Jen Kirkman on becoming a comedian.
At a young age, were you exposed to comedy, were the cause of laughter, or were referred to as funny?
At a young age I was exposed to comedy. I remember watching The Muppet Show, Sesame Street, Lawrence Welk, Saturday Night Live, and Johnny Carson with my parents. Muppets and Sesame were hilarious, if you’ve forgotten (Kermit and Piggy, Ernie and Bert) and I knew then that I wanted to be in show business. I believe I wanted to go the tap dance route, so I started taking tap lessons at age 5. I loved Mr. Bill on Saturday Night Live. I think every comedian has this same story; I was too young to stay up late to watch SNL but my mom would let me fall asleep on the couch and she’d wake me if something that I liked was on, like Mr. Bill or Rosanne-Rosanna Dana and then I’d go up to bed. And I remember making myself stay up as late as I could and peeking my head out of the door of my bedroom to hear the TV. Luckily our house was small, so I overheard a lot of SNL and Carson.
When I was a bit older like 7-10 years old, I was really obsessed with funny game shows like Hollywood Squares and Match Game and sitcoms saved my life. I loved Taxi, All in the Family, Good Times, Laverne & Shirley, Mary Tyler Moore… Oh, I also loved watching stand-up comedians on TV when I was little too.
And I saw Caddyshack (on TV) when I was 8 and it immediately became my favorite comedy movie and it still is to this day. My parents actually purposefully introduced me to it on one of those hot summer nights where even though the sun has gone down it was still oppressively humid and you could really only just lay out on the floor in front of a fan and that’s it. That just got really descriptive for no reason.
I’m sure I was the cause of laughter as a kid, before my memory developed because I was the youngest. My sisters were 10 and 14 years older than me so I’m sure whether or not it was because I was “funny” – I’m sure just being a drooling, pooping, infant provided some laughs. I remember standing behind a chair in the living room and holding on the back and squatting and pooping in my pants when I was about 4. For some reason I preferred pooping that way. I know it made my sister laugh and grossed her out. On the other hand in some situations I was terribly shy and would hide behind people in public.
I was not the cause of laughter at school. I wanted to be; I really fancied myself just like those people I saw on Johnny Carson or sitcoms. I loved the fast-paced jokes, the writing, and the witty-ness of all of those people. I wanted to be just like them. I wanted my daily conversations to sound like something out of Moonlighting, so I would try to shoehorn that kind of cadence into the way I spoke. I didn’t know other kids that had the same interest so I was usually on my own in that respect. No one really noticed. I was not class clown.
How would you describe your childhood and what you were like as a child?
I guess my childhood was average. It might have been sort of solitary if that makes sense. My sisters are a lot older than me so by the time I was 8, they were both no longer living at home (married, in college). So I was raised practically as an only child starting at 8. I really liked my alone time when I was home. I usually liked talking to myself or my stuffed animals. To me, this was normal. I was always pretending to make speeches or teach a class or accept an award. I had two or three best friends that I played with like clockwork from 2:30-4:30 on Saturdays and Sundays – that usually involved playing Barbie’s or “office” or pretending we were radio DJ’s. I took tons of lessons; jazz, tap, ballet, piano. When I was a little older I was in the school play as well as the school musical, the “recycling club” and I was in a rock band in high school. (I sang badly). So I was busy.
I didn’t like other kids too much when I was a kid. I didn’t hate anyone but I just wasn’t interested. I much preferred adults. I refused to sit at the kid’s table on holidays and my grandmother would yell, “Jennifer talk to your cousins.” But I would rather have listened to my aunts.
I was a pretty outspoken kid around home. I was probably kind of fresh. I know that I said “shut up” a lot to my parents at an early age. I didn’t really realize how old or young I was. I really thought that I was an adult.
My childhood in terms of what was thrusted on me, who raised me, etc. My parents (still married) raised me in a modest house. They were usually home and I spent a lot of time with my dad watching TV at night and my mom was the one who drove me to all of my lessons. My parents were strict with me about not allowing me to go to sleepovers but they didn’t harp on me about being a perfect student (even though I was a good student.) They encouraged me in my creative endeavors and didn’t blink when I walked around the house talking to myself.
