Jen Kirkman speaks the truth: On casual sexism, comedy, feminism, the real work of relationships, and why your job won't save you

Salon talks to the comedian and author about her new book "I Know What I'm Doing—and Other Lies I Tell Myself"

By Erin Keane
May 2, 2016 2:30AM (UTC)
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Jen Kirkman (Robyn Von Swank)

Jen Kirkman's new memoir opens with a line you might not expect from a stand-up comedian who jokes mercilessly in her recent Netflix special, "I'm Gonna Die Alone (and I Feel Fine)," about turning 40 and discovering her own gray pubic hairs. For context, here's a quote from that set:

"If it was white hair, no problem, I'd grow that out silky, like Kenny Rogers' beard. Or I'd shave it into a mohawk like Billy Idol — punk rock pussy, you know? But gray is a mean color—and when it finally all grows in? Gray is the color of barbed wire, and it sends a message, right? GET OUT OF HERE."

By contrast, "I Know What I'm Doing—and Other Lies I Tell Myself" opens not with a pubes joke, but a sigh: "Ugh, my parents are going to read this."


What seems like an odd contradiction — fearless comedian metaphorically undressing on TV to make us laugh at the humiliations our aging human bodies deal us also stressing over what her family thinks about her personal life?  — is just one more thing about Kirkman that makes her so (and this is a terrible word, I think we can all agree, but with apologies) relatable. Her memoir is an intimate, funny, quasi-confessional examination of life at 40 — divorcing with dignity, dating and hooking up, falling in love, being unsure about the future but fiercely committed to career and freedom, keeping proper wine and wine glasses in the home like a real adult, accidentally pissing off most of Ireland on a work trip, and, like Kenny Rogers, knowing when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em, with strangers and loved ones alike.

Kirkman, a veteran of the stand-up scene whose first memoir, "I Can Barely Take Care of Myself: Tales from a Happy Life Without Kids," was a New York Times bestseller, is a former writer for "Chelsea Lately," where she also appeared frequently on camera, and "After Lately," as well as a narrator for the cult hit "Drunk History." Kirkman doesn't have a sitcom named after her yet — she has a podcast, "I Seem Fun" — but neither is she a comedy ingénue mining 20-something bewilderment for laughs. She's a hard-working, mid-career successful adult responsible for herself who — like so many of us — still worries what her mom will say if she writes about her sex life. (And, as it turns out, that random people will refuse to believe that the judgey doctor who diagnosed her with Hepatitis C was actually mistaken—she does not have it, you guys, but her willingness to keep talking about that episode anyway speaks volumes about the courage it takes to be a woman telling the story of her life in public.)

"I Know What I'm Doing" covers Kirkman's marriage and split, single life, living alone, airplane anxiety, dating and sex — including a long on-again/off-again only-when-we're-both-single Friend With Benefits, as well as the pleasures and pitfalls of hooking up with a 23-year-old musician (a chapter titled "Jen Cougar Mellencamp," be still my Midwestern pun-appreciating heart) — and alternates no-bullshit advice like "When their kids are teenagers, you can see your friends again" with the self-deprecating play-by-play of what happens when she decides to "opt out of the mandatory fun" of New Year's Eve and stay home alone (spoiler: It is not the GOOP-ish Zen experience she plans for).


In other words — at least for this reader — throughout the book, Kirkman makes good on her promise to be "a voice in your head, other than your own, that sounds like you." As it turns out, Kirkman kind of does know what she's doing — and, you know, maybe so do you.

I spoke with Kirkman over the phone about the tension between privacy and public life, sexism online and how much work it takes to keep relationships going, both casual and committed. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

I know you say this book isn’t a traditional advice book, but thanks to you I’ve really re-thought my stemless wine glasses.


By the way, that would be the only thing I'd want people to take away from it. [Laughs.]

I've started thinking: Are these juvenile?

I've always been under the impression that they're supposed to be more sophisticated because they're European. Then there's this whole culture where people do actually put [wine] in really pretty juice glasses. I hate it. So my thing is, people can drink however they want but if you have guests coming over for wine, you've got to have a stem option. When I order white wine and it comes and the stem isn't there, it just ruins my mood. Although sometimes a nice red, I don't mind holding it in a glass.


Your hand gets the glass all warm if it's a chilled wine.

But I don't want to ask, because I don't want to be wine-shamed. Like, "Oh no, actually the way your hand goes on the glass makes it colder." Someone will have an answer for that, you know?

The answer is probably more like we didn't want people breaking our wine glasses?


That's probably exactly what it is.

Your new book is a very candid memoir about your divorce and the single life. It’s funny, but it also feels very real and emotional and authentic, not played for defensive laughs. In the intro you write, “For a stand-up comedian who talks about life on stage, I’m weirdly, fiercely private.” Are you nervous about being this open about your life?

