“People want to see a diverse lineup. They don’t want to see straight white male after straight white male.”
Unlike most careers, comedy has no true path. With most traditional gigs, you go to school, you graduate, you get a job in that field. Maybe there’s an internship or a mentor program, but basically you learn the skills then you do that job. Yes, there are comedy classes, but not all are built the same, nor does it guarantee you’ll be funny, or make you less nervous on stage. When it comes to comedy there’s no safety net; there’s nothing to fall back on. It’s a constant grind and having to prove yourself. You can’t point to the six-week comedy school graduation certificate from the Chuckle Hut printed on Staples copy paper and expect an audience to laugh at what you say.
That’s why the parents of comedian Jessica Kirson, who graduated from NYU with a master’s in social work, were so perplexed by her decision to make $10 a night working clubs in NYC. Kirson’s mother, who is a therapist that performed in the theatre growing up, was supportive, but dubious of her daughter’s choice of not going into the family business. “It was tough for a long time,” Kirson said. “But I think once they saw that I was having some success and starting to do the road and starting to do some TV stuff, they were like, Oh, OK.”
Over the years Jessica worked on the Howard Stern Show, shared the screen with the likes of Bill Burr, Jim Gaffigan, and Robert De Niro, and her stand-up, podcast, and character videos have garnished millions of views online. She also produced the beloved and well-received feature-length documentary, FX’s Hysterical, which chronicles the blatant inequality faced by female comedians as told by the comedians fighting against it.
And to prove the pandemic won’t stop her from making audiences and other comedians laugh out loud, Jessica and long-time comedy friend Rachel Feinstein are releasing a new compilation prank call album, The Call Girls, on September 24. Which the two recorded during lock-down as a way to cope with COVID, the dangers Rachel’s first responder husband faced, her newborn, and the loss of Jessica’s father. And the next best thing to listening to Jessica is seeing her live in person. Which you can do by purchasing tickets to one of her four upcoming shows September 17 and 18 at Laugh Boston.
What was the process for making your new prank call album, The Call Girls?
Rachel [Fenstein] and I always did prank calls and I love doing them. I’m obsessed with prank calls. Because COVID was so depressing and it was just such a miserable time, we literally both sat in our houses and my manager Jim Serpico recorded them. We had a blast and just made each other laugh and tortured businesses for weeks. And there’s at least one thing in them that has to do with COVID. It was just our way of dealing with the whole situation.
I loved the documentary you produced. When you all were putting it together, were there thoughts on what stories from female comedians you were going to tell?
Of course, you know, we talked a lot about that. Basically it came down to the director’s point of view when it was all said and done, but, thank god. [Andrea Nevins] was so open to everything. It all came from my idea, every decision she made, she came to me first and that is so rare. A lot of times the director doesn’t even like to take the suggestions from the producers and they do whatever they want and they twist things around and they’re so egotistical and … Andrea Nevins was so curious … and she didn’t have a lot of ego at all. She really listened to us and I’m so grateful for that. She would edit it and show us the copies. And I’d be like, Can you please put something funny in it? And it was a dream in that way.
I just have to say I’m so amazed since the movie came out, so many comics, even male comics, were like, This is incredible. And I’m so blown away by it. So many people could not believe what female comics go through. Their eyes were open to so many things. I’ve been looking at all these lineups recently. And I’m like, What is going on? What’s happening? Is something going on where they’re purposely not booking women? It’s really incredible.
I’ve noticed it too. Do you think it is because of the people booking, or is it harder to find women comedians because they’re so few of them?
That’s not true. It’s not hard to find female comedians. So that’s not the excuse. And I’m very realistic and I’m not an angry female comic. I get a shitload of work. So I’m not resentful. I’m not bitter. I get an enormous amount of work because I’m a funny female comic. I’m a funny comic period. I’m turning down a shitload of work … and I’m very grateful, but I am looking at these lineups at some of these clubs, and especially in LA. I’m like, Is there something going on? I’m not kidding. There’s 15 comics and I’m not seeing one female comic. … There’s a hundred female comics that are really funny, why are they not being booked? What is happening? I mean, what is going on here?
I don’t agree with, Let’s just book women, Black people, Asian people, and Hispanic people, so that it looks like they’re being diverse. I don’t agree with that, but let’s book them because they’re funny and they’ll kill and let’s show diversity because that’s what’s coming to the club. Let’s show all different kinds of comics because that’s also what people want to see. People want to see a diverse lineup. They don’t want to see straight white male after straight white male. When people go to the Comedy Cellar and they see a diverse lineup, and I hear it constantly, they come out of the show and say, What a great show! I saw every kind of person. That is a great show. That was really like an amazing show. I’m so glad I got to see every different kind comic, every different points of views, different ethnicities, gay, straight trans. It’s a better show. It’s more interesting.
Your stepbrother is a famous, experienced filmmaker. Are there ever family conversations about filmmaking, or exchange of tips and advice?
Yes. Zach [Braff] and I talk a lot. Zach has been coming to my shows at the Comedy Cellar every week ’cause he’s in New York. He’s about to film a movie in our hometown in Jersey, a very serious drama with his girlfriend, [Florence Pugh] and Morgan Freeman and Molly Shannon. He loves coming to standup shows. He came with my mom the past couple of weeks and my sister came last week. And so it’s really fun. It’s really great to have my family come to my shows. And I actually sat with him and ate dinner the other night and picked his brain. Cause I have a situation with a business thing with a sitcom deal that I have with NBC Peacock. And I asked him for advice and a ton of questions about how to handle it and what to do. And it was great. I feel very grateful that I can ask him these questions because he has so much experience with this stuff, he’s so smart. He’s a writer, he’s a director, he’s a producer, he has so much knowledge. And then he comes to me and says, My god, how do you do standup? I could never do that. I mean, he came on stage with me once at the Cellar, he was in the audience and I brought him on stage … He was panicking, he was having a nervous breakdown on stage. He was so nervous to be on stage. We were telling stories about our childhood and he was freaking out. He can’t imagine doing what I do, And I can’t even imagine doing what he does.