What do you think first motivated you be funny?
I think it starting when I was really young just watching funny people on TV. The shows I mentioned in the first question, motivated me to be funny. I thought it was “cool”. I thought it was cool in my very own opinion of what cool was. I did not even know if other people would find being funny ‘cool’ but I knew that people on TV thought it was cool and I wanted to be like them, regardless of what anyone else in my actual life thought. I sort of lived in a fantasy world always pretending that I was an actor on Saturday Night Live or some sitcom.
The only early memory also of a motivation to be funny was, of course, attention and the feeling of being special and doing something that not everyone was comfortable with doing. Every year my dance teacher had a holiday party and every year kids would do dance routines at the party. There was one kind of wacky dance where we did ballet and pretended we were wooden soldiers. We had costumes and big hats. The music was silly with lots of crazy bells and sound effects. I remember at the end of the dance one toy soldier had to “break” and be carried off stage or sort of dragged on the floor. Whoever played that soldier got to get the glory of being silly and waving to the audience. I wanted that part and got it because I was the smallest one in class. I think my dance teacher never would have even thought of me as “funny” because I took class so seriously. But inside I thought that getting to be that broken toy soldier and getting laughs would cement me as special, someone to remember and I thought it was endlessly awesome to break the fourth wall and wave to the audience, something that you don’t normally see in ballet, even in a youth dance recital.
Do you think that by being funny you may be counteracting a sense of
inadequacy caused by a defect of self or circumstance, I.E. poverty or
You know, I don’t doubt that being funny is some sort of response to feeling inadequate, but I have to say that I never felt inadequate on the very tip of my consciousness. I felt completely superior to the other kids at school. Maybe the superiority was a sub-conscious reaction to the fact that my family was not as wealthy as the other kids in school and my clothes were not brand name and I didn’t have nice jewelry, etc. If any of that is true, my desire to try to be funny or my interest in comedy does not seem like a knee-jerk reaction to that or a consolation prize. Again, I was not outwardly seen as funny in school, so it wasn’t like I was known as being the class clown and it made me accepted but secretly I was crying on the inside. I just loved comedy and was seriously interested in it as a hobby and I wanted to be a sitcom child-actor (that didn’t pan out) and I was really interested in moving away from my hometown and making new friends, and not trying to fit in with what existed.
Do you think outsiderdom, alienation, or isolation play a role in the
development of comedians?
I do think that alienation and outsiderdom play a role in the development of comedians. It can be as traumatic as having your ass kicked daily and being shoved in a locker and wanting to be funny as a survival device or it can be that you self-alienate. You somehow are on the outside looking in, observing, maybe even judging. I know plenty of comedians who were not tortured as kids and I think it’s just their general eccentricity that lends to their humor. So, they were outsiders but were not ruined for it. I have even had arguments with comedians who were “nerds” growing up that I can not claim the word “geek” or “nerd” for myself since I DID have friends and in general wasn’t interested in being in the “popular crowd. These former nerds argue that real nerdom is being persecuted daily. I was persecuted for being working class for sure but I was comforted later on when I’d go home and watch Norman Lear sitcoms like Good Times and All in the Family when I got home and movies like Caddyshack. That’s where I purposely tried to be an outsider because I thought it was cooler and that lead to some embarrassing years in high school where I wore all black and thought I was unique.
Did people think you were funny before you thought you were funny?
Yes and no. When I was a kid, I thought I was hilarious and no one else did. My best friends laughed at me, but I laughed at them too. I wasn’t a standout. Amongst my classmates, they thought I was insane. I came to school dressed like Mozart, Groucho Marx, and I wrote short stories that I thought were hilarious and voluntarily stood up in front of the class and read them. I also choreographed “funny” tap dances in the school talent show. None of this was met with laughter except of course, people laughing at what a stupid idiot I was.
Then I started to become uber-serious. I was the girl wearing all black in high school and trying to be that way in college, studying drama, and hoping to become a ‘serious actress.’ I had a friend who was auditioning for a comedy troupe at college and I went with him for moral support. He told me that it really should be me auditioning. I was like, “What? I’m a serious brooding actor! I’m not a comedian!” And he encouraged me to audition and then I got into the comedy group and he didn’t. And from then on I sort of realized that I might be funniest when I’m trying not to be and as serious and brooding as I think I am, there is some kind of goofy-ness left over from childhood that hasn’t died.
