Jen Kirkman Thinks We’ll Get Through This Presidency Together
“We’ve been kicked so far back to the Dark Ages that it feels like a political statement just being a woman on stage”
In Jen Kirkman’s new Netflix special, the Boston-born, NYC-tested, and Los Angeles-based comedian makes much hay of the title phrase “Just Keep Livin’?,” a pseudo-philosophical musing plucked from the mind of actor Matthew McConaughey, now immortalized in her (mostly unironic) ankle tattoo reading “JKL.”
Over the course of Kirkman’s flat-out hilarious hour on stage, “JKL” takes on a less than comedic air as she shares increasingly alarming stories about everyday life as a woman: How rape is a more looming threat to her than ISIS. Or that street harassment is often downplayed as flattery by even decent, progressive men. “I didn’t ask to be born and I’m afraid to die,” she says. The takeaway is both terrifying and oddly empowering: We can’t control much about the world, but most of us figure out how to survive anyway.
If you’re a fan of Kirkman, it’s possible you were introduced when she was a writer for and frequent guest on Chelsea Handler’s show Chelsea Lately, or during one of her five stints as narrator on Comedy Central’s hit show Drunk History. She’s also a 20-year veteran of the stand-up scene. Though Kirkman’s material has matured with her—she’s moved on from ranting about her cockroach-riddled apartment to defending her solo trip as a romantically partnered woman through Italy—she’s always explored the intersection of the personal and political.
GOOD spoke with Kirkman about her surprising zeal for obscure American history, whether men can really be feminists, how to “just keep living” under President Trump—and why she’s glad she won’t have to leave the house much until she goes on her just-announced “All New Material, Girl” tour in September.
If you don’t mind, I’d like to briefly dredge up the past: About 10 years ago, you were in my absolute favorite segment of Drunk History, about George Washington’s defiant slave, Oney Judge.
Thank you. That was the first one I ever did.
There’s going to be a new book out about her! So it seems like a good time to revisit that sketch—and your enthusiasm about Oney’s story. I’ve heard that when you were young, you were a bit of a history and politics geek. Is that true?
I never was interested in history until high school, when a teacher who was telling us about the war of 1812 said, ‘We’re actually in a war right now’—this was the first Iraq War—‘so why don’t we talk about what’s going on today?’ Back then, I was more of a drama club kid and I really loved English class, but he made history about good stories, not just dates.
After that, I became a super bleeding-heart liberal—I wore two watches. One was set for the time in Iraq, and one was set for the time in Massachusetts. I was just that kind of over dramatic kid. When I was 18, I voted for Bill Clinton and I felt the hope of his campaign song, “Don’t Stop” (Thinking About Tomorrow), and I was really into the environment and became a vegetarian. But I’m not exactly sitting around reading history books.
Drunk History was not my idea—it was Derek Waters’. He came to me and said, ‘Do you have any history you’re passionate about?’ I’d found out about Oney Judge from Ed Bacon, this Episcopalian priest in Pasadena, California who’s been on Oprah. Very inspirational and not overly religious. I’d downloaded a couple of his sermons, and one was about Oney’s search for freedom. Churches aren’t supposed to get political, but he felt in the time of George W. Bush that it was against church teachings to not speak out against the war, or how freedom doesn’t come from our government—it comes from God, or from within, or it’s just your birthright.
So I picked that story, but for the rest of Drunk History, they were assigned, though I wouldn’t have done them if I wasn’t interested.
I’m sure that’s why it sticks with me. There’s so much in there that seems to come up again and again in your comedy—the comments you make about George Washington being a liar and a misogynist, and your support of her as a strong woman who made a revered man uncomfortable. In “Just Keep Livin’?,” there’s that meta bit about women who joke about having periods.
It’s sort of this stereotype that women comics talk about their periods, as if we get together and have secret period meetings. But my story was really about how I thought I was dying from internal bleeding and I didn’t recognize that this sensation I was having was menstruation. I was 40 or 41 at the time, and I thought that was so funny—how my doctor had to say, ‘Don’t you know your own body?’ To me, it’s about hypochondria, but I knew I couldn’t just tell that story and not address the idea that if you’re a woman talking about your period, men will get uncomfortable.
I watched the special with my husband in the room and I have to say, he was not uncomfortable. But hopefully most male feminists are like that. You talk a little bit about male feminism in the special—as well as your friend who catcalls women. Do you think there’s a good way to be a male feminist? Or is even trying kind of b.s.?
First, I don’t really have a friend who sexually harasses people. I just thought it would be an easier way to get into the bit, though I have guy friends who are politically feminist, but will still be like, ‘Look at her ass.’ (Not about me, but they’ll say it about someone else when I’m around.)
That joke is really more about my experience online, on Twitter, with guys telling me that street harassment is actually a compliment. Men are just so black and white about everything.
I remember I tweeted that I liked Casey Affleck’s “Dunkin’ Donuts” sketch on SNL, and I know that he’s been accused of sexual harassment. I know there’s a lawsuit that he settled. Do I believe that he did it? Like, yeah, sure, but I’m not going to start every tweet with, ‘I know you’ve been accused of sexual harassment, but ...’
