If you’re not currently following stand-up comedy and all of its various adjuncts (i.e. revolutionary podcasts like Comedy Bang-Bang, The Pod F. Tompkast, Doug Loves Movies and The Todd Glass Show), you may not be immediately familiar with Jen Kirkman. But if you’ve seen Funny or Die’s Drunk History or watched Chelsea Lately, you’ll recognize her searing wit and distinct, smoky voice. And if you are something of an enthusiast like myself, you’ll know that she’s not only a seasoned stand-up (she’s released two albums so far!), but also a writer, actor and podcast host.
Aside from her own writing (in addition to her stand-up, check out her 2013 memoir I Can Barely Take Care of Myself: Tales From a Happy Life Without Kids), Kirkman’s appearances on The Todd Glass Show stand out in my mind as some of the best free-form, play-acting and riffing I’ve ever had the pleasure of chortling along with as I listen surreptitiously on my iPod at work. For newbies, however, Jen’s first stand-up special, I’m Gonna Die Alone (And I Feel Fine), premieres today on Netflix and showcases a myriad of her material, both new and tried and true.
Kirkman spoke to me from her home in Los Angeles on Wednesday, and we geeked about everything comedy. Read the full Q&A below for her thoughts on writing (for the stage, the page and now, the screen), critics and why it’s totally fine–preferable, even–to “die alone” in this day and age.
Note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
First of all I wanted to ask you about I Seem Fun: The Diary of Jen Kirkman Podcast, which I really love. I think I would call myself an ‘I Seem Funner’….
Jen Kirkman: Oh my god, that’s so great! Thank you!
I think it’s wonderful. The tone is so intimate and comfortable, and I love the stories that you tell. I was wondering if doing that on a regular basis has affected your stand-up and working on your second book at all?
JK: It hasn’t. But that’s why I like it, because it’s totally separate.
I was thinking the other day, I wonder if I didn’t do comedy–the answer is probably no–but I was thinking, ‘If I didn’t do comedy, I feel like I would be a woman who does this podcast, as like [Laughs] something for people to relate to, but I might be totally wrong about that. But no, it doesn’t really affect [my writing]. I thought it would. I at first started [the podcast] thinking, ‘This is going to be a great way to get new ideas for bits,’ but it’s not. It’s turned into its own thing.
And with my book, you know, it probably helped without me knowing, but I get a lot of positive feedback from people when I’m on the podcast and when I’m open about things. And it’s not even positive feedback meaning, ‘Oh I think you’re so great’ or anything like that. It’s usually people sharing their stories. It makes them wanna open up and they’ll just say, ‘Hey, I really relate,’ and I take as positive feedback and obviously a book is a really good place to have that kind openness. It doesn’t have to be, you know, drop-dead hilarious every second. My book probably got a little more honest, but I didn’t consciously link that to the podcast.
But now that you say, I probably got a little honest because I had all this positive feedback about honesty!
Yeah, because you talk about your life so much on the podcast, from day to day things to your childhood. But I was wondering if it sparked stuff to write about in a book?
JK: Oh! Not really, because I already knew what I was gonna write about. But it did spark being a little more honest about some of the stuff I was writing about. Like when I wrote my introduction, I kinda wrote what I’m going through right now and by the time the book comes out, my life might be very different and I decided that’s okay. I wrote this introduction in a certain state of mind and that’s definitely something I’ve learned from … myself![Laughs] What an asshole I sound like!
[Laughs] Are you still working on the book right now?
JK: No, I just finished it.
JK: Yeah! I finished it when I was in Australia, which was the last piece of writing I did on it. I’ll have one more, you know, if I wake up in the middle of the night like, ‘Oh, I wish I didn’t say that!’ I still have one more chance to edit things. But it’s done, pretty much.
That’s amazing; I’m looking forward to it. Have you ever wanted to start another podcast? Like, one in a different style or format than what you’ve been doing so far?
JK: No, never had the desire. I sometimes don’t even make time to do this one. And I haven’t had the urge for time reasons.
Before I started [the podcast], for years when I was just thinking about it, I always thought that I might be good at interviewing people, but it’s just that too many people were doing it already and doing it well. Something I might do, actually, now that you say it … the podcast network I’m with is called “All Things Comedy” and they have a professional studio that a lot of the comedians that are on the network go and use. It just doesn’t feel right for my podcast to sit in a studio and rant as opposed to sitting in my bed, so I’ve never used it, but there are people I’d love to sit down with and talk about things I’m interested in.
So maybe I’ll put out some special episodes and do something like that. I’d probably have to work up the courage to do that. I, oddly, think I would feel self-conscious.
I think it could be really natural for you.
JK: Yeah, I think I would just talk way less. [Laughs] Which would be good for whoever’s on, but thank you, you’ve given me [something] to think about. Maybe I will do that.
So, your special, which is airing on Friday…
JK: It airs Friday, yeah.
Did you have a theme going into writing it? And does the material span from older and newer stuff, or is it all new?
JK: I mean, it’s funny, I don’t even think of it as me having written it. It’s kind of just what I’ve been doing. It’s more like, ‘Hey, we’re all comedians. We’re on the road. We do an hour of material for these audiences every weekend and now we’re gonna put it on tape.’ I feel like the special captures what I’m doing in everyday life as opposed to ‘I did something for a special.’
