Death and Comedy: Jen Kirkman is OK

Comedy Features

Let’s get one thing straight: Jen Kirkman is OK. It even says so in the title of her debut stand-up special, I’m Gonna Die Alone (And I Feel Fine), which began streaming last Friday, May 22 on Netflix. But despite the first half of that title, Jen Kirkman really is OK, and that’s the biggest thing I took away from her special. A lot of seemingly bad things can happen (finding gray pubic hairs, getting divorced, turning 40) but that doesn’t mean you need to have a negative view of things. Kirkman attacks these subjects and more with enthusiasm and positivity that feels refreshing, and that’s one of the reasons her special works so well.

I recently sat down with Kirkman in New York City where we had the opportunity to talk about her new special, what it was like working with Netflix and what outfit she’d want to wear when she dies.

Paste: Congrats on the special, I watched it and thought it was very funny. What do you think of the reception it’s gotten so far?

Jen Kirkman: Surprisingly great. I don’t look at reviews unless somebody tweets me that they wrote one and imply that was nice, then I like to see what they liked about it so that I know if I did what I set out to accomplish. But I don’t really care about the compliments, that won’t affect me.

But I don’t check the reviews on Netflix. I won’t even look at that, so I don’t know what’s going on over there. But I look at Twitter responses, and I’ve been getting, I would say, three every few minutes. And it’s just been constant, I’m getting a lot of positive reaction from all different kinds of people. Like young guys will say, “I’m not 40, divorced or a woman, but I really relate.” And that’s my favorite kind of thing, I’m reaching more people than ever.

The only thing that annoys me is this thing people have nowadays where if they find out about you they think you’re brand new. I wouldn’t be brand new and doing a special. They are like, “You should tour!” And I’m like, “No, I am.”

Paste: Yeah, Paul McCartney was just recently discovered by Kanye West.

JK: Exactly. And I’m sure because he’s already so successful, I hope that doesn’t bother him.

Paste: Well he continues to work with all of these younger artists so it seems like he’s rolling with it.

JK: I think that’s a thing you have to do as you get older, start learning a lot from other people. I’m sure I’ll start doing that.

Paste: So this is your first special with Netflix. What was it like working with them?

JK: They’re amazing. I know the woman who gave me the special, she’s an old friend, she became a friend through business crap. She used to work for a punch of different production companies. We’ve been trying for years to work together on something. So I kind of knew when she got the job there a few years ago that I think I would get a chance to work with them.

They kind of just give you a budget. They give you money and then you figure it out: you hire a production company, you decide what you’re going to get paid. You could spend your whole budget on a Beatles song I guess if you wanted to come out to that and have nothing else. So they kind of let you do whatever. I only had dealings with my person there, Kristen, who’s great. They didn’t really have notes. They made some suggestions for those little scenes at the beginning and dialogue suggestions, but I was like “No, I just have to go with what I hear in my head,” as Buddy Holly once said in the biopic with Gary Busey. Have you ever seen it? He’s like, “There’s a sound in my head, and if you don’t let me get it out, I’ll never know what it looks like.” So I just said, “This dialogue is written in my head exactly because it happened in my real life, so I just need to get it out.” But they didn’t fight me on that at all. They were like, “Great!” It was easy to work with them. They gave me whatever I wanted.

And the other part of working with them is how great they are at promoting. They give you billboards. They make your special be the first thing that shows up when it hits Netflix that day. So there’s not much more advertising I can do that’s ever going to trump that. It’s for people who already have Netflix, so I’m not on some porch trying to get people to sign up for it or something.

Paste: I love the way they rate things and their algorithms are set up so they can automatically recommend them to people that might not have been a target audience otherwise, so that’s another benefit to using them.

JK: Yes, that’s like their big thing that they are proud of, and it works really well.

Paste: And this felt longer too than a traditional special.

JK: It was 78 minutes. They said I had 80 minutes.

Paste: Really?

JK: Yeah, and I didn’t even know that, but they said I had 80 minutes I could do. So I could have just done 80 minutes of stand-up. But those scenes were the most important things for me to do.