You’re quite diverse yourself. Not only are you a standup, you’ve been a writer, you’ve produced and consulted for different comedy films. And in comedy itself, being an emcee is a completely different skill set than featuring, which is a completely different skill set than headlining. And of course private shows are different from doing warm up for talk shows and sitcoms. When you go into these different versions of comedy, do you have to be aware of the medium you are in?
That’s a great question. And you know, a lot of times I forget all the things that I’ve done, and I’ve done a lot in this business. I did warmup for years for television. I did it for the Mike And Juliet Show, which was a morning show for Fox, and worked with Geraldo and Judge Jeanine. It’s crazy that I worked with these people. They were great. And I met a ton of celebrities. I did warmup for the first day Taylor Swift was ever on television. She was on the Mike and Juliet show. And I worked for The View for a long time doing warmup. I worked on Bethany and Anderson Cooper. And then I did cruise ships for years, and I did college tours for years. And I’ve done Orthodox shows many, many, many times on the road and done so many different things. I’ve produced a lot of things, and I want to start getting into directing.
You can’t just depend on just doing standup anymore. If you want to really be successful in this business and make money, you have to do a ton of different things. If you want to make a good living, you have to learn how to do standup to different audiences and adapt. And I’ve made that decision. A lot of comics don’t want to do that, and I get it and I respect that, but because I have kids and because I want to make money and save money and retire one day, I’ve decided to clean up my act at certain times and appeal to different audiences. Like when I do an Orthodox show, I don’t come out. Not because I care what they think of me at all, but because I know if I do, I’m going to struggle for an hour. And why do I want to put myself in that position and not get laughs for an hour? And then talk about it the next night and make fun of them. You know what I mean?
I’m surprised you mentioned Bethany Frankel, because I know a few years ago you had problems with her show, didn’t you?
I tweeted something about her because she tweeted something rude about John Legend’s wife [Chrissy Teagan]. And I tweeted, “You’re one to talk,” because I did warm up for [Bethan Frankel’s] show for months. And I went there every morning and the hosts are always nice to the warmup people because they know it’s a hard job. They want you to do a great job because you’re the fluffer, you’re the one that gets the audience going so that they look great. And she didn’t say hi to me once. She literally talked to me like I was a piece of shit. And I was like, This is the rudest person on Earth. She was never like, Hello, I’m Bethany, or Hi, thank you. You’re doing a great job. So, I’m thinking, Who the fuck are you? And I have worked with the most famous people in this business. My stepbrother is famous. I’ve met everyone through him. I’ve hung out with everyone through him. I’ve been to all these movie premieres. He dated Mandy Moore. I mean, she was at my house for Passover for God’s sake. And it’s like, Who are you? I could care less who you are. You don’t even phase me.
And one day I literally walked off set. I had enough of it. I was like, I’m done. It was hilarious. She was treating me like I was an animal. I didn’t say goodbye to anyone. I just took the microphone, put it down, got my bag and left. I’ll take it for a long time. But then at a certain point, I don’t care who you are, I’m done.
That’s bold to have that much self-confidence to be able to say, I don’t need to be treated this way and walk out.
Oh, that’s how I am. I’d rather do comedy on the street with a bucket than be treated like that. I have pride. I am not going to be treated like that by anybody.
Is it fair to say that, I mean this with the utmost respect, that your comedy is very aggressive? Do you feel that is also a reflection of your personality?
You know, it’s funny, offstage I’m pretty mellow and socially awkward. And I’m anxious and I’m not aggressive offstage. If people are rude or aggressive towards me, I’ll be aggressive back, but I’m not aggressive offstage. I think onstage, I feel vulnerable and naked. I feel more powerful standing on stage with a microphone. And there’s also times on stage when I’m really mellow and quiet. And there’s times when I turn around and I have my back to the audience and I do that internal monologue. I’m very inward. I have all different styles on stage, but the clips that people see online are very aggressive.
I love that you’re open about your struggles with food addiction and weight issues you’ve experienced over your life. Is it important to you working through these issues to talk about it on stage?
Yes, I feel that it’s very important to talk about my food issues because it’s a demon for me. It’s funny you even ask that question because everyone says to me, You’ve lost so much weight and why do you talk about food so much? Guess what? I need to talk about it a lot because I deal with it every single day. It’s a major addiction for me, it’s a huge source of pain in my life. It’s something that I’ve had so much history with from a very young age. I’ve had trauma around it. I struggle with it every single day, all day. I have to make decisions around it. And I constantly want to act out with food and I constantly want to hurt myself with food. It’s really hard for me. It really is.
I want to hurt myself with food. I really do. Because a lot of times I get resentful towards other people and it’s hard for me to express myself towards them. And I want to take it out on myself. I want to eat because I’m sober. I don’t drink, I don’t do drugs. I don’t smoke pot. I don’t do anything. And that’s the one thing that would be very easy for me to do because you have to eat. And it’s easy. It’s easy, it’s accessible. I can order pizza. I can do this. I can do that. But you know what? It is incredibly dangerous because I can kill myself with food. Literally I can kill myself with food. I can have a heart attack. I have been 330 pounds. That is how fat I was, that is so heavy. … So many people struggle with it. People thank me for talking about it. I’ll always talk about it because it’ll always be something I struggle with. So it is what it is. You know, I have a food addiction.