Jen Kirkman comes out singing and swinging in her newest stand-up hour.
As Kirkman told the audience Tuesday night during the weeklong run of her new show, “Irrational Thoughts,” at Montreal’s Just For Laughs festival: “I like to come out singing because I feel like the point of performing, for me, is to feel like I’m a little kid in my bedroom.”
Who hasn’t imagined putting on a show as a child in his/her bedroom, jumping on the bed or in front of the mirror? Who hasn’t done so along to a soundtrack? So why would comedians start on a down note?
Besides, this kind of opening throws a curve at comedy critics, whom she not only name-checks (not me, at least on this night) and disses “because they can’t find real jobs and they’re evil.” Go on… And she will: “If you’re a comedy reviewer, besides committing suicide tonight, another thing you can do, is when you’re writing a review of this show, you can put, ‘I was the only one not laughing when the audience was.'”
Again, not me, though. I laughed throughout her hour. I even chortled!
Kirkman also joked about how the festival’s pre-show announcements encourage fans to hashtag their presence at JFL shows runs counter to their instructions for the audience to turn off their phones. So she welcomes photos, if not also hashtags, so long as you don’t actually distract her — which of course, isn’t only a distinct possibility in a smaller venue like the Mainline Theatre, but also because stand-ups are self-conscious enough to want to notice such actions.
“Irrational Thoughts” is a newer work-in-progress for Kirkman, so she has notes she only occasionally refers to, but the hour has a more cohesive narrative arc to it than her previous well-regarded stand-up specials on Netflix. Even if Kirkman herself claims the hour so far is “a bunch of stand-up and stories that I’ve put together that all seem to have that same theme.”
A theme of panic and anxiety-ridden thoughts racing through Kirkman’s head, ever since the age of 9 when her parents in Massachusetts defied teacher’s orders and forced young Jennifer to watch The Day After — the 1983 ABC movie envisioning America after a nuclear war, watched by 100 million Americans that night on TV.
Kirkman jokes about learning that President Reagan stepped up Cold War policies against the Soviet Union afterward, and her observation — “I don’t like the idea of a president watching a made-for-TV movie and going, ‘I better step it up.'” — rings just as terribly true and relevant today.
What follows are a series of stories and situations from the day after The Day After to the days after this past November’s surprising presidential election.
Back in the 1980s, Kirkman described herself as an eccentric kid who’d dress up as Groucho Marx or Michael Dukakis, and thought tap-dancing to an old jazz tune would win her a school talent show title and the easy path to show business. Back then, she acknowledges she was a bit naive about it all. “Every time I did something, I thought this will be amazing, and every time it didn’t work out, I genuinely was like, ‘Huh? I thought kids would love it. Oh well!'” Her desire to perform, shaped by an even greater desperation to escape her own family for the TV family of Family Ties. Her early videotaped submissions for TV talent shows, however, was rejected outright for “not enough pizzazz.”
That didn’t inspire her later battles with panic attacks.
Rather, befitting the proverb “ignorance is bliss,” Kirkman seemingly suffered from knowing too much about the real world. The guy who tried to cure her fear of flying suggested she suffered from racing, irrational thoughts, but the truth was, Kirkman may just be too rational compared to the rest of us.
Overcoming fears of the end of the world, and of flying, and living in New York City on 9/11, and moving to Hollywood and getting TV jobs that could have fulfilled her childhood dreams, none of that mattered after Election Day 2016.
“I just wanted to be dumb,” Kirkman says. Her therapist justified and soothed her feelings after the election, but Kirkman still sought out alternative therapies to feel better. Would it help any?
That’s for you to decide. But Kirkman has realized one of her childhood missions: The ability to answer an early critic of hers by saying, “Who’s got the pizzazz now, honey?”
Kirkman does. She’s full of pizzazz. On or off script.