“When this article comes out,” US comic Jen Kirkman says towards the end of our interview, “I will get hate letters and death threats.” It’s just as well she can take care of herself, then.
Kirkman, perhaps best known for her regular appearances on Chelsea Lately, is a successful stand-up comic, podcaster and author. In 2013, she became a best-selling author when her debut book was released. In 2015, she’s still railing against the title that book got saddled with — I Can Barely Take Care of Myself: Tales From a Happy Life Without Kids.
Ahead of her very first trip to Brisbane with the Melbourne International Comedy Festival Roadshow, we caught up with Kirkman to talk about the absence of women in late night television, the rise of outrage culture, the legacy of Joan Rivers, and the sociopathic tendencies of Bill Cosby — and we discovered that Kirkman is one woman who can definitely take care of herself.
Have you ever been to Brisbane before?
No, I haven’t! I’ve only been to Melbourne and Sydney, so I’m really looking forward to that. I know Australians like to make fun of Brisbane, but I think it sounds like a place I would love. Are you from Brisbane?
I don’t know if you know this, but you’re being made fun of by the snobs in Melbourne.
That’s OK, we can take it. Now, a lot of people know your stand-up work, but your podcast, I Seem Fun: The Diary of Jen Kirkman, is also very popular. Your stand-up persona and your podcast persona… do you see them as the same thing, or are they two slightly different people?
No, it’s always me, but I just take different approaches. With stand-up, you have to have very polished jokes, because the audience has paid money to come and see you. They want to laugh, and there’s a certain way to get people to laugh, and that’s with punchlines. So the stand-up is different – I may talk about similar things, but I make it really concise and funny. But my podcast is absolutely free, and you can download it in your spare time, so there’s this mutual agreement between podcaster and listener – if you don’t like it, you didn’t make much effort to listen and you didn’t pay anything, so let me just freestyle here and nobody gets hurt.
My podcast is more stream-of-consciousness; it’s supposed to be a diary of what happened that week. It can be heartfelt or emotional or serious or angry, and sure, it can be funny, but only in the same way that any person is funny in real life. It’s not ‘honed’ funny, because I’m making it up as I go along, and I would never disrespect a paying audience by doing that. So they’re both me, but I approach it in two different ways.
If you were to go out and have a cup of coffee with me, the podcast me is what I’m actually like in day-to-day life. Thank god, right?
As well as your stand-up and podcast work, you’re also an author. A few years back, you wrote a book, I Can Barely Take Care of Myself: Tales From a Happy Life Without Kids. Since then, it’s been a few years, you’ve been through some stuff, you’ve turned 40. Do you feel like you’ve learned to take care of yourself a little better since then?
I’m so mad, because I didn’t want to call the book that. I wanted to call the book You’ll Change Your Mind, And Other Dumb Stuff People With Kids Say To People Without Kids. Because I am so good at taking care of myself. I tour the world by myself, I organise all my own travel, my house is 100 per cent organised. I couldn’t be more on top of my life! I’m so competent! So that title has come back to bite me.
What I meant was, I would be so overwhelmed if I had to take care of anyone else in addition to myself, but I guess that wouldn’t have been a snappy title. What’s interesting is that I just finished my second book, and it has a similar title but this time I mean it. It’s called I Know What I’m Doing, And Other Lies I Tell Myself. It’s about how, yeah, at one point I thought I knew what adulthood was. Every time I figured out an aspect of myself I would cling to it and say ‘That’s who I am’, and now I realise I’m a bunch of different things and some of them will change. I’ve changed my mind about a lot of things. Not kids, though.
So the new book will be out next year and it’s about exactly what you’re talking about – turning 40, being an adult, my thoughts on relationships changing, learning how to stand up for myself in certain situations, what it’s like to travel the world by yourself, living alone, all those kinds of thing.
Do friends and family still say things to you like ‘You’ll change your mind about having kids one day’?
