Jen Kirkman was a longtime writer and guest on Chelsea Lately before she filmed two Netflix specials, became a New York Times best-selling author and launched her own necklace line. The Needham native and Emerson alum chatted with us before she takes her All New Material, Girl tour to the Wilbur on Sept. 20. She chatted from L.A. one early morning about coming home, Boston audiences and why she’s really good at walking into a place of chaos.
It’s about 8 o’clock in the morning for you, we’re grateful that you’re willing to do an interview this early. I get up at 6:30 every day. I have too much going on. … You know it’s a myth that comics get up late … when I’m on the road and my last show ends at 1 am and then they want you up for press at 6 am the next day, so it’s a non-sleeping kind of job. And then when I’m home here, I’m working. I have a necklace line that came out and I’m working on a pitch … I’ve had a to-do list that I’ve needed to organize for six days, but it’s been so crazy on the road so I relish getting up early in the morning when no one else is around … It saves my sanity.
So as a comic who went to school at Emerson, can you describe what it feels like to be coming back to Boston? Very triumphant for me because when I went to Emerson … I went there in the olden days, in the early ’90s, they did not have any such universe where you could learn anything about stand-up. It was Shakespearean acting or acting, and that was it. So I was a theater major and studied acting. My senior year I asked the then dean, “You know, I really want to get into stand-up comedy. How can I do it?” He goes, “You’re too old.” I was 21. He goes, “All the greats start at 18 like Richard Pryor.” I don’t even know if that’s true about Richard Pryor. And he goes, “You have to live in New York and you don’t have what it takes to live there.” That’s literally what he said to me … But there were also so many great teachers that were wonderful to me … so it’s so triumphant for me to come back and perform.
And you’re performing in your old neighborhood at The Wilbur too. I’ve never done the Wilbur by myself. I’ve only done it in groups of other people, so I’ve never had all the sales be my responsibility, which I’m really excited about. I mean I get all the glory. I’m sold! I used to work at the Boston Ballet and I used to work at a company called Broadway in Boston. I sold tickets to every show all over Boston for forever so I’m really familiar with this theater. It’s really exciting to get to be one of the acts on it now.
What about performing for your hometown? You know how Boston is, they’re not going to—well, I could be wrong, maybe this time it will be different because it’s such a big theater—but Boston people are Boston people and they like to keep you in check. So there’s no extra adulation. It’s just like, “We’re here. We’re laughing.” But if I’m like, “Hey it’s my hometown!” They don’t fall for that. They don’t care.
Do you cater your material for a hometown audience? No … but there will be some talk of a visit to the Plymouth Plantation I had when I was a kid. The site of my first anxiety attack. [Laughs.] And then my parents and me you know growing up. And me being afraid of MIT because someone told me that’s where they keep nuclear bombs.
Where did you get your comedic chops? When I was little, I didn’t love comedy. I loved ballet, dance and theater. I liked funny people on TV but any time I tried to imitate something funny it just went awry. So no one appreciated my humor. Like I was the youngest, but my sisters were out of the house by the time when I was 8. So I was an only child, pretty much. My parents thought it was cute. But I don’t think they were laughing. … High school it was like … I’m wearing all black and doing The Crucible, people! So there was no comedy. Any chops a comedian perfects as a child are the deeper psychological issues. And I don’t even mean the obvious ones like no one paid attention. But more like, I hope everybody’s OK. … I’m the youngest in the family, people are fighting and I’m too young to understand what it means so I think I have to fix it. I think it’s that muscle. I’m really good at walking into a place of chaos. If you think of what a comedy club is, it’s people who are drinking, you don’t know them and you have to get them to shut up and listen. That’s what I’m good at. And then funny comes later. So I wouldn’t say I got my funny chops until I started doing open mics. That’s the only way to test if the funny is going to be good enough for the stage.
Can you talk a little more about developing your craft and do you think comics get better the longer they do it? I do think we get better as we get as we get older. I mean I think the real basic reason is if you’re touring, all the repetition … just being comfortable being up there. … I think when you come out on stage before you even say your first funny thing … we vibe each other’s energy. Even people who would never say “vibe each other’s energy” ever, you can still tell. … It’s like these weird little things you learn from doing it for so long. Part of the craft is knowing when it’s you and when it’s the audience. I think for me, I do such personal comedy. I think I’m going to get better as I get older only because I’m getting more comfortable with myself and my life growth really goes hand in hand with my comedy. As long as I don’t ever lose sight of it … if I’m self confessional and I’m making fun of myself and never taking myself too seriously … I think everything could still keep getting funnier and funnier. But then again you can also become a caricature of yourself … I kind of feel like the audience collectively decides for you when your time is up.
What should the Boston audience anticipate from your tour? Well seeing as Boston basically kicked the Nazis asses I feel like … this is a revolutionary liberal state, I think they’ll love it. My act isn’t really political, it’s more personal, but of course I talk about the fact that I was unhappy with who America chose on election night. It’s not about that but it’s about what I did to soothe myself and I go into a whole crazy thing about how I put up the Christmas tree and I watched a Hallmark movie instead. [Laughs.] Sometimes you just have to act dumb like you don’t know what’s going on just to get through like one night. I have this sketch I wrote in college that [the comedian from the] opening act is going to read with me at the end of the show. … I wrote something in college that I thought was going to solve race relations and it wasn’t supposed to be a funny sketch. It was just like a little scene that I really thought whoever was in charge of the world would find out and come to Emerson and be like, “We must take Jen Kirkman. She’s going to change the world. She can’t stay here anymore.” That was revelatory. So I’ll end with that. So actually, there’s so much Boston in it. I get it because I’m from there, so there’s so much Boston in me, how can there not be!
You’ve done stand-up, podcasts and movies. What makes you feel most at home? Stand-up is complete freedom. And it’s the love of my life and I’ll always do it. The only other thing I have going on is I started a necklace line with this company called Bauble Bar and it’s based on a necklace that I wear that says “Over 40,” which is like just a proud-of-my-age thing. And I made all kinds of different ones like “FeminineAF” and “Catlady.” I’m really into it. And it’s only on sale until the end of December. Stand-up is my first love, but my second love is the idea of people wearing fun jewelry, fun clothes and I would like to have my own show on QVC by the time I’m 50.
Jen Kirkman is performing on Sept. 20 at the Wilbur Theater as part of her “All New Material, Girl” tour (VIP tickets).
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