In the dedication to her new book, I Know What I’m Doing — and Other Lies I Tell Myself, stand-up comedian Jen Kirkman begs her parents not to read it. What follows is an extremely personal and not-always-nice account of her adult life and what lies ahead probably won’t sit well with them. Of course, Kirkman knows that her parents will ignore the warning. That’s why the Chelsea Lately and Drunk History alum begins the introduction with the all-too appropriate line, “Ugh, my parents are going to read this.”
A spiritual sequel of sorts to her New York Times bestselling first book, I Can Barely Take Care of Myself: Tales from a Happy Life Without Kids, Kirkman’s latest literary effort combines the lessons learned from her first publication with her phenomenal 2015 stand-up special, I’m Gonna Die Alone (And I Feel Fine) and true-to-life experiences that inform her comedy. Kirkman spoke to us about the book and other topics while out on tour.
The book is replete with laugh-out-loud jokes. Did you approach the writing process the same as you would when writing an hour of stand-up, or was it completely different?
It’s completely different, yes. In a way there is a selfishness. As in, I actually do know what I’m doing when I’m writing a book. If I think something is funny, I know that someone else out there will. The good news is that my entire audience isn’t all gathered in one room reading it. So I don’t need everyone to react to the same lines at the same time. So I don’t worry about the audience when I’m writing. I worry about how well I’m communicating what is in my head and keeping the rhythm going — meaning, take them on a sincere journey in a story — but create some suspense at the end of a nice laugh to ease the tension.
It couldn’t be more different than stand-up, and I think people are always tempted to ask me if the process is similar because I do both. But if you think about it, I don’t know if in general the impulse to ask an author if they test out material in front of live audiences would be on anyone’s mind. We definitely send friends chapters to read and usually just say, “Don’t go into detail, but just tell me if this sucks.” It can mess with your mind to sit alone writing and have no idea if something is good, but as for laughs — my main goal isn’t comedy with book writing. It’s to tell a good story.
You thank your friend Sarah for reading early drafts of the book in the acknowledgments. Other than your editors, is it difficult to ask others to read the book while you’re writing it?
For me, it’s horrendously difficult to ask anyone to review early drafts because it’s a lot to ask of someone. Plus I actually don’t want to open the door and hear people give me notes. I just feel like a burden on people. It’s easier to ask other friends who have written books. There are some who haven’t and don’t want to, so I may throw them a chapter and say, “Does this move quickly or make you feel like you want to read more?” I think I just have to flow and write and put things away for a while, then pick them up again as if I’m a stranger to the material.
Was there anything you learned while writing I Can Barely Take Care of Myself that you wanted to avoid this time around?
Yes. I learned a lot writing the first book, although the first book was a different assignment. It was to be a light, very comic look at how bizarrely people without kids get treated. It had to be packed with punchlines. For this book, I didn’t want it to be funny all of the time. But what I learned from the first process that I started doing automatically with the second book was to lose details that aren’t necessary for the story. Sure, certain people may have been with me during certain experiences, but it wasn’t necessary to be that accurate. Or to describe scenery. Things like that. I also tried to end chapters in a way that made you laugh and feel satiated with the “answer.” Or made you want to turn the page and keep reading.
Book tours and stand-up shows seem like two sides of the same coin, except with less alcohol. What’s the biggest difference for you between the two?
I think for authors, book tours don’t involve as much alcohol — at least in terms of the audience drinking. But I perform the same venues when I go on my book tours. I basically just perform comedy and have a book signing after. I don’t go to a book store and read and then sign books. So there’s no difference, really. However, this short book tour I’m doing this year isn’t traditional stand-up. I’m having a lot of fun with it. I’ve always performed these one woman shows, but usually just in Los Angeles — back before I was a touring comic. I put together six short stories that I’ve performed in the past — one is brand new — and put them together in a cohesive show. The stories are ridiculous, and the situations are cringe-worthy and triumphant and awkward, and I’m loving the response I’m getting. It’s a tad more fulfilling than stand-up, in a way, because it’s a longer show than a traditional stand-up set. It also requires people to sit down, get invested, listen and — in one story about a failed talent show — watch me dance to a Beach Boys song.
So I take it the I Know What I’m Doing tour is going well, then?
Oh! Very well. A lot of people are buying books at the shows, which is great, because I have a local book store sell books at every show. It makes me feel good to support local businesses, so as to offset the number of times I’ve directed people to an Amazon link.
What’s the most memorable thing that’s happened to you during a book tour?
Oh God, I swear I have no memory. My life is just go, go, go, pack, unpack, people coming at me, signing books, worrying about the shows, ticket sales and book sales. I’m sure something memorable has happened, but nothing stands out that’s crazy or weird. I guess the most memorable thing is that I am even on a book tour. Never mind my second one. It’s a dream come true, and it may not be the most lucrative job, but it was one of my dreams as a kid to be an author. The fact that people come up to me, spend their hard-earned money — or money they don’t have — on my book, and tell me that they related to what I wrote is so touching. That no one has thrown a copy at my head and yelled, “This sucks!” is probably the most memorable thing.
Your website’s calendar lists stand-up dates from July and after. Are you aiming to get a new hour special out in the next year?
Yup. I’m always updating my website. Since I do work in Los Angeles on television, and always have my own stuff cooking up that sometimes I need to stay home for, I don’t book my tours that far in advance. So more dates will be popping up for fall, but I am doing another comedy special. I’m not allowed to give any more details just yet, but everyone will know soon when and where I’m taping it, and who I’m doing it with.
How long will you usually spend on a new hour of material?
In a weird way, my first special was a culmination of 10 years of stuff. Not that it took 10 years to do it. I just picked some old favorites, as well as newer stuff I had been doing for the last few years. But since I was on the road so much in 2015, it took me only a year to come up with the new hour. If it sucks, that’s why. Just kidding! But seriously, I don’t have a set time for anything. I’m always working stuff out, and I have some material I think is funny right now, but I’m going to let it grow a little and won’t put it in my next special. It will have to find its way into another one. I want to say something like jokes have a life of their own, and sometimes they tell you when they’re ready, but then I would sound like an asshole.
I Know What I’m Doing — and Other Lies I Tell Myself is now available at Amazon and wherever books are sold.
To see Kirkman in person, check out her tour website for information about upcoming book signings and performances.