Jen Kirkman, Comedian

It was early evening on the 8th of October when I hastily crossed off the last item on my to-do list for the day. I cleared the empty coffee mugs off my desk and rushed out of the office to head to Amsterdam. I was nervous that I would be late, as I can easily lose track of time sometimes, so I left a bit earlier than I usually would, to make sure I get there before the show started. Well, Jen Kirkman was performing at “Boom Chicago”, that’s a big deal and I definitely didn’t want to miss any part of it! And to be honest, I also didn’t want to be the person sneaking in after the show has started, and risk being asked by Jen “What took you so long?”, that would’ve been embarrassing, but it would’ve given the audience a good laugh for sure. I thought it would be wiser to get to the theater on time and pick a safe place to sit in the shadows at the back, and just enjoy the show.

It took me more than two hours and a couple of means of transportation to get there, but it was definitely worth it. The show was not just intensely hilarious but also full of important messages and smart relatable material. It was without a doubt a fun night out!

When asked about her experience performing in Amsterdam for the first time, Jen said: It was fantastic from behind-the-scenes-to on stage. Obviously, it’s a well-run, popular, professional comedy venue and I knew that I would be well taken care of. Things that the audience doesn’t know we care about before the show – the microphone, the lighting, is there a hot water kettle backstage? The audience was PHENOMENAL. A great mix of people from all over the Netherlands, other parts of Europe, Americans on vacation. One woman flew in from Ethiopia. I am still floored by that. I didn’t feel that I was anywhere different at all. Halfway through my set if someone had stopped me and said, “Quick, where are you?” I would’ve had to think about it. The audience was respectful, not drunken hecklers, and really, really smart.”

Jen Kirkman is a Los Angeles based stand-up comedian, author, television writer, and actor. She started when she was 22 years old and has been touring nationally and internationally for more than a decade now. “I had no idea I would be a comedian. There was no clear path for becoming a comedian. I just did comedy at night and worked day jobs to pay the bills. I did this in NYC and then LA. When I did my first open mic (a comedy show that anyone can sign up for and get on stage) in 1997, it felt right.” Comedy to Jen means communication, relating with humans, getting validated for her human feelings as well as validating those who come to see her.

Kirkman has two stand-up comedy specials streaming now on Netflix; “I’m Gonna Die Alone (And I Feel Fine)”, which was inspired by a lot of people that Jen knew who died alone, and it sends a message that you shouldn’t do anything in your life to assure what will happen in the future because the future is never guaranteed, and “Just Keep Livin’?” in which she jokes about male feminists, people who won’t travel alone, getting a tattoo at 41, and creepy street harassers.

“Her act has the feel of that wonderful moment at the end of a party when you are left alone to gossip with your best friend about the horrible and ridiculous things that just went on. Though delivered in an effortless conversational style, her comedy has the meticulous detail that can come only from repetition and experience.” – The New York

Jen is the author of the New York Times Bestseller “I Can Barely Take Care of Myself” and “I Know What I’m Doing and Other Lies I Tell Myself”. She won a Writers Guild Award in 2018 for her work on seasons 1 and 2 of The Amazon Prime series “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”, about a housewife in the fifties who decides to become a stand-up comedian. She’s also written for sitcoms and late-night shows such as “Perfect Couples” and “The Eric Andre Show”.

She is also known for her appearances on “Chelsea Lately” and “Drunk History”. She also appeared on several shows including “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert”, “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno”, and “The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson”. Kirkman also appeared in Reese Witherspoon’s feature film “Home Again”. And she was recently a guest star on Modern Family’s season 11.

Kirkman currently hosts a podcast called “Having Funlessness with Jen Kirkman”, where she tells stories from her past and present. She shares random interesting things that she has recently read or heard about. It feels like listening to your witty friend or cousin telling you about their day or sharing things they’ve observed or experienced throughout the week, while the both of you laugh about it. The podcast is not only funny but also always real. Jen talks about everything and anything; she talks about what’s on her mind, whether it’s anxiety, thanksgiving, her trip to Amsterdam, how she loves to watch documentaries, or how astronauts pee in space! Jen is genuine, intelligent and effortlessly hilarious, and as described by the Telegraph: “Kirkman is one of the slickest in the business at what she does.”