I'm actually kicking myself for not being more honest. I feel like I didn't really still explain what went on. It takes so long to realize why any of that happened [in a divorce], so in a weird way, I'm upset that I didn't get more honest. I think there's more to be said about what I thought feelings of love felt like, and how sad that can be when you're looking for someone that doesn't make you feel anything. I really thought that's what love was, and he must've, too.


That whole chapter where I blame myself for having no sex drive, I forgot to add that he had never made a move on me in a long time. So there are things that I'm like, why didn't I put that in there?

But the weird stuff that I didn't want my parents to read about is any of the sex stuff. Well, my dad probably won't read it. My mom will, and I think she probably might not like it. I don't know.

There's having a boyfriend, and there's having one-night stands. Or that doctor who misdiagnosed me with Hep-C. For some reason, that story freaks me out, because I'm afraid people won't believe me, even though I don't have hepatitis. I'm afraid people will read it and go, yeah, yeah, yeah, she just wanted to tell that story, but I know she has it. Once it's in someone's hands, I can't explain anything they might not understand.

Now that I look back on it, I'm very critical of myself. I wanted to be as honest as possible. I feel like since I'm not a professional prose writer who knows certain techniques of writing, for me, all I have is my honesty and humor. So when I had to re-read it recently, I was like, "This isn't honest enough. This is a bunch of crap."


That's so interesting that you think people won’t believe you were misdiagnosed — I never thought there would be Jen Kirkman Truthers out there. Do you think people understand there's a difference between your public, on-stage persona and who you really are?

If I had to pick something to worry about, that would be it. But I'm truly not worried. I think for me, I really love my podcast because I can just be totally honest and boring, explain every single thing I mean. I think there's a flip-side: If everyone understood what I said every second, maybe I would have a very limited amount of fans.

If you think about it in terms of song lyrics, so many songs were written just about me and oh my God, I went through that and I bet if I asked the songwriter he'd be like, "Oh, that was about this road trip I took." And I'm like, "Oh, it sounded like this break-up I had once," you know?

So I did this gig in London recently. I don't have any stand-up jokes about my actual separation, or divorce proceedings. I literally just say as my legal identity, "Hey, so I'm divorced," just so they know the context isn't "single woman who's never been married who may be looking for that," but more "single woman who has been married and is very gun shy about doing it again." This woman came up to me after, and she was crying, and she was like, "My husband was abusive, too, and I'm leaving him tonight, and that's why I have my backpack and I'm staying at my friend's house and thank you for speaking for us." I was like, "Whoa! Wait, what? My husband couldn't be less abusive. He's the nicest person. I was not abused. I didn't say anything about abuse."


But because I said I'm divorced she projected all this stuff onto me, and for her I was the voice of it's ok to go out on your own. If she hadn't done that, maybe she wouldn't like me as much. So in a weird way, sometimes being misunderstood can be good for the artist, but at the same time it's what drives me crazy.

What really frustrates me is that I get contacted by people who don't understand that my Netflix special is jokes about relationships — about being married, being single, being in a sexual relationship. I wrote some of those jokes when I was married. I wrote some when I was in a relationship, I wrote some when I was single. I've been performing it for years, and I just taped it last year. You don't know where I'm at in life the day you contact me about that special. And so I hate when men ask me out because I made a few jokes about a time I was single, and what they hear is that I'm looking to be rescued by them. Even if they're joking, it makes me livid.

I wish I just had jokes about the weather, because then nobody would like, "Hey, can I take you to dinner? You must get lonely on the road." I think being misunderstood bothers me more than having everyone know my business in a weird way.

One of the memorable chapters in the book builds on a bit you have in your stand-up about sleeping with a younger guy. How do people react to that story? Do you get approached by a lot of younger guys?


About every other day I get the same joke: "I'm 20 and I'm a drummer. Do you want to date me?" And I'm like, did you not see the routine where I spent one night with him and hated it because he was so young? So I get it a lot online. Luckily, no one comes up to me in person or else I would probably ... either yell at them or run away.

On Twitter, you’ve been amplifying other women’s stories of sexual harassment, and you’ve been vocal about confronting some of the sexism pointed at Hillary Clinton during this campaign. A lot of artists use Twitter for harmless promotion, but this really puts you out there and exposes you to, well, all the sexist harassment that Twitter can attract.

I've always been a feminist, and really loud about it, and I do it because I'm sick of seeing these little things that aren't getting fixed. Like stuff about feminism that I was really excited about in the ‘90s. Kurt Cobain used to say — he used to be friends with Kathleen Hanna from Bikini Kill — "Why is it always on women, that they should do this or that to prevent rape? Why don't we teach the guys not to rape?" I mean, people have been saying that since I was a teenage girl in the ‘90s and [back then] I thought, good, we're getting somewhere. But I have to keep repeating that 20 years later, as each generation comes up and does not seem to have learned one damn thing about women's issues.

The problem is when women teach people, people don't want to listen. I am starting to speak out more because I'm seeing a lot of men in comedy do feminist comedy and they're getting lauded for it and I'm like wait, we just skipped over all the women that have been doing this forever.

