Jen Kirkman has always been one of stand-up’s best storytellers, but it has been especially exciting to watch her style sharpen over time. On her second special, Just Keep Livin’ (yes, she knows that’s a Matthew McConaughey thing — she got it tattoo of it), Kirkman impressively blends stories with indictments of sexist microaggressions. It all builds beautifully to her closer about street harassment that might go down as the best joke of the year.
On this week’s episode of Vulture’s comedy podcast Good One, Kirkman discusses how the joke, born out of real interactions with men (including fellow comedians), turned into a masterful takedown on catcalling and the culture around it.
This joke has a few sections: first, a talk with one of your friends about street harassment and that one of them says “Nice tits” to women, then the story of a man stopping you on the street to compliment his boots, and then you imagining this man’s life and what we can learn from him. If the Earth is the result of the big bang, what was the first atom of this joke?
The first atom of this joke was the guy in North Carolina who yelled out of his truck at me. It really did happen. I was opening the shows with just, Here’s this little real-life thing that just happened. And then, by the third show, I was starting to add in, “What does he mean he couldn’t have lived without complimenting my boots?” and imagining his life.
If you want some inside info, it didn’t literally happen that way. The comedy club manager and I went to Starbucks to get coffee, but it was darker out and no one was around. She was still in the Starbucks, and I was leaving. It was technically a parking lot, and he was driving out, and then slowed, and we had the whole conversation that was in the joke. The club manager came out like, “Oh, is that guy bothering you?” And I was like, “No, the weirdest thing just happened.” But I did walk to the club every night alone down a long stretch of a safe neighborhood, but it was dark out. I thought every time I walked: Gee, I hope nothing bad happens, but that comment did happen in a parking lot, so I just sort of put it all together because it’s still the same feeling, no matter where you were.
You did it for three days in North Carolina and then continue with your tour. What was your feeling about keeping it in your act?
It wasn’t my opening bit in other towns, but it stayed in and I kept developing it. Then street harassment started being talked about a lot. The topic wasn’t new — for every woman, it’s always something we experience forever — but people were talking about it. I started saying more along the lines of, “You know, we’re constantly afraid of street harassment … one incident I thought was, but it wasn’t.” It started morphing based on the conversation, but I didn’t add anything to it. It was just the story about this guy.
When did the framing about street harassment come into it?
That joke was starting to get bigger laughs than my closer, so I switched it and it became my closing joke. Even though I had been adding to it, I started thinking, Well, I don’t like when there’s just, “Hey, this crazy thing happened.” I was touching on street harassment, so I decided to frame it that way, when I made it my closing bit. At that point, I added in the general conversation about what’s a compliment and what isn’t because I had started to hear so much about it. That’s usually the reaction I get online— “Hey, take a compliment.” It goes back to walking alone at night, if someone says, “Nice coat,” and there’s something scary about it, I think men or women actually could relate. It brings you back to being bullied as a kid, and you know someone is not actually complimenting you. Then you have — I won’t say names — but famous people on SNL writing blogs that they believe street harassment is a compliment and they don’t believe in the culture. And I’m like, someone has to say something!
Then someone had told me — I didn’t see it — that Louis C.K. touched on street harassment in one of his recent specials, and it almost made me not wanna do it because, oh well, someone already did it, and he’s more famous. But then, I was like, No! It’s actually happened to me! I get to talk about it, even if I repeat something that someone else has said that might agree with me. I felt like, I’m doing it, and I know I’m gonna put this in my special, so I’ve gotta make this bigger, if I close on it.
Which meant adding that conversation where you talk to a friend and he says he does it. Was that a person, or a fictionalized ideal of a comedian friend?
Yeah, that’s a fictionalized idea. It’s one of those things where if I told the truth, it would just be too long and bumbling and not funny. I have so many male friends who are the most liberal, political people, but I walk down the street with them and they turn their head when a girl walks by. Is that bad or good? I’m not saying it is. It just is. Or working in comedy writing rooms and they’re looking at hot girls online and they’re on Tinder — they’re 50 and they’re putting age 25 to 35 as the range they want to date. I see good men acting this way. I’ve had good men ask me, “Why isn’t that a compliment?” Or, “Do you think when you’re older, you’ll miss the attention?” And I’m like, “No!”
