Jen Kirkman knows a thing or two about past regrets. Whether it’s writing a letter to the producer of The Price is Right asking to join the cast of Family Ties, or stage-crashing a talent show and getting whipped with towels, her stories are the ones people tend to repress (or reveal in a therapist’s office)—Kirkman on the other hand gets a night’s worth of hilarious material out of them.
A seasoned stand-up comic, the Boston-born performer’s latest comedy special on Netflix, I’m Gonna Die Alone and I Feel Fine, covered topics like choosing not to have kids and a cat eating her face when she’s dead. A master of the anecdote, Kirkman has also written the memoir I Can Barely Take Care of Myself. Playing from 24 March to 6 April, her show at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival I Know What I’m Doing and Other Lies I Tell Myself, casts audience’s back to Boston during the Cold War as Kirkman guides us through her life in story, dance and song.
The Arts Centre’s Fairfax theatre is ideal for Kirkman’s show. The cosy, tiered seating in the below-ground space establishes the intimacy required for a night of storytelling. Equipped with a bottle of water, stand and stool, it’s clear that Kirkman doesn’t require decorations for her show to work.
Tales of growing up in Boston begin with a crippling fear of the world ending due to her mother’s refusal to shelter young Jen from life’s perils. Referring to this as an ‘inability to parent’, she elaborates with consequential early panic attacks at the sight of bomb shelters and warning signs, including an eventual fear of the Rapture. Kirkman neatly surmises that, if the sky’s on fire and the believers are ascending to heaven, ‘We’d be fucked either way.’
Told in Kirkman’s raspy, Boston-tinged voice, these stories evoke place and craft a nervous and precocious character whom the audience can sympathise with, laugh at and root for. Kirkman’s sense of comic timing allows her to know when her jokes will hit, and the storytelling nature of her performance keeps everything moving along. The performance has a literary quality to it—funnier than David Sedaris but she can also dance and impersonate James Dean.
As the stories move ahead chronologically, she tells us of an acting audition that ends in sexual harassment, fears about how exactly one gets pregnant and a sense of relief towards 9/11 (one of the funniest of the bunch—it must be heard to be understood), a theme begins to emerge: How do we deal with our past? To what extent do we obsess over it?
Kirkman’s autobiographical performance will allow audiences to laugh at the person she was and perhaps afterward reflect on themselves with a lighter perspective. This is the genius of her comedy: it’s explicitly personal but it can cut right to the bone if you let it.