With her second book, I Know What I’m Doing—And Other Lies I Tell Myself: Dispatches From A Life Under Construction, out this week, Jen Kirkman is pushing even further into the literary world. This time around, the comedian and I Seem Fun podcaster is both examining her own life, which she says is “permanently in progress,” and assuring readers it’s completely okay to find that “first gray pubic hair.” It’s self-help—or at least supportive reassurance—with a smart, no-shit comedic twist.
In an attempt to dive deeper into what makes Kirkman tick comedically, if not in general, The A.V. Club decided to ask her one of our favorite questions: What does she find funny? And, like those of Mike O’Brien, Jon Glaser, and Josh Gondelman, her answers proved to be both enlightening and laugh-inducing.
Maude, “Maude And The Radical”
The A.V. Club: What can you tell us about “Maude And The Radical”?
Jen Kirkman: This is an episode where there’s someone who’s from a black rights advocacy group that the white people consider extreme. Maude is throwing this big party, and she’s running around. Her maid, played by Esther Rolle, is the only black person there, and she keeps trying to give her the night off, and she’s like, “This is my job. I’m working this.” Then she makes her dress up like a guest, and Esther Rolle comes down the stairs dressed as an African woman, because she’s just trying to fuck with Maude. It’s the funniest thing, and just the looks that they’re giving each other are my favorite. I love that show so much, so that always kills me.
AVC: That was a progressive show at the time. It might even be now.
JK: Oh, it would be so progressive now, and I’m sure it would not be politically correct. Everyone would have a nervous breakdown.
The funniest part of the episode is that Maude takes a tranquilizer, which is so great. I just love the casual use of stuff like that back then. She gets all messed up and then everyone leaves and the guy comes and she just sits alone with him and gives him like five grand. I love how she’s always called out on being super liberal to the point of being condescending. I love how that was the point. I think that would be missed on many people today.
AVC: In an email you sent, you said this Chappelle line always makes you laugh out loud.
JK: I don’t know why. It’s one of those things. I don’t know if you have things that just play in your head for no reason, like you’re walking around in a song that’s stuck in your head. That’s a piece of comedy that gets stuck in my head, and I don’t know why. Maybe it’s the way he uses his voice and the rhythm where he’s like, “Oscar, why are you so grouchy?” I don’t know why. It just makes me laugh so hard, and I have gone to YouTube to find it.
There’s no explaining what makes me laugh. It’s one of those things that never gets old. It’s not like, “Oh I laughed once and I remember.” Every time I laugh out loud, and it’s just so simple and delightful. Why didn’t someone point out before that he was in a trashcan, and maybe that’s why he’s not happy?
AVC: Sometimes picking jokes apart ruins them, but do you think this joke is funny because it’s Sesame Street? Is the joke funny because of this specific line? Or is it funny because of all of those things combined?
JK: I’m sure someone else could point it out in a rather academic, nerdy way, but it’s his rhythm. I just think it’s so funny. It kills me. It’s one of those simple things where you’re like, “That’s been there forever for anyone to take and nobody thought of it.”
AVC: You also have Maria Bamford’s new material about horseback riding and friends on here. That’s another one where she’s saying things that we think all the time, but the way she’s saying them is so brilliant.
JK: It’s the same thing with Maria. Her rhythm. Her voices. Her facial expression. The sentiment is funny, but it’s not even about trying to convince someone to horseback ride. It’s trying to get someone to hang out with you and just naming fun things you can do that some people assume would appeal to other people. I don’t think she says it, but I infer that she’s like, “Can’t we just get lunch? It’s run by two lesbians who used to be a couple.” It’s all these weird specifics.
I guess that’s what’s great. Her joke is about something totally different. Someone trying to engage Maria and then all these details that you don’t need that are just so funny along the way. It’s like eating candy with your dessert. You don’t need all that, but it’s so great.
It’s also the voice that she does of these other people that make them immediately sound like we shouldn’t trust them, believe them, or take them seriously. They are just flies swatting around. I love it.
AVC: She’s really good at that WASP-y white woman voice, like when she does her mom’s voice. You immediately know who that person is.
JK: Yeah, and there’s some kind of spiritual woman that’s always meditating, but that has a good kind of WASP-y voice that she does too. And anyone in authority, she really does those voices well, and then oddly goes back to her higher pitched, quieter voice, which is hilarious to me.
