Interview with Jen Kirkman
Ladyfest producers Deirdre Trudeau and Emma Wilkie sat down with comic, writer and badass Jen Kirkman who shared her thoughts on “Women in Comedy” and sexism in the industry as well as her advice for new comics.
Emma: We run an organization that promotes female comedy in Montreal and we wanted to ask you a few questions on the topic.
Jen: Sounds good to me!
Deirdre: You founded and ran girlcomic.net (a website featuring stories from and interviews with female comedians that was active until 2006) with Beck Townsend in the early 2000s
D: So Ladyfest is a small festival that celebrates women in comedy. One of our concerns is that we don’t want the festival to separate communities, we don’t want anybody to feel excluded. Regardless of this, we always do get a certain amount of blowback along the lines of “well there’s no dude-fest, there’s no, whatever.`
D: Yeah. I mean we make an effort not to be exclusionary, there are men who perform in the festival, But every-
J: OH, there SHOULDN’T BE!
D: Well whatever *laughing* it’s only men who support female comics in Montreal throughout the year.
E: Yeah like really feminist men.
J: Ehh.. fine.
D: It’s mostly women.
D: But we obviously want to be focused on celebrating one thing, I know that I have trouble articulating how I feel about this situation when I am met with somebody who is feeling excluded because the point is to celebrate, and living as a man and living as a woman is not the same thing yet, its not the same experience, but I don’t want to deepen or widen differences.
J: Well I’m all for deepening and widening the differences
J: I’m just so over it right now, I mean you’re probably just nicer than me, maybe its a Canadian thing, I don’t know, but I’m just like Oh I’m sorry, LIFE is a dude fest. As Kathleen Hanna said in this great Bikini Kill song, “I’m so sorry if I’m alienating you, your whole fucking culture alienates me.” It’s like if he’s a dude, like guess how you could have been included. By supporting women throughout the year. So you’re actually just an example of one of the guys that is spreading this attitude. If you’re saying this to us, I can’t imagine what other crazy bullshit anti-feminist, making it about you, making it an attitude that you’re spreading, you’re probably not helping the world, and you need to buy tickets to these shows, and see these women, and read books written by women, or gay people, or somebody with one arm, or a black person, or anyone who isn’t like you.. It’s like the world has catered to you so much that you feel victimized the one time it doesn’t. It’s not even being excluded. So I have zero sympathy. We’re not going to get anywhere if we keep trying to understand hate, you know? In America we’re like “let’s try to understand the Trump voters”. Let’s not.
E: I love that.
D: I fully respect that.
E: Yeah I think maybe it’s a Canadian thing where we’re blaming ourselves for excluding them, but you’re totally right, they’re excluding themselves.
J: You wouldn’t have to do it if you hadn’t been excluded your whole life.
J: There would be no women in comedy, it would just be comedy, you know?
D: Exactly. Quick follow up question, do you think that ultimately, maybe not in the current moment, but ultimately, society is moving towards a situation where there won’t be that kind of separation, where there won’t be these kinds of labels, everybody’s just a comic, it’s not “male comic” or “female comic”?
E: And are we helping that?
J: Ok. Naively, like 20 years ago in the good old 90s when I first started comedy, I didn’t even think about the fact that I was a woman, because there were so many women in comedy that came before me, and I thought that they had done all the hard work, and thank you Joan Rivers and thank you Roseanne, and now we’re done. All of the music that I listened too was really feminist, Kurt Cobain was doing pro-choice concerts, and I just really thought everything was going to be fine. Then when I got more into the world I was like, ewww.. it is worse than I thought. And I feel like it’s getting worse. So in my lifetime do I think it will be a gender neutral concept? I think maybe in 30 years. I don’t think any time soon. I think before things get better they have to get so so bad, and I think that we’re entering the so so bad.
Normally I don’t like “women in…” things, like I normally say I won’t do “women” festivals…it’s hard because I’m thinking that’s what you guys do, and it’s what I did with girlcomic, and you know every year Elle magazine does a women in comedy issue which makes up for, you know.. But when you’re in it, when you’re in the industry trying to just celebrate your gender, that typically has been the crap upon gender in society, you’re not saying we’re separate, you’re saying let’s use our power to spotlight these people. And then hopefully, the dream is, that the person watching the person you’ve spotlighted now just has it in their roster of people they consider funny. Men, women, this, that, but in a weird way to the outside world I wonder if it looks like, “see, even women are separating themselves because they know they’re different”, so I go back and forth, but I get it from another perspective where we’re not saying it’s separate but I can see where someone on the outside thinks it is. So I’m very choosy about what kind of “women in..” whatever that I take part in because there are some people who unfortunately are doing it in a… you know, they don’t wanna play ball with everyone way, because they are so….
D: Over it.
J: They’re so disheartened, yeah. Or they’re just so new. I meet a lot of young women who are one year in and they’re not about all the sexist stuff, which they should be, but they kind of break apart right there, and they don’t compete with the dudes, but no you have to compete with them. So, I’m of a million different minds about it, but I think sometimes it can be really great, like what you guys do.
E: Yeah. Well it’s hard to navigate the disconnect like that. That’s why we are asking you!
D: Yeah, because we have a small “women in comedy” festival and because we’ve chosen to celebrate that one thing at that one time, it’s not that we hate men. It’s not that we hate anybody who doesn’t support women in comedy, but we do have a festival about one thing, every festival is about one thing. JFL isn’t being shit on because they don’t celebrate ALL of the arts, you know?
