Talking with Jackie Kashian About the Comedy Renaissance, Being a Dork, and Her New Standup Special

Comedian Jackie Kashian is a little bit of everything in This Will Make an Excellent Horcrux, her hour standup special now out through Al Madrigal and Bill Burr’s All Things Comedy. It’s Kashian’s first and chronicles everything from being a tough but terrified standup in Iraq to a book nerd with a love for grammar jokes and literary references to a video game designer’s wife to a comedian who has worked the road for nearly 20 years. She’s also fronted the best dork-centric podcast for eight years, opened many times for her friend Maria Bamford, and appeared on Comedy Central Presents, Last Comic Standing, and most recently Conan. I recently got the chance to speak with Kashian about what it was like creating her first special, what she’s learned from releasing her comedy online, and how one night spent heckling Sam Kinison led to directly to becoming a standup comedian.

How did your special come about between you and the All Things Comedy guys? Did you approach them with the idea?

Well, I have a podcast called The Dork Forest on All Things Comedy’s podcast network, and they want to do more than just podcasting – they want to encourage video and live shows, like there’s a live show that happens monthly at Largo in Los Angeles. So they’ve been branching out, and when I did it there were a couple other places that came to me and said “Hey, do you want us to drop it for you?” Because Louis C.K. did that on his website and I thought I’d just do it that way too, but they were like “We have a following, we have a backing.” So I approached Al and just said “You know, I’ve been getting these other offers and if anyone’s going to be getting any money it should be All Things Comedy because you guys have been very very supportive.” And he said “We have been wanting to get into this, and we don’t want any of your money, we just want to be supportive and make this your thing.” So All Things Comedy isn’t making any money off this – it’s a $5.00 download, but I get all of it.

That’s great. So your special kick-started their leap into releasing standup specials.

Right, I was the guinea pig to make sure that all the buttons worked.

From a businessy standpoint, how has the experience been releasing the special online, and how’s the response been so far?

You know what’s funny about this is I was talking to my dad, and he said “Well do you have a lot of contracts?” and I said “Well no, it’s just standup comedy so it’s all just done with a handshake” and he’s like “Don’t you have an entertainment lawyer?” and I said “How long have you known me, Dad?” And then there was this pause and I said “Hey you know, at this level of standup comedy, I’m actually considered to be pretty good at the business side of it.” And then there was this pause, and my father – essentially in all caps – said “THAT JUST MAKES ME SAD.” [laughs]

From a business point of view, it makes sense to create your own content, right? Because then I own it and I don’t have to print up 1,000 DVDs and sell them at shows. As for the response, it is humbling. The response from the comedy community has been exactly that – a community. From Patton Oswalt to Jim Gaffigan to Margaret Cho, Aisha Tyler – all of these people – not to mention the thousands of comics at my own level. There’s been really good feedback from people that they really enjoyed it, which is good because I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever done, standup-wise. It’s been three years in the making – I haven’t put out an album in three years.

This is your first hour standup special. What was the process like putting it together?

I’m a Minneapolis comic, and my home club is Acme Comedy Company. I was going to do another album, and the club owner there is one of the most supportive guys in my career. His name is Louis Lee, and he’s a mensch, the guy is the best. He said “Why don’t you come and do a DVD?” And it’s a lot of work to do a DVD, you know, but he knows a guy, and a lot of people like Nick DiPaolo and Dave Attell taped their specials there recently, as well as two guys who Louis supports – Chad Daniels and Bengt Washburn. So Louis helped me set it up, and I did three shows that were recorded, and the deal was that Louis and Acme would support me if we let a lot of the local comics at Acme do sets so they could also get HD seven-minute sets. So we taped like 15 sets with local comics, and those are coming out this month too on Acme’s website.

I like how between the taping at Acme and you promoting the special, things are becoming more and more collaborative in the comedy world.

Yes! So collaborative and so not top-down. You don’t have to wait for someone to care. When I moved to Los Angeles 15 years ago they were like “Why are you moving to Los Angeles?” and I was like “Well, I’m in show business, so I should go to LA or New York and see if anyone cares.” [laughs] And now you could conceivably stay in Indiana and do your thing, and someone somewhere will care. It’s really collaborative and super supportive and all those good things, and it’s been an amazing experience as far as that goes. I’m surrounded by excellent people – on purpose, by the way. Like I know people that are not excellent in this industry; I don’t hang out with them. And by choice, because they make me exhausted.

