In 11 Questions, The A.V. Club asks interesting people 11 interesting questions—and then asks them to suggest one for our next interviewee.
Although she hasn’t always been front and center the way she is now, if you’re a fan of comedy, you’ve either seen Karen Kilgariff or watched (and laughed at) something she wrote. Perhaps you first encountered her on Mr. Show, where she appeared in such classic sketches as “Lifeboat” and the East Coast/West Coast ventriloquism war, source of the immortal line reading, “Oh, you men.” Or maybe you watched The Pete Holmes Show—on which she served as head writer—or Baskets, or Portlandia, or Ellen, where she also served as head writer. These days, though, you more than likely recognize Kilgariff as one of the hosts of My Favorite Murder, the popular true-crime comedy podcast she hosts alongside Georgia Hardstark that attracts screaming throngs of fans at its live shows.
We spoke with Kilgariff ahead of her run as a judge on TruTV’s Talk Show The Game Show, where every week she and author Casey Schreiner judge celebrities’ interview prowess and name “Best Guest Of The Night.” You can catch that show Thursdays on TruTV, and download My Favorite Murder wherever you like to get your podcasts.
Karen Kilgariff: Wow. So I have to be optimistic about the future to answer this?
The A.V. Club: Yeah, sorry.
KK: [Pauses.] Honestly… in the ’90s no one gave a single shit about politics, and the fact that that has turned around so entirely and everyone is so on top of everything and active and working hard to get involved [is great]. If you had asked me five years ago if that was even possible I would have said no, because a lot of adults I know never voted until very recently. The young people of today are so plugged in. It’s a benefit of the digital age, they know that they’re as responsible [for the world] as everyone else.
AVC: Were you one of those non-voters in the ’90s?
KK: Absolutely. I didn’t even know how [to vote]. I think I was registered at my parents’ house for most of the ’90s and never did an out-of-town ballot or whatever. I didn’t give a shit.
AVC: Now, of course, you’ve turned it all around.
KK: Now every moment feels like an opportunity to save democracy, essentially.
KK: [Laughs.] The way I answered question one was amazing, so….
No. God, I don’t know. This is going to come off very insincere, but I have an issue with self-loathing that I try not to talk about because it bums other people out. When you’re like that, it’s very self-indulgent, it shuts down other people’s ability to like you. But if I had to pick something… I had to host a comedy show the day after 9/11, and I really knocked it out of the park. But that was before the internet really took off, so the only people that know are the people who were there.
AVC: Well, now everybody knows. I’m the same way, though, I don’t like to read old articles I wrote or anything like that.
KK: No! You see all the flaws, and then you want to fix it. People who are actually good look for the flaws because they don’t rest. Actually, I just complimented myself in a weird way, because clearly I include myself in that group.
KK: Shaun Cassidy, Under Wraps. The Hardy Boys was on TV when I first started watching TV, and Shaun Cassidy was the Harry Styles of the late ’70s.
KK: I didn’t care about music one way or the other, but I saw this big picture of him and I was like, “I would like to buy this picture of him, please.” The record was just a bonus. A picture for my ears.
KK: I 100 percent believe in ghosts because I was once hugged by a ghost, and I know that shit is super real. [Karen told this story at length on an episode of Slumber Party With Alie And Georgia; skip ahead to the 15:25 mark to hear it. —ed.]
AVC: I’ve never seen a ghost, but my mom has a ghost story that’s very convincing.
KK: Also, basic cable is filled with TV shows with people telling you very convincing ghost stories. When skeptics are like, “it’s noisy plumbing!” or whatever, I think, maybe, but there are definitely times where things happen that no one can explain, and why dismiss it? That’s just ignorance. Creepy things happen in creepy old places because creepy shit happened there a long time ago. I believe in that 100 percent.
AVC: Did you ever read the book Spook, by Mary Roach?
KK: I didn’t, but it’s been recommended to me a lot.
AVC: There’s a professor in Canada who thinks that “ghosts” are caused by disturbances in electromagnetic fields, and he has this chamber where he can make you feel like a ghost is creeping up the back of your spine by manipulating the electromagnetic field.
KK: So he’s saying it’s just waves we can’t see?
AVC: Yeah, like disturbances in electromagnetic fields.
KK: But what’s causing the disturbance?
AVC: I don’t know if they know that part for sure.
KK: I think people get scared about how much we don’t understand, so they just say, “this is definitely happening, and this is definitely not happening.” It makes them feel so much better than the middle ground of, “I truly don’t know, and anything is possible.”
AVC: A lot of people are uncomfortable with ambiguity, that’s true.
KK: Do I get anything else besides the condiment? I just have to drink ranch dressing for the rest of my life?
AVC: No, you can eat regular food, but you can only put one thing on it.
KK: Then the immediate answer would be ranch dressing.
AVC: Did you grow up putting ranch dressing on everything?
KK: I mean, that was the popular salad dressing in the ’80s. But I also just think it’s so versatile! It goes with everything, and if you’re eating vegetables you don’t like, it covers up the flavor. I would say melted cheese, but I don’t think that really counts as a condiment because it’s its own food. Wouldn’t you say?
AVC: Yeah, that’s kind of a loophole.
KK: If cheese sauce doesn’t qualify, and I’m disqualifying it, ranch dressing.
KK: Art galleries? Art openings, I guess? [Laughs.] Places where people might not automatically have a sense of humor, or you have to be educated in any way, and regular riffing won’t get you out of things. If people don’t find light comedy charming, then I’m totally screwed. If English is someone’s second language and they don’t pick up on sarcasm, that’s bad for me.