How did you learn to be funny?
Well, I don’t think I learned to be funny. I think you can learn to be a better stand-up comedian by failing, watching others, learning how to read an audience. I think you can learn how to deliver a line in a script in a more comedic way, etc. But I can’t say that I learned to be funny partially because it’s hard for me to call myself funny. It’s very mechanical in some ways to me and also very loose. I just go up on stage and do my act and I do that not because I’m unable to contain my own laughter at how hilarious I am but I think, ‘Odds are…someone will relate to this. If I’m lucky the whole room will.’ And since it’s in a theatre or comedy club, the crowd is conditioned to laugh. So, honestly am I funny? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. There is no definite determination that yes I’m funny or no I’m not.
Was there a moment when you eventually thought, “Well, I guess I’m funny.”
There are moments where I say I guess I’m funny. I realize it sounds insincere of me to make a comedy album and go out and perform constantly and insist, “Oh gee, I don’t know. Am I funny?” I realize that lots of people think I’m funny and I’m close to accepting that. So, I think my moment was that I said, “Well, I guess enough people find me funny that it’s not insane to pursue this as a career.” I do have moments where I’m like, “I guess I am funny” and then moments where I’m like, “Well I guess I’m not funny and I should go to night school.” It’s dangerous to live and die by what audiences think or laugh at. My opinion of myself as a comedian is that I know I talk about universal things and that I have a unique twist on some topics and I trust that there is something about me, perhaps ingrained in those years of fearlessly acting like an idiot at school that brings a relatablity and vulnerability to my performance. The odds are with me that I’ll do okay in comedy but it’s not because I believe that I’m so hilarious that everyone has just got to hear me! (I did used to feel that way when I was younger and hadn’t started doing stand-up yet.)
When did you make the decision to make comedy your career?
I made the decision probably when I was five years old and I thought that a part on The Carol Burnett Show would be waiting for me. Then I re-decided to make it my career when I was in college and realizing that being a serious actress was hard (for me), not fun, and I was not that great at it. Again, I’ve been pursuing comedy for ten years and this year is the closest it’s come to being a career in the sense that it’s the way that I’m able to pay the bills – but it’s still not 100% how I sustain myself. So, I’d say I’m still making the decision to make comedy my career although I have many days where even though the allure is there, my drive or self-confidence is not.
I am curious about how big of a role insecurity plays in comedy. In your experience, is your ability to be funny, or perhaps uniquely funny, something that you sometimes doubt or doubted?
I doubt my ability to be funny everyday. I often think that I would have been a big success in the 1960′s. I don’t know why. I realized lately that I seem to grab the attention of the 50+ years old crowd. I don’t doubt inherently that I don’t have the ability to be funny. I mean, for my own sanity I think I can rest in the fact that it’s been ‘proven’ for lack of a better word that I can do it…I can act and I can do stand-up and enough people have encouraged me, supported me, vouched for me and laughed at me enough times that I’m confident that I can say I’m funny and know that 75% of the time it’s true.
However, the nitty-gritty of my act and the way the business works, etc. I doubt that everyday. In other words, I worry or doubt if I’m going to be relevant to crowds that like me now in a few years? I worry if I’ll get old and then being a female comedian will be a hot new trend and everyone that comes after me will have a totally easy time in the comedy business. There are constant doubts. Sometimes, I think and doubt that I’ll catch a break. Even if I’m funny, I sometimes doubt that anything will work out. The whole thing is doubt which I suppose makes it hard to enjoy life when things work out… the doubt weirdly gets stronger then.
But my “doubts” are different than insecurity. My insecurities in life are mainly outside of the comedy business or what I do on stage. I’m totally secure in comedy about revealing my insecurities and even when I know that an audience doesn’t think I’m funny or I just meet someone and they haven’t seen my act and they find out that I do comedy, I can see them judging, “She doesn’t SEEM funny.” And in my heart I’m secure in myself in that moment.