I know you’ve told this story before, but I think it’s hilarious and amazing that you were a heckler before you were a comedian.

Yeah, one time. I was essentially the comedian’s worst nightmare, which is a drunken women heckler. Even as a woman comic, your worst nightmare is a drunken woman heckler, because for some reason the audience still likes her better than you. So I had never seen live standup, and I was in college and I was sitting right next to the audience and Sam Kinison was onstage, and I was so drunk. There’s an old joke in standup where they’re like “Oh is this your first time out in public?” It was essentially my first time out in public. So I heckled him, and he mopped up the floor with me. But here’s the thing: I was so drunk, he annihilated me and I still didn’t shut up. So the manager came over and was like “You have to shut up,” and then he jokingly said “You know, there’s an open mic every Sunday” trying to lighten the blow, and so I came back three weeks later and that first time was like what I imagine people who are addicted to heroin feel. I’m sure it was not good, but I never stopped. And the club burned down. It’s one of the best things that’s ever happened to me in standup comedy.

Do you maybe have a slightly different view of hecklers as a result of that?

[laughs] I can get mad. People are like “I don’t wanna sit in the front row cause you’re gonna make fun of me,” and I’m just like no, you don’t understand – my self-absorption is almost complete. All I want you to do is hear my jokes and laugh, I’m not gonna talk to you. There are comics who go out after the crowd, but there aren’t as many as you’d think. Most comics just want to do their jokes. But I do have more sympathy for those people on their cell phones than hecklers, because people will pull out their cell phone to check the time, to see if they have an email, in the middle of a live show. And I am sympathetic because I want to as well. We all want to know “Hey, has anything happened in the last seven seconds?” No, nothing has. But people aren’t thinking when they take out their cell phones, they’re not used to being out in public. Granted, I’m told people pull out their phones at plays and stuff too, but it lights your face up! It’s a backlit piece of machinery! So I’m sympathetic but I’m not supportive.

How long have you been a regularly touring standup?

Well I’d say since ‘96, so like 18 years.

I’d imagine you’ve learned some techniques for preserving your sanity after being on the road so much.

Oh my gosh, yeah. I used to party a lot, and that’s a real clockeater, because what you’ll do is you’ll party all night long, then you’ll spend a good five to six hours of the next day recovering from that. So awhile back I was like “This can’t be…this can’t be my life.” So I used to read a lot, and then I was reading some, but in the last five years, all I do is read. I read and then I screw around on the internet like a lot of people do, and then I work, I get a lot of writing done during the day. But the real sanity is I just read. I read new books, but I also reread old books – it’s like hanging out with an old friend.

Do you read humor books or nonfiction books about comedy?

You know, I don’t. I wish I did. There’s a lot of great nonfiction. I read Laurie Kilmartin’s book Sh*tty Mom, I’ve read Tina Fey’s book – I got that one on audio because she reads it – and then Sarah Vowell is very funny. There’s a new Richard Pryor bio out, a Johnny Carson biography out – I need to read them just because they’re supposed to be great, but I don’t tend to read books about comics or comedy just for business or anything, I don’t do that.

Since you have so many years of experience on the road, have you noticed any ways that the touring standup scene has evolved? And are there under-the-radar cities you think are great places for up-and-comers?

I would say most cities are under-the-radar, because most people think of New York and LA and they think Chicago and Austin, but there’s amazing comedy going on in Madison, Wisconsin and Bloomington, Indiana. We’re definitely in a golden age of standup comedy, it’s a frickin’ renaissance out here. The audiences have seen so much standup comedy that they know when something has been covered, you know? The audience can see where the joke is. I worked with a couple of guys in Atlantic City, and the guy opening did a joke that I heard in 1987 and it was a joke about braille on an ATM with a Stevie Wonder reference, and the audience thought he was going to make fun of that joke – even in Atlantic City, they were like “Oh you’re just gonna make fun of this old joke?” And no, he just did the joke. Drive through ATM. With braille. Stevie Wonder. And you just wanna go, “Oh, they’re gonna kill you.” So the audience is so savvy – it doesn’t always make them smart, but it definitely makes them savvy. And more often than not, they’re willing to go on whatever weird journey you wanna go. And for at least 10-15 weeks a year I’ll open for Maria Bamford, and her audiences are some of the most giving and forgiving and you know, “Sure, what weird rabbit hole do you wanna go down, Alice? Let’s do this!”