Men were telling me, ‘No, Jen, you can’t like the skit. Here’s an article about how he sexually harassed someone.’ Guys just don’t get it—I don’t have to speak out every 10 seconds and I don’t need to be policed by you. I think feminism has been co-opted by men in a weird way. It’s not that they need to shut up, but they’re not the experts. Women are experts on how they feel in a crowd of men, and men are never going to understand that, so they just have to listen to us when we say it.
When I tell feminist men that Bernie’s guys harassed me during the election, they’re like, ‘No, they didn’t.’ But you can’t be a feminist and deny a woman’s experience. It’s a sixth sense. If you’re not white and you go into a store, you know the difference between a pushy salesperson and someone who’s thinking that you’re stealing. It’s instinct.
There was that moment after the Women’s March, when that guy tweeted you to say he was curious about some rights that men have that women don’t. Theoretically a very evolved question, but ...
Oh, yeah. That was not at all someone curious. That’s the new buzzword: ‘Just curious.’ They’re not curious. They want to argue.
Yeah, absolutely. So, can I get personal for a second? Right now, the only thing I can think about is Donald Trump being in office, and it seems like you’re in the same boat too. I’m wondering from your perspective, what should we do now? And thinking back to what you were saying earlier about Ed Bacon and how he felt he had to talk about the war, has the election given you a greater sense of purpose as a comedian?
I know a lot of people are saying this is not like 9/11, but it does remind me of that time. I was living in New York. I was not in the Towers. I did not have any physical injuries from it, I was not affected, I did not know anyone who died in it, my apartment wasn’t ruined, you know? So, I felt my job was to help out where I could. Right now reminds me of that time because 9/11 was when a lot of us realized America was part of the world—‘Oh, we’re now a country that can be a war zone, how weird.’
In other countries, a little protest here, signing some petitions there, making calls, helping people less fortunate, is part of the deal. Keeping their country going, keeping their community going.
Here, there are a lot of people just getting woken up for the first time. They think they have to do everything and then they feel guilty when they can’t. I get it—I like to manage and change and fix things. I’m certain that if I could get Donald Trump in the room, I could convince him that he’s wrong about everything. But Trump reminds us of how little control we have.
I do think that we are being sort of overthrown in some kind of coup. I don’t think we’ve seen anything like this before in America, and there’s not a lot we can do, to be quite honest. It’s not quite like we have a House and Senate that’s going to listen if we protest, though I think we should still do it to show each other who we are. If you had a permanent disease like diabetes, you wouldn’t stop everything you’re doing. You’d take your medication, do what you need to do, and then live your life. So, it’s like Trump is our disease now and we have to take care of each other and try to change things and then also live.
I have a podcast, “I Seem Fun: The Diary of Jen Kirkman,” and after the election I was saying I don’t think I should do comedy anymore, because I’m a distraction, but I’m starting to think people do need that. I don’t mean I’m important—just that spiritually, on a soul level, we can’t take this on in our hearts every second of the day. We’ll get sick, we’ll lose our minds. But people protesting outside of Chuck Schumer’s house, going to the airports to protest the travel ban, things are changing.
It’s like the serenity prayer: Have the courage to change the things you can, let go of the things you can’t, and have the wisdom to know the difference. Maybe there won’t even be voting in 2018—but there’s got to be some acceptance of a lot of bad things. A lot of ignorance led us here.
I don’t consider myself a political comedian, but we have been kicked so far back to the Dark Ages that it feels like a political statement just being a woman speaking on stage. If I can make men laugh at women and our issues, stories, jokes, and points of view, then that’s good for culture. My job is not to be a politician or a community organizer. My job is to keep doing my part to help women be seen as humans. Maybe someday we’ll stop saying ‘I support women because I have a mother and a sister.’ Well, why don’t you just support them because they’re the other human beings on Earth?
But yeah, I think if dudes want to get up with their flannel shirts and drink a beer and make jokes about strip clubs on stage—I see these guys all over the country—they’re the ones who are going to have to adjust. It’ll be interesting. Maybe audiences will want to just not think, maybe they’ll want knock-knock jokes, maybe we’ll return to vaudeville and variety shows, I have no idea. I just know I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing.
One more question about the story that kicks off your special—after meditating, you end up in a very intense road rage confrontation with a man. (As one does.) After the election, do you find you’re engaging in that kind of interaction more or less often? Basically, are you becoming more peaceful or more aggressive?
Way less aggressive. And that road rage story is slightly exaggerated—even losing my temper a little bit scared the shit out of me. But this is why I’m really grateful I’m not touring until September. I really don’t feel like being out amongst people in heated environments like airplanes. I’m too afraid of people now; I don’t know who anyone is. I mean, somebody voted Trump into office, and I think there are a lot of hot-headed angry people right now. So I’ve been keeping to myself.
This interview has been edited and condensed. All photos by Robyn Von Swank.
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