For Comic Jen Kirkman, It’s Either “Stay Hungry” or Be “Out of Touch”

Jen Kirkman is channeling her Gen X energy for the good of 2019.
Jen Kirkman is channeling her Gen X energy for the good of 2019. Photo by Robyn Von Swank

The last time stand-up comedian Jen Kirkman performed in Houston, she had some pretty sizable competition.  “It’s been about two years; it was during the World Series in Houston!” she exclaims. “It was during the last game! Never great. Because even if you don’t go to the game, someone has a party, you got do that. I was definitely thinking I have the worst luck. So I’m definitely glad that this time, knocking on wood that there’s not suddenly some other thing like the Queen of England is coming… and she’s going to play basketball!”

The 44-year-old Massachusetts native is happy to be on the road again, after delivering two must-watch specials on Netflix, 2016’s I’m Gonna Die Alone (And I Feel Fine) and 2017’s Just Keep Livin’. Now without another recording on the immediate horizon, she’s having fun with her latest brain children. “I don’t have a new special coming out, [but] I have two hours of material that I could do, and I’m not currently recording. We’ll probably look for buyers, we’re in the process. But just reading between the lines – don’t seem to be doing another Netflix special! Not my choice. So I’m on tour, and the hour that I have coming to Houston, so it is not what people saw last time because I always have new stuff. I write while I’m on the road, and things develop. Always!”

While the comic, known to many for her years on the panel of the dearly departed Chelsea Handler E! series Chelsea Lately, doesn’t consider herself a “political comic,” Kirkman talks honestly about her creation process in the era of near-constant bad news. “When I say political comedy, I mean those late night TV style jokes: ‘They passed a bill today that said health care was free.’ I’ve never done those type of jokes anyway. But if there’s one thing in my damn life that’s not going to be affected by this man is my art. I’ve always talked about my observations in life, not having kids or getting married or getting divorced or dating or whatever. Whatever I’m doing is my act. However, it IS harder because I’m constantly like, you know – it’s a stressful time! And you feel like anything you’re gonna talk about that’s not gonna save the world is stupid. But I keep hearing from everyone: ‘God! I just need one hour where I’m not thinking about politics.’ So I am doing a good thing in the world.”

Not unlike a culture that made the 1985-set season of Stranger Things the buzziest show on streaming, Kirkman too is hoping her material can transport away from the current headlines. “Without the Demogorgons,” she cautions with a laugh. “I’m just talking about things I’m nostalgic for in my act, I’m nostalgic for like a time before the internet, and a time of smoking and just being Generation X. It can be depressing out there. [While] I luckily was never a political material comic; I don’t have to keep up with anything. I would hate that because everything changes every day.”

In fact, despite recently celebrating her 22nd year in comedy, Kirkman feels she’s just getting started on stage. “I just had a therapy session, and I said to her I feel like I’m 22, but not in a good way. That’s so funny. By the way, I did do a joke about my therapist once in one my Netflix specials and she saw it. I was like, I don’t know if this is appropriate? And she said she thought it was funny and she wasn’t offended. Not many comedians can say their therapists are a fan of their comedy. So I don’t get any material [from therapy], and now I’m too scared to ever mention it again.”

Asked about the lasting appeal of stand-up, she says: "It’s a happy thing. It’s still the same-old, same-old. You gotta get on stage and you suck for a while and you gotta do your thing. There’s always trends that come and go, and I missed out on the whole 1980s comedy boom. People are doing more personal things.

"Audience, I think because of podcasts weirdly, are able to listen more. Audiences are nicer, they’re not coming to comedy clubs to heckle – they really love comedy. And like anything, we change with the times, so I think comedians are less insensitive in some areas than maybe what used to be considered funny. But I don’t think the medium has changed that much: it's still you up there with a microphone and you gotta make people laugh, or chuckle at least. And then you’re done – it’s so beautiful! It's not like now there has to be elephants on stage or anything.”

click to enlarge Take it from her therapist, Jen Kirkman is funny. - PHOTO BY ROBYN VON SWANK
Take it from her therapist, Jen Kirkman is funny.
Photo by Robyn Von Swank

With a night prepared for The Heights Theater, alongside opening act Betty Soo, August 22 will be another opportunity for Kirkman to get the “instant” feedback that comes with new jokes. “You know right away when something is funny, because they either laugh or they don’t,” she says.

“Right now, I’m really comfortable. I know the way to filter what I want to say. I know who I am, and I know what my take on things is, if that makes sense. It would seem like that would be the most obvious thing, but it takes a long time to get comfortable with yourself. For me, with bands, I usually tend to like their older stuff because I think there is something to be said for when you are hungrier. You’re more obsessed with getting really good. And then when you’ve gotten good and found a fan base, you can’t get lazy. So I’m at that crucial point where I need to stay hungry, and don’t get lazy. It’s a good place to be, because it can get scary if you become the old out of touch person.”

Jen Kirkman will perform at 8 p.m. Thursday, August 22 at the Heights Theater, 339 West 19th. For information, call 214-272-8346 or visit $22-$136.

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Vic covers the comedy scene, in Houston and beyond. When not writing articles, he's working on his scripts, editing a podcast, doing some funny make-em-ups or preaching the good word of supporting education in the arts.
Contact: Vic Shuttee