Jen Kirkman speaks to Women to Watch Media about passion, inspiration, role models, the meaning of life, comedy, challenges, success…

What does comedy mean to you? Why do you do it?

Comedy to me means communication, relating with humans, getting validated for my human feelings as well as hopefully validating those who come to see me. I try to reveal my private thoughts knowing that they are all of our private thoughts. But I do it now because it’s too far to go back. It’s consistently how I pay the bills. I guess I’ve become a real stand-up (hard for me to believe even 22 years in).

If I had the freedom to do anything in life and not have to worry paycheck to paycheck? I would take a break. I would find other ways to communicate. Right now, I’m interested in talking about anxiety and helping others with it. Stand-up isn’t the right place for that 100% of the time and so I hope I can keep finding and getting paid for communication -whether it continues to be stand-up or not.

When did you know that being in comedy, as a comedian and writer, is what you’re passionate about and what you want to do in life?

I get asked this a lot and I always try to fit a square peg into a round hole – meaning I try to answer it as though that’s what happened and as I take more time to look back at my life – I didn’t know.

And honestly, I started 23 years ago so it’s hard to even remember how I felt. I just look back and know that someone – who is me – got up on stage once. Why? I can’t remember. I always took dance my whole life, piano lessons, majored in acting in college, I was an artsy kid. I wrote short stories, poems, did school plays, musicals. I knew I would always have it in my life. I didn’t have a plan for how to get paid for it. It was just who I was. It was passion.

I’m very instinctual and people like me don’t usually fast track to fame and fortune because I stop and smell every flower, and experiment with everything that I’m interested in and see how it feels. When I did my first open mic (a comedy show that anyone can sign up for and get on stage) in 1997, it felt right.

I had no idea I would be a comedian. There was no clear path for becoming a comedian. I just did comedy at night and worked day jobs to pay the bills. I did this in NYC and then LA. I went on auditions. Never landed a part. And over the years my comedy was beginning to get noticed and other people told me who I was by offering me jobs in writing. I didn’t decide to be a writer. It happened to me based on my stand-up. I took writing jobs and continued to “go where the love is.” If someone is paying me in this business, and I like it enough, that’s what I do.

If there is one person you could invite to come watch you perform, who would that be, and why?

I want Lenny Bruce (if he were alive) to come and watch me perform. I would want to know if he thought I was funny.

What inspires you?

I’m inspired by everything that I can’t control, by everything that I did not make. It’s why I love to travel and be among buildings that are hundreds or even thousands of years old. It’s why I love nature (to a point, I’ll take a nice walk, I’m not going camping).

I’m inspired by the human spirit and I’m inspired by the brain and its complexity. I’m inspired by science and by the total mystery of the universe. I’m inspired by people who work in the space program. I’m inspired by anything bigger, in the ‘awesome’ sense than me – which is most things. I’m just some lady walking the earth.

How would you describe yourself (in 3 words)?

Earnest, neurotic, curious

Growing up, did you look up to someone? Or is there someone now that you look up to, and why?

Oh, I looked up to so many people in my life and continue to – it’s always changing. I really looked up to my elderly neighbors. There were three 70-something year old women on my street who were widows. I never thought of them as lonely or that it must be scary for them without a husband. They were happy, thriving, relaxed, and I hung out with them every day. I wanted to be them when I grew up.

I really admired Carol Channing, I had seen her live when I was five years old in a musical that my mother brought me to in Boston. As for now, I like to keep private who I look up to. There are always people who are going to find my answers problematic and I would just like to have my little secrets.

Name something that guides both your personal and professional development.

My commitment to my mental health. Going to therapy. Taking care of myself. Knowing my physical limits with touring. Self-care. Taking care of me as though I’m another person that I’ve been assigned to keep safe.

Do you have a morning practice that helps you face the day with a more positive attitude?

