Before the Netflix specials and ‘Mrs. Maisel,’ Kirkman was smoking on Cambridge stages
Jen Kirkman kills in her Netflix stand-up comedy specials “I’m Gonna Die Alone” and “Just Keep Livin,’” and has been the comic voice behind the scenes for two of your likely favorite shows – “Chelsea Lately” and two seasons of Amazon’s Emmy, Golden Globe and Critics’ Choice winning “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” (Not to mention her New York Times bestselling books, including “I Know What I’m Doing – and Other Lies I Tell Myself.”) But if you’re lucky enough, and old enough, you may remember seeing her perform in the 1990s as a freshly minted Emerson College grad among the troupes at ImprovBoston (then in Inman Square) and finding her voice at The Comedy Studio (then in Harvard Square).
Before coming to Boston’s Wilbur theater on Friday for a brand-new hour of comedy, Kirkman reminisced about her time starting out in comedy in Cambridge. The conversation has been edited and condensed.
You started doing comedy in the 1990s here in Cambridge as an Emerson College grad. How do you look back on the material you were doing then?
I look back on it now as I had the right idea – I hadn’t really figured out who I was as a person, but I knew that talking about shared experiences that are kind of humiliating, that definitely everyone has gone through, was the way for me to go. What’s really funny is that when I first did work at the Comedy Studio [then in Harvard Square], I think it was July 1997, like exactly 22 years ago, there was no Internet, and there wasn’t a lot of comedy on TV, except for old-timers. So I knew Billy Crystal and Robin Williams and Whoopie Goldberg, or I saw comedians on Johnny Carson and had this view of comedy as joke-joke-joke-joke and kind of tacky; I didn’t know that at the same time I was in Boston starting out, there was already an alternative comedy movement in New York City with Janeane Garofalo and David Cross and Marc Maron, with people getting on stage and talking about their lives.
Before I even got on stage, I wrote a bunch of jokes, and they were really bad. I was talking about Nancy Reagan’s “just say no” campaign, which was in the ’80s! I was writing about things that I’d seen comedians talk about on TV and was trying to have an attitude. I wanted to present myself as tough and political – I don’t know what I thought, I was just a kid trying on all these different personas. I thought I was Lenny Bruce, I thought I was so many things.
And then I met Eugene Mirman, who’s the reason I started doing comedy. We met at an audition, and he came up to me afterward and asked if I did stand-up … and I lied. He told me I should do his open mic at the Green Street Grill, and I wrote a bunch of materials for that, but when I showed up, it didn’t seem right. So I just sat on a stool – and back then you could smoke indoors, so I just lit a cigarette and started talking about how I didn’t lose my virginity until later in life, or what I thought was later in life. And people laughed.
It was like, I knew instinctively that if I sat down and said something that was hard to admit, or I felt stupid about, that something magical could happen. I don’t know how to explain it; I just knew by looking at all the young faces that I felt like talking to them – because it was all people my age, all in our early 20s, and I think I was a little bit protected. I don’t think we realized we weren’t in the real world, in a way. Not that Cambridge isn’t the real world. But I mean, the audiences that were coming were our age, and you’re speaking directly to them, which I don’t think is the case anymore, because comedy has caught fire again and people from all ages and backgrounds are coming to shows. But back then it was literally other people our age who liked the exact same thing. So it felt like we were crushing it every week.
But I thought, ‘Wow, I think I’m onto something here.’ And from then on, I did autobiographical stuff.
But you started in improv comedy?
I’d done some improv at Emerson and really loved it, and I started in Cambridge at ImprovBoston, which was in Inman Square at the time and I know is still going strong. I was really torn because the ImprovBoston shows were on the same night as the stand-up shows. I was in a group for one year, trying to do both, and I saw everyone’s commitment and realized this is a life choice – you only have one night to do both things, and you kind of have to pick one. It eventually segued more into me improvising on stage, coming up with stand-up.
I really loved improv, but I really couldn’t reconcile it with the feeling that I had to be alone on stage. It wasn’t about getting attention, I just felt I had to make that stay, whatever that feeling was.
And, you know, if it wasn’t for the encouragement of Eugene and those guys and them saying “You know, you don’t have to do both” … Patrick Borelli [writer on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon”], Bryan Olsen [writer on “The Jim Jefferies Show”], these guys are like brothers, because I’ve known them for most of my life. They were my community, and that was a really fun, nice, cool time.
What was the scene like at the time?
There was something very exciting about starting to do comedy that year, and it’s very Cambridge specific. Because the comedy boom had happened, and we were kind of doing it from the dust and ashes that were left behind. The mainstream comedy clubs in Boston would not let any of us get stage time; if it wasn’t for people like Rick Jenkins in Cambridge, I don’t know if I would have started – but we all got a chance to get on stage.
They were filming “Good Will Hunting” right then and we got to watch the “How do you like them apples?” scene being being filmed. Standing across the street, we didn’t know what they were saying or that it was going to be this big thing. We just saw them filming, and it was really exciting. Even though none of us were in it and it had nothing to do with us, it was these two guys from Boston and Cambridge [Matt Damon and Ben Affleck] filming a movie. So it wasn’t only that we were comedians and just starting out, but there was a great, really special energy that year to that whole area. We felt like we were part of something – again, even though we had nothing to do with it. Cambridge was the beginning of it all for me.
We all kind of transitioned over to The Comedy Studio from Green Street because Rick Jenkins gave Eugene a night. So we did it every Friday night and we would stand in Harvard Square and hand out flyers every day because, you know again, no Internet, so that’s what you do.
Were you already familiar with the area?
I think a lot of my current fan base doesn’t realize that I’m from Boston. I grew up in Needham, and back in the early ’90s there was a bus that would go from the center of town straight into Harvard Square. I wasn’t allowed to “go into the city,” but my friends and I would sneak in on Saturdays – stay an hour and go back. We loved looking at the punk kids that hung out and skateboarded in The Pit, and shop in The Garage. I also believe I bought Nirvana’s “Nevermind” at a record store in Cambridge – it might have been Newbury Comics, I can’t remember. Cambridge was my punk rock mecca as a teenager.
Do you get to hang out when you tour?
Usually every day is a travel day as well as a workday, and it’s just straight-up work. So I have a rare 36 hours when I’m in Boston, but there’s no time to explore. My old friends from high school and I will go to the closest restaurant to the theater that lets us have a four o’clock reservation, then I’ll be at the venue at 5 and my entire family will come. It’s changed so much, which is really cool – but I don’t ever really see where I am. I wish I could take some more time.
What do people need to know about your Sept. 13 show at The Wilbur?
Most comics who tour, you just have to have a new hour every time you go to a city, and the last time I was in Boston was actually two years ago. I have new stuff – my show is not anything that anyone has seen on Netflix. So they will not be paying for something they’ve already seen!
Jen Kirkman performs at 7:30 p.m. Friday at The Wilbur, 246 Tremont, Boston. Tickets are $26 to $33. Val Kappa opens.