My family, thank God, were never the people who told me I would change my mind. It was only friends who were having kids, or strangers. You know, we just don’t talk about it anymore, but now it’s turned into ‘I know you don’t like kids, but I just wanted to tell you this story about my daughter’. And I’m like, ‘I didn’t say I hated kids!’ Now they’re taking it to the other extreme. It’ll always be something people will talk about. They still bring it up like it’s the only part of my identity.
But it hasn’t changed anything for strangers, because they don’t know I wrote the book. Even my dentist said to me — because I was having trouble making an appointment, because I was travelling so much — even he said to me, ‘You know, at some point you might want to grow up and have a family and stop doing all this travelling’. I said, ‘Funnily enough, I wrote a book about that, and I have it in my bag’. I showed him the book and he still did not care. So, no. It’s just shown me that you can’t change anyone’s mind. I’ve changed no one’s mind.
You were on the writing staff of Chelsea Lately for a long time, and you made a bunch of appearances on the show. It feels like there’s a changing of the guard happening in late night television right now, with a lot of the older guys moving out of the way. Do you feel like there’s room for The Jen Kirkman Show now? Would you want to do that?
Well, I’m as old as anyone. I’m 41. But I’d love to do that. I’ve pitched it a million times, but no one will buy it. They think it’s going to be too female. There’s so much sexism in Hollywood. They will have a stuffed animal host a late night show before a woman. I know Chelsea did host one, but whenever there were articles about the late night shows, she was always left out of the conversation. There are ten men right now with late night shows and there is absolutely no woman.
I hope there’s a Jen Kirkman Show and some other girl’s show and blah blah blah, but you’ve caught me on a day when I am just hopeless, because I have pitched a show idea many times and it just never goes anywhere. Other women I know are in the same boat.
You know, the only thing I’m nervous about with the younger guard is that I really love Letterman and how grumpy he is. He’d yell at people and have arguments about the war or whatever. Now it’s all nicey-nicey, everybody’s a fan of everybody and everything’s positive. It’s like one big commercial for celebrities. That’s what I miss about Chelsea Lately. We actually had guests that were afraid to come on, because they didn’t know what Chelsea would say and they couldn’t protect their image. We don’t have that anymore on any show.
So I’m sad about some of the people that are leaving, like David Letterman and Jon Stewart, and I’m hoping the new guard aren’t just all young people who are really excited about comedy because I don’t think that’s funny. And then I hope they let some women in, because we’re all people and we all have different points of view. The 10 men who have late night shows don’t all have the same opinions because they’re men. They’re 10 separate people. Hopefully they’ll start to see women that way, but they just don’t. It’s very strange. There’s a lot of concern with ‘will the male viewers like this?’, but as far as I can tell, both gay and straight men alike love women. I have seen it!
When a new host is announced and it’s another male, are you at the point where you just roll your eyes? I mean, these are all very funny guys, but it seems like there’s a lack of self-awareness on the networks’ part in that they keep hiring white males.
This is not a funny answer, but I think that happens because there are so many men at that really high level of fame. You obviously want to hire someone who has established an audience and can bring in a lot of viewers. There’s a lot of really funny women out there who just haven’t broken through to the next level where they can say to a network, look, I know there are two million people who love me. That’s where it’s a little harder.
So it’s not just literal sexism where they won’t hire a woman, it’s that there aren’t a lot of viable female candidates who are at that level. If they are, they are already doing other things, like Amy Schumer, Tina Fey and Sarah Silverman, and they are not looking to be late night hosts. So it’s a systematic thing. I don’t necessarily roll my eyes, but I’m not surprised.
I’ve never held my breath waiting for a woman to be announced. I know that they always have a few highly publicised meetings with some women to keep critics away, but I know those meetings are all BS, because I am on the inside of it.
You know, people could argue daytime television is for women, because women dominate there, and nighttime is for men. I think we’re still stuck in this old model. I don’t know what the answer is. So I know that’s not a funny answer, but that’s what I think. Now people are going to say, ‘Of course they’re not giving these jobs to women! Look how unfunny she is in this interview!’
One of your comedy heroes, Joan Rivers, hosted The Tonight Show a bunch of times. If you did host a late show, do you think you’d take a similar approach to her?