AVC: Oooh, yeah.
KK: There are lots of people who can speak many languages and are also very funny, so I’m not saying that it’s automatic. But one time I did meet a person, and we were on a bit of a date, and I was trying to be funny, just conversationally, and he didn’t get any of it. It felt like I didn’t have pants on. All of a sudden, it was like, “I have nothing and I’m totally exposed. Now I have to be vulnerable.” It was horrifying.
KK: A manicurist.
KK: I told my mom for years that I wanted to be a manicurist, and she’d always be like, “But what if you went to college and you got a degree?” She’d try to explain how I could actually do a thing that would make me a ton of money, or that I didn’t have to just pick the business that was closest to our house. But I was like, “I just want to hang out and chit chat and gossip with ladies all day long. Sounds fun to me.”
KK: Oh, girl! I’m never not in a hotel room now. Well, Forensic Files is always on, and I’ll put that on almost like background music just because the narrator’s voice will soothe me to sleep immediately. I do love Turner Classic Movies, because I feel like I’m not wasting as much time. I’m almost educating myself if I watch that. But ideally, if they had every channel in the world, it would be a British crime procedural. That’s the dream, but they’re never on.
AVC: I suppose if you were in a hotel room in England, then you’d be good to go.
KK: Okay, but you’d have to specify at the beginning of the question! You have to specify which country this takes place in! [Laughs.]
AVC: I do identify with the Turner Classic Movies thing, because I feel like watching a movie is using my time wisely, but if I’m watching reruns of something on TV, I’ll be hard on myself about it.
KK: Exactly. If it’s a biopic or something that’s historically accurate, I act like I’m taking classes at the JC. I’m like, “Look at me watching this thing that’s telling me about a thing I never knew about before.” I have no guilt in that scenario.
AVC: It’s art gallery cocktail party talk.
KK: That’s how I prepare to go to those. I’m acting like I go to art galleries all the time! I think that’s happened to me once. But I hated it. I really hated it.
KK: Now I feel like I’m at a fucking art gallery again. [Laughs.] My first response would be no, because art comes from the artist. I feel like it’s the filter that makes it different. I am a big believer in the idea that you’re a vessel, and the art is coming from somewhere else. It comes through you, and it comes through other people. And it’s people’s filters that make it what it is. If you’re a creep, I think it shows sometimes.
I mean this not just in a sexual assault way; there are lots of ways that if you don’t like a person, or you think that there’s a negative element to them, absolutely it shades what they create. So I think it’s difficult, for me anyway, to separate.
KK: I turned down a job when I was broke to the point that I was about to go into foreclosure on my house, but I didn’t want to work on the job because of the content of the show. It was a thing where I didn’t tell anybody or ask anybody’s advice, I just did it, knowing that I had already made decisions in the past where I compromised myself and turned my creativity to something I didn’t believe in. And the repercussions of that affected me so negatively that I knew no amount of money could fix it if I did it again. And because of that mental switch, after figuring that out for myself, I had a really nice upswing in getting jobs that I did want.
AVC: It’s like, you sent the energy right.
KK: Exactly. This is very, like, “I believe in ghosts,” so whatever. But I think the channel opened. You can’t be that mercenary if you’re really trying to create, or be a creator. I think it hurts you to do things for money that you don’t believe in. It damages you, and it changes how you see things. It fucks you up a little bit.
AVC: I get that. I mean, just because I read that book doesn’t mean I think all that energy stuff is stupid. I don’t mess with Ouija boards or any of that.
KK: You know what’s funny? When I was 12, my uncle died out of the blue, and my aunt was going through a closet, and there was a Ouija board in there. She goes, “Get rid of that thing. I don’t like that thing. We just got that, but get rid of it. Don’t ever touch that thing or mess around with it.” And even though it could have been for lots of different reasons, it’s just—why touch the doorknob of that door, just in case there’s danger behind it?
AVC: Exactly! Just in case.
KK: Just in case!
KK: You know, it’s going to sound fucking cheesy, but I have never been happier in my life than I am at 48, which is how old I am now. When you’re younger, you get this idea that you’re supposed to be different than how you actually are, and you suffer. I did anyway, I should speak for myself.
But for a long time I tortured myself, saying, “I’m not pretty enough, I’m not thin enough, I’m too loud,” I’m whatever, and it was only when I got old and tired that I was like, “Who gives a shit, just do what you want.” And that’s when the world opened up to me. Everything else felt like I was always on the outside looking in.
And you can’t hear this when you’re a certain age, because it sounds like such dumb bullshit, but when you can get through that self-acceptance, and that release of deciding you don’t care what other people think of you, it’s like a whole new life. It’s amazing.
AVC: I’m trying to get on that path. I think I’m getting better.
KK: How old are you?
AVC: I’m 35.
KK: You’re on your way! It’s really hard though. It’s how we’re all raised. If you’re this weight, height, beauty level, whatever, you can have these things. The sad part is, it’s a fucking lie. And you can’t know that until you go through it a couple times.
AVC: I love that. That’s pretty profound actually.
KK: Oh, I’m very profound.
AVC: Okay, what would you like to ask the next person? You’re our first 11 Questions interviewee of the year.
KK: Let’s see. This might be too common, but: “What’s the most effective piece of advice you’ve ever gotten?” Not conceptually the best advice, but the most effective piece of advice that got you where you wanted to be.
For example, my dad always used to say, “Keep your mouth shut and your ears open.” He used to say that before we left for school every day, and it was only when I was in my late 20s that I was like, “Oh, I get it, don’t feel the need to talk all the time and pay attention to what people are saying to you.”