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Thursday, April 25th, 2013

Talking to Jen Kirkman About Stand-Up, Misogyny on Twitter, and Her New Book

Jen Kirkman isn’t asking you to agree with her decision to not have kids. Just quit grilling her about it.

That’s the main point she’s trying to get across in her very funny new book: I Can Barely Take Care of Myself: Tales From a Happy Life Without Kids.

The book is a first for Kirkman, an LA-based comic best known for her Funny or Die Drunk History sketches and, most recently, as a writer and panelist on Chelsea Lately. Like her popular standup act, whose die-hard fans include Paul F. Tompkins, I Can Barely Take Care of Myself includes hilarious perspectives and anecdotes about the confrontations she’s had with people because babies aren’t her thing.

I recently had the chance to chat with Kirkman about the new book, taking a break from Twitter, and getting back out on the road.

Congrats on the book.

Thank you very much.

Is this a defining moment for you? It sort of feels that way because the book is a culmination of a lot of your comedy, and I think I heard you say on The Best Show that this is something you've been working on for a long time.

Yeah, it's been on its way for a couple years. I guess it's a defining moment in that it just has to do well enough that I get to do more, because I just want to keep writing books about different things that people think they should do. I'd like to write a book about divorce and how there's nothing wrong with it, and a book about not lying about your age – I'd like to keep writing in that vein. I like it. Unlike a comedy album for me – I can never listen to a comedy album I've done; the minute it's out there I always think of a better punchline – but I feel like with a book, you work so long and hard on it. I could always do better, but I think I'm satisfied enough that I'm not cringing, so that's kind of cool.

Did it take you long to work on the book, and was there a lot of procrastinating? How did it all come together?

I got the offer two years ago in May, and I had this big grand plan. I had a two-week hiatus from work in July, and I was like, "I'm gonna write half of it then!" I rented this guest house in Malibu and was like, "I'm gonna write by the ocean!" I got there, and I was so depressed. I was just like, "I can't write, I don't know how to start, I don't even know what the first chapter should be." You think way too big at first – "What order will it be?" – instead of just starting to write. I sat there and thought I had to figure out how it was going to go beginning, middle, and end and I got overwhelmed. I realized there's no romantic fantasy of getting a little cottage and writing a book, so I got my money back and I went back to my apartment. I just wrote it whenever I could.

I also happened to get really busy that year with work, so I'd just get up at six in the morning and force myself to write for an hour, and then sometimes I'd wake up in the middle of the night with an idea – that makes it sound like it was a brilliant idea, but it was just an idea – and I'd get up and write a little bit then, too. A lot of procrastinating, and a lot of, "I know what I want to say, but what should the chapters be about?" You don't get a lot of guidance … from my editor. I got a ton of guidance, but after I wrote it. I'd write a few chapters, send it to her, she'd edit it, say "Make this funnier, and you don't need this" – that kind of stuff. I wish I could've just called, and been like, "What should I say?" [Laughs.]

The most exciting part is getting the book deal and then finishing it, because the writing part – I wish everyone in the world could write a book, because part of the process is feeling all this weird embarrassment and even guilt come up, like, "Why am I even writing this? Who cares?" But then you realize nobody cares and it's okay; in a good way, nobody cares. There'll be some people that want to buy it, and they'll read it, and they'll put it away and go on with their life. No one's analyzing why someone writes a book. No one cares.

Yeah, the pressure's off.

Yeah pressure's off. Nobody cares.

That's good insight.

That's good insight for life!

Do you feel like you would be more inclined to have children if you weren't a comedian?

I don't think so because for me it wasn't a decision based on what I do, it was literally like I was born without a part. It just feels like a non-urge. However, I find it interesting that a lot of female comedians – not male but female comedians – do not have children or the desire. Merrill Markoe has a very interesting chapter about this in her latest book. She's got this whole theory that people go into comedy because of their mothers, and female comics are getting their angst out about their mothers and their relationships with them, but they also don't want to turn around and become one. I don't apply that to me personally, but I thought it was an interesting theory. I think all the pathology that made me become a comedian is the same kind of pathology that makes me not want to have a kid. It's not as literal as, "I'm so busy with comedy," or, "I'm on the road too much." I would be tortured if I couldn't decide, because I'd have to give up what I do, I think.

All my guy friends that have kids and are comics are like, "You can do both," but I don't think they quite understand that the mother-child bond is different, and I don't feel I could do both. I'd actually be a good mom if I wanted to be one, because I wouldn't be the kind of mom that goes on the road and does comedy.

