I Know What I’m Doing: Jen Kirkman talks activist entertainers, class inequality, new book

Photo: Robyn Von Swank

Don’t listen to Jen Kirkman. She doesn’t know what she’s doing.

At least that’s how she sees it.

The stand-up comedienne and author, who hails from Needham, didn’t have an epiphany, an “awakening”, about wanting to become a comic, nor did she have influences like many others do. It wasn’t even until college that she had a remote interest in becoming a comic.

“I honestly wanted to be everything but a comic. I didn’t even know it was a job, really,” says Kirkman. “I wanted to be a dancer, so I studied dance for twenty years. I wanted to be in a band, I wanted to be on Broadway, I wanted to be a serious actress, and the idea of becoming a comic didn’t start until I started goofing around with a friend that had a video camera, and she would tape me, ranting about stuff on the front steps of our dorm,” she continues. “But then I started going to see live comedy, and names that aren’t really names to anyone, but just names around Boston, and the very essence of this live thing happening in front of me sort of shocked me, and it was the first time where I observed something and I felt like ‘I need to be doing this’,” she recalls. “It wasn’t like going to see a movie, where you can go home after and be okay. I was changed. Not in a way like I thought I was so funny, it was like if the words ‘calling’ and ‘urge’ had a baby,” she says with a chuckle. “That’s what it was like.”

“It was so not linear at all for me. I didn’t have influences, but for me, I could come up with five different things [that led me to become a Comedian]. One is [I have] the personality type of a Comedian. I was the type of person that would soothe myself by thinking of things that were funny to me. Watching TV after school, watching comedies that made me feel better about things, shows about working class people, as I was a working class kid in a town that had mostly rich people. That kind of stuff.”

For Kirkman, being the working class kid in a rich town, and the different behaviors she observed between her and her friends has helped to shape her view on issues that have leaked into the spotlight, like the struggle of the working class, and income inequality.

“I had some great opportunities, and we lived in a very wealthy suburb,” says Kirkman. “My Dad was the Greenskeeper of a Golf Course, and still is, and we lived where he worked. I mean, he walked two steps and he was at work,” she continues. “With the rich kids, their Dads would take the commuter rail in Boston, and it wasn’t things like ‘oh, you’re poor, you suck’ that made me sad, but it was the little things, like telling my friends that my Dad was home by 5:30 for dinner, and they would be like ‘How did your Dad get home that early? We have dinner at 8,’ and I started thinking that maybe it was a bad thing that my dad was home that early.”

Kirkman seems to enjoy kicking it “old school”. Not in the way that she doesn’t how to work “the Google” on “the interwebs”, or the fact that she still owns a landline telephone (which is completely true, by the way), but in the way that she doesn’t live a life of excess and extravagance. That way of living started in her humble beginnings, and it’s partly due to remembering what it was like to be the outsider, for lack of a better term, from the more wealthy kids.

“I went to this rich girl’s house once when I was a kid, and she was like ‘call my Mom, I want her to bring us some snacks,’ so I ran to the top of the stairs and started to yell for her Mother, and she was like ‘no, you idiot. Call my Mom,’ and she went over and call her on an intercom,” Kirkman recollects. “Her mom wound up not even bringing up the snacks. Her housekeeper did. It was bizarre, and although I didn’t feel bad or anything, I just felt different.

“Again, I liked to watch TV shows where people seemed more like me instead of the other kids around me, and the people were like those other kids were made out to be the jokes. There were definitely things I noticed, but it didn’t hurt me, but it definitely felt strange to me. Like when I would watch Good Times, I would think that my life was like that. These people are struggling, living in low-income housing, and rich people look down on them, but then I would have to remind myself that it was totally different. First of all, they’re a different color, and people of that same color are still being kept down in this society, and I’m white, and I live in the suburbs. It’s really just not the same.”

Kirkman, who describes herself as someone who thought much more like a “grown-up” as a young kid, caught onto the ways other kids around her worried about things that seemed odd even someone who thinks like an older person.

“It was weird to me that little kids were concerned with money,” she says. “Like, kids wanted to wear all the best brand names and everything, and I just kept feeling like ‘oh, come on. You’re 10! This is the best time of our lives, because we don’t have to worry about money!’ I don’t know. It was just weird to me. I certainly didn’t care [about that stuff],” she continued.

These days, Kirkman understands her responsibility as an entertainer to have a voice for social awareness. That’s not to say she thinks she’s better than anyone, though, but she does feel that others in similar positions should pay attention. Not just because they’re entertainers with a platform to make change, but because they are also, first and foremost, people.

“The only I reason I think entertainers should bring awareness to issues, is because I think everyone should,” says Kirkman. “Not all of us are career politicians, only the career politicians are, and usually, those are the guys that we want to keep in check,” she continues. “I am always confused by the attitude of ‘shut up, entertainer, we don’t care what you say,’ when it’s the same people who say ‘we gotta change the establishment.’ I’ve always thought of entertainers as really passionate people who intersect a lot of social topics with being performer. Maybe there’s a higher gay population, maybe there’s a higher population of people who came from no money and they’ve seen things while living in New York and LA. Maybe they see more than the person who just stays in their hometown and doesn’t see the huge homelessness problem we have in LA, or never sees racism and class issues that we see in New York.

“For me, personally, any issue that has to do with peace, equality, the environment, poverty, race and class are the most important things, but I feel like, unless you’re insane, that everyone would be on board with that stuff, and I always try to speak about things from a perspective of ‘hey, I’m only spouting off right now,’” she says. “Because sometimes, it gets to be dangerous, to the point where if you say something, you’re screwed,” she continues. “Like when Meryl Streep said that we were all Africans. I know what she was saying, but there’s a time and place for everything, and that’s something you say to your racist uncle at Christmas to shut him up, not at an all-white awards ceremony. With things like that, I can see where people can get turned off, and just be like ‘please shut up!’”

Stand-up comic, social activist, landline telephone owner: Jen Kirkman wears a couple different hats. Additionally, she’s also an author, having written the New York Times Bestseller I Can Barely Take Care of Myself: Tales From a Happy Life Without Kids. In a few days, on April 12th, Kirkman will be adding to her literary repertoire with the snarky self-help book I Know What I’m Doing and Other Lies I Tell Myself.

“When I was writing I Can Barely Take Care of Myself, Simon and Schuster bought the book on the promise that the book would focus on me not wanting kids and all the stories in the book coming back to that central theme,” says Kirkman. “But as I was writing it, my life was going through so many changes, seeing as I was getting divorced, and I was traveling the world, friendships were changing, and I was moving,” she continues. “Funny things were happening, deep things were happening, and I thought ‘this is what I want to put in the book,’ but then I thought that maybe I could write another one. I want to keep writing books every few years, and it was my master evil plan that if the first book did well, I had this proposal for the next book ready to go, and the minute my first book hit the best-seller’s list, I pitched this upcoming book.”

“It’s filled with stories about my weird life, and about getting older, and every chapter has different stories, but all the themes are pretty much the same, and I really like this one a lot because it’s more of a well-rounded view of me, but it’s always hard because I did start writing it a few years ago, and we all evolve and change, and after re-reading some chapters, I think to myself how I may not think like that anymore, but that’s okay for me. That’s why I wrote it. I’m hoping it’s the kind of book that people laugh at, and make them feel better about their own life.”

Kirkman is currently working on creating a new stand-up special, a follow-up to her Netflix debut of I’m Gonna Die Alone (And I Feel Fine), scheduled to film in the fall, and premiere in Spring of 2017. I Know What I’m Doing is also still available for pre-order through Amazon, but is released on Tuesday, April 12th, 2016.

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