J: What’s funny too is a lot of the time it’s a good idea to have a women’s festival at the same time as another festival, to highlight that they don’t have a lot of women. I know that with JFL, for a long time when I was starting out, that there was a lot ofcriticism, and there used to be a big comedy festival in New York that never had women in it, so somebody started a women-in-comedy festival at the same time as it, and I think that can be really bad ass – to point out what’s wrong with something.
E: Are there any giant mistakes that you made early on in your career that you might advise a quote-unquote female comic not to do?
J: I’ve spoken to some younger women that I’ve met in the Midwest when they were realizing that they were being ostracised from the guys. I think that for positive advice, if they want to be sympathetic to men, they have to understand that men in comedy, when we’re all starting out, there’s you know, ten guys, and they’re all the same, they all support each other, they’re all on the show at the same time, they make each other laugh….comics are really insecure so it really works for them to have their community and they don’t think about what it’s like to be the only woman when they are saying sexist things on stage like “I’d fuck her” or whatever.
And these women are saying they want to make their comedy act about that sexism. But I say don’t do that. Because now you’re taking yourself out of the competition, the whole world doesn’t know what that is, you have to be funny. And here’s the good news: you’re going to be the only woman on a show, for years, and you’re going to have to learn how to not look freaked out on stage. You have to be funny, you have to get their attention, you have deal with indirection from the crowd. Imagine being a woman on top of that and having to deal with your sexist co-host who doesn’t think he’s being sexist, like “oh come on honey take a joke”. How much funnier are you going to be than those guys who have it all wrapped up and handed to them. That’s why in my experience, do not sweat those guys because they don’t stay. They don’t stay! I started comedy with amazing feminist guys, so what scares me is when I meet so many young women who say the open mic guys are really terrible to them and I’m like “what??”
When I was growing up it was only the older guys that were terrible and now it seems like the younger guys are terrible so it’s freaking me out. I would say just keep in mind that every guy feels like it’s his right to get on stage and talk, and it is, and they utilize that, whereas we tend to question it. So all those guys, once they aren’t nailing it and winning, they will stop. They’ll either stop completely, or they’ll become TV writers, and the women who really want to do it and have adversity, you are going to be so much funnier because of that. So don’t stop, and don’t make your whole act about it. If someone brings you up on stage and says “I’d fuck her,” make fun of him for two seconds before you get into your bit. Shame him, and then do your act. Just be funny. There is sexism in the world, so deal with it as a political issue in your life but do not do your comedy about it. I used to do comedy routines about sexism and it was like, I wasn’t learning my craft. I wasn’t getting any better.
The second thing I’d say is that there are going to be people that tell you what to do, because people always tell comics what to do. It’s really hard because it’s one of the only businesses that I can think of, where it’s so hard to get started and men and women feel the exact same when we start. We’re treated like shit, we’re insecure, we don’t know if we’re funny, and then women are like, oh that’s how we feel all the time anyways, so it’s confusing. Like is this happening because I’m a woman, or because I’m a comedian? I think never doubt your instinct, because we start to learn the difference. We have to hone it. I had a lot of people in the beginning, like when I first moved to New York, the big thing was to be a one liner comic, ‘cause we had like Mitch Hedberg and stuff but he was Mitch and he was really good at it, I’m not really good at it. So this lame comedy booker that worked at Comedy Central that I used to think was a big deal and now I feel bad for, he was like “you can’t tell these long stories, you have to be a one-liner comic,” and I was like “oh, ok.”
And I tried to be for two years but I failed, and I fell behind. Meanwhile my really good friend Mike Birbiglia always wanted to be a story telling kind of comic and he dove head first into it, like nothing was going to stop him. Now, did that guy give me advice because I’m a woman? Probably not. But I took it, because I had been trained as a woman to listen to whatever anyone says and to think that I’m wrong. “Oh ok.”
So, notice how being a woman affects how you respond to things, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that everybody is being sexist. It takes a while. Sometimes it takes years to look back and say “oh that wasn’t sexist, oh and that was.” Don’t keep it quiet, but don’t make your comedy about it, because it’s actually kind of boring.
E + D: Amazing.
D: Who are some up and coming comics you would suggest for us to keep an eye on?
J: I have a rule, when I’m on tour I’ll have the club or booker send my agent five or six people, and I will not allow straight white men to be sent to me, unless I know them already. I want to give chances to people that don’t get chances, and that generally aren’t socialized to ask for a chance. The minute I go on tour I get 50 thousand DMs on Twitter from white guys, and women never ask, gay people never ask, people of colour never ask, so I will only have those people open for me. They have to be funny, obviously.
Some of the people that I thought were super funny that I’ve asked to open for me on my tour so far: Minori Hinds in North Carolina, Shannan Paul, she’s in Minneapolis, and a woman in Seattle named El Sanchez. These are some of the women I haven’t met yet but I’ve watched their stuff and I’m going to work with them on the road.
Jen Kirkman’s show “Irrational Thoughts” is a part of OFF-JFL at the Mainline Theatre Tuesday through Thursday and Saturday at 7:30pm, tickets: http://www.hahaha.com/en/show/jen-kirkman-irrational-thoughts
Follow Jen on twitter @JenKirkman