Caro Meets Comedy Interview

Jen Kirkman: Feeling Fine

By | Published on Friday 6 November 2015

Multi-talented, multitasking US comedian Jen Kirkman wings her way over to the UK this month to complete a short but sweet run at London’s Soho Theatre. If you haven’t come across her before, let me fill you in: she’s an acclaimed stand-up star who makes regular appearances on US TV screens, as well as being a seasoned scriptwriter and best-selling author.


Almost as soon as I heard she was planning a visit to our neck of the woods, I put some questions to Jen, to find out more about the upcoming live dates, and her career in general.

CM: Can you start by telling us a bit about the show you’re bringing to Soho Theatre in November? Does it have any particular theme? What sort of subjects do you cover?
JK: Part of me wants to call the show ‘I’m Gonna Die Alone (And I Feel Fine)’ because that’s the name of my Netflix special. But, I don’t want people to think it’s exactly the same material from the special. It will be a mixture of new stories and some material from the special. But it covers living alone, death, divorce, family, change, and being a woman who travels around by herself a lot.

CM: How do you go about developing your stand up shows? Do you sit down and write a big block of material or do you stick road-tested bits and bobs together…?
JK: I never write anything down until after I’ve done it on stage a bunch. I work out new material over the course of years – on stage. My brain doesn’t work unless there are stakes and improvising (aka not being able to shut up) comes easily to me. But I do drop bits that don’t get laughs. I don’t push it. So everything I currently do is material that’s always worked in some way, and then it’s been tightened, honed, perfected, punched up, over the course of my shows.

I only try new things five minutes at a time – sneaking it in during hour long sets on at comedy clubs in America. Or at quick five minute spots around Los Angeles. I would never just get up and improvised in front of, let’s say, the Soho Theatre… although I always start the first five minutes of every show with something that’s in the moment. It helps get me excited. Sets up those stakes again. And hopefully it lets the audience know I’m there with them in the present and not just going to rattle off a memorised collection of words to them.

CM: It’s a couple of years since you were last at the Soho Theatre. Do you like London? Are you looking forward to being here? What will you get up to when you are not performing?
JK: I love London – maybe NOVEMBER wouldn’t be my month of choice for visiting but hey – more reasons to drink wine in the afternoon. I’ll probably shop. I’m going to arrive with an empty suitcase. I’ll probably see a play in the West End. Or I’ll lie and say that I’m seeing an important play but then actually go see ‘Elf The Musical’. I’ll go have afternoon tea. Most likely one day will be spent in bed with jet lag, but I’ll pretend I went to a museum or something.

CM: Can we go back to the beginning for a moment? Did you always want to work in comedy? What inspired you to take this career path?
JK: I always wanted to be in show business but I didn’t know what “comedy” was when I was five years old. I just knew that I wanted to tap dance and maybe wear a feather boa and be on stage. I thought I was going to be everything from the lead singer in a punk band to a very, serious actress who portrays a homeless single mother in a movie. I didn’t notice that little things I did ‘for fun’ in my ‘spare’ time pointed towards comedy – back in the 1990s when we just had video cameras that weren’t in a phone, it was a big deal. My friend used to just tape me smoking cigarettes and ranting on our front steps in college. I did it to make her laugh. That smoke break behaviour was pointing towards what I wanted to do long before I knew I wanted to do it. I don’t think much inspiration was involved – it was an urge.

CM: Who or what has influenced you in your work?
JK: I saw this documentary on Keith Richards – and it’s so clear in music, how other musicians influence musicians. He can show how he heard a Muddy Waters song and how he wrote almost a copycat version that he expands on. There’s something about comedy that is not analogous in the process. If you behave like another comedian, most likely people will accuse you of ripping them off and who wants to see the Rip Off Version of [Insert Comedian Name Here]? So in comedy, I didn’t set out to be like anyone else.

As a kid, the comedians on TV were George Carlin, Richard Lewis, Paula Poundstone, Roseanne, Joan Rivers, etc. I’m sure they influenced me. I’m sure that I’m a subconscious representation of certain elements of everyone’s style. But influences aren’t that linear to me. I always say that Morrissey probably inspired my sense of humour more than any comedian – specifically his ability to say morbid things with the intention of being funny. I mean, I named my special ‘I’m Gonna Die Alone (And I Feel Fine)’

CM: What inspires your material? Where do you get your ideas from?
JK: If I knew I could make millions telling people where to get ideas. They just show up in my head. Most of my comedy is autobiographical so as long as I leave my home and do something – eventually my experiences will inform my comedy. Nothing is less funny than me just saying, “Inform my comedy”.

CM: You’ve done lots of TV work, as a performer and writer. How does that compare to doing live stand up shows? What do you like doing best?
JK: I really do love it all, and I need it all to survive. When I’m sick of one, I can go hide in the others. If I’ve been chained up and writing too long, the freedom of talking on stage is the only fix. If I’m sick of hearing myself, I love sitting alone and writing. I guess performing live on stage is my favourite, because unlike writing for TV or performing on TV, nobody can tell me what to do, how to do it or that I can’t say certain words. And my ‘time at work’ lasts an hour.

CM: As well as writing for TV, you’ve written a best-selling book, ‘I Can Barely Take Care Of Myself’. Can you tell us a bit about that? And could you tell us a bit about your new book?
JK: ‘I Can Barely…’ is about the crazy things people say to women who don’t have or want kids. I’ve never wanted kids. I am not trying to preach a lifestyle or make fun of moms – I just don’t want kids. In my opinion, nothing could be more of a non-issue than someone saying what they don’t want to do. But whenever people ask me if I have kids, their next question is “Do you want kids?” And when I say, “No” – an argument ensues.

People have told me I’ll change my mind, I’ll regret it if I don’t have kids, no one will take care of my when I’m old and on and on. A lot of times these are strangers and very casual acquaintances. I know a lot of other women and men without kids hear the same things. And so that book is just a funny look at what we have to put up with in society; it’s probably less annoying to be woken up at 2.00am with a crying baby.

My next book is called ‘I Know What I’m Doing (And Other Lies I Tell Myself: dispatches from a life under construction.’ And it’s about just that. My life is so under construction. The book is about travelling, getting older, cheating, lying, winning, losing, sucking at relationships, coming into my own, being an unconventional adult. It’s definitely a book that’s about accepting what I call the thing that always happens in life – the third option we didn’t see coming is usually how everything turns out – for better or worse.

CM: What’s the best thing about your job?
JK: When it goes well, and people tell me that I made their crappy day better.

CM: What’s the worst thing about your job?
JK: When drunk people who’ve had a bad day ruin my show.

CM: What’s next for you?
JK: Just planning my book tour for 2016, writing a TV pilot and ageing!

Jen Kirkman is on at Soho Theatre from 16-21 Nov. See the venue website here for more info and to book tickets.

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