In her new Netflix special, Just Keep Livin’?, veteran standup comic Jen Kirkman jokes about meditation, periods, and the deep philosophy of Matthew McConaughey. That last one’s not even a joke: As Kirkman asserts, McConaughey’s motto — which she borrowed for the title of her special — is truly inspiring. “I’m not suicidal,” she explains. “But I am a soul trapped in a body. I didn’t ask to be born and I’m afraid to die, and that’s the shit I live in every day.” She also wears a fabulous outfit of red pants, pink blouse, gold ankle boots, and a gold necklace that spells out, “Over Forty.” Just Keep Livin’?, Kirkman’s second Netflix special, is streaming as of this month. Flavorwire spoke to the comedian about playing to red-hatted crowds, being alone, and why liberal men can be less receptive to feminist material than you’d think.
Flavorwire: I really like the mix of storytelling and jokes in your special — you open with a long bit about freaking out at another driver right after trying to meditate.
Jen Kirkman: These are technically not stories, they’re narrative jokes with punch lines. I try to quell the myth that it’s stories. I know what you mean, there’s a narrative to it; it’s not just one-liners. I think everyone does comedy that way, but I feel like women get asked about it a lot, and then I get called a storyteller. I ran this material at comedy clubs where people are drunk and it’s ten at night and you’ve got to get their attention and there’s drunk guys that are listening to me talk about my period and they’re wearing Trump hats, and they do not sit there for a story.
For me, it’s just stuff I watched growing up, like Richard Pryor, Roseanne Barr. To me it’s just what comedy is. I feel like we took a detour when I was starting out in the ’90s, when one-liners were really hip and cool again and it wasn’t seen as like, Borscht-Belt-y. Now, if anyone stays on a subject for longer than one minute it’s like, “Oh, it’s a story!”
That style has always been what I do, but I wasn’t very secure in it when I first started out because I was told people need the subject changed quickly or they’ll lose their attention span, which is not a thing. I don’t believe that that’s true. Some executive at Comedy Central told me that, years ago.
A lot of your material — and even the titles of your two Netflix specials — speaks to this sort of anxiety that I think a lot of women feel about being alone or unmarried at a certain age. But in your specials you really sell the idea of being on your own, you make it look like a good alternative. You talk about not understanding why people think it’s hard to be alone.
When I got divorced I was like, “Why do people even get married? This is stupid. I know who I am now, I’m not even gonna have serious relationships anymore, people don’t need that, we’ve evolved past it.” And I totally changed my mind about that. I just actually don’t like weddings, but marriage is fine. I don’t understand when people are single and there’s no one on the horizon and there’s no one they’re pining for, why they’re sad. Or the notion that if you do things by yourself you must be single. I’m sure plenty of married women are having lunch alone right now.
I know a lot of people that are just totally uncomfortable going anywhere or doing anything by themselves.
I think it’s weird. People always say, “I’d come to your show but I don’t have anyone to go with.” I’m like, no one will know you’re by yourself, you’re in a theater full of people! As a touring comic, I have to be ok with it. I used to have a lot of anxiety about traveling [alone] but I have learned to enjoy or just get used to the solitude of traveling. But now I do build in time to come home and be a human again, because it is really solitary. I’m not one of these psychos who’s like, “The love of the crowd is enough!”
What has it been like touring the country this past year and a half? Have you noticed a change in the audiences?
I haven’t at all. I don’t talk politics. I still have the same issues that everyone has touring — drunk women at shows having a birthday party — but then I have really good fans. It’s always places like Bloomington, Indiana or Iowa City where it’s the best crowds. A lot of people would think New York has the best crowds but honestly, when I taped my special there, I felt the first crowd wasn’t laughing as loud and then I actually felt they were a little more silent during my period stuff than the audience the week before in Iowa City.
For me, the more liberal the guy, sometimes, the less likely he is to want to expand himself because he already sees himself as perfect. He’s holding his “men of quality don’t fear equality” sign but he doesn’t really want to hear what women want to say. I experienced that a lot in New York with supporting Hillary over Bernie. I notice when I talk about the period stuff, if I’m performing in front of a crowd of white drunk guys in Arizona, for example, they feel the need to shout and be like, “Woo!” They’re just uncomfortable and they start making noises during that particular bit. So it’s interesting, I have to manage them and myself. But that’s just comedy and being a woman. I don’t think that has anything to do with the political climate. The only tension I felt was when I would ask the crowd if anyone’s supporting Trump and no one would answer, so I know some people were keeping quiet.
How do you feel about touring now?
I’m glad I’m not going on the road until September. I’m not afraid of audiences so much but just being a woman traveling by myself. So many hate crimes were happening after Trump got elected where people felt emboldened to go up to people and I heard that happened to women, too. Two years ago I drove through the Midwest by myself touring and it was fine, and it was fun, but I don’t think I’m gonna do that now. Not that I think anyone in the Midwest is scary or anything but you just need one rogue Trump person at a truck stop to throw a beer can at you or something.
Do you feel any inclination to write politics into your standup now?
Talking about my period, even being a woman and talking, now, is political. We see what happened when a woman tried to run for president and it threw everything into chaos. For me, continuing to tour, do standup, make men listen to women’s stories and jokes and women’s points of view — not that I speak for all women — but just having them have that experience of enjoying comedy by women is itself a political act.
Jen Kirkman: Just Keep Living’? is streaming on Netflix.