For those that like to remind people they were following Drunk History on the web long before the more polished Comedy Central version made parents want to get in on the watercooler references, Jen Kirkman has a familiar face.
For starters, she’s got home court advantage when performing around the Hub (she’s an Emerson alum, started doing stand-up in Cambridge, and was born and raised in Needham). But the stand up comedian, author, and screenwriter-actress was also a former regular on the roundtable panels on Chelsea Lately (where she was also a writer), done voiceover work right in Boston (a one-time thing from the squiggle-vision people behind Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist), co-founded an early-aughts comedy website aimed at women, and was famously sloshed while lecturing about Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass overcoming slavery for Funny or Die’s Drunk History. She later regaled the tale of Mary Dyer, one of the four “Boston martyrs” hanged in Massachusetts in the 17th century for defying Puritan law on the Comedy Central version. In spite of telling the history while wine-drunk on the floor (literally), there was some online trolling and questioning about how drunk she actually was (because the internet).
She clears that up below, while also discussing Chelsea Handler’s penchant for going topless and using the early-2000’s internet to land interviews with Gloria Steinem.
You’re in LA now. Biggest observation from doing shows there versus Boston?
You really don’t get paid for shows in LA, and LA crowds are ideal because it’s other mostly people in the industry, other comedians, these people have access to comedy 24-7, so they see comedy all the time. So it’s either they laugh too much because they loves the ins and outs and seeing new bits on display. And it’s funny to have LA watching you figure it out ,and fail. You might get some bits that are really funny there, and take it on the road and then be like “this isn’t quite worked out yet”. Or the opposite can happen where you have this amazingly worked out bit but because the audience is so jaded they’re not going crazy laughing. But Boston audiences are great. I have this theory that Boston regular people are very funny and cranky, bitter [and] sarcastic. Like a group of drunk, Irish heritage, cold weather-living people. And they’re one step ahead of you sometimes. So you have to be smarter with Boston crowds, [they’re] like “we’re as funny as you and you’re doing your day job.” It keeps you on your toes. At this point I don’t notice crowds. For me it’s night by night. I only notice a crowd if it’s going terribly. And usually things go pretty well [for me] in Boston.
What’s your relationship with comedy like? Do you have stand-up heroes?
It’s funny, I’m one of those comedians where I do comedy, but I’m not a comedy nerd … not obsessed with comedy. The more famous and celebrated a [comedian] gets, to me, I have less access and don’t see them as often, and what makes a hero to me is seeing [comedy] live and in the best moments. So my heroes are less mainstream I guess? And, usually friends of mine.
You had a pilot, The Jen Show, being talked about at one point, and set in Boston. Is that happening?
I sold a show and wrote a pilot. It seems like a bigger deal but it’s not…[and] it didn’t work out. I would’ve liked it, but [the press about it] was a little exaggerated. It made it seem like there’s a show on the air the way. Then I got 100 emails from people I knew saying “I NEED A JOB” but I was like ‘there’s no show, guys”.
Drunk History. Let’s hear it. Are you really drunk in those? There’s been criticism about how legitimately drunk you are.
Yes! It’s funny, my friend Derek (Waters) who created it was going crazy from [the criticism], like “oh god did I do my job correctly?” because the theme of the show is all about how passionate drunk people get. Like where you’re getting so passionate you’re crying, or just getting something wrong…that was the point for [him]. He based it on a real life experience with a friend who was really drunk [and] trying to discuss John Coltrane. He thought it would be funny to turn that notion in a TV show. So it’s very true, [I] drank two bottles of wine. The hardest acting job to get would be to pretend you’re drunk [and] I’m not that good of an actress. I was completely hammered. You can kind of tell if someone is faking it…inside story is they film with you and will keep filming when someone is a little buzzed and hamming it up. I usually am blackout drunk when doing them, and very hungover for days. They need to pay me more, to be honest. [laughs]
What are your memories of Girlcomic.net?
Oh yeah I can’t even believe I had something to do with the internet that long ago. It’s funny I was so internet savvy because now I’m behind on everything. Like “ugh I don’t want to get SnapChat.” Back then if you just said “I have a website” people would just get on the phone. I spoke with people like Margaret Cho and [Amy Poehler] and Gloria Steinem…it was a super fun project, just getting to interview cool people and then giving myself the assignment of a short story a week. I would forget that I even did that if you didn’t remind me. I’m at that age now where I’m like “I forgot that even happened”.
How was working with/for Chelsea Handler?
Her show as my first break and first permanent thing I did where I was no longer broke. I wrote from 2008 until last year, and appeared on the show. It was amazing. She was very easy to work for in the sense she’s not a neurotic late night host obsessing over every minute. She wanted it to look improvisational, spur of the moment, not obsessed with tweaking monologue jokes. It had an anarchy appeal to it. Working on it appealed to me because I was the same way, just a good fit. And touring with her is first class all the way. It’s awesome.
She was a big voice in the #FreeTheNipple social media movement.
We covered it once on the show when Miley Cyrus was on. Chelsea was never a big social media person, always [took her top off] when she felt like it…and very innocently ….it was nothing new to us. She was always taking out her tits, all the time. I think she was so used to doing that that she put it on Instagram without thinking, and was probably so surprised when they censored it, because seriously, her pics were silly, skiing with her top off…but go on Instagram and there are dirty pics of teen girls posing like porn stars. And that’s way more offensive than a comedian with their boobs out. It’s strange to me that we censor breasts. Don’t we see nudity all the time? I personally don’t feel like taking my top off, and I congratulate her for doing it. When you see the comments left, it’s awful, they’re so dirty, I don’t want to put a picture of me in a short sleeve shirt, let alone no shirt. It’s not porn. It’s silliness. Wouldn’t you rather see Chelsea Handler with her top off then Seth Rogen one more time?