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Jen Kirkman on misinterpretation and her new material

Jen Kirkman on misinterpretation and her new material

The stand-up comedian plays the Majestic on July 7 behind a strong new Netflix special.

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Jen Kirkman’s sharp, discursive and often brutally frank stand-up gets a generous treatment in I’m Gonna Die Alone (And I Feel Fine), a 78-minute new Netflix special combining previously released material, more recent bits reflecting on aging and divorce, and bookended with sketches about hyper-validating parents and dating younger men. For those just getting to know Kirkman’s work, her second album, 2011’s album Hail To The Freaks, offers a more raw and fast-paced introduction, and then there’s Kirkman's I Seem Funpodcast, which offers her unfiltered ramblings from home and the road. That said, Kirkman’s July 7 stand-up show at the Majestic will feature a set of in-the-works, post-special material, as Kirkman gets ready for more touring and her second book (following up 2013’s I Can Barely Take Care Of Myself). Ahead of the show, Kirkman talked with us about how people interpret the special and how her next batch of material is shaping up.

Tone Madison: With this new special, did you set out to make it a thematic look at where you’re at in life, or did that just emerge as you put it together?

Jen Kirkman: For me, the special came about, I taped it in January, I kind of knew I was going to do a Netflix special since last summer. But I didn’t approach it as, “Oh, a special, I have to do something for it.” This is just what I do on the road, cause there wouldn’t really be any time or way to work out something else for the special when I’m on the road every week and doing an hour. It just tended to naturally become this theme, I guess. What you’re seeing is really what the whole country has been seeing me do on the road for the past three years, so that’s what the special mainly is. But yeah, there’s definitely some thought that went into it. To be honest with you, I went to Melbourne, Australia and did a one-hour show, also by the same name, which was more like a one-woman show and didn’t have any of the stuff up front about seeing a guy with a lime. It just started very personal, like, “Hey I have grey pubic hairs!” That show was more of a deliberate theme. This special, yes, I guess there’s an over-arching theme that just happened naturally, and then I did purposely put some material that’s older that I’ve done for a while in there, because I knew it would be the first time anyone would see it.

Tone Madison: Right, and like you said, there’s material in the special that isn’t necessarily related to this, but there’s definitely an arc to the special about being in a specific period in your life and how you process that.

Jen Kirkman: Well, I think that’s kind of maybe a misconception. That’s why it’s so hard for me to go, “yeah!” Because here’s what the reality is. The guy with the lime bit, I put that in there because I knew there’d be total strangers at home going, “I don’t know this person.” I think they’re more likely to go, ”Hey, that sounds like a pretty crazy story. She’s telling a story about some guy and I’m curious to see where this goes.” And then slowly, through the tangents I go on, I reveal how my brain works, and now you know who I am in a weird way without knowing my age or who I’ve dated. You kind of get on board with my point of view, and so I very deliberately put that up front, because I knew everyone watching it would be a first-time viewer, or most people. Even though it doesn’t fit in with the theme, I think it introduces me without me just coming out and going, “Here are the details.”

But I do think people keep saying that I’m “processing” something in my life, whereas this material is three or five years old. Except for the grey pubic hair, sadly. But this stuff is three to five years old, so I’ve processed it, and what I’m processing now in life, nobody knows about—it’s being written. So that’s kind of something that I think is funny where I’ve already gone through this stuff, it’s not hard for me to be divorced, it’s not that weird for me to be what I call legally single, I’m not alone, I’ve got things going on romantically. And I’m glad people really relate, but it’s one of those things where I think it’s funny that I do jokes about being single, and so everyone assumes, “Oh my god! She’s dead single and she’s alone and she can’t meet anyone.” And yet you saw me do jokes about marriage, but everyone accepts that I’m not married. You can do jokes about anything at any time about anything you’ve ever been through, so what’s so funny is it seems so current to everyone and I’m up there exposing what my life is like now. Those things will always happen. I don’t have kids and I will always be struggling.