….So this, whatever’s out there on that special, is what it looked like to come see me on the road this past year. It’s a combination of new and old stuff. People might not know what’s new and what’s old, but one of the bits is six months old because it’s about turning 40, and one is probably 7 years old. It’s everything I’ve been doing in the past year. The theme kind of happened naturally.
I was going to ask, if the title was sort of encapsulating some kind of larger theme that you were trying to touch on, or if it was just one bit as part of the whole special….
JK: Yeah, I did title it [originally] hoping to have a theme.
It’s actually what I wanted to call my first book, but they were not totally hot on that idea. Because one of the things people say to me, or used to say, when I would tell them that I don’t want kids, is ‘What if you die alone?’ or ‘You could die alone’ or ‘Who’s going to take care of you when you’re older?’ And so, what I did not touch on in the special and what is my personal belief is that, and people take the title all different ways.
Some people think it means being single, but I wasn’t single when I came up with that title. It’s this kind of uh … the examples in my family were that the men died first and the women were widowed. So it doesn’t matter if you’re married. You’ll die alone anyway and your children don’t live with you anymore, so [if] you fall and hit your head on the floor, it’s kind of this thing where….
Then a cat eats your face.
JK: [Laughs] Yes!
If you’re doing ANYTHING for some kind of guarantee about how your future is going to look, that’s really stupid. So that’s kind of what I mean about it. You don’t know what’s going to happen to us and we have to be okay with it.
For me, growing up–I didn’t go to any kind of pre-school, so like age zero to five before I went to kindergarten–there were five houses across the street from us, like all in a row and it was all like, widowed old women and I hung out with them every day and I thought their lives were awesome. We watched game shows, we played board games and we had tea, and it didn’t even dawn on me that these women should be married or should have children around them and I think they liked having me around, I kind of became their family and I don’t think their lives were crappy because they hung out with the neighbour kid all day. I think we fulfilled something in each other. I don’t think when they were teenage girls they would have been like, ‘When I’m an old woman, I’m going to play with the girl across the street.’ [Laughs]
I think they actually had a really nice time. I think people kind of pity so much of what they don’t understand. So that’s kind of the theme. How would anyone extract that theme, I don’t know.
In a recent episode of your podcast, you were speaking about reading some reviews [of recent shows] that were kind of upsetting and strange, and it kind of struck me in thinking about the kind of comments that some male critics tend to make, which piss me off as well. Do you think you’ll read any [reviews] after your special airs this week?
JK: Oh! I just read one that made me want to die … of sadness.
I’m not going to read any because I have a policy of ‘Don’t read any reviews positive or negative.’ The only thing I read is if I do an article, I’ll read it to make sure I wasn’t misquoted or something. But reviews, I try not to read because I don’t want to believe the positive. I don’t want to believe the negative.
The only reason I read my reviews overseas is cause it’s such a review culture. Like when you do shows in London or Australia, I do kind of want to know what people are saying and like think about my ticket sales and stuff like that. But I just saw one accidentally–someone sent it to me in a kind of, ‘Oh my god, screw this guy!’ way–but I didn’t even know it was out there and he gave my special a C- and he didn’t even mention the little scenes I do at the beginning. He said that, ‘It would sure do Jen Kirkman some good to watch some DVDs of actual stand up so she knows how to do it better.’
JK: It’s like, I’ve been doing this for 18 years, dude. And my stand-up, I wish it was so original that he thought I was breaking the mold, but [it’s] not. I do stand-up just like a ton of people. My stand-up style looks like that of a lot of people that have existed and possibly influenced me. You can see a little Richard Lewis, you can see a little Joan Rivers … it’s so clear that I’m not an original act and none of us are. And if I were [original], you would think he would put that in a positive way like, ‘Man, this is so out there, I just didn’t get it.’
And then he said, ‘Her jokes and punchlines don’t go anywhere and it’s like being on a train and when you finally get to your destination, the passengers are exhausted and need to get off the train.’
Wow, that’s so arrogant.
JK: I felt it was so deliberately cruel and he said I only got chuckles. That was clearly not true. I was in a sold out room of only my fans. If I didn’t get laughs, I would probably not have released it. [Laughs] It was just so hateful. No way would a man write this about another man. Like, ‘Insert Man’s Name should watch some DVD’s’? Fuck off!
Something hit him close to home, but it really hurts me. I don’t think a bad review means someone’s sexist. I just think this had something written all over it. It was really condescending.
Are you coming to Toronto soon?
JK: Oh! Probably, I mean, it’s always in my plans ‘cause I’ve been to Toronto twice in the past two years: once at the Comedy Bar, and once at the Just for Laughs festival. So I think I’ll try to do JFL in Toronto this year, or if not the Comedy Bar or something.
And I just want to say that love Lisa Leykis (editor’s note: this a character Kirkman does often) so much. It’s my favourite thing on The Todd Glass Show.
JK: Oh, thank you! I need to practice something like that to do on stage. [Laughs]
That would be amazing. She’s the best.
JK: Oh, you’re so sweet.
I’m Gonna Die Alone (and I Feel Fine) debuts on Netflix in Canada and the U.S. today. All images courtesy of Netflix Canada.