You’re going to Hong Kong soon. In your special you mention going to Africa and Iraq, all over the U.S. – how do you adapt to so many different kinds of audiences?

It’s interesting. The soldiers – they’re bored, and they want to hear all jokes. They enjoy a dick joke, as you would imagine, because they are soldiers. I did nine weeks in Australia six or seven years ago, and there were some really small towns. They get a lot of American television, but they’d like it if…Like if you do Britain, say your words wth a U. Say colour. Don’t say sweater – say jumper if you can. I’m a little bit nervous about the Hong Kong thing, but I think they’re all expats and they’re English-speaking audiences. A couple of weeks ago I opened for Brian Regan, and his family comes to his show because he’s so smart and funny and silly that the parents are like “Oh we can bring our kids!” So there’s like a nine-year-old sitting in the front row. Talk about nine-year-olds though, gotta give them credit, they’re really smart. So I was just doing my act and he was enjoying it, but I have an advantage working in front of children which is that my husband makes video games for a living, and at the point I started doing the video game stuff the kid perked right up and was just like “Oooh, how’d he get that job?” And then I tell him.

You’ve covered a ton of dorky obsessions on The Dork Forest. Is there something specific you haven’t covered yet that you’re hoping to dedicate an episode to soon?

I want there to be a whole new level of The Dork Forest where I just get to dork out at people. I want to have Dick Cavett on where I just completely dork out at that guy. So that hasn’t happened yet, and then the other thing is on Dork Forest we talk about video games and science fiction and comics and movies a lot, but people’s dorkdoms – there’s a guy in Australia who really wants to be on the show who uh, he has fish, tropical fish. And I’m like “Okay, I don’t know anything about tropical fish, let’s talk about it.” It’s always funny, like when the magician guy Derek Hughes – a great comic and a great magician – he came on The Dork Forest and I was like “You know, magic’s a bit of a visual medium…” but it was fascinating. We went over the history of magic and what got him into it, what he loves the most about it, what he dorks about in magic. When people introduce new dorkdoms to me – Kurt Braunohler and psychogeography. Psychogeography? I don’t even know what that is! He’s like “Well it’s the psychology of being in an unfamiliar space.” And I’m like “Okay, that sounds like a made-up Ph.D., what’s happening?” But it was fascinating because you know how a lot of people say “I know a little about a lot of things?” What these people consider to be “a little” is probably an hour’s worth of too much information about, say, different paper sizes. I had a guy on talking about A4 paper, which in the United States we only know because it’s an option when you drop down to print. It turns out the rest of the world is using A4 paper, we’re the only ones using 8.5x11.

The beauty of the dorky angle is that there’s no such thing as a Dork Forest outcast.

Right, it’s the safest space in podcastville. You can talk about anything. I had a guy on who had 96 cats. It was an early episode about seven years ago, and I look back at that and that isn’t a dorkdom, that’s animal hoarding. I only know that because of reality television. He said “Well 45 of them are just foster cats” and I said “But that still leaves 51! That’s a lot of cats, man!” And I had another guy email me who said “My dorkdom is racism” – like “I’m a racist” – and I was like yeah, that isn’t happening. Nope.

One of my favorite things is when people say stuff like “Well it’s not a dorkdom because everyone collects shot glasses.” Uh no they don’t. I love you dearly Erin Jackson, but nobody collects shot glasses. Or “Knitting is cool!” Nope, no it is not. You just love knitting so much. I did have Diva Zappa on talking about knitting, and then I had Janeane Garofalo on talking about beading, and it was fascinating because Diva Zappa’s whole thing was how if you drop a stitch or make a little error it’s part of the art, man. She’s like “I’m not undoing it, I’m not undoing it, that’s part of how that hat is supposed to look.” And Janeane is like “No no, I’m beading and rebeading and making sure each bracelet looks exactly like the last one, and I like to do it between 8:00pm and 8:00am,” and you’re like okay, all right, those are different ways of approaching dorkdoms.

Are you more of a knitter or more of a beader?

I think I’m more of a beader. I’m a little OCD. You know when you record a new album and record the jokes and somewhere between a minute after it’s done recording and when you’re bored of the joke, you write the best punchline for it ever? I just wrote a better punchline for that mullet joke [from the special] since recording at the end of December, but that’s fine. Everyone can come and see the new and improved version of that set. Because live is better.

This Will Make an Excellent Horcrux is now available for $5.00 through All Things Records.

Talking with Jackie Kashian About the Comedy […]