AVC: I like her very intense rhythms.
JK: Yeah, for Maria, I think it’s all about the rhythm too. I don’t think the average person just listing those details that it would be that funny. I would be like, “Yeah, get back to the joke.” It’s like watching a play.
Billy Eichner screaming about his love of Sex And The City 2
AVC: Speaking of voices, you have a Billy Eichner bit on here. Some people shit on Billy Eichnerby saying he’s always yelling, but it’s not about that anymore. It’s more than that. You couldn’t do what he does. Not you, but the general you.
JK: No, of course. I think, “Okay, so he’s yelling. It’s funny when some people yell.” It’s funny when Larry David yells, but like you said, the average person just yelling is not going to be funny. It’s going to be upsetting, and I’m sure a lot of people starting out in comedy might imitate Billy. Everybody that’s on TV, at least. And you’ll see, or will see, that it’s not always funny to just do that.
He has a certain charm and passion. I think anyone that has a passion about something that may not seem like a big deal, and it’s not like he wrote this feminist essay on why Sex And The City 2 should not be totally discounted. He is not giving totally good reasons, but people who get it, get it, and it’s delightful.
I take it as an inside joke for people who like that movie and don’t think it’s that terrible. We don’t think it’s a good movie. Some of the dialogue’s cheesy, but I think the underlying thing, if I may get overly deep, for women and gay men—It’s like, look, there’s a scene where two guys get married by Liza Minnelli, and if there is some little boy in Arkansas somewhere who’s getting beaten up because people suspect he’s gay, what a relief it is for him to go to the theater and see that. There’s never enough exposing what’s important to gays and women.
And yeah, maybe it’s a little xenophobic where they’re in the Middle East. But I’m sorry, am I wrong about what happens in the Middle East? That is a thing. They don’t want American women running around and acting like equals. Maybe they didn’t do it in a way that was smart enough, but who gives a shit.
My God, every time women do anything for fun it gets fucking picked apart and has to be perfect or else we don’t like it. It’s the same bullshit. It’s like, “I wouldn’t vote for Hillary Clinton, but I’d vote for Elizabeth Warren.” It’s like, “Well that’s convenient. She’s not fucking running.” You get to be sexist and not all at the same time.
I hate when guys go nuts about Sex And The City 2, so I feel like Billy was screaming on behalf of all the people who can’t articulate why it’s so suspect that suddenly men have a vested interest in picking apart that movie on the level of like, “I really care about how the Middle East is portrayed.” No, you fucking don’t. So if I was yelling, that’s how unfunny I would make it.
And him just getting to actually get Sarah Jessica Parker to do it was kind of cool, too, because she usually doesn’t speak about that stuff.
It’s his specific setting that makes it funny too. If it was on Hollywood Boulevard, I think it might be totally different. That he is ranting and raving in New York City, where there’s legitimate people ranting and raving who have mental illnesses or real things to say, and his is about Sex And The City 2? It’s everything. It’s context, it’s location. I’m reading a lot into it, but I think he’s saying it to white straight men. I could be wrong. It just delights me. Even if I’m not laughing out loud, I’m smiling the whole time. Like, “Oh my God, I could watch a TED Talk on this.”
AVC: People tend to shit on rom-coms in general, saying they’re not the best they could be. But every meal you eat, for instance, isn’t the best meal you’ve ever had in your life. You can still enjoy Wendy’s from time to time.
JK: That’s what makes me crazy. Isn’t it okay to check out once in awhile? There’s value in a well done whatever, and also in a not well-done rom-com. It’s not like it has to be amazing. There’s something to it that’s just suspect. That’s all I’ll say. When it’s men going on and on about it, I just don’t like it.
David Brent’s creepy interview on The Office
AVC: Speaking of creepy dudes or dudes that are occasionally creepy, this Ricky Gervais thing you put on your list is creepy.
