It’s best not to try to define comedian Jen Kirkman. The stand-up comic and New York Times-bestselling author is quick to correct me when I refer to her as “happily childfree and unmarried” based on much of the material in her Netflix stand-up special, I’m Gonna Die Alone (And I Feel Fine), available for purchase today in album form. “I don’t define myself as childfree or unmarried,” she writes. “I just made a few jokes about it, but I’ve made jokes about so many other topics. I have a feeling I’ll always be taken way more seriously on this topic than I want to be.”
You probably know Kirkman from her appearances as a narrator on Drunk History, or from her time as a writer and panelist on Chelsea Lately, or from her podcast I Seem Fun: The Diary of Jen Kirkman, or from her nearly two decades as a stand-up comedian, with regular appearances on CONAN and @midnight. Due to the need to protect her voice, the comedian corresponded with BUST over email, discussing her new album, being a “loudmouth feminist,” and why she’s glad Comedy Central never found her funny. In the end, that was fitting, as Jen Kirkman appears here as she does best: in her own words.
I’m Gonna Die Alone (And I Feel Fine) was pretty unique, in that it was your first stand-up special, despite you having been a comic for nearly two decades with a well-established fan base in the US and abroad. Can you talk a little about writing the special/album, and what statement the show makes in the context of your career?
I had made two comedy albums before my Netflix special: Self Help, which came out in 2006, and Hail to the Freaks, which came out in 2011. For a long time, Comedy Central was the only place giving out comedy specials. The powers that be over there never thought I was funny. It didn’t hurt my feelings. The executives had a hard time accepting that just because they had seen me when I was just starting out in NYC, that I could have actually blossomed into a real comedian. They blatantly said to my reps one day, “She’s never going to get a half hour or an hour special from us.” And so I resigned myself to not doing one. I did albums instead.
Then, I heard that Netflix was going to start doing original comedy specials. The women who are in charge of comedy specials at Netflix like my stand-up. It all came together. I got to make a special produced by Netflix, got paid well, and knew it would air worldwide and be available 24/7/365 for people to discover me—which is great for touring. And Netflix let me do whatever I wanted. No censorship. No commercial breaks. My director Lance Bangs was amazing, and we were allowed to do the scenes I wrote that bookend the stand-up however we wanted. I would like to thank the stand-up special department at Comedy Central for not thinking I’m funny. Now I get to be unfunny in their eyes, but tour the world doing comedy.
Your podcast I Seem Fun: The Diary of Jen Kirkman has a fairly radical concept: a woman, alone, speaking into a microphone, providing an hour’s worth of entertainment by herself each week. You’ve amassed a very devoted following for your show, especially considering it doesn’t receive the built-in publicity that guest-driven shows do. What would you like to see happen with podcast over the next few years? Do you see yourself expanding on I Seem Fun in the future, turning it into a TV project or book?
I of course want to deflect and say it’s not that radical! There are plenty of solo podcasts. Sure, men do them all but maybe there are other solo female podcasts. I definitely get away with saying a LOT of bizarre things on my podcast. If I were famous, a lot of things I blurt out on my podcast would cause multiple outrages.
I have tried to turn my podcast into a TV show—it didn’t get past the pitch stage with a few networks. My second book (I Know What I’m Doing—and Other Lies I Tell Myself) has a lot of stories that originated as anecdotes on my podcast. And every year I write a script to try to sell, and some years I do sell scripts—you just never saw it because they don’t get picked up into a pilot—and a lot of the stories on my podcast do become the basis for scenes in scripts I write.
You often explore your own anger or frustration for comedic effect, something women are frequently discouraged from doing. Could you talk a little bit about that, the intersection of anger and humor, specifically in your act?
One of the most liberating moments for me as a comic was listening to an interview that Jerry Seinfeld did with Howard Stern where he FINALLY admitted that he was an angry person. Maybe he had before, but I never caught on. He said it takes anger at the world to even be upset at socks missing in a dryer. But you wouldn’t know he’s ANGRY with that necessarily, because he makes it light and absurd. But anger about how things are, how people behave, how discontented I feel is the driving force behind my comedy. What I’ve learned to do as a comedian is [to] not always let the audience know that this routine I’m doing came from a place of anger. I can’t just be yelling on stage. It’s not good for the soul or the voice.
At BUST, we ask everyone: do you consider yourself a feminist? If so, when did you start identifying as a feminist? How does feminism play into your life and your work?
YES! I am a FEMINIST. I’m not just the equality kind. I’m the kind that likes what Timothy Leary said, “Women who seek to be equal with men lack ambition.”