I don’t literally have a friend who is like, “I yell nice tits,” but it’s just conversations with men who are asking questions over and over. It’s also people online, but I didn’t want to turn it into an online bit. That made-up friend stands for everyone who thinks like that. Also, it’s more digestible to say I have a friend, because it shows I can interact with someone. We all have a friend we disagree with and we’re exasperated at what they’re saying. Otherwise I’d be like, “These people online said this,” and then it would sound like I’m going into my whining bit about getting teased or something. A friend would be just a nice way to have a conversation with the audience. And it makes it not about them either. It’s like, “Can you believe this guy?”
That person is such a specific type of person. I don’t catcall, but I can see myself in that person you created, with their sort of insecurity about how to just interact with women properly.
Yeah, it gets to the point where they’re just having an existential crisis, where they’re like, “Well, can I never talk to women?!” It’s funny how heightened it gets so quickly. I know I sound like an actress on a press junket, but I love that character I created. I love that friend. He’s got so many silly questions, like, “Well, what if I yell, ‘You’re not a bitch!’” I’m like, Oh my god. It’s about, I can’t let go of this thing I do because I don’t mean it badly, so how can it be bad?
How much of this are you writing down by hand? How much of it are you feeling out?
I don’t write. Everything’s in my head. So what I did to get ready for this particular special is I went on the road every weekend for six weeks in a row — at comedy clubs specifically, so that I have the pressure of not being in front of only fans — and doing five shows a week. Two shows a night, sometimes you have to start entertaining yourself. So once I know exactly what I’m saying, my mind is working behind the scenes. I tape it, listen to the tape, and I might write it down just so I don’t forget it. Like, I’ll write, “Get on knees, yell, ‘Nice tits!’” And the next time I do it, I add it in.
It’s all verbal and memorization. It is just doing the same thing over and over. And then, out of nowhere, the thought comes in and I do it. It’s the most exciting feeling, because I had the special ready in August and it would’ve been just fine. I knew if I did this six weeks in a row, every night, things would come to me. That’s how my creativity works.
I love the specific wording of certain parts of it, especially when you’re imagining his life if he didn’t compliment you. This scene of his family, was it like writing a little play?
That was my favorite part! It’s so stupid and it’s so fun. I really am embracing being sillier. I’ve always remembered crowds liking it. They almost know it’s coming, too, when I say, “Imagine …” Do you remember that woman who strapped a camera to herself and walked around New York City? I figured by the time I tape the special, no one will remember, and we don’t need to reference that video. But originally, that was in the bit. In the beginning, I say that’s what I’m talking about, and then I say, “I wish I had a video camera on me like she did,” but instead I got to be a fly on the wall of his life. It got clumsy, so I just edited out all the fat and got right to it. But it was fun, and I like doing that because if people don’t laugh at it, I’m just amusing myself with this little mini-play.
A lot of your comedy operates around stories, so it’s a different type of thing, but it still felt like you. Especially at the end, which is like, I’m doing a three-person scene and will now inhabit all of these characters.
I wanted to get to across that this guy is not understood in his life. It wasn’t a man confused about his sexuality, it was because of the way culture puts men in corners. You can’t notice fashion because that’s not masculine. I witnessed a man who not only was not sexually harassing me, he wasn’t just complimenting me, he was having an existential crisis. He was like, I have never noticed shoes in my life. And I think he probably drove away going, Why? Why am I into women’s shoes? I wondered, What kind of shoes does his wife wear? Has he ever complimented her outfits? Is he wondering if something’s wrong with him?
That backstory of that guy made me tear up, right now, it was so sweet and true.
It was actually really interesting because it was right after Caitlyn Jenner came out as Caitlyn Jenner. And I had another weird incident that used to be part of the story where landing at the airport, the guy that like gets the cabs for you was like, “Hey, I really like your outfit, I hope that’s not weird to say.” And I was like, “No, not at all.” He’s like, “I’m really not hitting on you, but if you were my best friend, I’d want you to take me shopping.” I was like, “Oh, okay!” He goes, “I’ve never said that about women’s clothing. I actually would wear that outfit, but I’m a man, so I can’t. But, I would wear it!” So I had that incident and there used to be part about Caitlyn Jenner freeing all men to imagine, but then it was just it’s too specific. It was really about that existential crisis of like, “Does nobody at home understand who I really am?”
I prepared for this interview by listening to all of your hours, and Just Keep Livin’ definitely felt sharper. There’s more focus on what the takeaway is. Is that something intentional, or something that’s just evolved?