Paste: Right, because as much as the stand-up set ties things together on its own, the scenes also tie everything together, too.

JK: They were my favorite parts, because I never get to do stuff like that. We hired actors, we got to watch the audition tapes, we were free to improvise and they threw me off my game in a good way. I wanted them to improvise, make me laugh, make me react. I wanted it to look as real as possible.

And no one’s ever picked up a pilot of mine, they never made it. So this is like a five-minute pilot, not with the hopes of it going anywhere, but I just wanted to see what those scenes would look like. And now I get to see them, and I like it.

Paste: So this is your third stand-up special.

JK: Well actually this is my first, the other two were comedy albums.

Paste: Oh I didn’t realize that. So I guess then what was different about developing a special as opposed to an album?

JK: I didn’t do anything. I mean honestly I feel like, not you, but people look at it as “What did you do for the special?” I just do what I do on the road, and we taped it one night. I didn’t put any extra thought into it except the scenes, so really no.

But it’s an ever-growing thing. I’m going to stop doing this material mostly when I go on the road this summer because people will have seen it. They’ll either have seen it last year or on the special. Maybe one or two newer bits I’ll keep using, like the one about gray pubic hair. That’s a brand new bit. The one decision to put it in here is because it fit in so perfectly with turning 40. I didn’t want to wait a few years. I’m sure in a few years it will be a much longer, much funnier bit, but I felt like it was the right way to introduce myself, so that was a conscious choice I guess. But something like that I might keep working on. The other stuff will just go away. But there wasn’t much thought put into that way, but it did end up sort of having a natural theme to it.

Paste: The title of your special, I feel like that prepares you perfectly for the show you’re going to get. It matches the tone of everything perfectly. You touch on these things that are commonly accepted as depressing, but you’re incredibly upbeat about them all. Why don’t more people have that mindset?

JK: I don’t know. Not enough people do. I can’t believe it’s just dawning on me this week, but I’m like, “Oh I got this from Morrissey!” I used to always say he was a comedic influence, but I kept saying you’ll never see why he was and why I thought he was funny. But now this is the perfect example. He would totally say something like, “I’m gonna die alone and it’s fine,” because it’s a funny thing to sing. And it’s more natural that way whether you’re married, whether you have kids. I know plenty of people, from the old ladies that lived across the street from me growing up that died alone who had husbands and kids that eventually your husband dies first, your kids don’t live there anymore and then you die alone. Or, more metaphysically, no one can take that path with you. So you can lay in bed and hug someone while they’re going but you are going alone. And also, anything can happen so there’s no guarantee, and I just thought it would be a funny way to say I’m not planning my life based on how I want to die later.

And the other thing is I wanted to call my book that, the one that came out a few years ago. But they said it was a bit harsh, and I agree. It’s really about people say that you’ll die alone if you don’t have kids. It’s like a conspiracy because everyone I know with kids that’s older died alone. So I feel like I’ve seen different things, but everyone is going to be OK. I think a lot of people think it’s me and that I’m talking about being single, but I wasn’t single when I came up with some of those jokes. So it’s not about that.

I just wanted [the title] to maybe get some attention, and maybe be an interesting conversation piece for interviews. But now that I look at it it’s really just a rip-off of Morrissey lyric, where it’s like “Why do people find this depressing? I think it’s funny.”

Paste: I saw in my research that you listed Morrissey as an influence and thought, “That came out of left field.” But it really ties in.

JK: I think his lyrics are really funny. When someone says to me, “Oh, he’s so depressing,” I could never be friends with that person. I automatically write them off as stupid.

Paste: It’s kind of refreshing to see optimism around this stuff. Cynicism is obviously there, but it’s refreshing to see an honest and upbeat way to talk about these things that isn’t really out there.