I really like what she did. I would never say that in a Hollywood pitch meeting, though. I would never say I want to do what some older woman did 40 years ago. That would be everyone’s worst nightmare, because they want to hear how you’re going to make the show go viral the next day. They want you to throw a baseball at someone’s face.
But what I loved about Joan, if you go back and look, is that she was the first person that came out from standing in front of that curtain. I love how Johnny Carson did it, too, I loved the self-deprecating remarks he would make after a joke didn’t go well and all that, but Joan made it very personal. She sat on a stool like Lenny Bruce used to and she talked right to the audience. She told funny jokes about Liz Taylor or whoever the celebrity was at the time, but she would always make it very personal. That had never happened on late night before, and in that way she revolutionised it.
What I really like is the way that she treated it, because she was a stand-up… it doesn’t matter to a stand-up if five million people at home are watching. We are obsessed with the people in that room liking us, and she really played to the audience in the room. Which, weirdly, came off really well to the people watching at home on TV. So she really treated it the way a stand-up would.
So I feel like, whatever show I would do, I would try to have that relationship with the studio audience, and then do whatever the network wanted me to do from there. You know, we could have a kissing booth, we could dunk someone in water, whatever it is that people do now. I’d do whatever I had to do.
When Trevor Noah was announced as the new Daily Show host, a lot of his old tweets resurfaced and people really seemed to be offended by them. As a comedian, how do you feel about this ‘outrage culture’ that seems to be big in comedy at the moment, where people take jokes really seriously and get really offended by them? Do you think people take it too far?
I do, but I think there’s more to it than the outraged people and the people saying it’s fine. You know, I looked at some of those Trevor Noah tweets and I thought, you know, these might be jokes, but they do, perhaps, speak to an insight he has about women. Maybe he wouldn’t be a great boyfriend.
I don’t know! I don’t know him at all. I’ve met him twice, he seems very sweet, I like his stand-up. But definitely, when I see certain men do certain tweets about women, I do think to myself, ‘Huh. They have every right to make those jokes, and I’m sure they are just jokes, but I wonder if it means they’re not great with women’s issues. Just wondering!’ And so I think that to myself, and then I move on, because I’m sure, just like any comic, that you go through this growing period where you may have said something that you thought was totally hip and cool and ironic, but it really was just racist or lazy or whatever.
I think half the outrage over Trevor Noah is fake. I think people say there’s outrage and there isn’t. I think some of it is really comedians rolling their eyes and going, ‘We’re funnier than this guy, and he got a show?’ I think there was a lot of that. I’m not saying I thought that, but that’s how comedians talk.
And then, deep down, because women are so hurt and angry that they have been trying and trying since Chelsea to get another late night show hosted by a woman on the air, when we see a tweet that’s like, ‘Hey, white women with great asses are like unicorns’, it gets us a little bit like, ‘Oh, okay, so these are the kinds of tweets that the guy they hired sends. Alright, great.’
But we can’t get outraged about it, because we are comedians as well. I get annoyed when people review my show and call it vulgar, so I totally understand. I cannot be outraged, because people get outraged over my material, and I know it is nothing and they’re being ridiculous.
I think the concept of outrage culture is a little bit made-up. In real life, most people are like, ‘I don’t know who Trevor Noah is, I don’t know what Twitter is, I don’t know what you’re talking about’. It’s only all of us who are on the inside that talk about it.
I do think it’s important not to comb through people’s tweets and make them out to be a villain, but there’s nothing wrong with looking at those tweets and saying, ‘Hey, maybe the guy has a little more to learn about women, and maybe that would be a cool thing if he could do that’.
You mentioned on your podcast a couple of years back that you really enjoyed Bill Cosby’s last special, because you really like when grown-up comics talk about grown-up things.
Well, I’m sure you weren’t aware of the accusations, like most people. What do you think of the work now? Do you still like that last special?