JK: This speaks to the power of how funny it is, because Ricky Gervais as a human has started to annoy me. I don’t care about his atheism beliefs. I don’t think he says them in a funny way. They’re annoying. I think his whole attitude of “I’m just telling it like it is at the Golden Globes”—anyone who is announcing that they’re edgy or offensive doesn’t get how that works. Usually people who are offensive, in my opinion, weren’t trying to be. They were just trying to tell the truth and then they get backlash and were like, “Oh my God, what a crazy world.” So the fact that he annoys me on such a large scale to where I have a hard time wanting to watch [everything he does], but I can go back to this clip 10 times a day and love it and love him and never get sick of it, that’s amazing.
Everything is perfection about it. I’ve watched it over and over with a couple of friends of mine that are obsessed with it, and we text each other quotes from it at least every day. We’ll just rate different needs and people know what we’re saying.
It’s the vulnerability, too. He’s super into Des’ree and wants to connect with anyone on that level. And of course he’s being a sexually harassing creep, but that’s not what the funny part is.
The funny part is his constant vulnerability of—if she just said to him, “Look, I’ll never fuck you. Please stop objectifying me, but I think you’re super cool and I validate that you’re the coolest guy here.” He would stop and be like, “Okay.” That’s all he actually wants. It’s just so great.
I think it’s the accent, the rhythm. I can’t take it. That’s what makes it really funny, because I’ve actually personally worked on sketch shows or TV shows where guys will do funny bits about sexual harassment, and they’re not getting it right. It actually makes you feel sad when you’re filming it. You’re like, “Weirdly I feel like I’m being sexually harassed.” I can only imagine that in that scene because it’s so layered.
Everything he does is always about, “Please, just think I’m cool. Please don’t think I’m this middle manager that works on the paper company.” Everything he does is fueled by that, so even that scene where he’s uncomfortably sexually harassing someone in an interview, it’s okay. We’re not feeling bad for the girl. She’s empowered in that moment because she’s got all the power to validate whether he’s cool, and she doesn’t. So no one is feeling bad for anyone. We know it’s not going to end up in a bad, scary place. It’s just fucking funny.
And he just throws the paper away. The weird thing he’s doing with his hands. She’s like “Well, I went to this school,” and he’s like, “Too boring. Tell me about yourself.” Then he makes this square. It’s just like, what is he doing? I cant take it it’s so funny. I think it’s the funniest thing that I’ve ever seen. Ever.
AVC: Why do you think people have turned on Ricky Gervais? Do you think he’s changed or is it that we’ve changed? Why do we love him as this character but we don’t like him in Derek?
JK: I think he’s meant to be that character and the guy from Extras. I haven’t watched Derek, so I don’t know. I think he’s just meant to act. I don’t know if we need to hear from him.
He even reminds me of a lot of people I know that got a little success and then started doing stand-up. It’s really evident in that thing where it’s Louis CK and Chris Rock and Seinfeld all talking, and he’s there’s and they’re talking about pounding the pavement for 20 years, and he’s like, “I just go up and do whatever.” It’s like, “No, we can tell.” Maybe some people can’t tell, but a lot of people can tell.
I think he’s naturally very funny. I unfortunately just want to see him in the box that he arrived in. He’s jumping around a lot. That’s not up to me to say, and I would certainly get annoyed if people didn’t want me to try new things, but it reveals an arrogance that I don’t want to see from him. Other stand-ups can have a little swagger and arrogance and it’s okay because I only know that of them. But he’s already introduced us to these lovable, endearing, sad characters, and then the spell is broken.
Also, I really do just believe that if you’ve never had to flop on your face as a comic, if you’re already loved going into it, you’re not really ever going to fully understand. Actually, I have no idea about his stand-up history. Maybe he did. So I shouldn’t say that.
There’s just something about it. You know when people give their opinions and they seem proud of them, and you’re like, “You know you’re not saying anything different?” His character has no self-awareness, and I feel like he doesn’t either. So that was a bummer. You’d think someone who could create that character would be really self-aware, but I think that’s what it is. He actually is revealing a terrible lack of self-awareness about his own self.
The scene in Caddyshack where Chevy Chase plays through Bill Murray’s maintenance garage
AVC: There’s a little bit of a tie here as far as lovable losers to the Caddyshack clip you’ve picked.
JK: I love it even more now that I know that that whole scene was improvised. That’s one of the famous scenes that later on they revealed was improvised. Chevy Chase and Bill Murray I guess were—I don’t know if they weren’t getting along but they were very competitive on that set, I heard, so it’s not like they were improvising for the love of being around each other. I really think it was almost a competition, and it worked out really well, because I think it’s so funny.
