Interview: Jen Kirkman heads back to IC for Witching Hour

Jen Kirkman

Englert Theatre — Saturday, Nov. 5 at 9 p.m.

Jen Kirkman is an award-winning author, stand-up comedian and authentically kind and funny human being. Hot off the heels of the release of her Netflix special I’m Going to Die Alone (And I Feel Fine), Jen will be in Iowa City, performing her stand up at the Englert on Nov. 5 at 9 p.m., and in conversation with Fran Hoepfner at The Mill at 10:30 p.m. following the show. This conversation took place over the phone, with Jen in sunny Los Angeles, and me in a freezing Hy-Vee parking lot in Minnesota.

Comedian Jen Kirkman -- photo by Robyn von Swank
Comedian Jen Kirkman — photo by Robyn von Swank

As a stand-up comedian, how much do you write before hand and how much is not improvisational, but spontaneous, unique to the place and the moment?

Well I just finished my Netflix special, and I had an opportunity to see myself performing different jokes at different venues, and I know that it’s different every time. I’m not someone who writes out all of their jokes before hand and memorizes the whole bit. More than anything, I just come to the show with the punchline and then work towards that. When I’m on stage, in my head I’m like, “Okay, road rage joke, people in cars are assholes, got it,” but each time I do it the setup will be different for sure. Have you read Kelly Carlin’s book?

I’m not familiar.

She’s George Carlin’s daughter.

Oh, right on. What’s the title of it?

The George Carlin Home Companion: Growing Up With George, or something like that. In the book though she explains how her father would perform the entire bit, word for word, just as as he wrote it, completely from memory, like exactly. But that’s not my style, I’m not writing jokes at coffee shop and then performing them that way. I’m not trying to perfect each sentence. It’s not like I have this idea that there is this ideal or right way to tell a certain joke.

Jen Kirkman performs at the Englert on Nov. 5. -- photo by Robyn von Swank
Jen Kirkman performs at the Englert on Nov. 5. — photo by Robyn von Swank

So if I’m sitting in the crowd at a Jen Kirkman show, I can anticipate some of the jokes I love, but they’ll be a tweaked a little. I like that; that seems honest.

Oh my God, I’m just realizing that if I were a musician, I’d be the kind of musician that I hate — the kind where you go see them in concert and they play the songs you know but then change it up just to piss you off. Don’t do that! Don’t do something weird! Just play my song! It drives me crazy. I’m kidding though, as a performer you’ve got to make it interesting to yourself while you’re up there. If I just performed all of my material, the same way, every night, it just wouldn’t feel authentic.

I feel that. I recently had to do some stand-up (which was terrifying), and as a writer I’ve read my work live, so I’m curious what you think is the difference between bombing and killing it. It seems like it has something to do with confidence and lack of self-consciousness. It’s definitely some sort of vibe thing, some sort of invisible transmission between the crowd and the person up there on the stage.

Totally, there is for sure something unconscious, some vibing with the crowd going on the way you think of with musicians at a concert. For me it’s kind of like I’m surfing, riding the crowd’s energy. I was at the Bowery Ballroom — sold-out crowd, a lot of my oldest fans — and from the first moment something felt off, so I kept saying to myself, “Don’t get bitter, don’t get bitter.” Nothing bombed or anything. People came up to me after and said how much they enjoyed the show, but for me I knew it just wasn’t electric. And there are also those nights where it goes the other way, where they are just dying laughing, and I’m like, “Okay guys, I’m not that funny.” But, yeah, you know it when it’s really working. It does feel electric; there is this energy exchange that you’re passing back and forth with everyone in the crowd.

Kirkman's latest book was released earlier this year.
Kirkman’s latest book was released earlier this year.
You wrote and published your first book, I Can Barely Take Care of Myself. Congratulations on that.

Why thank you.

How was the writing for the book different from your stand-up writing?

Well for one, I write every day, no matter what. I’ve written for Chelsea Handler, I’ve done sitcom writing, in the writer’s room, 9-5, so I feel disciplined in that regard. With the book I was getting up each day before dawn and getting to work by 6 a.m. and there is something magically about being awake and working that early. It’s like I can just write because I’m literally barely awake enough to judge myself, and nobody is on Twitter that early, there’s no T.V. worth watching. All those things help because writing a book really comes down to discipline for me. I think that’s why I prefer writing in claustrophobic spaces like airplanes, where there is nothing else you can do really but write. For the same reason, I prefer libraries to coffee shops.

Were you a writer before you were a comedian?

I wrote shorties and essays since I was a kid and I even won writing contests but I never really put two and two together and was like, “I should be a writer.” I had creative writing teachers in college see some promise in my work, and they were really encouraging and even tried to get me to switch my major. But I never really had a desire to get paid for writing; the writing is personal and really for me. For that reason, I’m pretty consistent about it, but it is more of a pecking and poking process. It’s not going to be like Prince or something, where after he died all this secret writing comes to light. They’ll be like, “We checked her hard drive, and there were like three essays.”

How much are you willing to share about your personal life through comedy?

Comedians can’t hide. You write a joke about someone you know, like “Brian picks his nose” and then everyone’s like, “Hey I know Brian;” they know it’s about them. Somehow that doesn’t seem to be the case in literature. Maybe because there’s something mystical about writing about other people and your own life through prose or poetry. But with comedy, it’s like, “Okay make jokes about your life, but now you’ve made your own bed.”

I read in another interview that you wish you were more honest even in your book, though.

I do wish that. I don’t know, I feel comfortable, personally, having a record of who I was out there. I do. You can look back and see that you won’t always suck in the same ways. I go back and read things like, “This is the love of my life,” or “So-and-so is my best friend.” And even if it is not true now, it was true then. I really like the idea of keeping a public diary through art.

It’s like having a public diary of “locker room talk” with Billy Bush…

Yeah but he said that when he was like 59 years old; he wasn’t a kid.

Had his frontal lobe fully developed at that point?

I doubt it! But that’s who he was then and who he is now. A person is pretty well cemented by 59 — But hey, I’m not worried, Hillary is going to win by like 1000%.

From your lips to God’s ears…

It’s going to happen! She’s going to be our president, and I can’t wait. I’m putting my Christmas tree up right after Halloween, I am so anxious to have this all over.

What other artists are you looking forward to seeing at Witching Hour?

Pussy Riot. I’m flying in early to catch them. I mean, should the unthinkable happen, and he gets elected, I know we can survive, look what Pussy Riot went through — no matter what happens, we have to keep making art.

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