So what stands out to you the most as the primary reason for why you are child-free?

Yeah, it's something that – I know I wrote a book about it, but I really don't think about it. My book is more about the reactions people give to me, but I swear to God, I just never thought about it. It never interested me, and I don't have any desire to commit to something that long. I think that the selfish thing is – my theory is that … a lot of my friends had kids before they even had steady jobs, and the people who don't have kids just don't, and I think we're all selfish because we're all just doing what we want to do.

I think the main thing is, when I was a kid, all I wanted was to be a grown-up. There was no ridiculous trauma in my childhood or anything like that, but I had sisters that were 10 and 14 years older than me. Childhood really didn't seem that much fun because I got to see what they did. I went and helped my sister move into her college dorm at UMass Amherst when I was eight, and I was like "This is awesome!" I was well aware that I couldn't do this stuff because I was a kid. My grandmother used to say stuff to me like she never fulfilled her dreams because she had kids, and I know now you can do both, but for what I do for a living it literally is a 24-hour seven-day-a-week pursuit, and you never know when you're going to get paid for it or if you will get paid for it. I don't have much stability, and I would be very overwhelmed and very stressed out if I had to be responsible for a human I made. And I already feel responsible for other people in my life, obviously – sisters, nieces, nephews, parents. I almost – I know people think I'm carefree, but I feel like you have to be pretty carefree to have a kid, pretty open to whatever. And I am not like that!

Yeah, you have to take a leap of faith.

A leap of faith. Yeah, I just don't want anyone else involved in my leap of faith. I just want to do whatever I want whenever I want, and I know a lot of people think that means, "I want to get drunk every night!" but I just don't want to have to do something, because I get very resentful.

When I was younger, I had panic disorder and anxiety disorder, and I was medicated, all through my twenties, too afraid to go anywhere, too afraid to leave the house. And I never lived really. So now I kind of am, and I'm at the age where I'm supposed to have a kid, but I just can't imagine going from afraid to live to having to buckle down and take care of someone. I kind of want my life. Those are all my reasons, but the main one is, I know for me if I want to do something, even if it makes no sense and it's super hard, I'll do it; I know for me the true answer really is, "I just don't wanna."

[Laughs.] As good of a reason as any.

It's what a kid would say!

What's been the reaction thus far? Now that you’ve got this whole media hype behind the book and everything, do you find yourself getting tired of talking about it?

Yeah, I always get sick of talking about it, because I have this voice in my head and I don't know who this person is, but this voice in my head is like, "No one cares, you're the one making the big deal about it!" And I think again the voice in my head is just maybe the ten people who follow everything I do and are like, "Jeez, is she still on this?" You realize you have to keep talking about it to everyone, because everyone has their own magazines or news outlets. Actually what's been interesting has been in all the little articles I've gotten to write for Time.com and Marie Claire magazine and interviews I'm doing, I'm reaching all these people that don't know my stand-up, and that's really cool because I don't even care if they don't end up being fans of my stand-up. Maybe now they'll be book fans and maybe I'll get to write another book. Most of the feedback has been — it's actually been shocking amounts of women who are like, "I feel the same way," and I'm half-joking, but I don't think anyone's ever having a kid again! [Laughs.] It was shocking — so many people! And there's been some nice reaction, too, from moms who are like, "I'm a mom, but I get it." It's mainly about just not questioning other people in their decisions, especially at cocktail parties; it's awkward.

You didn't set out to be the spokeswoman for the child-free movement.

I certainly did not set out for that, and I don't think I am, but if I was it wouldn't be a bad thing, because you do have to – I hate to use this word, branding, which I won't – but if something's coming to you, and it's becoming a thing, then it's like, "Okay, if people think of me that way, then I guess that's a good thing, and maybe it will afford me more opportunities and I can keep doing what I love for a living.” But I don't want to go on a lecture tour around the country. It just happens to be that the book is about not having kids, but I've got the same book in me about a whole bunch of other things, and it all just boils down to, "Listen to someone when they tell you who they are; you'll have a much more interesting conversation if you don't have your prejudices ready to go and shoot back at them." I like conversations and not question sessions where people just put someone else on the defensive… Somebody said to me, "We have a small-talk epidemic," and I thought that's really funny. It's not a book about my long journey to have kids or not, it's just what people talk about at weddings, parties, anything you go to where you're making conversation with strangers, like, "What do you do for a living?" "This." "Do you have kids?" "No." And then that's when everyone gets quiet – "You don't? Why!?" Can't we talk about anything else?