I’ll always have an affinity for this movie because my dad was a greenskeeper on a golf course. He’s retired now, but we had a maintenance garage next to our house, and it was my favorite place to hang out. It wasn’t as broken down as that place, but it was just a garage. No one lived in it, but my dad dressed like that. He wore those boots and the flannel and the little thing he drove around in when he was pulling up the gopher. We had one of those; we called them go buggies. So I’ve always just loved that movie. And my dad talks like Bill Murray in Caddyshack.
That’s something that no one can take away from me. Even if they reveal that those two guys were horrible people, that scene has been in my DNA since I was 7. I’ve never seen anything about greenskeepers since, but when I was little, I thought the world of comedy was validating my father’s job.
Besides that, it’s so funny. It’s so tragic, him just being like, “Yeah, I can come to your place. Whatever. Cool, ponds. Ponds would be better for you.” And that’s classic Chevy Chase. He’s like, “Is this your place, Carl? It’s really awful.” Those great asides he would do, and every line is a laugh. Weird things where, here’s Bill Murray living in a garage and saying to him, “You’ve been acting psychotic lately. What the hell? What gives?” He’s the one trying to buddy up to Chevy Chase as though Chevy Chase is the one that needs the friend. When he’s like, “If you ever just want to hang with someone or get weird, call me.” He’s so amazing. It’s so good. And to think that was all improvised is great because a lot of times with improvising you don’t get the layers of a character. You just get funny jokes, and so I think it’s just genius.
AVC: The thing I liked the most about it is when Bill Murray’s talks about specific kinds of grass. I always love very, very niche jokes.
JK: Yes! Chinch bugs. That was why I loved it, because I would hear my dad ranting and raving about chinch bugs. To know they’re getting the specifics right, it’s so funny.
He’s working his way to head groundskeeper. I love all the class issues. I think that’s a thing that, in the ’70s and ’80s they did really well—maybe not really well, but did more often than we do now—is address class issues in the white culture. There was this—and still is—snobs vs. slobs thing. A lot of stuff back then was about that, and I think it’s hilarious. It’s so good.
That scene is something I use as a marker. I don’t know how I could even know someone that doesn’t know that scene, but I have met people who haven’t seen it, and I show it to them, and a part of me dies inside if they don’t like it. I’m like, “How am I friends with you?” It just hurts a little. For me, it’s a good judge of if someone has a sense of humor or not, or at least the right kind of a sense of humor.
AVC: What’s Rubin And Ed? It doesn’t seem like many people saw this movie in the theater.
JK: I didn’t either. I don’t know why or when I saw it. I always had a crush on Crispin Glover, and so that’s probably why I saw it or rented it. Oh, duh. In the ’90s, I used to work in a video store. So I had access to weird dudes who wanted to show me offbeat things, and then I obviously had access to VHS tapes, so that was kind of my world for a while, and I started watching that movie.
It’s weird because I’m not an offbeat humor kind of person. I’m more straight down the line. I’m not a drug person. I’m not like, “Let’s get high and watch something.” So I don’t know why this movie appealed to me, but it appealed to this other side of me that just likes absurd things.
The movie is about Crispin Glover’s character, Rubin, who allows Howard Hesseman’s character, the traveling salesman, to come into his life. And he’s like, “Okay, you’re a terrible salesman, and I’m not even listening to your pitch, but I have a dead cat in my freezer, and I need to bury him, so you’re going to come with me on this adventure.” It’s kind of the same thing as Caddyshack. It’s the tale of two, otherwise-we-wouldn’t-know-each-other people who go on this adventure together, and it makes no sense, and it’s just almost like a runway show of Crispin Glover’s fabulous, crazy shoes and outfits.
He’s having a dream sequence where this woman is in love with him, and he’s riding on a raft in back of a boat. And to impress her, he’s yelling, “My cat can eat this whole watermelon.” And again, it’s just his voice, the way he says it. Why would that be a thing you’d say to impress a woman?
