Jen Kirkman’s new book, I Know What I’m Doing (And Other Stories I Tell Myself): Dispatches From a Life Under Construction opens with a note begging her parents not to read it.
In her dedication, she writes “[m]aybe just rewatch those videos of my preteen dance videos instead of reading this book.” For anyone who knows her comedy, this recommendation comes as a bit of a surprise; Kirkman has always been intensely personal on stage, openly inviting her audiences to relate to her experiences. You’d be forgiven for thinking that at this point in her long, successful career she wouldn’t have anything left to hide; forgiven, but wrong. In her introduction, she writes “For a stand-up comedian who talks about her life onstage, I’m weirdly, fiercely private.”
In conversation, I asked Kirkman about this apparent contradiction, between being both a private person and a public performer and she walked me through what constitutes the difference for her: “It takes so little to seem personal. The average person does not say things out loud, at work, you don’t say “gee my husband hasn’t been having a lot of sex with me lately” – you just don’t say that stuff. And so, it takes so little for people to think you’ve revealed a lot. When people tell me “oh my god,” they think I’ve revealed EVERYTHING about me.”
“Someone once interviewed me and said ‘you tell a lot of embarrassing stories, how do you get the courage?’ but I’m not embarrassed by them, so there is no courage needed. It’s not that I say ‘I can’t believe I said that.’”
“In terms of my PARENTS not reading it, though, that’s specifically only for my parents. Everyone else can read it.”
Kirkman’s comedy comes from relating her personal experiences. However while she is frank about relationships like the one with her ex-husband and with her family, she’s careful not to vilify anyone and to make sure that she’s the butt of the joke. I asked her if this was a way of feeling safe about presenting this kind of personal material, but she thought it was something more important:
“I think it’s even simpler – I think it really is the only thing that’s funny. If you were to go up and talk about what an idiot everyone is, you would just look like an ass – I think. “
“Some people like that kind of comedy – I call it “when the comic wins” – but I think that what’s interesting is taking people into my mind, because I’m really just taking them into their own minds, and they’re relating to a thing that they’ve thought or done. I think that’s more relatable, and it’s always going to be funnier because you’re making a roomful of people listening to you and you’re putting them at ease by saying this isn’t a lecture about how great I am or how stupid everyone is.
“An easy way for me to decide whether to write about something or not is asking it is my story, or would it cause someone else shame? Am I revealing something that they would not want to write or tell. That’s very easy. I think we all go through that every day. If you’re at a dinner party, you think “do I talk about myself, or do I tell the story about my fucked up brother and his money problems. I’ll go with the story about me.” For the record, Kirkman doesn’t have a brother; she didn’t just break her own rule. Rest easy, gentle reader.
Over the course of the conversation, I asked Kirkman about one of the strange things about public life –the weird time lag that emerges when audiences know parts of your life but assume they’re all current: “when people read something, I wonder if people realized that I went through a thing, let’s say five years ago, then I wrote about it and that takes five years and then it’s come out and isn’t necessarily where I am right now.”
I fell into this trap myself while interviewing for her upcoming show in Vancouver. She’s touring to promote her book, presenting some all new biographical short stories; in researching for this interview, I’d found that Kirkman had referred to David Sedaris as a model for the kinds of short stories that she is performing on this tour. However, when I asked her about this influence, she laughed and said “He’s not my model, but he’s what I would have said when I was pitching books to agents. I’ve always wanted to write a book, so I would say “David Sedaris” because that’s what you said.“
“For me, my hero of that kind of book is Augusten Burroughs. For me, I more blatantly borrow from his style where his books are all true, and they’re essays with more of a memoir feel because he does it in chunks of his life. He’s a genius, I’m nothing like him, but he’s more my hero than anything.”
I apologized for my misinformation, but she was very gracious, saying “[t]hat’s okay! That’s all you have. It’s not like I have a press release every time I change my mind.” However, it raised an interesting question – the problems of living at least a semi-public life, where people are able to construct an image of you out of info that is either false, or simply no longer true.
“A comic, or an artist – they can write about things that they are not themselves going through at that second. When I was married I also remembered what it was like to be single, and I wrote jokes about that. When I was single again, I remembered what it was like to be married and I wrote jokes about that. Nothing I’m saying is a statement of “this is who I am and always will be” and it’s also not “this is where I am right now.”
“I wrote a chapter in my new book about this whirlwind relationship I had and at the time I wrote the book I said “I have to turn this book in in a month and we’re still together, but by the time you get this book we might not be.” And of course, we’re not – we broke up a few months later. I’m totally fine, it’s been seven months and I’m in love with someone else, but…
“That month where we were broken up was REALLY PAINFUL and this woman on twitter last month wrote me and said “I have to know, are you still with that guy?” And if I had received that tweet during that month, I would have been devastated.“
“I suppose that’s the risk I take by writing about my life, but I do feel there should be a sacred contract where, you consider before you think “I’m going to write to a performer who I read in a book, and I’m going to ask her to respond about something really personal in her love life.”
“There is a risk to putting yourself out there because of social media. I’m assuming people are wondering what happened, but – good! That means I’m doing my job.”
While Kirkman is indeed touring to promote her book and telling short stories, she also wants everybody to know that while it isn’t quite stand-up, it is as funny as anything she’s ever done: “It’s not my Netflix special, or my new material [from] last year. It’s more new material and the stories are not from my book, they’re just on a similar theme. Just, times in my life when I really thought I knew what I was doing.”
“I don’t use a handheld microphone so it doesn’t look like stand-up,” but “it’s about an 85 minute show and it’s totally hilarious. There are probably more punch-lines than most of my stand-up.”
“These stories are more from my younger years, like really funny childhood stories about being afraid of nuclear war and growing up and taking a fear of flying class and disrupting it. Going through a break-up on 9/11 IN New York City and making that the most important thing in my day that day. Lying about losing my virginity, pretending I lost it a lot earlier than I did.”
“While writing these stories, I realized ‘I think this is funnier than my stand-up, I should just do this.’”
While Kirkman tours aggressively (she approves of the word), I asked her if she had any fond memories of Vancouver from previous visits. She praised the crowds, and the scenery, but one thing seemed to stand out for her:
“You know what there is? This is so exciting for me. This store called Le Chateau – it’s a women’s store, and back in the 90s, living in Boston, there was one there and I thought ‘what is this exotic place?’ Women from the 90s will know what I’m talking about – they used to sell these kind of Courtney Love velvet dresses. I thought they closed down in the 90s, I had never seen one since but when I was visiting Vancouver I saw one and I was like ‘AH!’ This is really stupid, but I really love that store.”
If, at any point, you’ve ever wanted to dress like Courtney Love, you owe it to yourself to go see Jen Kirkman. And if you’ve never wanted to dress like Courtney Love, you owe it to yourself to go see Jen Kirkman. If you’re on the fence, she recommends that you watch her Netflix special, I’m Going to Die Alone (And I Feel Fine) or listen to her podcast I Seem Fun or her frequent appearances on The Pod F. Tompkast.
Comedian Jen Kirkman returns to Vancouver this Friday, June 24th. She will perform, and sign books, at the Rio Theatre