Mentioning the branding stuff, I feel like there's also a fine line, because once you do have a brand you’re forced to move discussion in another direction at some point. Otherwise it becomes, "Oh, well she's the person who just talks about not having kids." Like with Ricky Gervais and atheism – now there’s a backlash of “We got it, you're an atheist." You almost can't win.

It's funny, because you're right. He annoys me so much with his atheism thing, but not because of any belief systems, just because sometimes it comes off as, "Dude, do you think you're edgy or something? Plenty of people are atheists; just be one and shut up." But then I would hate it if someone said that to me – I'm only not shutting up because people are slowly finding me and they're saying they enjoy what I'm saying, so I guess I should just feel the same way about him, but you're right, and that's why I want to steer the conversation into, "Hey I'm glad you like the book, and this is kind of how I feel about many other things…projects to come…" Some people I know buy into their own thing and they become, "I'm the person who does this!" and I don't ever want to do that, because I change my mind – except for the good things – a lot, and I would be bored doing just one thing.

So, I remember you taking a Twitter boycott. How long was that for?

Not long. It was more like a little bit where I was just like, "I'm done for the day on Twitter. I'm not coming back until people–" but then no one did anything. Everyone on Twitter has harassment and people say you're not funny. I have no problem with that; that's just idiots being idiots, but I was having a specific thing where I would write something about, why are we as a country so supportive of Saudi Arabia? Obviously, I know it's because of oil. We went to war in Afghanistan and everyone's talking about, "Oh it's to liberate the women there," and it's like, "Don't bullshit us, that's not why," and political stuff like that, usually with the woman's lens. Unfortunately a lot of – usually white guys – would write back explaining to me, "Oh honey, it's because of oil," and I'm like, "No, that's not the point." Or they would get mad and be like, "Stick to the comedy, you bitch," and it was gender-specific – "Shut up," rape stuff, violence stuff; I had death threats, someone was like, "Don't you ever come here, I'll make your life hell."

And as that was happening, one day as I was getting all this vitriol for one tweet, I went to my male comedian friends' pages, and they're just like, "I'm watching Game of Thrones!" and "Haha!" and everyone's having a good time. I went, "God, this is like a weird playground, where some people are having a good time and some people are getting kind of attacked in the corner, and I want them to know about it." Dudes can't talk to women like that. If you want to tell men they can't do that they're gonna have to learn from men. So I was just like "I'm out of here until–" You know, I just assumed the male comics I know would come to my defense, and they don't say anything. A lot of times they'll DM me privately and be like "I totally agree with you, I just don't get political on Twitter, but stay strong," and I was like "You don't get to do that anymore." You don't have to join any political discussion; you have to say, "Hey guys if you're a fan of me, then you can't talk to women this way." You have to start things up like Kurt Cobain used to do in the '90s. I always reference that, but he'd always put it on liner notes of his album, like "If you hate these women, don't listen to my show," and he always had women opening for him. I just feel like there's not a lot of that in comedy.

No.

There are with some people like Rob Delaney and Paul F. Tompkins… So I was like, "I'm not coming back until I feel like it's fun to play." And then no one really did anything and I was like, "I'll just do it," so I started this website on Tumblr called MA'AM. It's "Men Against Assholes and Misogyny." Paul F. Tompkins actually suggested I change it to "Men Aligned Against Misogyny" in case there's any way people can't bring that site up at work because it's NSFW, and actually I can reach more people that way. So when I have more time, I'll do that. That was just kind of my thing – there's a specific way that women get treated online and it's kind of like the new frontier; I feel like every time anything happens, women have to get a quality hour in those little pockets, so it was just for guys to write essays about ways they've noticed that women get treated differently, whether it's online or in their workplace, or somewhere else. It's really cool and a lot of girls have been reading it and saying it makes them feel better.

Has it changed the way that you interact with people on Twitter?

Well, now that I have the website, it's perfect. If someone writes to me, "Hey, nice tits," or, "You're hot," or something creepy, I just link to an article on MA'AM that is of that subject and write "not cool" and let them read from a man why you don't pick on me. I'm on the road alone, and it's scary when someone says, "I'm coming to your show tonight to see if you're actually hot." It's like, I know that that sounds like a compliment or sounds funny, but I get scared. There's a real epidemic of violence and sexual assault, and I don't know if someone's gonna get angry if they come to my show and they don't like what I look like or don't like my set. Just to write that is so uncomfortable, so now I have this website where I can just write back with a link. That was my whole point; I'm sick of fighting the fight by myself, so now I don't have to. And then I usually just block those people anyways because they creep me out and I don't want them at my shows.

