Jen Kirkman is a “feelings comedian.”
The New York Times best-selling author, television writer and stand-up performer’s signature comedy style highlights the absurdity of her personal experiences, from street harassment and solo travel to menstruation and marriage. Kirkman, who calls herself a “flaming liberal feminist,” also has found comedic respite in modern American politics, including election night sadness and the so-called Bernie Bros.
A sample joke from her Netflix special, release in January and titled “Just Keep Livin’?” illustrates the personal-meets-political bent she’s perfected in her two-decade career: “I don’t have time to be afraid of ISIS. I’m just busy being afraid of plain old men.”
To that end, Kirkman is performing a comedy show for a female-only audience (trans-inclusive) in Oklahoma City, to benefit Planned Parenthood’s Central Oklahoma City Clinic. In Kirkman’s words about the show, “87% of women have reported being sexually harassed … in real life and online. I want to provide a safe space for women to laugh loudly, speak freely and feel safe — and a space where I can see what it’s like after 20 years to perform to a roomful of people that have similar experiences just being on planet Earth in our bodies.”
I spoke with Kirkman at length about the show, her material, social media and the wisdom of Matthew McConaughey.
Q: How did the idea to do a show benefiting Planned Parenthood’s Central Oklahoma City Clinic come about?
Jen Kirkman: Obviously in areas like San Francisco and New York, I think there’s better access to programs like Planned Parenthood and probably people doing things for them all the time, so I wanted to find somewhere it seemed like they needed the support.
Q: This is the only all-female audience show you’ve done. Where’d that idea come from?
Kirkman: I was inspired by the “Wonder Woman” screenings and things like that, but now I sort of feel like an old lady who’s 10 steps behind as we keep growing and changing. People have been emailing me saying they’re not binary, or they’re agender, so can they come? What do I mean by women-only and trans-inclusive? What about all the other things? I’m a white, straight woman; I have privilege and blind spots. We’re all learning so fast.
My whole point was trying to find somewhere people who have been harassed because of their gender, whether they express that subtly or overtly, can come and laugh without worrying. Not every man coming would be shouting us down or trying to hurt us, but when I taped my Netflix special last year, the women were laughing, and the men were quiet. I’ve had trouble at my shows with boys who think they know better, who think they’re feminists. I wanted to see what it felt like for everybody if they weren’t there for one night. It might be more than a show. I hope people will speak, and I’ll bring the mic around, and people can tell their #MeToo kind of stories. Honestly, a show where men come and watch that might be really informative, but that’ll be next.
Q: Americans look to their comedians as an extension of their identity politics. How do you broach that expectation?
Kirkman: Honestly, I don’t feel any expectation. It’s an interesting question, and you’re right; I can look at it as a big picture thing and see that society has an expectation. Or look at Jimmy Fallon, who doesn’t do politics, and I’m like, “Dude, why not capitalize on this time to be cool and do the right thing, or even just take an opportunity to talk about what’s on everyone’s mind?” Some people still want entertainment without politics.
I’m always preparing for my next album or special, so my material has to not be stuck in a certain period of time. In my Netflix special, I talk about street harassment and how we’re not supposed to talk about our periods. … I’ve always been sort of the personal-as-political female comedian. I talk about the generation gap, and how sad I was on election night, and I do a really silly bit about watching a Hallmark movie instead of the election results. It’s politics, but it’s really not hard-hitting. I’m a feelings comedian. I don’t want to talk about anger, but the sadness underneath it. It always comes back to me.
Q: How has being an American been different in all of your travel pre- and postelection?
Kirkman: I think people root for us because they know we’re not all terrible. In Canada, I got some booing and some guys coming up to me after shows because they love Bernie Sanders so much they didn’t want me to tell my experience. I have jokes about how his supporters harassed me and told me they were feminists; I have one about a guy who chased me into a parking garage to tell me he’s a feminist, and when I pointed out that what he was doing scares women, he said it shouldn’t because he’s one of the good ones. I was talking about aggressive male feminism that doesn’t listen to women and ironically got booed during it onstage.
Q: From a public personality’s standpoint, and someone who, when you started your career, it didn’t exist: Is social media good or bad?
Kirkman: For as much hell as social media can feel like, it’s really helpful. Is it bad to hear everyone say horrible things to me? Yes. I keep my filters on, though, and try to use it very strategically. I use it as a promotional tool, but I’m very careful now; I don’t go looking for trouble.
Also with the stuff we were talking about earlier, I get to eavesdrop and learn from people who are different than me all day long. I don’t talk to 10 people of color a day and 10 trans people or 10 gay guys, but I can on Twitter, so I can learn. Just like anything now, it’s a terrible environment for women: Whenever a new world emerges, we’re as scared as we are in a parking garage or whatever. I don’t enjoy the things everyone hates about it, but I find more positive than negative. Overall it’s evil, and also my experiences with it, at the end of the day, are mostly positive.
Q: You have a tattoo that says “JKL,” which is a reference to Matthew McConaughey’s slogan, “Just Keep Livin’.” Is that well-known? Do people know what you’re talking about?
Kirkman: No … (laughing) I think if it were more mainstream or my initials weren’t JK I probably wouldn’t have done it. It came from the writers’ room on “Chelsea Lately,” where anytime he came up, I would rush to his defense, like, “Guys, he seems really nice.” He started saying it after his dad died, and he has foundation for kids or whatever. It turned into a joke where whenever I would have a touch of good luck, like catching a flight someone else missed, my friends would say, “Oh, that’s JK livin’.” I never thought of myself as someone who had good luck, so it was sort of this moment in my life where I realized I don’t have to be who I always thought I was; I don’t have to be this sort of negative person. It’s really dumb, but it’s symbolic to me of how at any point you can change your perception of yourself. Now I think of myself as someone who’s really lucky. It means a lot to me on a weird level, and it’s technically a funny story.