It’s another one of those things that got in my DNA. Teenage me in college working at a video store has a crush on this guy, and I see this weird movie where he’s acting all charming and strange, and you couldn’t surgically remove that from me for thinking it’s funny. It’s just in there for some reason. That’s one of those funny things that as an adult, I don’t go back to over and over again to laugh like I would with Dave Chappelle or Maria or something, but it’s burned into my brain as one of the hardest times I’ve ever laughed and would keep going back to it. It’s just like an old memory. Like, “Oh, I love this.”
It’s the weirdest movie. I don’t think it would do well now, but it could definitely be one of those weird, cool things that people would watch now. It’s just so bizarre. It doesn’t make any sense.
When [Crispin Glover] was doing promotions for that movie, that’s when he was on David Letterman and kicked him. So it was during that weird era of his life where he was really into these platform shoes and was totally nuts.
I really have no explanation for why I find that movie funny. It actually doesn’t make sense with who I am at all, but I think that’s why I like it.
AVC: You just have “I can watch anything about cats (has to be cats—dogs aren’t as funny to me) knocking over babies” on your list.
JK: This is the thing that can make me laugh, and I don’t like anything. I hate any kicked-in-the-nuts or Funniest Home Videos-type things. I just don’t care. I don’t want to look at people getting hurt. I don’t think it’s funny. But for some reason, cats.
I spent Christmas this year with my family, and my mom had never seen these, and I was like, “You’ve never seen YouTube videos of cats knocking over toddlers? Oh my God.” So I found a really long one. It was like two minutes long, and my sister, my mom, and I just watched it, all dying laughing.
I think I like it because no one gets hurt. A cat can’t hurt you that much. If it was cats clawing the eyes out of people, it would not be funny. But they’ve got one shot, and they nail it. I’ve never seen cats jump like this. I don’t know what possessed them. I don’t even know if it’s their weight or just the surprise of knocking over a toddler.
That’s what it is. It’s that a toddler hasn’t had a lot of experience on this earth walking, so every step is precarious and, “Don’t get in their way,” and “Let them do it.” Then this cat looks like they’ve been launched out of a bush and hits them at just the right moment that knocks them off balance. It’s so dumb.
It wouldn’t be funny with dogs. It would be too violent. This is just perfection. It’s the perfect amount of, “Oh my God, that’s horrible, but it’s fine.” Everyone’s fine after. Then it’s cats. Cats are finally having their due as something that does cool funny things. They’re always seen as sad or a sad person has a cat, and now it’s like, “No, look how badass cats can be and funny and irreverent.”
AVC: What do you think makes the cats want to jump on the kids? Are they just enthusiastic?
JK: That’s the only thing I don’t get. The only thing I can think of, and maybe this is why it’s funny if I’m right about this, is that the backstory is that the cat is in complete animal hunter mode and it’s not in its right mind and it’s in the bushes looking for a rabbit or a mouse and it’s already in a frenzy. Something walks by, and it knows it can get it and it tries because it’s still in this primal mode. By the time it knocks the toddler over, it’s like, “Oh, that’s Timmy. He lives in the house with the nice people.” I don’t think the cat is trying to do that. The kid just walks by in this moment of complete primal cat rage when they’re looking for a fight, I hope. Otherwise it really frightens me to think that cats instinctively or intellectually choose to stalk kids.
That’s also hilarious to me. You’re not supposed to not like kids, and what’s better than a cat who doesn’t like a kid? I think it’s hilarious.
AVC: Some cats just don’t like kids.
JK: You’re right. Maybe those kids have been pulling the cats’ fur in the house and now they’re like, “Wait until we get outside when you’re in my world.”
It’s great. And now that I’ve seen it as a whole different level of revenge, I think it’s fantastic. I think it’s even better than funny. It should be an Oscar-nominated film. There should be a whole backstory.
AVC: What a great segue you just made! The last item on your list is the Adele Dazeem incident.
JK: I forgot I put that on there and now I’m going to go back. Forget Ricky Gervais’ character. This is literally the funniest thing I’ve ever seen. I think about it all the time. I can’t get enough of it. It’s another thing that I just reach out to my friend about, who’s also obsessed with it, and we text about it. It’s that thing of, “I know I’m laughing because what he’s saying is crazy.”