I wanted to trace your history a little bit. In your book you said you went to New York, but found it wasn't for you and quickly went back to Boston. So you got your start in comedy in Boston but then you went back to New York, right?

That's exactly it, yeah. I was only in New York the first time for, like, four days.

Just too overwhelming?

I just really thought that you could just be a stand-up, and I didn't appreciate the process of, "Well no, you have to make a tape, and try to get booked at this place…" I was like, "I'm awesome! What do you mean? I don't have to make a tape. Fuck you, New York." And so I left, not realizing that that's everywhere, and I was not funny at all. And it was a little overwhelming. I just was not ready yet.

How long did you do it in Boston before you went back?

Only about a year and a half.

That was quick.

I was ready to go back. I was like, "Okay, you know what, as overwhelming as it is, there's only so far I can go staying in Boston." I think it's because The Boston Globe did an article about this comedy night that Eugene Mirman ran, and Eugene was the one that put me up onstage for the first time. So there was this article in The Boston Globe about the kids in Boston making up their own comedy scene because there weren't that many clubs left, and we were too young and too green to do clubs because we just started out and the clubs in Boston were really for headliners that came in from around the country. This Boston Globe article made its way to this manager that was in New York City, so after doing a little comedy I had a manager who was in New York, and she was kind of pushing me to move there, and she was absolutely out of her mind. The only good thing that came out of it was this life lesson learned that she was a mental case. [Laughs.] So that's kind of why I think I probably felt compelled to move back, because I had a little bit of pressure from this woman.

In New York, was it pretty much all stand-up all the time?

All stand-up, and day jobs, like temping, and all kinds of stuff. I worked full-time every day. There was stand-up every day but no pay. There's still no pay!

What's your role now at Chelsea Lately? Are you still involved?

Yeah, I'm a writer full-time there for Chelsea Lately. I did write a little bit on After Lately and appeared on it, but that show's over now. So I'm a Monday through Friday full-time writer on the show, but then I also do the roundtable as well.

Do you get out much in LA at different shows after work?

Yeah, I've had a very regimented life this year. I was filming After Lately the last four months, so I was working every night and wasn't thinking about stand-up, unless somebody had a specialty show. Before that, I was writing the book and my only time to write was nights and weekends. So I kind of was very casual about stand-up for the last year. My plan was to get back into doing it in March and April, so that's what I've been doing. I've slowly been working on a new hour for a year and a half, but because I've had such little time, it's more like a new half-hour. I've fixed some old jokes and stuff. But yeah, I go up any time in LA just to practice here and there.

And you’re back doing the Pod F. Tompkast.

I've done mostly every episode. I don't think he's put out one in a while, and he has some extra-sodes that he's done. I think he's not doing it right now. I think it exists, but we haven't talked about it in a while. I think he's –

– on hiatus?

Yeah. I think so. That's been a really good thing for me. I love it; it's brought so many people to me that otherwise wouldn't know me. I'm not saying I'm funny, but if people think I'm funny from those stories, it gives me hope that I can do more story-oriented stuff. I've actually gotten a few routines out of those phone calls. The phone calls aren’t actually phone calls. We might know what the topic's going to be, but I don't have prepared jokes or anything.

Yeah, they're not scripted.

Yeah. But he might drag a few things out of me that I think are funny, and then I can use it later. It's interesting. One of my favorite things is Paul and I were in Montreal this summer, and he did a show and let me be on it. We were leaving the theater and there was a 45-year old guy and a 15-year old kid, and they were together, and they were both fans of the podcast. And it was so cool. Cool adults and their awesome kids listen to it, and that is a group of people I would never have been exposed to. And then they come see my filthy stand-up.

Any other upcoming projects or things we can look forward to?

I have an audiobook version coming out in a couple weeks. More of the same. Otherwise, just going to be touring. The only thing people can look forward to is more stand-up. My tour is 100% unveiling a new hour. Shows will involve an opening act. And at the end of every show I have books for sale and I will sign books, whether people bought it there or they brought it from home. Everything else is just straight-up comedy, not even mentioning the book, just comedy about comedy.

Phil Davidson writes about, performs and produces comedy.

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  • Capital_7

    I seriously did not know Kirkman was a professional comedian until only recently. I just think of her as the dead air part of the Tomkast.