I don’t believe in the word positive or that positive is better. I don’t deal in positive or negative. I deal in what is and go with more of a Buddhist perspective that life is suffering and life is beautiful – all at once.

I try to remain neutral in my day. Every morning I do a quick meditation (mindfulness based, sometimes guided, sometimes my own), I read something from some kind of spiritual practice (would prefer to not expand on this) and I get on my knees and pray – even though I don’t believe in a proper God. Prayer is more powerful to me because of that. I pray to get out of my own way and not let my ego lead the day.

I also have a gratitude list I make every night. I use this as a record. I can feel angry and resentful as I write my gratitude list if I want. I don’t have to feel grateful like I’m some happy shiny guru. But when the book fills up, and I want to tell myself lies like I’m a failure, or good things never happen to me, I can read my gratitude journal and realize that I’m wrong. My beautiful life is right there, on paper, written by me. To me, that’s the point of gratitude. It’s not to put a smile on our face – but to center us in reality, in the here and now. Gratitude keeps us out of regretting the past and worrying about the future.

What does success mean to you?

Unfortunately, this is one area of life where I am very challenged and need to have a spiritual awakening around. For other people, I define success as being able to answer the following questions with a yes. Are you happy creating what you create? Do you love what you do? Are you leaving things a little better than you found them, and people a little more touched/blessed because of your work? That’s it. That’s success.

But for me? I bristle when people call me successful. How can I be successful when I don’t own a home because I don’t have the money for one? How can I be successful when I haven’t made enough money to never have to work again? How can I be successful if I haven’t helped my entire family out financially? How can I be successful when I still face constant rejection in my business? When I am not able to sell and star in my own TV show, when I’m not able to just snap my fingers and have networks give me another comedy special, or publishers another book deal. It’s a terrible attitude. For me, my success is tied up in money. I don’t need a lot – I just think that financial security is what success means. I’m working on changing this view. But the fact that I feel this way – gives me something to improve on, changing this mindset is a personal, spiritual journey that’s obviously being assigned to me right now to work through. No matter how much I understand intellectually that I am wrong with my attitude, I am not there yet where I feel it in my soul.

What’s your greatest accomplishment (something you’re really proud of)? why does it mean so much to you?

I don’t know! I’m only answering because I was asked but I don’t sit around thinking of accomplishments or even being proud. Truly. I guess it would be licking my fear of flying enough to actually change the course of my life? Also being a working comedian in America is something I’m proud of. It’s a hard thing to break into and I just didn’t ever fucking stop.

What’s your greatest personal challenge, and how did you achieve success in spite of it?

I would say my greatest personal challenge was my overwhelming, life-altering fear of flying/panic disorder. I was not able to even see a photograph of an airplane without having a panic attack – a full blown, “I’m dying” panic attack. I NEVER conceived of a life of traveling around the country let alone the world. This is why when I get asked about if I always wanted to be a comedian – when I started doing comedy, no, I didn’t want to just be a comedian. I was so afraid of the travel.

I was hoping to somehow get a residency (a thing we don’t do in America really) in one city or get on TV but not travel. I couldn’t drive on the freeway alone. I couldn’t get on an airplane without copious amounts of prescription drugs – so many that I would get brought on and off airplanes with the help of the flight attendants because I was too drugged to walk. So, when I started working on my panic attacks and fear of flying and anxiety – just so that I could get through LIFE – I never thought I would end up flying for comedy. I was happy to just be healed enough to do my normal amount of travel, fly home a couple of times a year to see my family on the other side of the country. That’s it.

When I started to get well known from being on a late night TV show in America called Chelsea Lately and I was able to go on tour – which involves flying and driving alone, I wanted to. And that desire to do this career, and that I had done some work on my anxiety, I realized, I have to work through this. Every little anti-goal I had set for myself, “Okay, I can fly around America but I’m NEVER flying to Australia, too scary…” Well, now I’ve gone to Australia four times, three of those times completely alone.