By the way, I didn’t even know who Idina Menzel was when he was saying this. I was in the dark about who she was, and that there was someone named that. So I didn’t know he said the wrong name. When I saw it live, I was like, “He’s acting really weird,” and I was just laughing at him coming out and going, “I love you.” At the beginning of the clip, he goes “I love you.” I don’t know who he’s talking to. Maybe someone in the audience shouted out “I love you,” but it just seems weird.
Then, the way he’s reading it, you can tell he’s zoned out and thinking of something else, and it’s like he just learned English. He’s like “the wick-ed-ly talented…” and “from the Oscar-winning movie…” Everything is off and something is weird.
I didn’t even know. I was like, “Who is that performing?” Then I was looking at Twitter at the same time, and everyone was freaking out, and I figured out he said Adele Dazeem instead of Idina Menzel. It’s so great.
It’s the confidence of the way he says it. It’s not like he can’t read or has never heard of her. I don’t know, in that moment, if he had heard of Idina Menzel. I’m assuming he did because a lot of my friends that are big Broadway fans are like, “Oh, we know her name. She’s in New York and this thing” or whatever. So I assumed he would know. Something just went mental in his head, and he said it with this love. “Adele Dazeem.”
AVC: There was a flourish, like he was saying it with an accent. He thought he was getting it right, doing it justice.
JK: Apparently she’s Spanish or Portuguese or something, like “Adele Dazeem.” It’s so good. It’s just this great love.
If you didn’t know that wasn’t her name, there would be nothing funny about it because you’d be like, “Okay, so he announced this woman?” That’s what I think is so hilarious is that then you find out it’s not her fucking name, and what is he saying? And why was he acting like he was nailing it? It’s so good. It’s so good. It’s like you’re watching a train wreck. You’re watching someone not be able to decide in that moment if they should just do the other thing that’s embarrassing, but at least it won’t cause a nationwide meme, which just slow down and say, “Oh my God, I’m blanking on her name.” Or saying, “I can’t read this.” Just something. It would have gone away. But I’m glad it happened. It’s the funniest thing, and I always say—and I’m half joking, half serious—but why didn’t she change her name to Adele Dazeem after that? That’s it. You’ve been given a gift. You have a new name. It’s Adele Dazeem. Run with it.
I just think it’s great. I want to do something with that name. I don’t know what.
AVC: I hadn’t seen that clip in a long time, and when I watched it before this interview, I realized how many layers there are to how weird it was. Like, the wig? And the accent? I have so many questions.
JK: It’s totally a Zapruder-film-mystery-level clip as well as being funny. You’re right. When you rewatch it, there are details to it that are like, “Oh, there’s all this other funny stuff in here,” like the way he’s emphasizing certain words and shaking his head, and that weird thing when he walks up and goes “I love you.” He didn’t even say “I love you” correctly. And I don’t know who he’s singing it to. It’s the weirdest thing.
He’s such an odd person anyway, and no one knows what’s going on with the dude. Let’s just say he is in the closet and lives this total lie and the pressure is killing him and everything. He gets let loose for five minutes one night to speak and he can’t get it together because there’s just so much going on in his head at all times. That’s the sad part about it. That’s the only explanation I can think of.
AVC: Do you see any lines between any of the items on your list and your comedy? Not that you’re ripping jokes from Caddyshack, but the fact that you liked it at 7, did that influence your sense of humor, for instance?
JK: I wish I could say it did, but I don’t think so. I honestly think I was just too young to be thinking about that.
In that sense, I suppose everything influenced my comedy in ways I could never go back and dissect because I was way too young to even know that comedy was a career. Once I first started thinking about what could be comedy, I was aware.
I would say I get a lot from Howard Stern, which is stuff like, “Bring your parents into your act. Talk about your real life. Be brutally honest.” During the years I started doing comedy, I was listening to him every morning. I would say that directly impacted me more than other things.
I’m sure Caddyshack influenced me in the sense of, again, because I lived on a golf course and my dad was a greenskeeper, maybe it just validated that. But it’s not like I do comedy about that. Maybe somewhere deep in my recesses of my brain, it was like, “truth in comedy.” I’m sure it made me think this whole world is funny in whatever this world is. I’ll explore it when I get older if I can. I think I was too young to even know what the hell was going on.
God, I wish it made me a good improviser, but I’m just not. I’m not a good scene improviser. I’m a good solo improviser.