Speak with standup comic Jen Kirkman, even for just a few minutes, and you’ll quickly realize she’s one of those natural born storytellers. Everyone knows someone like this – the kind of person who’s apparently hard-coded on the genetic level to be funny, smart and fascinating when telling you a story. Any story.
Kirkman’s high-octane charisma fuels her singular standup style, which tends to accelerate through long, looping arcs of story, each joke and riff placed just so to direct your attention and maintain momentum. For instant proof, check out her last two Netflix comedy specials – “I’m Gonna Die Alone (And I Feel Fine)” and “Just Keep Livin’?”
Better yet, find any of Kirkman’s five appearances on “Drunk History,” the Comedy Central hit that features comedians getting genuinely and severely drunk while attempting to recall famous events in history. Kirkman was one of the first comics to narrate the show, back when it was an online series, and her episodes are considered a kind of gold standard by comedy nerds.
As part of her current tour, titled “All New Material, Girl,” Kirkman will perform Wednesday, Nov. 1, at the Carolina Theatre in Durham. She spoke with the N&O about drunken passion, ambient anxiety and punk rock comedy.
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Q: Have you performed at the Carolina Theatre in Durham before?
A: I’ve been down to North Carolina a lot as a person. (laughs) As a comedian, I’ve performed in Chapel Hill and Charlotte, but not Durham, exactly.
Q: Were you into comedy as a kid, like listening to comedy records or watching comics on TV?
A: Well, obviously, TV was the most important thing in my life. I watched sitcoms that I didn’t know were repeats. So, in my mind, “The Brady Bunch,” “Taxi,” “Laverne & Shirley,” these were all real things happening currently. I didn’t know what I was watching was comedy.
I missed the whole comedy album thing, though. My sisters are 10 and 14 years older than me, so they were teenagers in the ’70s and ’80s. They passed down their old Led Zeppelin 8-tracks to me, but comedy records – I didn’t know that was a thing.
Q: Older siblings can really program your taste in things, for better or for worse.
A: Definitely. I remember I had a neighbor down the street, this punk rock boy, he was a little older than me. My sisters were rock ’n’ roll chicks, but he kind of filled the gap, he was, like – do you know about punk music? He made a mix tape and also a bootleg Monty Python tape on VHS. That’s what my friends and I did on weekends. We just watched Monty Python stuff over and over. I think of that as kind of like punk rock comedy, if that makes sense. Like (British sitcom) “The Young Ones.”
Q: Your episodes of “Drunk History” are impossibly funny. How did you get involved with that?
A: Can I brag for just two seconds? This is the only thing I brag about. It’s OK, because I was always blackout drunk, so I don’t think it counts as bragging. I’m the first woman to narrate “Drunk History,” and the third comic ever. One of the ones I did won at the Sundance Festival, with Will Ferrell and Don Cheadle.
(Series creator Derek Waters) has said I’m the queen of “Drunk History.” He said I kind of set the tone for what he wanted it to be, because I got so emotional in it. He wanted people that were drunk and trying to tell you something – that’s the joke – but also he wanted them to be really passionate.
People are always asking if I was actually drunk. Of course I was, look at me in that thing! If I could act that well, I should be winning Oscars.
Q: You have a funny sequence in your Netflix special about going on a silent retreat. Those kinds of timeout activities seem to be getting a lot more popular. Did you get anything out of it?
A: I did. It was great. I meditate, so it wasn’t that foreign to me. I loved it. You know, I talk for a living, and I can get sick of talking.
The joke I have about it is, I just started getting angry at the people in the house, for no reason. I’m sure it was my other issues coming up, but I was mad about everything, about the food they were making, I was mad at this woman who turned the hallway light off.
The not-talking I could do forever. It really helped me. It almost feels like when you clean out your closet. It opens up the space for good thoughts to come your way, but then you also have to deal with the evil ones, too.
Q: A lot of the comics who have come through town recently have mentioned the political climate, and how everyone is either angry or terrified. Do you find yourself getting caught up in all the anxiety?
A: You know, it’s funny, I feel left out because I don’t have any day-to-day anxiety over it. Here’s the thing, I was an anxious kid my whole life. I’ve had panic attacks since I was 8 years old. I was afraid of nuclear war. I absorbed too much too young about what was going on in the world. My whole life was anxiety.
But in the last 10 years I have completely slain that dragon. I’ve got these coping mechanisms and self-care habits for stress and anxiety, and it just so happens that they’re coming in handy now.
There’s something weirdly comforting to me watching everyone else be anxious, and I know that that sounds horrible. I don’t mean the people that are actually in trouble. I mean, like, other white people who never used to have to worry about anything. I go on Twitter and see everyone worrying about Kim Jong Un, I figure, hey – I don’t have to. I guess I’ve been practicing 30 years for this moment.
What: Jen Kirkman: “All New Material, Girl”
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 1
Where: Carolina Theatre, 309 W. Morgan St., Durham
Info: carolinatheatre.org or 919-560-3030