Jen Kirkman: Comedy’s Matthew McConaughey

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After doing comedy in Boston for a year, Jen Kirkman made the move to New York City, where from 1998 to 2002 she performed anywhere she could get stage time, including laundromats, lofts, and a spot in Long Island dubbed “The Worst Comedy Club” by Jerry Seinfeld. Last year Kirkman returned to NYC’s Bowery Ballroom to record her second Netflix special Just Keep Livin’? The title is a nod to Matthew McConaughey’s mantra, “Just Keep Livin’,” a statement she believes in so deeply that she had it immortalized in a tattoo that reads “JKL.” It’s her only tattoo. I talked to Kirkman about our shared desire to hang out with Matthew McConaughey, the joy of doing things alone, and her “weird, superstitious security blanket.”  

You named your new Netflix special Just Keep Livin’? based off of Matthew McConaughey’s catchphrase.

I put a question so Matthew McConaughey wouldn’t sue me. His catchphrase and foundation are “Just Keep Livin” without a question mark.

Have you ever met McConaughey?

No. I just wrote an email to my agent and manager like, “Anything? Something? Can I meet him? Can I just get a picture with him?” I don’t necessarily want him to watch the special. I just want him to know that I have the tattoo and I’d like a picture with him. I’m kind of lying. I also want to be his best friend. I want to be with the gang that hangs out down in Hawaii. But so that I sound sane, I’ll just say that I want to get a picture with him.

When people ask me which celebrities I like my mind goes straight to, “Would I go camping with them?” I would definitely go camping with Matthew McConaughey. I could probably do a good three-day, off-the-grid camping weekend with him.

I’ll fight you for that opportunity. I feel like he would know what he’s doing.

Totally. I think camping with him would be a cross between Naked and Afraid and Man vs. Wild.

I hope this happens for you and I hope my dream happens for me, even though he probably doesn’t want either of these things.

Over the course of your career you’ve probably been in situations where you are side-by-side with various big name celebrities. Do you ever get starstruck?

I tend to be pretty zen/”hey we’re all humans” unless it’s somebody like Morrissey, someone that I personally admire. If it’s just some big celebrity I don’t get starstruck, but I am on my best behavior. I’ve been to Jennifer Aniston and Justin Theroux’s house. It was not because they invited me. I was with a couple of people that knew them and it turned into, “Hey, let’s go back here.” I was like, “Oh shit, I’ve got to behave.” We were out by the pool and I said, “Where’s your bathroom?” They pointed and said, “That way.” You know when someone’s giving you directions and you’re half listening and half hoping you’ll remember what they said. Once I was in the bathroom I realized that I was in their master bathroom, not the public bathroom for guests. I was so paranoid that there was a camera on me and that they were going to think I was a creep because I opened a drawer. I swear I was just looking for hand soap because I couldn’t find any. Not that they don’t use soap. I was just overwhelmed. There were a lot of lipsticks. It looked like a store. I freaked out and was unable to be normal the rest of the night. They probably weren’t even paying attention to me, but I thought, “Oh my God, the security camera is going to show that I went into their master bathroom and opened their drawer.” My thing is less starstruck and more “do not fuck up.”

Something that came up in the special was the stigma of vacationing alone. Sometimes people think that when you go to do something by yourself there must be something wrong. People think that about people who eat alone. You see somebody go to a Japanese hibachi steakhouse alone and you think, “Oh my God, this person must have just lost a child.”

“Look at this wayward gambler who just rolled in.” I hear people talk all the time about needing alone time. “I’m a mom. I just want to take a bath.” But when you actually do it people are like, “What?!” I think about women who can’t drive in certain countries. Why would I not take advantage of every freedom I have as a human? I used to have so much anxiety and was afraid to fly anywhere, so for me it’s a little self challenge and a way to grow. I always feel confident and badass when I come home from traveling alone. I think it’s so bizarre for grownups to worry about what other people think. I grew up as a weird kid and people always made fun of me. I’m so used to it that I’m like, “I don’t care.” At this point I really don’t care what anyone thinks. It’s so badass. It’s very American cowboy. Get in your car and go off alone. It’s cool. I think girls should be doing it more. The only reason we shouldn’t is because we fear people harassing and bothering us, but otherwise, we shouldn’t be afraid of what it looks like.