I think those scenes I did at the beginning [of the special] really show where my life is right now. That’s what my life looks like now, with people who have kids. That is absolutely ripped from the headlines. My friends that have kids and I just do not relate right now. I’m all about my career and they’re all about their kids and we just don’t have time. Those scenes will never leave me. I’m bad at relationships whether I’m in one or not, that’ll never change. My parents are getting older, that’s not gonna change. But it’s just been very funny the reactions I get from people, like, “Hey, I’m a 20-year-old, you should date me.” I’m like, “Did you not see the part where I did that five years ago and didn’t like it.” I just think people hear what they want to hear. Which is, again, great. It’s almost like being a songwriter who wrote a song about their dog and people are like, “That’s just like me and my girlfriend!” And you’re like, “Oh, alright. Uh, sure. Interpret it how you want, I guess.”

Tone Madison: And if you’re a viewer or especially a journalist, there’s always that pitfall of ascribing a certain intent or narrative to a work of art when that’s not necessarily what’s really going on behind it.

Jen Kirkman: Yeah, but I’m glad that people think—there is a lot of thought put behind it. I obsess over what order to put things in. But I’m mainly thinking about how to keep people’s attention, instead of describing the journey I’m on. And if I accidentally describe a journey, then that’s really cool, because it probably makes me look smarter than I am.

Tone Madison: It’s interesting how the “comedy special” as a format, with intro and outro sketches and whatnot, has kind of endured. I guess it never really went away, but it’s interesting to see a different generation of comics put their spin on it. What made you want to bookend the stand-up act with those sketches?

Jen Kirkman: Well, you know, I thought it would be fun, simply for boring reasons. Netflix gives you plenty of money to work with, so I thought, well, I have the money, I have the crew, let’s film some scenes. And I had a failed pilot with the FX network—not even a failed pilot, it didn’t even get to the pilot level, just a script. And those scenes weren’t in the script, but if I had a TV show, this might be what it would look like. So why not just put five minutes of my acting on there and really make it different, make it more than a comedy special and make it, “This is what Jen’s world is like.” I thought, I can do jokes all I want about “Oh my friends with kids,” or “This crazy thing happened” and “These people come up to me after shows,” but why not show it instead of tell it? I think it’s a really easy way to get people—I hate to say “on your side,” like I have to cajole people into liking me or my work, but I think it’s a very interesting way to get out my point of view and what I’m going through, and people go, “Oh yeah, that happened to me. Let’s tune in and see what the rest of the special is like.” I thought it would be a nice extra little cherry on top, a little fun, to add in there, as long as I had the time, because they give you more than 60 minutes, and as long as we had the money.

Tone Madison: And this is more secondary to the actual content of the special, but you used Ted Leo’s song “Last Days” for the intro and outro music. I know you and he are friends and know each other through The Best Show and so forth, but what made you choose that song in particular? That’s a very under-appreciated Ted Leo song.

Jen Kirkman: Yeah, it is, right? I wanted to use it because I thought it would be cool to use the music of someone I know. But I also like that song because I thought it went with the special—“We’re living in the last days.” So anything that hints at whether it’s armaggeddon or the last days or the way things look right now—I don’t know how he meant it, again, I’m interpreting someone’s song, but I figure it could apply to anything. I played a lot of his songs in my mind, because I didn’t really walk out to it, I walked out to nothing and then we inserted it later, so I played a lot of songs in my mind of what would look good walking out to, and that one just fit perfectly. There’s a few others of his songs that I think would have fit really well, but that one, the rhythm, was perfect, and the words “last days” really appealed to me.

Tone Madison: You said on your podcast recently that your upcoming shows will be mostly new material. What sort of things are developing in your act now?

Jen Kirkman: It’s a lot of the same themes. I have a bit about how I’m dealing with my parents getting older and how I think I’m this hero who comes in and saves the day during this period where my dad was sick, but I kept making things worse, and so how that next phase in my life I’m not really good at yet. I have stuff about friendships with me, what I’m noticing where men and women are becoming friends now and it’s getting confusing. There’s been a lot ofttimes I thought I was on a date but I wasn’t. There’s stuff just about the usual strange things people say to me when I’m out and about in the world. There’s a lot of the same things, relationships, getting older. It is a lot of the same themes, but different situations. But I’ve been doing really long sets, because I’m doing a lot of improvising with this new stuff. I mean, it’s ready to go, it’s not like I’m giving people some crappy half-show, but this is a period where what I’m saying onstage will be part of the writing process.

When brands defend

When brands defend

A few unusual touring acts hitting Madison this summer, for WORT-FM

A few unusual touring acts hitting Madison this summer, for WORT-FM

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