"IF I WROTE a joke about having had a broken leg one time and I performed it," writes comedian Jen Kirkman via email, "would people look at me up there without a cast and say, 'I'm sorry about your leg?'
"Somehow, they can understand that I once had a life experience in an area. When we talk about being single, even if it is in the past, people flip out and want to fix it. But yeah, I'm not much for the 'I'm only loved by my cat' jokes if they are too clichéd. I think there is something very powerful about women on their own, and their jokes should be about how awesome their cat is compared to their ex."
Ahead of Kirkman's Portland stop at the Hollywood Theatre, where she's promoting her latest book, I Know What I'm Doing—and Other Lies I Tell Myself: Dispatches from a Life Under Construction, we're discussing two different pet peeves: Her frustration at concern-trolling reactions to her jokes about being single (being single, she points out, is a transitive state that actually encompasses a LOT, including being separated, divorced, a variety of romantic entanglements that are not marriage, etc.) and my ultimate pet peeve as someone who writes about comedy: the preponderance of Cathy-style depressed cat lady jokes, often from comedians who are themselves single women, that depict being single—and pet ownership—as inherently sad propositions.
Though she does admit to a period of being "very lonely and afraid of burglars," Kirkman's jokes aren't those ones. That may be why people readily glom onto her material about being divorced and happily free of children—those kinds of jokes, which in part destigmatize perfectly normal states of being that are often culturally maligned, remain relatively rare. They shouldn't be. (Seriously, if I never hear another joke about how having a cat makes you pathetic IT WON'T BE SOON ENOUGH).
Kirkman's take is much more nuanced, but never at the expense of being funny. In I Know What I'm Doing, she provides a helpful guide on what not to say to a divorced person (don't say "I'm so sorry," she advises, because "Sometimes divorce isn't a bad thing... just say what every person wants to hear. 'You look thin.'"), discusses the "maternal feeling" a childfree person can have at the sight of her suitcase being loaded onto a plane ("Be gentle with her, she has breakables inside, and a wobbly wheel!"), and describes the shaky baby-deer, poor impulse-control phase that often accompanies major life transitions ("Nobody congratulates anyone for trying crack. 'Good for you, Melissa! Get out of your comfort zone'").
But what comes through most of all in Kirkman's book is the daily challenge of being a working comedian dedicated to her career, of hopping planes to foreign countries for two days of a festival (and being judged for it by your orthodontist), facing crowds both hostile and adoring, and bumping into people who claim to love you but definitely didn't go see your show.
It's for this reason that I have a hard time buying the subhead in Kirkman's title. This isn't a life "under construction." It's just a life. I have the same reservations about Kirkman that I have about someone like Lena Dunham. The I'm a hot mess who loves eating cheese or whatever the fuck gambit is funny, sure, but I don't really believe it. It seems disingenuous coming from someone who's obviously accomplished in her career, a thing that doesn't happen any way but through hard work—and a point Kirkman makes explicitly in her book, in a touching chapter on Joan Rivers. "I wanted to stop Joan and ask her for advice," writes Kirkman of a chance sighting of her comedy heroine. "But I already knew—there is no advice. She can't give me some fast-track option. That doesn't exist."
The lady who wrote that sentence doesn't sound like a hot mess to me. For a while, though, it's fun to play along.
I Know What I'm Doing—and Other Lies I Tell Myself: Dispatches from a Life Under Construction
by Jen Kirkman
(Simon & Schuster)
Performance and book signing Sat April 30 at the Hollywood Theatre, 4122 NE Sandy, 7 pm, $20, hollywoodtheatre.org