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Comedy Thu May 02 2013

Jen Kirkman: No Kids, No Kidding

kirkman.jpgFor women, simply not having kids is one thing, but to decidedly not have them is a different matter altogether. For Jen Kirkman, the choice to be child free is the subject of her funny new book, I Can Barely Take Care of Myself: Tales from a Happy Life Without Kids. Named one of Entertainment Weekly's "One of the Top 12 Rising Stars in Comedy" in 2009, Kirkman currently holds court at E!'s "Chelsea Lately" and has also performed stand-up on popular shows such as "Conan," and "The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson." I spoke with her in advance of her Chicago appearance this weekend at The Hideout; here, the down-to-earth comedian, writer and actress talks about the world of comedy, working in late-night TV and why you won't ever catch her in "mommy mode."

You've been a writer for "Chelsea Lately" and part of that team for 5 years now--how would you describe working in the male-dominated world of late night TV?

I took one year off to go write on a sitcom but I came back because I prefer the late night vibe. Let's just say that the male-dominated world of TV is "America"--and where I work is "Puerto Rico." We're technically in the male-dominated world of late night, but where I work, half the staff is women, and we have gay guys and gay women and straight women, so I've never had a job in late night where I just worked with men. Now my experience with late night is that it's been a little harder for me to get booked as a stand-up comedian on late night shows and I have a feeling that might have something to do with when they often say, "We think you're funny, Jen, but the demographic might not like the material." But that's where they're wrong because I have a lot of male fans. I'm just lucky enough that I don't have to deal with any sexist crap because I work on such a great show that doesn't have that.

Many would argue that comedy and sports have been very male-dominated for a very long time--which group would you say still has it tough--female comedians or female athletes?

Probably comedians are way better off than female athletes because female athletes have to compete in their own separate leagues. Comedy is really a combined sport and I think it's a lot better now. Some of the attitude still remains but it's almost like any other issue in this country where you have a few people still hanging on to ignorance; luckily there's enough push back from women and enough proof that women not only are funny, but also can make the box office money with their movies. It used to be that only one woman could be successful at a time and now I see so many being successful that there's no way it's not getting better.

Let's talk about your new book, I Can Barely Take Care of Myself: Tales from a Happy Life Without Kids, which explores your choice to be childfree. Was there one thing that was said or done to you that led to you writing this book or was it a culmination of things over time?

I think it was a culmination of a lot of stuff over time. I just never thought about it. I never even felt like it was a decision I ever wrestled with--I just never wanted them. I had some jokes in my stand-up about what a terrible mother I'd be and they were all jokes making fun of me--not jokes making fun of kids or parents. And people would come up to me and say, "You didn't really mean that, right?" or "You'll have a kid someday--you're just selfish." And the fact that these strangers kept saying it to me over and over-I mean people who had never met each other would say the thing. And I thought, "I have a feeling that this choice I'm making is unconventional." So, I wanted to write a book, well, I've always wanted to write a book, about how I have an unconventional life and I thought that might be a great angle from it. But it was definitely from years of people asking and then my friends started having kids and even they started telling me I'd change my mind.

How do you react, during your stand-up or in real life, when people genuinely don't believe you when you tell them you don't want to have kids?

I used to react many different ways and that's kind of what's in the book. I used to just argue back like, "No, no--I don't!" And then I'd start giving reasons. And someone once said to me, "Once you start defending yourself, you're actually opening it up for debate." So I learned how to stop saying, "No, I really don't want them" or "I really can't afford it" or "I travel a lot," and then somebody said to me, "Why don't you just say, "Yeah, maybe I will someday," just to shut them up. But that felt so wrong because I was lying, so I never really came up with a good answer--I usually just say, "Oh, everybody asks me that." And I try to put it on them and make them feel unoriginal. It usually doesn't stop them but ever since I wrote the book I thought of a good one I'm hoping to use: If someone bothers me, I'll say, "Boy it seems really important to you that I have a baby--I wonder why that is?" And then just put it on them. Or I could just hand them a copy of my book--not for free, though... [Laughs]

With this subject, do you feel there is a double standard? It seems hard to believe that a male comedian would be doubted if he said the same thing or felt the same way.

Well, a lot of my male comedian friends have very similar routines. Some of them have changed their minds because they've met women, but I don't see the reaction as bad from my male comic friends who talk about it. But those guys, you can tell why they don't want kids--they're goofballs who really don't seem like they can care for anything! But a lot of my male friends have changed their minds but that's because they have the luxury of having wives who will have the babies for them.