So, opportunities just happened and my personal challenge was to choose them over my anxiety. It took years of HELL to still have tons of anxiety while traveling for work – but actually having to travel for work, helped speed up the process of getting healthier with my anxiety. Now, I have mild discomfort, some anxiety, some beginnings of panic attacks when I travel but it’s manageable. I never dread traveling anymore – except for the normal reasons like jet lag and bad food. But yeah, my entire life is different, and I was pushed in a direction that I never meant to go, and it gave me life.

How do you regain focus during challenging times?

I honestly don’t know that I do. I just put my head down and plow through. Sometimes if it’s a work challenge, I shut down all emotions and just get it done or get through the tough period and feel it all later.

How do you manage fear and anxiety in both your work and personal life?

I think I may have already answered this but to me my work is my personal life – there isn’t much difference since I work for myself. But I go to therapy, I don’t take drugs, I drink only a little, I eat healthy, I exercise six times a week, I do “body scan” meditations, I try to just keep my body relaxed. I do affirmations. I am kind to myself. My daily spiritual practice is a preventative for the throes of anxiety.

I don’t have different habits when I’m anxious than I do daily. However, when I’m really stuck in anxiety – which is negative thoughts spiraling and sometimes physical discomfort – waking up with insomnia etc. sometimes I just let it be. I let myself be and feel anxious. Sometimes it’s important for me to not try to pass through things quickly.

Is there a song that you listen to when you want to cheer yourself up, or get motivated?

I do not like the band Rush. I have nothing against them. I recognize that they’re crazy good musicians. However, I like one Rush song. None of their other ones hit me. I like this song so much it’s my good mood song and it’s called Spirit of Radio. And the fact that I don’t even like the band and that that ONE song I could play on a loop while I’m driving and just getting happy – makes me love it even more because it’s so random and I can’t chemically explain what happens in my soul and body when I hear that song. I love it.

What do you believe is at the core of women’s hesitation to step out and pursue leadership roles where they are?

I wonder if it’s not hesitation but that we think we’re just not good enough yet. I think we’re conditioned in all areas of life to wait to be asked and it can feel bizarre to declare, “I want to lead.”

What do you think will be the greatest benefit to having more women as leaders in the world?

I don’t want to accidentally say something sexist – like women leaders will have more empathy! But empathy springs to mind. And that women can multi-task. Our brains are meant to lead.

What role should men play in supporting more gender diversity?

I think men should talk to other men – out of the blue – while they’re hanging out having a beer or whatever about gender equality. I think we don’t need them to support us with our message these days as we need them talking to the other men and changing their own culture.

How do you cope with self-doubt?

I just tell myself that there will always be someone less good at the thing I want to do than me and that there will always be someone better at the thing that I want to do than me, but no one is me – and sometimes I’m the one who is needed to get the job done.

What does life mean to you?

In the most wonderful way, I don’t know. It moves me. It frightens me. It excites me. It confuses me. It’s a mystery and I will NEVER get to know the answers. Isn’t that crazy? We don’t know how we got here or why we have to leave and yet we don’t sit around going insane about that. We live anyway. We care about things anyway. It’s either a totally insane denial of death or the beauty of the human spirit. Probably both. To me, the point of life is just to BE love and to help and to have JOY. It is okay to have joy no matter what horrors are going on in the world.

What are you grateful for in life?

Life itself. My friends.

If you could change one thing in the world right now, what would that be?

Climate change.

Do you have a favorite book, or a book that helped you in anyway or changed your life?

Anne Lamott wrote a great book on writing called “Bird By Bird” and her advice for writers of letting yourself write a “shitty rough draft” where you purposely just type nonsense and let it suck is something that I think about every time that I work.

Do you have a quote that you live by or really like?

Yes. It’s a Ram Dass quote. “We’re all just walking each other home.”

What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?

That nothing good happens after ten pm in terms of having an emotional reaction to anything – an email, a text, an idea I might have to call someone for good or bad reasons. Just go to bed. See if it still matters tomorrow.

What advice would you give to women around the world?

Ask yourself every day – am I hiding my light in any way? And stop.

Written by Yasmeen Smadi

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