In the opening of her Netflix special, I’m Gonna Die Alone (And I Feel Fine), comedian, author and podcaster Jen Kirkman tells a story about overhearing someone ordering a drink and slowly realizing that person cannot tell the difference between a lemon and a lime. It’s like she’s a dear friend venting her frustrations with the world already, and it’s only been a few minutes.
That’s the brilliance of the special. Recorded shortly after her 40th birthday and the release of her successful memoir I Can Barely Take Care of Myself: Tales From a Happy Life Without Kids, the Netflix special shows us what Kirkman’s best at: autobiographical and shameless banter about the various elements of her kidless, post-divorce life — from being an unintentional cougar to finding gray pubic hairs.
In addition to her Netflix special and book, Kirkman is known for her appearances as a panelist and writer for Chelsea Lately and a narrator for the Comedy Central series Drunk History (and the original Funny or Die webseries). She’s also recorded two comedy albums — 2006’s Self Help and 2011’s Hail to the Freaks — and is the host of the I Seem Fun podcast, which largely consists of her speaking about whatever is on her mind while sitting around her home.
Kirkman is on a nationwide tour, which includes a stop at Milwaukee’s Turner Hall Ballroom on Sept. 9.
She spoke with WiG about her special, her comedic approach, dying alone, the chances of her own TV show and her amusing idea of an Uber horse.
You’re on tour to promote your Netflix special, I’m Gonna Die Alone (And I Feel Fine). A Netflix special is a pretty big deal. How did that come about?
It is. Thank you. I’m really just on tour because that’s what I do for a living. I think I sound stupid when I say I’m on tour to promote it like as if Netflix needs my help (laughs). They got the advertising dollars and they’re obviously in everybody’s home.
Actually, to be honest, I’ve never wanted to do a comedy special. I preferred albums for a long time. I didn’t like putting my physical self on tape. I don’t like looking at my mannerisms. I don’t like the idea of having to pick an outfit that’s going to live on for years on TV that might look dated in a few years. I was always fine not doing one.
Over the years, the only available option to comedians before HBO and Showtime was Comedy Central, who I didn’t want to work with because I don’t believe in editing or having commercial breaks in comedy. I think it’s not a good way to present it. So I was fine not having a comedy special, but then when Netflix started doing them, I thought that seemed like a good place to do it. I knew this woman who worked there and she made it kind of known that she’d like to do one with me. We just kept pursuing it. It was actually in the works for like a year before I was able to film it. So I was really excited, but I couldn’t say anything.
During your Netflix special, rather than cutting away to the audience every few minutes for reaction shots, the camera stays on you while you go from topic to topic, making it more like you’re ranting to a group of friends about topics that are both hilarious and relatable. Was this something that you were always comfortable with from the get-go?
It’s funny because I get called a storyteller comedian, which I don’t totally think is true because real storytellers are doing off-Broadway shows and there aren’t laughs for 10 minutes. I’ve always thought what I’ve been doing is normal comedy like anybody else. I think the way I perform it makes it look like I’m talking off the top of my head or telling a story, which I think is a skill I’ve honed over the years. I feel like if you measure out my laughs per minute, even to a one-liner comic, it’d be the same.
I purposely chose not to have any cutaway shuts and the person who directed my special, Lance Bangs, I believe he really doesn’t like that either. I feel like you can edit without having to cut to the audience. You can cut to a different camera angle on a person. I also don’t think the audience at home needs to be told when they should laugh because you can decide that for yourself. Not every joke is going to hit home with everybody, so laugh when you want. When they cut to a group of people going, “Ah ha ha!”, it’s like, “Don’t tell me when to laugh.” (laughs) When you go see a comedy show, you’re just looking at the person. I don’t know anybody who would want to turn on the TV and see the audience. It never looks real, either. It looks like it’s inserted from a different show.
What’s really funny, though, is some people who have hated my special … have commented that I put a laugh track in because … no one was laughing. I thought that was kind of funny that people have noticed that and people thought it was for tragic reasons (laughs).
What is the inspiration behind the title? You don’t actually feel like you’re going to die alone, do you?
I think everybody does. People have taken it to mean it’s about dating, which is really weird because obviously I’ve been single, I’ve been married, I’ve been engaged, I’ve been divorced, I’ve been in a relationship and I’ve been with friends with benefits. I’ve had every iteration of dating in my life, and always will probably, but the special was not about being single. It’s actually what I’ve wanted to call my first book. It’s things people have said to me about not having kids. It’s what people said to me: “You’re going to die alone if you don’t have kids.” My answer to them is, “Fine. I’m going to die alone and I’ll be fine.”
