Being Jen Kirkman isn’t always as easy as it looks. In fact, being Jen Kirkman often involves more than the ability to provide narration for Funny or Die’s mega-hit Drunk History, and Jen tasks certainly extend beyond the realm of cracking wise on Chelsea Lately. Indeed, the business of being Jen Kirkman can frequently be mired on scorn, pity, and even hostility, thanks to the unwanted advances of overly aggressive breeders.
“I don’t usually have a comeback, because I usually end up crying later,” she says. “That’s something I’ve been trying to work on – in a way, I feel like my book is my comeback. Usually what I’ll do is just ask a question back to those people; like, why is it so important to you that I have a kid?”
What’s in question here is Kirkman’s decision to refrain from procreation. As one of a growing number of child-free adults who choose to lead active, fulfilling lives sans spawn, she too often finds herself being placed under the cold, harsh light of stranger scrutiny by parents who would have her knocked up and nursing by the conversation’s conclusion. But with the venerable standup’s inaugural memoir, I Can Barely Take Care of Myself: Tales from a Happy Life Without Kids, Kirkman is eager to to set the record straight about the validity of her choice. Checking in with LaughSpin between comedy engagements instead of bottle feedings, Kirkman called to chat vegetarianism, why she doesn’t wear the alter-native comedy label, and, of course, that whole baby-shaming nuisance that just won’t go away.
Obviously, being child-free is a big part of your act. Was that something you’ve always talked about onstage, or did it start coming up more as the pressure to procreate increased with age?
I think, at least at the beginning, I just talked about what a terrible mother I’d be. It was more jokes about what an idiot I am. Then people started responding to that, and telling me that they didn’t really think I meant what I had said, so then people’s reactions started becoming part of my act. Honestly, I probably never would have thought about it again if it wasn’t for people’s reactions.
In the book you compare being child-free to being a member of the LGBTQ community. As with so many members of that community, do you feel that your lifestyle is something that has always come naturally to you, or did it start evolving more as you moved into adulthood?
Well, only in a tongue-in-cheek manner do I compare being child-free to being gay. Obviously, they have it so much worse: people are actually killed for their gay lifestyle, and thought of as second-class citizens. But the comments that a lot of people make to me, as far as my preference, remind me a lot of what I hear other people describe about being gay. But, I am also curious if child-free people are born that way. I have never had an urge to [have kids]. Even when people tell me I’ll change my mind, I think that it would have to be a complete reversal of who I am, to the point where I would actually be scared of myself. So for me, I really feel like it was a from-the-beginning thing; other people might have come to that conclusion for themselves separately, but for me it was always this way.
As a childfree person myself, I have sometimes thought on the concept of our decision as being something of a luxury, insomuch as many people around the world lack access to contraceptives or affordable health care. Have you ever considered this, and has it made you want to engage in re-productive justice activism of any kind?
Of course I’m a big supporter of things like Planned Parenthood, where women can get affordable health care. This extends to women who want to get pregnant, too. Globally, I’m not involved in any reproductive rights campaigns, but I do agree that it is sort of a privileged problem. You can read in Marie Claire about how I don’t want kids, and then turn the page to read about a woman who got half her face blown off in Afghanistan. I do realize it’s sort of a white people type of problem; if I don’t want to get pregnant, all I have to do is remember to take my birth control. Of course, not everyone has that option, and it’s definitely something I’m aware of. But I can’t say that right now I’m involved with any campaign-ing. Not that I’m opposed to it – if anyone wanted to tell me where to go, I’d do it.
Can you describe a time when you walked away from one of those having-kids-shaming sessions, which are frequently mentioned in the book, feeling superior rather than crushed? What comebacks do you find most effective?
First of all, I don’t usually have a comeback, because I usually end up crying later. That’s something I’ve been trying to work on – in a way, I feel like my book is my comeback. Usually what I’ll do is just ask a question back to those people; like, why is it so important to you that I have a kid? In the past, I tried lying. I’d say stuff like “sure, yeah, I don’t right now but I might later.” And it’s amazing that this does actually shut people up.
I’ve never really felt superior, because I do almost feel like “superior” is something of a defense mechanism. There was one party I went to where it was a bunch of my male comic friends, and for some reason there were like three preg-nant wives of comedians there also. They all had one beer each, but I only had two beers, because I was driving. The whole time, all they could talk about was how stupid drunk people are. Literally, all they talked about was how they could only have one beer. I mean, I only had two, and it seemed strange that they would talk about what they weren’t doing all night. It was kind of like, oh, look at you, we’re all pregnant together, but you don’t have anything that you can relate to us with. What exactly are you getting out of the whole non-pregnancy thing? So walking away from that, I didn’t feel superior, but it was either cry or walk away feeling haughty about how cool I am. [Laughs].
It also kind of sounds to me, like when you were a kid and someone would do a really cool yo-yo trick, you’d have that one kid going, “I can do that, too, but I just don’t feel like it right now.”
I was also surprised to read that you had written for the Disney Channel. Do you find comedic value in children’s entertainment, if not in children themselves?
Well, that was strictly a paycheck. [Laughs]. Actually, what was really interesting about it is that the show I wrote for, Phineas and Ferb, is actually a really funny show for adults, too. I wrote a couple episodes; it wasn’t easy, but it was an eye-opening experience for sure. I think a comedian’s mind works a lot like a kid’s mind, in that you keep asking yourself why. Why are you saying this? Why are you doing this? Why? Why? Why? I actually do find kids funny – I’m not sure I’d laugh at a kid doing something on a street, but I always ask my friends with kids, please, share stuff with me that your kids are doing. Some of the things they say… I just have to ask myself, where did that come from? It’s pretty amusing, but that doesn’t mean I’d want to live with that constantly.