JK: Well I wanted it to be upbeat because I do feel upbeat. In my real life I’m trying to be more open to whatever happens, so I do feel upbeat because I don’t know any answers. Anytime I’ve tried to plan something thinking, “This is a really good way for my life to go,” I’ve been wrong, and random stuff that happens always ends up being beautiful and great. So I feel like it had more to do with that than like, “I’m excited about my life, whatever that may bring.” And I’m not saying it has to bring being single, not married and no—I mean definitely no kids—but I’m never saying “Oh you shouldn’t do that,” or “I’m so cool.” I’m OK. Everybody needs to stop thinking anyone who’s not doing what they’re doing is unhappy.

And it’s like I’m ever-changing where it’s exciting to me. I’m not the same person I was five years ago, so everything is kind of a new thing for me. That’s the positivity I wanted to have on it. And as a girl, I’m conscious of trying to keep it not fake positive, but keep it out of the “Mehh, I’m depressed about this,” because I end up getting consoled more often than not after my sets on Twitter. So I try to make it very clear: I am not soliciting dates, I am not unhappy.

Paste: In the recent Paste review of your special, Robert Ham made an interesting point. He said that doing your podcast I Seem Fun may have encouraged you to open up even more on stage. How has podcasting impacted your stand-up, if at all?

JK: Well I read that and I thought, “Well that’s interesting,” because he doesn’t know me on the road all these years doing that stuff before I even started my podcast. So it’s a great theory, but I don’t know if it’s 100% true. I think in my life I just decided to just get more honest, which is why I did the podcast kind of. I suppose, because the gray pubic hair thing started off as a story I told on my podcast now that I remember it. It was a longer story about something else that happened that day, so I just cut it down and trimmed it to a bit about turning 40 when it wasn’t about that at the beginning.

So sure, I think in a way, because I do get feedback from people that listen to the podcast. The most feedback I get is from the most honest, unfunny episodes that are more like a diary, and people say, “Oh I relate, that happened to me, or how is that thing working out.” But, I can’t really take that to the stage. It’s not always funny. So I don’t think it literally influenced me, I think that’s just where I was going in life because that’s the last gimmick I have left. Not gimmick, but I just had to let it all out there.

Paste: After everything else you had done, it was time for this.

JK: And I always felt like I did anyway. When I was married, I was doing bits about how I don’t like being married, which was really a cry for help. That was too honest, that was like unfunny honest. So, I might come at it from a different way, like I don’t care what people think and we’re having fun with it. We’re having fun with our differences. But I think I’ve always been honest. That’s why I think it took my career so long to happen. It’s because I didn’t do cutesy jokes, and things that people could relate to, according to networks and things. So I don’t think so, but it’s a good thing.

Paste: So it’s not causality or anything like that, but an overall trend of the direction your comedy has taken.

JK: Yeah.

Paste: You have a lot of stuff going on right now. You’re about to do more touring, you have a book coming out next year. But stand-up has always been your number one thing. What drives you to stand-up more than those other things?

JK: It’s fun. I have no boss, I can do what I want, I learn about people. I see people. I get to travel. I work an hour a night, but you work so much harder than that. But whatever, you know what I mean. If it’s not going well, it’s over in an hour, as opposed to a bad day at work which is over in eight hours. So that’s what I mean. But I just love it. It’s what I love. I don’t like being second-guessed. I don’t like having to answer to network executives, I don’t like to hear anyone’s input about anything: just the audience’s. So, I think that’s what it is. I like being around humans in that capacity. That will always be my thing.

And, as you get more successful, you can make crazy money doing relatively little. But that’s not what drives me. That’s just an end goal.

Paste: I want to get to a couple things that stood out to me from the special.

JK: Oh please do!

Paste: The bit about the cat wedding.

JK: It’s so funny, I think that is so nasty, but I do it anyway and people always laugh.

Paste: It’s just the way you paint it and the visual that it creates. It’s just hilarious.

JK: Can I say something about that? I had to go to Melbourne, Australia and do my show every single night for a month, and I came up with a better ending, where I say: And everyone pitied Cindy for having to marry a cat. And then unlike us humans, and I’m referring to you people with your husbands of 75 and you’re wiping their butt, unlike us, she gets to decide when he dies and it’s socially acceptable. She puts him in the cat carrier. “Where’s he going?” “Oh, he’s suffering.” “How do you know?” “Just trust me.” And then she carries him away. I absolutely love that and I can’t believe I didn’t think of it for the special!

