Shortly after taping her most recent Netflix special, Just Keep Livin’?, in October 2016, comedian Jen Kirkman took a year off touring. When she hit the road again earlier this month for her new North American tour, All New Material, Girl, she found confronting the post-election crowds pretty much exactly the same as before you-know-who was inaugurated. “I’m a woman on the road,” Kirkman says. “When I talk, there’s misogyny. It doesn’t matter if Hillary is queen. I have the same crap no matter who’s president.”
This week, Kirkman brings her tour to New York City, where she’ll play the Highline Ballroom in Manhattan on Thursday before heading across the river to the Bell House on Friday. With two memoirs (one of which, 2013’s I Can Barely Take Care of Myself: Tales From a Happy Life Without Kids, became a New York Times bestseller), and four comedy albums under her belt, Kirkman has spun her brand of unapologetic personal comedy into a successful stand-up career. But touring the country as an unabashed single woman — she titled her first Netflix special I’m Gonna Die Alone (And I Feel Fine) — has its drawbacks.
Kirkman has long been outspoken about the challenges of being a woman in comedy, the subject of a now-infamous podcast episode she recorded in 2015, in which she alluded to the alleged inappropriate behavior of a successful male stand-up who was widely assumed to be Louis C.K. “This guy didn’t rape me, but he made a certain difficult decision to go on tour with him really hard,” she said on her weekly podcast, I Seem Fun. “Because I knew if I did, I’d be getting more of the same weird treatment I’d been getting from him.”
Three years earlier, Gawker had run a blind item alleging that some female comics had accused a male comic who sounds a lot like C.K. of cornering them and forcing them to watch him masturbate; in 2015, the site (which was sued out of existence in 2016) published another piece containing similar allegations. Those rumors resurfaced recently, after comedian Tig Notaro, who was promoting the second season of her Amazon series One Mississippi, told an interviewer that C.K. needs to “handle” the rumors.
“I don’t know why Tig is talking about this stuff,” Kirkman says, adding that she and Notaro are friends but haven’t spoken in several months. She hasn’t seen the second season of One Mississippi, which includes a scene reminiscent of the C.K. rumors, in which a young female employee watches, horrified, as her male boss begins touching himself under his desk while they’re alone in his office.
“There are rumors out there that Louis takes his dick out at women. He has never done that to me,” Kirkman asserts. “I never said he did, I never implied that he did.” She continues, “What I said was, when you hear rumors about someone, and they ask you to go on the road with them, this is what being a woman in comedy is like — imagine if there’s always a chance of rain over your head but [with] men, there isn’t. So you go, ‘Should I leave the house with an umbrella, or not?’ ”
For his part, C.K. is not going there; last year, when questioned about the rumors, he told Vulture, “I don’t care about that. That’s nothing to me. That’s not real.” He reiterated this stance while promoting his new movie, I Love You, Daddy, at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month, telling the New York Times, “I’m not going to answer to that stuff, because they’re rumors.”
“Sometimes there’s nothing there. I think this might be a case of there’s nothing there,” Kirkman says. “If I’m wrong, I’m wrong, and if any women want to come forward and say what he’s done, I’ll totally back them, because I believe women. But I just don’t know any.”
For what it’s worth, Kirkman and C.K. have known each other for many years, and she describes him as a mentor figure, the person who encouraged her to branch out of alternative comedy spaces and into larger, mainstream theaters. She says they still talk regularly, but she’s been reluctant to speak about the whole incident; after Jezebel caught wind of her 2015 podcast episode, she deleted it. “I’m the one that opened it up by doing that dumb podcast, and I thought people would understand the nuance of what I was saying, and they didn’t,” Kirkman says. “So I brought it on myself. And then I deleted the podcast, not because Louis paid me off, but because it was causing so much attention.”
Kirkman would clearly prefer to focus on her current tour than a controversy she never asked for. Kirkman’s vocal support for Hillary Clinton has earned her the wrath of the Bernie bros, at least online, but her new set includes a bit about how she was the “original Bernie fanatic,” a die-hard third-party voter, as well as a story about election night, “when I was disappointed and couldn’t handle reality,” she says. Unlike some topical material, that bit has a shelf life: “Like, where were you when JFK was shot? That’s a story that can last forever. And for me, I put up my Christmas tree and decided to watch Hallmark Christmas movies when I knew that he was going to win. It turns into a bit about how I think Hallmark Christmas movies are bizarrely feminist.”
A former writer on Chelsea Lately, Kirkman had dreams of writing for The Daily Show — until she realized her comedic style was the polar opposite of the wonky political satire series. Still, if you’re one of Kirkman’s 250,000 Twitter followers, you might go into one of her shows expecting to hear explicitly political comedy. Kirkman rarely tweets out one-liners, but, particularly in the wake of the election, she’s found it difficult to pull herself out of the Trump-Russia nexus.
“I’m in bed at night refreshing Twitter because there’s so much addictive stuff to read,” she admits. “All those lunatics that are like, ‘Big news coming!’ I don’t care if it never comes — I’m obsessed. I’m just waiting for that 6 a.m. raid on the White House where they arrest everyone involved in the Russia scandal. That’s what I go to bed dreaming about.”
Like many people who work in creative fields, after the inauguration, Kirkman says she questioned her commitment to her chosen profession. “I was like, ‘Oh god, do I even want to be in comedy? I should be doing something important,’ ” she recalls. But she says her current tour bears out the old cliché about the healing power of laughter. “I think the vibe around the country is like, ‘Can anyone please come entertain us?’ ” she says. “I thought people would be like, ‘Really, you’re still doing that comedy thing while the world’s ending?’ And it turns out that’s exactly what people want.”