Jen Kirkman on ‘Irrational Thoughts’ and High School Poetry
Comedian and best-selling author Jen Kirkman is bringing her new show, Irrational Thoughts, to Montreal this month.
Currently based in L.A., the Massachussets-born comic has released several acclaimed comedy albums and specials, including this year’s Just Keep Livin’? on Netflix. Her varied resume also includes multiple appearances on Comedy Central’s Drunk History and @midnight.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Jen about transitioning from improv to stand-up, her teenage poetry, the books she recommends, and what we can expect from Irrational Thoughts.
So this week marks your 20th year in stand-up. Congrats!
Yeah! I keep forgetting that it’s actually this week. I think it was around the 17th, 19th of July that I went up for the first time.
When you were a kid, you wanted to be all sorts of things, including a poet and a broadway star. Now that you’ve been doing comedy for 20 years, are those things distant memories or do those impulses inform your work in some way?
I still dream of all the things I used to dream of. Like, if someone just tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Do you wanna be the star of a broadway show?”– I’d be like, “Of course!” I don’t have the talent for it, but I would want to (chuckles).
I’d go to the ballet and sit in the front row and think, “Oh my god, I wish I could do that.” And even something like poetry, I wouldn’t even think of applying it towards my stand-up. I would dream of just quitting stand-up, running around being a poet– as if that’s a viable job you can have these days. But I really still have all the same dreams. I mean, they’re not causing me any pain; I’m not like, “I should have done that!” It’s obvious that all of the things that I wanted to do, if you put them into a big stew, they do end up being stand-up comedy. But I individually still have all those dreams. I’m like a 5-year-old; “Maybe I’ll still be an astronaut some day!”
You’ve written a few books now, so have you ever thought about writing a book of poetry?
Might sound like a weird question!
No! I’m laughing because I love the question. I do have — oh this is so embarrassing — I have a book of poetry that I self-published with two friends in high school. They thought they were like Allen Ginsberg. I don’t know who I thought I was but there were no — as far as I knew — celebrated women beat poets. We released a self-published poetry rag called “Scarred,” and I had a fake name — I think it was Lola Miss — and we passed it out. I still have it and it looks like a zine, but it was nicely done. We handed it out and the principal called me into his office, and he was like, “You seem suicidal.” (laughs) When I look back on the poems– poetry is one of things I’m not studied in, so I don’t know what’s good or bad. I look at them and I’m like, “These are either really amazing or they’re horrible.” So yes, I would dream in the “I want to be an astronaut” sense about doing poetry, but I don’t actually think I’m good at it.
I don’t know you if you remember, but some actress wrote a book of poetry that was supposed to be very serious, but people would read it as a joke at parties and stuff. That’s probably what would happen to my book! (laughs)
Well hopefully it wouldn’t be that bad!
It’d be an honor!
Well sure, at least people would be talking about it! I found out this week that @midnight [the Comedy Central series that features comedians participate in Internet-related improv games] is ending, and I think that might have been where I first got to know your comedy.
Yeah! I just found out yesterday. I’m so out of it.
It’s too bad, because I feel like it was a good showcase for up-and-coming comedians– and introducing established ones to a new audience. Before you became a stand-up comic, you did improv, right?
Yeah, briefly. In college, I was in an improv group because there wasn’t stand-up at my college, and I didn’t know how– I was so dumb in college because I didn’t know you were allowed to go do an open-mic in the city. I went to college in Boston, and I thought, “Oh, I have to graduate college and be an adult before I could ever go to an open-mic.” I don’t know why I just didn’t go try it, but I didn’t. So I thought, “well I guess I’ll just be in this improv group in college,” and we sort of did the long-form, Del Close kind of improv that UCB does.
That was really fun, but by the next year, I was trying to be a stand-up, but I just couldn’t find anywhere to perform. There was no Internet, so I was looking in newspapers for open mics and couldn’t find any. So I joined an improv group, I auditioned and I got in. It was definitely fun to perform; we performed every Friday, Saturday night and we had a following. After a while, I just didn’t want to play with other people, kind of. I love improv, I love taking classes and stuff just for fun, but I get kind of selfish when I’m up there. I just want to be by myself up there (chuckles).
Does @midnight stretch a similar comedic muscle as when you were doing improv? I would imagine being on a show like that requires a bit of a different skillset than stand-up.
Yeah, and it’s really more written than you would think. Some of the stuff, we do get in advance to think about, so you have to have some jokes ready. But like anything, once you’re out there it’s like, “Oh I thought this was funny when I was alone in my dressing room,” but then you kind of know, “That’s not gonna get a laugh; I’m just gonna improvise and be silly.”
It definitely stretches a different muscle, because I’m usually talking about things that I don’t know. As you mentioned, I’m established but I got exposed to a different crowd, so now the nerdy people come and see me. So when I’m on the show and I’m being asked to make jokes about Harry Potter or sci-fi, I don’t know what any of that is (laughs). So it’s sort of a way to figure out how I can still be me and deliver something that people think is funny. A lot of times, I just go with the angle of “I don’t know what I’m talking about,” y’know? But yeah, it definitely stretches that muscle, and luckily they don’t tape it live, so they can edit. So we usually tape a lot longer than what airs, so you’re kinda protected in that way; it’s like, if you suck, they’ll find your funniest moments and air those instead of the crappy moments.
So you’re not into sci-fi and fantasy stuff, but it’s clear that you’ve got plenty of knowledge of art and entertainment that extend beyond comedy. Is there anything you’ve watched or read recently that you’d like to recommend or that resonates with you?