And from what I understand from my friends who have kids, amusing stops pretty quickly.
I do also find it pretty interesting that both you and one of you sisters elected to be childfree. Both my brother and I are childfree, though he says he might change his mind later on. Do you think it was something in your mutual DNA or upbringing that fostered the decision, or was it purely coincidental?
I think it’s both. My sister was married for a while, and there was a point when she went off the Pill. She was like, if it happens, it happens. It didn’t happen, but my sister works with animals, and she’s actually around kids all day, giving them riding lessons. She’s so good with kids, but to be honest, I don’t think she would make a good mom, because so much of her life is getting up early and teaching kids, that I don’t think she’d want to do that outside of work. And I think that’s why she’s so gifted with children – she can teach them things their parents can’t teach them.
So yeah, I do think it’s largely coincidental. We have another sister who has kids. Our mother didn’t really put an emphasis on having kids; she never emphasized that it was something we needed to do. She nurtured a lot of independence in us, with the focus being on your career as the most important thing.
The childfree phenomenon is something that’s been reported on quite a bit. As a public figure, do you feel a certain responsibility to give voice to this growing number of people?
I’m not really a huge public figure. I’m happy to be giving these people something to relate to and laugh at, but I’m not trying to recruit anyone. I’ve never really thought about my role in that movement, to be honest. I do wish that our lifestyle would stop being looked down upon. Whenever I read things that say that being child-free is bad for America, I try to be as polite as I can, but I give a lot of money to charity, which is something I like to do before I completely indulge my-self. It’s really important to me to volunteer for stuff. So, really, how dare anyone say that I’m selfish because I haven’t had a kid or two? Really, that’s what’s bad for the country?
It’s kind of ironic, because there’s a pretty valid argument to be made for not having kids as being good for the planet. It’s one of the most environmentally sound decisions you can make.
Of course. We’re at a real tipping point with our population. So the question al-ways inevitably is, well, what if everyone stopped having kids? It’s irrelevant be-cause they’re not going to. That’s not even close to happening. I think it’s ok that I opt out and a couple other people do, too. There are so many homeless kids, just in New York City alone. Even if I ever wanted to have a kid, I don’t think I’d have my own. So many are unwanted and unloved and need homes, so why all the emphasis on just producing more? Though, I do have a friend who’s trying to adopt right now, and admittedly, it is pretty fucking hard.
Changing gears a bit, I really love your “Jen in the ‘90s” tweets. How much of your comedic persona is related to that ‘90s alternative culture that you had your adolescence in?
I would actually say that zero percent of my comedic voice comes from that era. It’s funny though; the only time in my life when I was really with the current times was in the ‘90s. Back then, I was totally onboard with what was happening with my generation. But when I was a kid, I was really into the ‘70s, and stuff that had happened before I was born. My comedy was really influenced by the stuff that came before me. When I started doing comedy in the ‘90s, I didn’t know who Janeane Garofalo was, or who David Cross was. I didn’t have cable – I never got to see Mr. Show. I started comedy in ’97, while there was this thing called “alter-native comedy” happening, but I didn’t really know what it was.
I just knew that I was doing comedy in Boston, because it was the only place that would hire me or let me perform. But when I went to New York, it was all alternative, but for me, when I first started in 1997, my frame of reference was, like, Whoopi Goldberg and Robin Williams. That’s what I thought comedians were supposed to look like. So I wouldn’t really say that the ‘90s influenced my comedy, but in a way, it has influenced me. I guess the only part of the ‘90s I was influenced by was that episode of Beverly Hills 90210 where Brenda Walsh was doing stand-up at the open mic nights. I remember in high school going, “I’m going to do this one day.” So Brenda Walsh was a great influence on me.
In terms of having to justify yourself to strangers, which do you find more challenging: being childfree, or being vegetarian? I’ve experienced both, as I’m sure you have.
I think I’m going to have to say child-free. With my vegetarianism, I always tell people that I am of course for animal rights, but I can’t really claim that that’s the reason, because I do have leather things in my life. I always say that it’s for environmental and health reasons. But I don’t judge you; I don’t mind what you’re eating in front of me. But in general, I don’t really tell people I’m vegetarian unless they ask me. Now the child-free thing, on the other hand… people that don’t understand it tend to be very vocal, and they don’t back down even after two or three times of trying to steer the conversation in another direction.
At least in my experience, admitting that you’re vegetarian usually results in the other party going on and on about how much they love meat.
And I think that’s great. Do what you want, go with it. But for some reason, I feel that [vegetarianism] lends me some credibility whereas the childfree thing doesn’t.
Lastly, what sort of legacy do you want to leave behind, if not a flesh-and-blood legacy?
I honestly could care less about any legacy. I don’t think it matters. I won’t know if anyone is talking about me years from now. The only thing that I would care about being remembered for… I mean, if I could help someone not feel like shit that day, or whatever I can do to make people feel good and happy, that’s what I want to do. Whether it’s through performing or just interacting in real life. If I could be someone who made you feel less crazy for just a moment, I could get behind that.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I will say one thing, too. I’ve had people accuse me of not really believing that child-free people are bothered by those kinds of confrontations. I’ve known people with children who say, “we don’t think that really happens. We’re not bothering anybody. We don’t care if you want to have kids or not.” So I need people to understand that this isn’t, like, some gimmick. I don’t feel like I’m ever really able to bring up the fact that I don’t want kids in public without it becoming an uncomfortable conversation. Other child-free people get bothered by this a lot, and I’m not going to back down.