In the summer of 1998, Jen Kirkman came to Montreal’s Just For Laughs (JFL) comedy festival for the first time. Her standup career was only getting started, but her interest in comedy was longstanding. Using a press pass she received on behalf of a small Boston newspaper, Kirkman and her friends milked the opportunity for its full worth, going to as many shows as they could for free.
Nineteen years later, Kirkman is coming to JFL as a performer for her fourth time, where she will be performing in the Jane Krakowski Gala and in a week-long run of her own show, Irrational Thoughts, from July 24 to 29.
Throughout her career—including her two Netflix specials and two books—Kirkman discusses her own irrational thoughts and actions with honesty and candor. Focusing on a recurring theme in her repertoire, Kirkman was able to string together stories about her own irrationality, struggles with mental illness, and wild attempts at healing her anxiety to create Irrational Thoughts. She relays her experiences with an earnestness that makes them relatable to any audience member.
“[The set touches on] growing up in the ‘80s and being afraid of nuclear war, and my parents being way too honest with me and telling me that yeah they think they’ll probably die in a nuclear war,” Kirkman said. “It’s a lot of childhood stories about that and about how when I thought, ‘Oh, I’m not gonna live very long, we’re gonna have a nuclear war.’ It’s different from what I’ve done in Montreal because it’s very going into the past and then jumping back into the present day. it’s really a bunch of different material [from] a bunch of different times in my life.”
Over the course of the hour-long show, Kirkman takes her audience on a roadtrip through her past. She recalls tale after tale of her blunders as a child, into early adulthood, and eventually, just this past year. Kirkman’s stunning ability to land herself in sticky situations—and come out laughing on the other side—dates back to her childhood. And not surprisingly, so does her inclination toward the entertainment industry.
“I wanted to get famous as a kid, and I did all this crazy stuff at school to get attention, thinking that somehow I would get on the local news which somehow would get me famous,” Kirkman said. “I sent a letter to the producers of the show [Family Ties] saying, ‘Please let me be on the show, I wanna get away from my family!’”
Despite several failed attempts at childhood celebrity, which she dives into at length in Irrational Thoughts, Kirkman managed to launch her standup career several years after completing her undergraduate degree at Emerson College. Though the school is known for churning out stars-to-be in music and traditional theatre, Kirkman’s attempts to gain administrative support for her interest in stand-up comedy were met with disdain.
“At a certain point in my senior year I knew I wanted to try stand-up, and I was so naive,” Kirkman said. “I thought that adults knew everything and that you had to finish college and do what they say, and if they don’t have any resources for you, then, well you’re screwed! And I remember asking the dean, ‘Hey do you guys have any resources, because I want to try stand-up,’ […] and he was like, ‘Standup? That’s not real theatre, and if you wanted to be a stand-up you should’ve started when you were 18 years old.’ […] I was like ‘Oh, I guess he’s right,’ and so I didn’t pursue it for a few years.”
That setback turned out to be only a minor speed bump in her burgeoning career. Kirkman began practicing stand-up professionally for the first time several years later only after finding the confidence within herself.
“Two years after college, it dawned on me, ‘Wait a minute, I don’t think I have to listen to him.’ I mean I really didn’t know that,” Kirkman said. “I would tell my college-aged self that part of being in college is, you know, obviously don’t be a total jerk, there are people that know more than you […] but take it with a grain of salt, and if you wanna start your own thing, that’s the time to do it [….] It just makes me sad to look back and think that these teachers had so much control over me, and it’s not that they wanted to, but I let them.”
Twenty years after deciding to reject her professor’s advice and leap into a career in comedy, Kirkman is nothing if not confident while on stage. Jokingly calling out harsh comedy reviewers, commanding audience members not to go quiet, and telling her stories in passionate detail, Kirkman’s performance in Irrational Thoughts is a must-see.