That’s true, I’m like the least comedy-nerd person. Like, I never really know what’s going on in comedy, but I’m really interested in a ton of other things. I wish I had my Kindle with me. I’m always reading like 50 books at once; they’re always on my Kindle. I’m a big non-fiction fan. This actually sounds like it’s about comedy, but I’m reading Al Franken’s memoir Giant of the Senate, and it’s just about what it was like as a former comedian who runs for office, and it was incredibly informative of how hard it was– the propaganda used against him based on stuff he’d written when he was on Saturday Night Live, people taking things out of context on purpose to try to crash his campaign, and what it’s like to work day-to-day in politics. So it’s a really interesting read.
I’d watch any documentary about the fashion industry. Like, I’ll watch everything. My favorite documentary recently was about Iris Apfel, who’s this fashion icon in her nineties who wears these big glasses, and she’s just a real cool, free spirit. Anything about fashion or politics is something I really love reading about, or any kind of feminist non-fiction book. I’m reading this book right now called Trainwreck by this woman Sady Doyle, and it’s about women who are trainwrecks, but why are they treated worse than men? Like Keith Richards vs Courtney Love– why is he celebrated and she’s not? That’s a cool book, but I’m kind of like a boring non-fiction kind of person.
That book sounds really fascinating to me, because it’s true that there’s such a double standard. Men’s demons are always romanticized to such an ugly, toxic degree.
Yeah, and I think it can cause people to die too. They’re the victim of it too. The more people believe that Kurt Cobain was murdered, the less they understand that it was about addiction.
So anything non-fiction, and I like to watch bad reality TV. I’m watching Million Dollar Listing New York and they’re really showing the inside the buildings they’re selling, and it’s really fascinating to see what million-dollar apartments look like in New York City, but everything else in the show is staged. Everything is so fake, and I love it. And I’m basically watching New York get gentrified and bought out by the rich, and it’s upsetting, but they’re beautiful apartments (laughs).
What can you tell us about your upcoming shows in Montreal? From special to special, your subject matter really varies, and you don’t sit in one place too long.
Oh well thanks for saying that! This show Irrational Thoughts is something I put together especially for Montreal, because when I go to festivals, especially international ones, I feel like there’s more of a sense of people not wanting to go to just an hour stand-up show. Like, maybe they want something with a theme and maybe it’ll be a little more performative than your usual just jokes, jokes, jokes. So I think one of the bits is from my recent Netflix special, one of the things I’m doing is some new material, and then I have some material that Montreal has never seen but I toured with it last year in America.
They’re funny stories from my childhood about being anxious kid and worrying about nuclear war and stuff like that, so it’s really about the all the times in my life that I’ve had irrational thoughts. That’s the throughline of this one, but all the situations are really different. They range from childhood fears to taking a fear of flying class and failing it, then current fears about what’s going on in the world and all my weird attempts to calm my anxiety. I went to see all these weird healers this year and they were all frauds and it was really funny.
Then I’m gonna read a small part of an essay I wrote when I was in college about art and how I just thought it was evil and controlled by the rich, and it was so obnoxious. I’m reading it because I’m making fun of young people today, and how obnoxious politics has gotten in America with young people yelling at people my age. Like, “your generation took down society!” I’m always trying to show that even if I’m criticizing people, I can bring it back to criticizing myself. Because even the people I hate today, I was just like them, so it’s sort of an exploration of a life lived in anxiety. But like funny anxiety, not like– I’m not currently anxious, if that makes sense.
I’m really excited about it because I’m putting a hodge-podge of things together, and I’ve never done this particular lineup of things in the same order before, so I think it’ll be cool.
Awesome, I think that sounds great. Just one little thing before we go: I love the bit at the end of your last special with your parents. How did that come about?
Oh thanks for watching that! The idea to put them in it was based on the way that they reacted to me getting a tattoo, and I was like, “I’m 42. Why are you guys freaking out like I’m a teenager?” So I thought it would be funny if [in the special] they came backstage and yelled at me about my tattoo, and then I realized I’m putting a lot on my parents, who are not actors. I came up with the idea of hiring actors to play my parents and then my parents discovering that and getting upset with me because that’s what actually happened. I told them, “I’m gonna put you guys in my special,” and then I kind of backtracked. I was like, “You know what? It’s kind of a lot,” and they were like, “What?! We wanna be in it!” So that’s what inspired it– their actual behavior.
I thought I’d write a sketch that’s very meta, that’s about hiring people to play my parents and then my parents discovering and getting upset. It works two ways, where if my real parents actually suck, then at least we have those actors for the day, and I can just film something with them and cut my parents out of it. And they were really great! It was really fun, they came to New York and they couldn’t believe how much went into it. All this equipment, the directing, and they loved it. It’s a lot, and you do it over and over, and they kept thinking they were doing it wrong. Sometimes they just had to do it again because the lighting was bad on the last shot, and they were getting paranoid that they weren’t doing it right.
A lot of the emotion in it ended up being real; my mom thought that the other actress hated her. It ended up working really great, but I ended up laughing so much that they had to cut around me. I’m really glad they got to be in it, but none of their friends have Netflix or know what it is, so they didn’t get any glory. Like, no one they know saw it, which is typical, but I’ll tell them that you saw it (chuckles).
I hope people stop them on the streets. That would be great.
Oh my god, that would be my dream. Well, they come to my shows, and they stand in line and sign things, and I’m like, “Okay, please move along. Like, I’m not even famous, why do you guys get this?” (laughs)
Jen, thanks so much for taking the time to talk. Really appreciate it.
Yeah, you’re so welcome! I hope lots of people come see me (laughs).
Get tickets to Jen Kirkman’s Irrational Thoughts here!
July 24, 25, 26, 27, 29