It has evolved, with getting older and having more experiences in the world, and it’s something I intentionally leaned into. My first Netflix special was from the old-school of comedy, which is, Here’s who I am. Here’s my day-to-day life. Here’s my marital status. Here are my thoughts on this and that. That was a decade of doing personal stuff, and then putting it all together for a special that had a definite theme — which was, Would everyone leave everyone alone about whether they have kids or whether they’re married? What I didn’t like about it was people thought I was preaching a life of being single, preaching anti-marriage. That’s not what I was doing. This special is totally personal — I’m revealing things about myself, I do have road rage, here are my feminist views — but it’s not about my life where people don’t think I’m like, “You go girl, I’m just like you.” I’m really trying to move away from that stuff. I just wanted that special to have the feeling of, This is where I am today. Next year check in with me. We’ll see what I say then.
Did that theme just kind of appear when you started doing an hour? Or did you start tying those moments together as you realized these stories had similar qualities?
The themes accidentally came about, but I worked on the order so many times. I added in the traveling alone part, because I thought that went really well with the street harassment. You don’t open with street harassment because you want people to like you. After 45 minutes, if they’re still watching, they like you. You don’t start with that, because you could alienate people right away. It became my closer because it got the most laughs, and then I was happy to put it there because it was like, Now we’re all ready for this. I put the period story in to touch on the idea that being a woman is just like being a human. Here’s how it looks based on body parts we have and things we go through. It was a very female-specific but not your typical, “Hey girls, let’s get Chardonnay.” I wanted it to have a George Carlin-esque feel — which I know I am 5 billion light-years away from, but I wanted it to have that, Here’s some crap in my head that’s going on. And because I’m me, there’s going to be period talk and street harassment talk that a guy wouldn’t have.
I would not immediately think of George Carlin, but he similarly sets a thing up and then he breaks it down. You are more of a storyteller than he is. You use storytelling to exhibit a point.
Yeah, it’s a Richard Pryor rip-off too. Because George Carlin is so exacting in his words. But it’s okay if I’m talking about things that in ten years might seem weird. Like, what? There was street harassment? I don’t care if it doesn’t age well.
Some of Richard Pryor’s stuff holds up, but then he’ll talk about people — prominent senators of the ’70s — and I don’t know who they are. But who cares if people are watching it now?
Yeah, that’s what I want. Like Lenny Bruce and legalizing marijuana. Now you’d be like, Oh my god, I forgot that it wasn’t.
At the top of your last special, you say something like, “I’m not a political comedian or anything.” When we think of political comedy, we think of a guy who’s like, “Here’s the news, and here’s my take on it.”
Like Lewis Black.
Lewis Black or Mort Sahl. Your last special had a little bit. This one did not feel like it was political comedy, but it felt political. It was recorded during and filmed during an election year. Was that part of it?
No, it was truly just what was going on in my life. It just seems like people are more comfortable with women talking about being women. I was like, I’ve always been interested in these topics, I’m gonna go for it. When I say I’m not a political comedian at the top of my first special, that’s to the at-home audience. Which is, I promised this was a special about not wanting kids and divorce, but I have this quick thought upfront about dumb people. You’re only getting one of these jokes, and if you don’t like it, then we get into the marriage stuff. Now it’s sociopolitical, I guess.
It’s just important for me to keep humanizing and normalizing a woman telling her point of view onstage. I had a guy email me once like, “I want to buy your book but I’m not sure if I would relate because I’m a guy.” And I’m like, Whoa. How many memoirs of dudes have I read and just never thought I wouldn’t relate? The one area in culture we haven’t totally mastered yet is guys thinking they’ll relate when they go see a woman. Even if I’m not saying anything about politics, it is in a way political to say, “I need to tell this story about the time I didn’t know what my period was.”
A lot of non-comedians like to say Trump will be good for comedy. What is your opinion?
Any time we accidentally elect a fascist reality-show host who has an anti-Semitic person who wants to bring about Armageddon — Steve Bannon, his adviser — it’s not good for the world. It’s the same when people ask me, “What’s it like being a woman in comedy?” The answer is, “It’s what it’s like being a woman in the world. There’s sexism in the world, so there’s sexism in comedy. So next question please, duh.” Is Trump good for comedy? Was he good for anything? No. The answer is no. Sure there’s jokes to make. Yeah, he’s orange. Ha, ha. You’re either going to get the same jokes over and over, or we’re going to be normalizing him by making really silly jokes about him.