After debuting her new Netflix special, Just Keep Livin'? last month, Jen Kirkman talked with BUST about the trials of being comfortable with oneself and navigating the world in one's body. We talked about her influences, the fuel behind her two successful specials, where wisdom comes from, and all the ways in which women are made to be afraid. In her new show, Jen reveals her Just Keep Livin' tattoo (a sage Mathew McConaghey quote), explains how we approach culture and spirituality, talks about women being able to travel alone, all while trying to keep the crazy in (when it matters).
Right out the gate I was greeted by a relieved Kirkman, who said, “I’m always interviewed by so many dudes, so it’s always nice to talk to a woman, and if you like my work, it’s even better.”
We are off to good start.
I watched your first special I'm Gonna Die Alone (And I Feel Fine) when I packed up my whole apartment after a breakup and was waiting to go to the airport, and that is when I related to that show. What was the mood for you then?
Yeah, I definitely went through that period of “everyone please go away,” but then it circles back again, and I think it’s important to go through that and know what that feels like that desperate anger that you need to get through it.
The aesthetic of that performance was edgy, from the music you walk in on, to your outfit and set. And your new special has beachy vacation opening music, and you’re wearing pink and maroon, and the set is bathed in turquoise light. Were these clear juxtapositions deliberate and if so, why?
There was a shift [with Just Keep Livin'?]. I like that, that every special should represent where you are in that moment, and I never want to be the same thing over and over. And that is why I tried to make it look very different and pick topics that I haven’t really talked about before. Because I could joke about not having kids for years, but I don’t want to do the same thing again. So there were conscious decisions about the difference in material for sure.
It just seemed so metaphorical to me because one has the word “die” in the title and the new one has “livin’” in it.
Yeah, there was so much in between those. I did the first one in January 2014, and the second on in October 2016, so I probably did 150 shows a year, so probably 300 shows between those specials. And so after hundreds of shows in front of all different kinds of audiences, there is no way that I don’t emerge different and more comfortable. It changes you.
So the most “provocative” quote from this special is, “That’s not a rape joke, that’s a rape fact, and I’ll stop talking about rape when men stop raping everybody, so don’t give me your outrage.” Where did that come from?
I was planning to go to Venice by myself after having shows in London, and I have always wanted to go to Venice. So people told me where I should go, and when I looked online, many of the places people were telling me to go just weren’t that safe for women alone. So then I looked at message boards, and it’s just so casual how women talk about being sexually harassed, as though they’re saying, “Yeah, that thrift store is whatever, that restaurant uses tomato sauce from a can, or that place you can’t walk alone after ten because guys will proposition you and I got chased you down the street.” It’s such a normal part of our lives to think about getting raped.
The only people who ruin traveling alone for women are men, and what’s ironic is that when men freak out that women are traveling alone, they think she must be upset because she is not with a man. But in fact, we are so happy in the moment to just be ourselves. And I can’t talk about that honestly without talking about what actually goes through our mind.
I’m not sure why a dude has to talk about rape unless he’s doing an “anti-rape” thing. Nothing is off-the-table — it’s comedy — but it always makes me go, “That’s some insight into the mind of this male comic.” I knew what my intention was and that I wasn’t making fun of the victim, I’m actually making fun of the culture and how we should talk about it to each other.
Our culture has a really backward way of dealing with and addressing rape. During college orientationsyou get a map of the campus--maybe a granola bar--and then they give you a rape whistle, and you wonder if that is where to start?
Kathleen Hannah from Bikini Kill said a long time ago, “Why aren’t we teaching men not to rape?”
At some point in your stand-up you say, “We must be kind to men” — how facetious was that?
Women, know what I’m secretly saying which is: Men are in fact the gender that is absolutely hysterical (and I mean that in the traditional sense of the word, I don’t mean funny). And honestly, it’s because of sexism, so I do have empathy for them... but they need to be nurtured in culture where they can talk about their feelings, so I’m all for feminism helping them, too.
I do think we need to take care of them, not before ourselves, but they are part of the culture, obviously, and they are victims of toxic masculinity and all that, so I do mean that, but please... they are very sensitive.
And as we can see by our Cheeto in Chief, their egos are not capable of withstanding much.
Maybe if we had always been the dominant group, maybe the same thing would be true about us. I don’t know if it is inherent to the gender since the beginning of time, but the group that is in power is very sensitive about equality because it means they are losing power. And my god, I think Donald Trump has legitimate psychological issues, but also just the ones he has are so interesting because if a woman had them, she would be pegged as literally an emotional basket case and would have been committed by now.
Your special is based on your "Just Keep Livin'" tattoo (inspired by Matthew McConaughey), but you also talk about how your friend has a more serious quote tattooed, inspired by her Holocaust-surviving grandparent, who said he was grateful to know that even when he was in shit, he wasn't a shit. I wanted to know — is that story true?
It’s half true. My friend did get something from her grandma who was a Holocaust survivor, but I read that story somewhere else that someone had said that quote. But my friends' grandparents have that kind of wisdom, so this is about families who have that kind of wisdom. I, by contrast, had to look to people in such a ridiculous place like celebrity culture to find this wisdom.
I forgot about this story about my Nana that I have been telling for years in my real life and not in my standup. She is the one who died on the floor in my last special. At age 84, she was at Thanksgiving and I saw her take a pill with a glass of wine, and I was like Nana, “Is that your blood pressure medication, you shouldn’t take that with wine!” And she said, “No, it’s Zoloft,” and I said, “You’re on anti-depressants? Why?” and she goes, “Because I can’t stop living.” And I thought that was fucking hilarious. Here was someone who was not in the Holocaust had a hard life but technically everything was fine and she wasn’t physically ill, but she was like, “I can’t believe I am still alive. All my friends are dead, my husband’s dead, I live alone, I’m depressed, what the fuck, I can’t stop living!” So she was on medication and that was my whole model growing up, and how I — in a joke about a grandparent and the expression “just keep livin’” — how I forgot that in my family you start taking anti-depressants because you can’t stop living — how can I not remember that for this special?
So I will probably keep doing that joke on the road.
How do you feel about the word “feminism”?
I’m into it. Of course, I’ve always identified as a feminist. I think I went through a phase in college as a humanist because I thought that made me more feminist, because I thought that was smarter, and when I see people do that now, I’m like, "aww." I love the word and I don’t mind how it’s used. But we are desperate right now, so anywhere you wanna put the word; put it on a model and then put it on a non-model, just anywhere we can get it — put the fucking word out there. I am all for that word. Beyoncé, great, put it up there. She is making it less and less scary.
All photos by Robyn Von Swank and permitted for use
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