That’s a good segue into your bit about street harassment and catcallers. You didn’t totally condemn it. You came from another angle where you basically said, “Here’s why it might happen,” and then to the catcallers you provided some options on how they might be able to get that urge out of their system without making women feel unsafe in public.

I have guys that I’ve discussed these things with. Sometimes they’re like, “It’s a compliment. When you’re an old woman I bet you’ll miss it.” I’m like, “No.” Do I really believe that people should shout compliments about our outfits? Not really. That also makes us feel weird. I’ve had moments where somebody has said, “Nice coat,” and when I didn’t answer and they called me a cunt and started following me down the street. So I don’t really mean compliment our clothes, but I thought it was a funny solution. It was my way of saying that nobody is telling men they can’t talk to women, but just understand what we go through all the time and that you’re not the first person to talk to us in our lifetime and we’re scared of all of you. I know it sounds crazy, but we’re scared of you. The way my dad is afraid of ISIS I’m afraid of you. Not so much the actual catcalling. It’s the people who are fighting for the right to do it. Why does it mean so much to you? It never gets any one a date, especially if they are driving by. They have no idea if the person enjoyed the compliment or not.

I recorded that bit in New York City in front of my fans and guys that I’m sure are woke, but I practiced it on the road in front of drunk guys in baseball hats who voted for Trump at 11 at night in Arizona. I learned how to talk to everyone by doing that bit over and over. Part of me was worried that hardcore feminists would say, “You totally sold us out. That’s a watered-down bit.” But I thought, “Let’s start there and maybe we can make it stronger as people get more and more used to us talking about this stuff.” we have to start somewhere. I don’t know if we’re there yet with male audiences, if they can be laughed at when a woman is pointing out what they do that’s silly, if they can laugh at themselves when a woman is introducing the point. But I was really proud of the audience for my special that did that. I’ve been getting some feedback on Twitter that people think it’s a fake laugh track. It’s only men saying that and I kind of know why they’re saying it. I don’t think they believe that men are laughing at this stuff. But they are. I think that’s the next thing in comedy: can women make men laugh at themselves?

Comic-to-comic, during one of your act-outs you waved and I saw what I thought was a set list written on your hand.

Yeah!

Is that a holdover from the old open mic days, like a security thing?

It’s a superstitious security thing. It’s funny because I never used to write on my hand when I first started out. Actually, the stool had my set list written on it in case I forgot something. But I had so many little tiny jokes within each of these stories. Where I get nervous isn’t, “What if I bomb?” or, “What if it goes bad?” It’s, “What if I forget something and when I get off stage I’m like fuck.” So I wrote things that I didn’t want to forget so that when I got off stage I could look really quickly and if I forgot something I could run back out and go, “Hey, can we take that one again?” I could have written it on a piece of paper and headed backstage later, but there’s something about writing it on my hand that made me…it’s a weird superstitious security blanket. I don’t even know if it was a set list per se. it was more like one word, like ISIS, tits, whatever, just so I don’t forget those jokes. It makes no sense though because I never even looked at it. I forgot that I did that. A lot of people told me they saw that, which I think is kind of funny.

This is your second Netflix special. What did you learn from the last one that you wanted to apply to this one?

The first one was a roundup of a lot of the material I’ve been doing for four or five years. It was sort of a, “Hey everyone! Here I am!” I was excited to do one that was more kind of real time. I taped my first one four years after I got divorced, but I was making jokes about divorce because I hadn’t had the opportunity to do it on such a grand scale when it happened. This time everything I’m talking about, with the exception of stories about my youth, is stuff that’s on my mind this year. I was more excited to do it. I was more excited performing it. After I did my first special I was on the road for two years, so I probably did over 200 shows a year. My performance style is different now. I’m using my voice better, moving around more, being more physical, and looking like I’m having a good time. I was really aware of the performance this time. And I wanted to wear pants that weren’t as tight. It never looks as good as it does in the mirror when you see it on TV.

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