… If you die, you die alone anyways, even if you’re in a bed next to someone. It’s your own journey. We all really do die alone. You can be as suited up as you want. You can be married with kids and think, “Oh, look at how great my life is going to be when I’m older.” But you really don’t know if anybody is still going to be around. Unfortunately, most people take it to mean I’m lamenting some kind of not-being-married thing. I usually get people consoling me and I’m like, “It is a comedy title.” When I said what the name of the special was, a few people on Twitter were like, “Aw, you won’t die alone. You’re cute.” I’m like, “Ugh. Forget it.”
From show to show, do you strive to bring new material that audiences haven’t heard before to the stage?
This tour is not material from the special because the special was stuff that I’ve done on the road for three years. The cities I’ve been to, where people have seen me over the past three years, they’ve already seen that stuff. For them, watching the special was a repeat of what they’ve seen live. There’s no getting away with doing old stuff anymore. This tour is all new stuff, with one or two bits from the special because I do think that one of the bits from the special was pretty new. The joke is about a gray pubic hair. So I’ll keep growing and growing with that premise, as I get older and things continue to break down in my body or change (laughs). That one will probably live on.
There is one joke about a woman who marries a cat that has become sort of relevant again, now that we have marriage equality but (there are) senators who are still saying the bestiality thing, so I’ll keep that in. I think people do remember that from the special, but for some reason I think it’s such a silly, dumb bit that I think people like it and I’ve actually had people say, “I came to your show and I brought my friend who didn’t know you and I was telling her about your stuff and I’m glad you did some of the jokes that I told her.”
For the most part, I don’t think people want to see what they’ve already seen because it’s hard to laugh when you know it’s coming. Halfway through my tour, I just changed the name of it to “An Evening with Jen Kirkman” and not the name of the special because people were telling me, “If it’s your special, then I’m not going to come because I’ve already seen it.” Which is stupid anyway, because even if it’s the exact same thing, it’s always different live.
I’ve read recently that you’re working on your second book. Will this be a direct follow-up to I Can Barely Take Care of Myself or will this be something entirely different?
It’s pretty similar. I mean, it’s not similar, but it’s a pretty direct follow-up. I kind of knew when I was writing the first one that I wanted to write a second one. I knew some of the stuff that I wanted to write about and as the years went by, I lived a little and had more experiences so it’s the same thing, like a memoir-style, comedic essays, but it jumps around topics a lot more than I Can Barely Take Care of Myself, which was really about not wanting kids and all that stuff. This is all different kind of things about traveling, family, divorcing, work and stupid things like my neighbor who won’t stop knocking on my door.
That’s coming out in April of next year. It’s pretty much written. There’s just a couple of edits here and there that have to be done. I think people will like it because it does cover so many different topics, so there’s something for everyone. A lot of the stuff in the podcast will be in the book, but better with a lot less rambling. There’ll be complete sentences.
When it comes to shows about comedians on television, all the rage right now is about Louie C.K. and Marc Maron (who star in and produce their own shows). I’d personally love to see you have your own show where you’re not only the star, but you’re also the writer, producer, director, etc. Do you think the chances are high of seeing such a thing happen? Better yet, would you want such a thing to happen?
I tried. It was passed on by over 20 networks. FX bought a show called Jen that was going to be like a Maron or a Louie. They bought it, I wrote the pilot, and they paid me to write the script but it just didn’t get picked up into a pilot.
Most comedians that you know or like, our agents would dump us if we didn’t try to pitch a show about our lives because that’s how they make their money if we get a TV gig. That’s part of being a comedian on the road. You pitch TV shows. All of us pitch multiple shows a year and all the different levels you can get to are: someone pays you to write a script, and then after that they could pick it up and make a pilot, but the pilot doesn’t go to series. There’s like six levels of all that crap. We do it all the time under the radar; nobody knows. The odds are just so insanely crazy.
It’s nothing that like breaks our hearts because we always have stand-up, which is what we want to do first and foremost. I think most of us would say that the only reason we’d want a TV show is so that more people can come see us on the road. I tried, but I’m glad it didn’t get made for many reasons that are boring. I wasn’t working on it with the right people and I don’t like the show that I wrote anymore so I’m fine with that.
I’ve worked in TV shows my whole life and it’s not what it’s cracked up to be. It’s a lot of work. There’s a lot of politics. There’s a lot of crap you don’t have to deal with in stand-up.
So, I was Twitter-stalking you earlier, and I read your prediction of an Uber Horse being the next big thing in transportation. Can you please elaborate?
I’ve gotten picked up in an Uber in Canada with a huge dent on the side, and I was like, “Hmm, that doesn’t make me feel that confident.” It’s like you’re hitchhiking. I’m really just getting into a stranger’s car. … Uber Horse was just a joke, but it’s getting to the point where it went from nice SUV to someone’s car that has a dent, so probably what’s next is someone bringing their horse to pick you up. I think it will happen someday. It should.