I’ve been a feminist without knowing what the word was since I was conscious that I was alive as a human. I’ve always felt that I could do anything I wanted and be what I wanted growing up. I even told on a teacher who told the boys in typing class that they didn’t have to pay attention, because when they grew up, their secretaries [would] type for them. My parents never tried to limit my development. My mom even warned me against getting too into cooking, and she never taught me to sew. She said that if I learned, I might end up having to do it all of the time. Yet, she never called herself a feminist.
I was in a band with some boys in high school and we practiced in this guy Nick’s basement. His mom was a big feminist, and she would talk to me about bell hooks and Gloria Steinem. She also taught me about the word, and that it’s okay to call myself one. I remember being nervous that if I said I was a “feminist,” people would ask me how many rallies and marches I’ve been to, and that would [disqualify] me. Thanks to the music I liked in the 1990’s: Hole, Bikini Kill, etc., I got an extra college education in feminist theory by reading everything they told me to.
Feminism plays into my life and work because sadly what I do for a living—talking and not listening back—is not something everyone is happy about a woman doing. Although, I must say, my audiences are amazing. [They’re] equal parts men and women, and I’ve never had a man tell me after a show that he didn’t think I was funny. Feminism is in my life every day, because every day, I experience sexism.
In recent years, there have been a lot more women speaking up about online harassment and the shitty way women get treated online. What made you start speaking up about this, on your podcast and social media?
Well, since I’ve always been a loudmouth feminist, it’s part of my personality to speak up. Honestly, the recent speaking up has just been the perfect convergence of realizing that what I was experiencing online WAS unique to being a woman. It’s like looking at a playground, and in one corner, guys are running around free, playing with balloons, and the guys that aren’t those guys are in another corner of the playground, throwing dirt in the girls’ faces. I’m not going to go through life with dirt on my face without talking about it constantly.
You’ve written and spoken a lot about the experience of being a happily childfree and unmarried woman, and are still one of the few voices to do so. Why do you think a woman saying she’s happy to be childfree and unmarried is still so revolutionary in this country?
I actually sat and thought for a while before answering this. It irks me a bit that because I wrote a book and made a few jokes about the reactions people have to me not having kids, I have a feeling I’ll always be taken way more seriously on this topic than I want to be. I never want to be the comedian who is known for… blank. It’s hacky.
I simply just find child worship to be absurd. I like to make jokes about how if someone doesn’t have children they have to say, “I love kids, though.” What a dumb thing to say. Kids are humans. Yes, we assume most of us love or at the very least, wish well, to other humans. But who, who doesn’t have kids, or isn’t thinking of a specific kid in their life, just says, “I love kids” as a general statement? That’s weird.
As for being happily unmarried, that’s not a thing really for me. When I was very newly divorced, I was happy because I was not in the right marriage. But I’m not anti-marriage. I don’t define myself as childfree or unmarried. I just made a few jokes about it, but I’ve made jokes about so many other topics—but these ones seem to stick. My message has always been pretty simple: my relationship status, like everyone’s who isn’t married, can often be in flux.
I’m just trying to be HAPPY. PERIOD. If I am not with a man, I need to be able to be happy living my life in the world. If I am with a man, I need to be able to be happy and not just because I’m with a man. And so that simple message I’m always trying to deliver is, “Another person can not complete you. They can only make life better; they cannot make you a life.”
And if someone is not in a relationship, and they are being shamed for that by friends and family, I want them to have fun at my show, and feel empowered to be there alone and laugh at the absurdity about the panic we all constantly seem to be in to FIND SOMEONE TO DIE WITH. That’s all people talk about when they find their partner: “We are going to grow old together. I won’t die alone!” Hey, slow down. How about living in the moment and also accepting that OF COURSE YOU COULD STILL DIE ALONE? Your husband can go to the post office, and you can slip and hit your head in the shower. Done. You died alone. Marriage didn’t save you. Your kids didn’t save you. They’re in college. I find this HILARIOUS because I find it scary. I don’t want to slip and hit my head and gasp my last breath alone—but I probably will. And that is not about being single or being lonely. It’s about the odds.
So with all of that being said: I think that a woman saying she’s happy being without kids or a marriage is possibly revolutionary because people take women so seriously. If we speak about not having kids—even if it’s just JOKES—we are seen as making a GIANT STATEMENT, and then that makes people defensive, and they want to try to tell us that having children should be part of our fulfillment.
Jen Kirkman’s comedy album I’m Gonna Die Alone (And I Feel Fine) is available to download now from Rooftop Comedy and iTunes! Her comedy special of the same name is also available to watch on Netflix.
Photos by Robyn Von Swank
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LIZ GALVAO is the Music Editor at BUST Magazine. Her writing focuses on humor, feminism, and pop culture.