No, I don’t. First of all, I should have been aware [of the accusations]. I saw Hannibal [Buress, the comedian whose stand-up routine brought the media's attention to Cosby's alleged crimes] in New York recently, and I was telling him how embarrassed I was as a feminist and a woman and a comedian, and just a person on earth, that I didn’t know.
I’d heard some rumblings that he was a little shady, but I know so many guys that are that I just thought it was one of those typical situations where maybe he cheated on his wife a few times, but it was consensual, or maybe he, I don’t know, slapped someone’s butt once. I really thought it was run-of-the-mill stuff, because I assume anyone in Hollywood that’s been married for 30 years and has all that power, of course they cheat. That’s what I thought it was.
Actually, the reason I was talking about how much I loved his special was because I was just getting tired of younger comics talking about things they don’t know about. I hate when a 30-year-old does a special about how marriage is stupid, because they’ve never been married and it drives me nuts. So I was talking about it from that point of view – I like that Comedy Central, who used to just cater to young people, had an older person on. Comedy seems to be the one place where older people can really thrive. When you look at Twitter, you see people who don’t know who Paul McCartney is, but in comedy, people know who the older comics are. So that was what I was celebrating.
As I told Hannibal, I had heard all this stuff about Bill Cosby, but I never thought to Google it. I never thought to. When you Google it, it’s so clear that he shut down a lot of cases against him, and I feel embarrassed that I didn’t know that. But when I look at his comedy now, the reason I can’t watch it is the same reason I have a hard time with Woody Allen.
I don’t necessarily see the alleged child molester in Michael Jackson when I watch the video for Thriller, but I can see in Bill Cosby’s storytelling that he’s a charming, manipulative sociopath. That’s why his storytelling is so good! It’s because he’s a charmer. So it makes me feel icky. And Woody Allen is a confused little neurotic guy who seems obsessed with younger women and sex, so now when I watch his work, I say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s the guy that likes younger women’.
So this has ruined Cosby a little for me – not his legacy and not what The Cosby Show did for culture, but I can’t separate the art from the artist on this one, because I feel like he’s using the same set of tools to charm people. Even now, he charms audiences – he’ll say ‘calm down and let the heckler speak’. If somebody accused me of something like that and I was being heckled, I would be losing my mind on stage.
There were a few suggestions at the time that if a female comic had been the one to call out Bill Cosby, it wouldn’t have had the same impact. Do you think there’s any truth to that?
I do. There’s no way I can prove it, and when this article comes out I will get hate letters and death threats like I always do whenever I say anything, because it’s always written as though I brought that up. But I do think there’s something to that.
I’m so grateful that Hannibal did that and got everybody talking about that and saying, ‘Yeah, this is gross’. That’s good. But I don’t think, if a female comic said it, it would have gotten that much attention. No. Not at all. Because a female victim said it, and it got no attention.
And then once the female victims started speaking, you saw how they were treated by people. You heard people say, ‘Well, I believe he did two people, but not 30’, and that’s where people aren’t very intelligent, because two means 30, in that sense. If you can do two, you can do 30. They’re asking themselves how many times they could commit a crime before they felt guilty, but he never felt guilty. That’s the point.
So no, I don’t think if a female had said it that it would be as well received, but it showed me a really cool thing, which is that there are guys out there who are willing to put it on the line for what’s right. All Hannibal was doing was making a joke about a thing we all knew about, or should have known about, and it went viral. It’s not like he held a press conference. But once the thing went viral, he didn’t step away from it. He put himself out there. I think he got a lot of death threats, too.
Anyone speaking out on behalf of women – whether it’s a man or a woman – will get those threats. So I’m really proud he did that, and I love when guys speak up about this stuff.
Cool. I’ve just seen the time, so we should let you go, but thanks for taking the time to talk.
Oh my god, you’re so welcome! If you have any more questions, you know where to find me.
Jen Kirkman will play the Melbourne International Comedy Festival Roadshow at Brisbane Powerhouse from Wednesday 29 April to Saturday 2 May with Kevin Kropinyeri, Wil Sylvince (US), David Quirk and Nath Valvo. Tickets for the show are available here.