Do you think there is a blurry line between not liking kids versus not wanting any?

I get this all the time. And it's funny--a lot of time--it's men who get defensive and say to me, "Oh well, you don't like kids." And I say, "I never said that." To be honest though, I'm not looking to spend a lot of time with children. Parents always say, "I hate all kids except my own," but if I were to say, "I don't really like kids," I would sound like some kind of monster.

So people have in fact assumed that you just don't like kids.

Some of the feedback I got, before people even read the book, was "Oh, is this one of those manifestos against children?" And I'd think, "What major publishing company would buy a book that's a manifesto against children?" [Laughs]. It's really more about attitudes, people getting into your business, and people thinking there's [only] one way to be a woman. I honestly am always having to defend myself from people who think I hate kids. I mean, I don't hate horses, but I just in no way could ever handle having one!

Your book was released just 2 weeks ago--how has it been going so far?

I just found out this week that it hit the New York Times' best seller list. I'm so excited--that was really a dream come true. It's one of those things that it doesn't mean you sold a million books but it's just a neat little title to have that kind of means something and your parents can brag about it.

Have you gotten any responses about the book from women and men, married or single, with children, childless, etc.?

I've had a lot of men who have told me they relate and now they feel the pain their wives feel. I've also had a few men tell me they read the book and that they are buying a copy for their wives, because they didn't realize how much worse women get this kind of scrutiny.

Any "not-so-wonderful" comments?

I did get one hilarious, hateful email from someone who said, "No wonder you're childless, you self-centered loser." But they spelled 'centered' and 'you're' wrong, so that was like my favorite thing. I love when people misspell hate mail. Every time I get a hate mail like that, I put it on my website just to make myself laugh.

I'm with you on that one. If you're going to slam me, at least be grammatically correct.

Yeah. It just discredits your whole argument. It's like it's either someone with the education of a third grader or it is a third grader.

Now that the book has been released, do you think there are other women out there who feel the same way about being child-free but are too afraid to say it out loud?

A few people have written me things like "Oh, you're so brave" and I get embarrassed. I'm like, not on the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement or I'm not a firefighter or first responder with this. A lot of women have sent me things on Twitter and Facebook saying that this makes them feel less alone and honestly, that is a better feeling for me to hear than someone saying "Oh, you're so funny." I really wanted to get that feedback specifically when I wrote the book.

You have seemingly approached this topic very fearlessly; were you ever worried about any backlash?

I did worry about some backlash, but I almost welcomed it because sometimes, when people hate you so much for something you say, it means that there's just as many people or more who love what you say. If I didn't get any backlash it would mean that no one's paying attention, so I kind of don't mind that.

Speaking of attention, the book's title is indeed an attention-grabber...

I did get some backlash from some women who were on my side but they didn't like the title of the book. Originally, I wanted to call the book You'll Change Your Mind, because that's what everybody says when you tell them you don't want kids, but the publishing company didn't think it was that funny or relatable and they wanted something with a little more of a comedic kick to it. That was the only backlash I got that I was surprised by, but I don't blame them. They have a good point.

What do you hope people take away after reading this book?

To just realize that other people that have to comment on what you're doing really aren't coming from a bad place, they just don't understand. But at a certain point, it's okay to say it's none of your business and this is the way I'm living my life and I'm not going to discuss it any further.

You're coming to Chicago this weekend for a show at The Hideout--what can Chicago expect from a Jen Kirkman experience?

I'm a very conversational comic--there will be a lot of jokes but it all is kind of couched in conversation. Actually, not having kids is only about 5 minutes of my act--I also talk about having gotten a divorce two years ago that was the best thing that ever happened to me. I talk about dealing with family, dating younger guys and I also talk about weird things I see--I have very weird experiences because I travel a lot. I go all over the place and the shows I've been doing have been going really well and it's just a lot of fun. I try to put on a really silly show.

What's next for you?

Well, I'm gonna try to write another book--I want it to be about how being divorced is okay--and that'll get into my more salacious stories about romance. I'm gonna continue working at "Chelsea Lately" and I want to just keep going on the road more, and then maybe do some kind of television stand-up specials. I will just keep working and moving onward and upward.


Catch Jen Kirkman this Saturday, May 4, for two shows at The Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia, at 7pm and 10pm; tickets are $15 and are onsale online. For more information, call 773-227-4433.

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