “Well then I don’t wanna try to get on these shows” or, “I’ll do something else” or, “Sorry, I’m gonna be different and tell a story.” I just never thought I could do that. So now I’ve learned to embrace that, yeah, you’re not gonna get the funniest me in five minutes.

Paste: One of the most common ways you’ve been described in the press as a gossipy “best friend” or a “sassy BFF.” I always found that to be a little strange. Do you feel like you’re playing the “best friend” role on stage?

JK: No. I know what people are talking about but “sassy” is just such a female compliment and I hate it. If you take any other comic who is male that I might be similar to and you put “sassy” in front of him, it would jump out at you as the most bizarre thing.

And yeah, the “best friend” thing—I kind of get that in relation to some of my material. The material I had about not wanting kids or that it’s OK to be divorced—I can kind of see how someone would be like, “Oh, maybe she feels like a good friend who’s telling you a long, crazy story or reassuring you.”

But look, it’s a good quote that I never thought described me well but I will use it. You’ve probably seen those quotes a lot because I put them in my bio and I keep them in there because I think it might draw people in who don’t know me but I don’t feel that way at all. I feel more like your grumpy friend or someone to whom you’re like, “Alright, shut up, stop complaining,” but in a good way.

But no, “sassy” and “best friend” is just a weird thing and I think it’s usually a very male point of view that says that. I don’t even know what the hell “sassy” means and now I’m too old to be sassy, I think. You know, it was funny—I was looking at some of the descriptions of guys’ stand-up specials and they’re like “biting,” “skewering.” It’s always this confident—boom—like nailing it. And I think that’s what they mean but they call it “sassy” in women.

Paste: And the whole “best friend” thing—it’s a little weird to cast you in a supporting role in your own act. If anything, I’m the friend, the audience is the friend…

JK: … instead of the lead. Yeah, because I am the complex, complicated lead of my own story. I’m Tony Soprano but people are saying I’m the wife.

Paste: So while it’s clear I love your comedy, I follow you on Twitter for your politics. You’ve been vocal throughout the election and its aftermath. But as you made clear in your first Netflix special you’re not a “political comedian.” Is it a challenge in a post-Trump world to not be more overtly political in your routine?

JK: I mean, I’m a political person. And I don’t know if I’ve said anything funny [on Twitter] since the election but I’ve certainly talked politics because I think of social media quite literally: I’m a social animal who is using the media. So I’m just a citizen expressing my opinions but I definitely wouldn’t be like, “Hey everybody! Go over to my Twitter if you want some funny clips!”

The reason that I say I’m not a political comedian is my brain doesn’t work that way. I don’t know how to write jokes around this stuff as fast and furious as I can about my own life. So it’s a challenge because I don’t want to do jokes that normalize [Trump] and just make it seem like, “Oh, we’ve got this wacky president!” I am also despondent and I haven’t done stand-up since the election—and that’s kind of a coincidence, too. That just more has to do with the fact that I taped my special and I don’t have new material to work on yet.

But because I do personal material, I don’t want to [do stand-up] right now. I don’t think it’s right, and I feel like unless my personal material can keep highlighting the causes that I care about—like women’s issues—then I’m a little silent for right now. I do need new stuff because I’m going on tour in September and I’m sure something will come to me but, yeah, I don’t want to do Trump jokes per se.

But I think that notion that I’m a political person but a personal comedian is going to have to shift this year because I don’t wanna be another distraction for people and I also don’t wanna say the same thing that everyone else is saying. I also don’t want to normalize it with humor and I don’t want to preach at people, so I have to figure out a way to—well, I think that street harassment bit I do is a perfect example of a bit that’s political but it’s sociopolitical so I could do more stuff like that because I think, under Trump, we’re going to see a lot of women’s rights being annihilated.

So I think in that vein I probably might have more material. I don’t know if I’ll be talking about Trump directly. I’m sure there will be a whole cast of characters I can talk about. But yeah, I don’t wanna do “orange” jokes or “Oh, look at his Twitter!” It’s just too serious. I don’t have any practice in doing jokes about how our democracy as we know it is ending so it’s almost like I’m a new comic again. But I just wanna make sure that I do it right, so I’ve been rendered silent in the humor world since November 8th.

Paste: There’s that old feminist slogan “the personal is political.” Your comedy might not be political in that cable-news political kind of way, but it is definitely political in a “this is our reality” kind of way.

JK: I hope to keep doing more of that as things happen in real life. But the challenge is living a life and then making it funny and then not forgetting that I don’t just want to distract people. I do think that comedians have a little bit of a responsibility but we’re all so different. We’re not all Lenny Bruce or Bill Hicks. We’re not all good at it. So I can just do my areas that I’m good at and I hope to keep doing more of it.

Just Keep Livin’? is available on Netflix today.

Samantha Allen is the Internet’s premier alpaca enthusiast. Follow her on Twitter.