I'm also not famous. And I don't say that as, oh woe is me, but it’s literally the difference between [me and] an actual celebrity comedian like Amy Schumer, who is an industry. I am just a person in a two-bedroom apartment who has fans, but I am not an industry. So she has to be careful in everything she says. Money stands to be lost by other people if she says the wrong thing. I'm not implying at all that she cares — I'm just saying that I don't have anything to worry about. No one loses a job if my Twitter gets boring.

One thing that I really appreciate in the book is how detailed you get in describing your work — how you got to where you are, how it works for you. Your “there are a lot of ways to be successful” line to the guy on the airplane to Australia really resonated. How did you know when you made it?

I will get one person that recognizes me in the airport and then everyone else crowding around, asking them why they're recognizing me. For me it's like, I can pay the bills, I can probably put down cash and buy a house in some small part of America. But for what I'm doing, I'm still at the phase of I can't believe I get to do what I do. The freedom. There's annoying stuff about it, but the freedom is pretty great.

I don't want anyone to be like, "wow, you really made it," because if that's all they're aspiring to then they're going to be very disappointed when they get here. You know when you think something is something because you're young and then you get there and you go, "Oh it's great, but I see what..." It's not going to save you. It's just going to be your job.

You write that “career” is often written about as some kind of albatross around a woman’s neck that’s keeping her from settling down. Especially for a woman who has decided not to have kids, how do you push back against that?

I swear to God, the only time I talk about it is in interviews. No one really bothers me about it. I wrote the first book about not wanting to have kids, because I just happened to be at that sweet spot in life where I was getting married, and other people my age were getting married, but they were having kids and so people were confused about why I was getting married and not having kids. But it doesn't happen that much anymore.

Any time someone says something stupid to me about career, is usually a complete stranger — a cab driver. It just happened to me in Sydney, Australia. I had four suitcases, I was getting into a cab going to the airport, and I think the guy was probably like, "That load of suitcases — is there somebody else?" I was like, "no it's just me." And then he was like, "So, no man?"

First of all, it's just so weird to me. Maybe there is a man, maybe he's just not on the trip with me, maybe this, maybe that, who cares? But I just file that all under sexism. I never have people in real life saying, "Oh, your career is keeping you from this or that," because I think my relatives can see my life is just not normal. I don't have regular hours, and they can also see I love what I do and I can still live a really full life outside of it.

Honestly, I'm just kind of rude to people when they talk to me that way, because I think it's rude of them. So I'll just say, "If you could just butt out, I didn't get into this cab to be questioned about my life." But it is always strangers.

The chapter about your long-time friend-with-benefits was really touching. The book seems like in many ways a high-five to living the unconventional life.

It's so funny, because I've changed so much since I wrote the book. And in the book I do mention that he and I, my old friend with benefits, we haven't had any benefits in years.

But in my next relationship, whenever or whatever that will be like — my new thing is, just for me and the problems that it causes me, I don't do sex outside of relationships anymore. I don't do one-night stands. I don't do online dating. I don't do anything. So if I happen to get into a relationship, great. If I don't, then that actually works better for me, it keeps me sane.

But there were times in my life when unconventional relationships had just as much meaning. In a weird way, I had better communication with my friend with benefits a lot of times in my life than I did with my husband. They never overlapped or anything, but I think there's this sense that only if you're in a traditional relationship or marriage can you have a deep thing, otherwise it's just trivial or sexual.

I believe in marriage, too. I would get married again. I have no beef with any of it. But I just feel like if you said to someone I'm 50 and I have a lover who's my friend but we're never going to make it official, or it's technically open, even though we're not seeing anyone else, I think people would feel really sad for that person.

I think people are threatened by it.

I don't know. Although I've changed so much, because I used to think that, and I used to think the friends-with-benefits people had it all figured out. And then I realized it's just as much work as anything else. The person that's on Tinder every day, swiping, swiping, dating, trying it out. The person that has a friend with benefits, every day they have to work to keep it not a real relationship. And then the people in a relationship that are working to keep it interesting. Everyone's always probably spending way too much time on relationships than they need to be.

Listen, no one's having any fun, even the friends-with-benefits people. In one way I'm saying that, and in another way I'm saying it is possible these things can be as deep — but it's a case by case basis, just like a marriage is.

It doesn't mean anyone who's married is automatically happy or in something that's actually honest. Everything takes time, and I mean that in a negative way. Everything can be time-consuming, and everything can sort of make you feel devalued unless someone else is swiping you or marrying you or whatever-ing you.

So I feel, in those moments when people do not have someone like that, they better be OK with themselves or it can get so bad. My friends-with-benefits relationship during those years was so, so important for me. It was the friendship part that was really bonding — but I guess that's what you would say about a marriage, too.

Erin Keane

Erin Keane is Salon's Editor in Chief.

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Books Comedy Divorce I Know What I'm Doing And Other Lies I Tell Myself Jen Kirkman Relationships