Paste: Is it a different joke if it’s told about a man marrying an animal? I think it takes a different tone.

JK: I didn’t mean to do it that way.

Paste: Oh no, not at all. That’s just something I thought of when watching was that I think this only works if it’s a woman marrying this cat.

JK: I think it does now that I look back on it, because especially with the new tag I have that no one will see, which is like we pitied her because she couldn’t find a man. You know why? Because with a man you maybe picture the penis and him actually having sex with the animal whereas with a woman, it’s very much about the companionship. I think you’re right, it is perfect that it’s the woman marrying.

Paste: And I was trying to think: is there any other animal wedding that could be funny?

JK: [Laughs] I was going to say a man and a hamster but after that Richard Gere thing… A man and his dog maybe? It sounds weirder, I don’t know what it is. You’re right. It’s gotta be a cat. It has to be a cat, so you can get those tuxedo suits in. Or a penguin. A man and his penguin.

Paste: And penguins are so loyal, that would be the perfect marriage. And then finally, the way you closed your bit about your Nana getting found in just her black bra on the kitchen floor. It was such a strong way to end the show.

JK: I love ending it like that.

Paste: It really kind of catches you by surprise.

JK: I like that it might upset people.

Paste: It’s one of those things you see and go, “I don’t believe that,” but it’s definitely true.

JK: Oh it’s totally true. I didn’t find her. I kind of don’t say who did, but I went to the house like two days after. But, yeah, it was really strange. I still don’t understand what was happening, but I love ending it that way. And if you think about it, I started off about gray pubic hair, so it’s a nice circle of life.

Paste: It really is. What would you want your death outfit to be?

JK: Oh my god! I don’t want to die!

Paste: If for some reason scientists don’t find a way to cure death-

JK: When I die peacefully.

Paste: When you die peacefully, on your own terms, in your house-

JK: No, no. Hospital. For some reason I love hospitals, I find them very comforting.

Paste: Really!

JK: Hopefully I’ll be very rich and can do that thing Beyoncé did when she gave birth. I’d rent out the whole wing, but have lots of people there. Maybe have a cocktail party. And I’d want to be in a fabulous outfit, lots of rings, cool sunglasses, a really fun hat. Maybe a fur coat. Now the fur coat in my special isn’t real, but maybe on my death bed I’m a bad person for wearing fur, but I’m dying so leave me alone.

But maybe some kind of glamorous outfit just for fun. Because I came into the world naked and bloody and I’ll leave the world at the height of fashion, something really cool. And I would let people photograph it, and I would hope it would go viral.

Paste: That would be a great idea. I don’t know that that’s been done before.

JK: Nobody photographs corpses.

Paste: Especially people becoming corpses.

JK: Oh no, I think that might be scary. Because even when someone dies peacefully and they are on morphine, they still have that last breath thing, which I have never seen thank the lord. But I know people that have died and their relatives have said, “Oh they died peacefully, but the last minute was like, “UHHHHHHH”. But I do think that the person isn’t feeling any pain, they just sound really strange. I have no idea, but yeah maybe some fancy stuff. I’ve never thought about that before, but that’s the first thing that came to mind.

Paste: That sounds like the right way to go.

JK: Have you ever seen the documentary Advanced Style? It’s about older women in New York City, this guy is just photographing them with these fabulous clothes.

Paste: Is that with that one really old woman with the glasses?

JK: Yeah, she’s in that too. But there are others.

Paste: Maybe it’s a different documentary about her that just came out that I’m thinking of.

JK: Yes, Iris Apfel. So looking like that, like one of those fabulous old ladies is what I’d wear. And maybe they could document it.

Paste: Your final project.

JK: Yeah. God, that’s upsetting to think about.

I’m Gonna Die Alone (And I Feel Fine) is now streaming on Netflix. Jen Kirkman will be touring this summer, and you can find those dates on her website. You can also follow her on Twitter.>

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