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Jen Kirkman Headlines The 11th Annual Milwaukee Comedy Festival

Comedian Jen Kirkman

The 11th annual Milwaukee Comedy Festival kicks off tonight at Lakefront Brewery, and this year’s headliner is stand-up comedian and best-selling author, Jen Kirkman

Her Netflix Original Comedy Special I’m Gonna Die Alone (And I Feel Fine) has been called one of the Top 10 comedy specials of 2015. Her first book, I Can Barely Take Care of Myself made the New York Times Bestseller list, and her follow-up, I Know What I’m Doing and Other Lies I Tell Myself was just released in April of this year. Kirkman is also known for her work on Chelsea Lately, and her appearances on Comedy Central’s Drunk History.

Local fans will remember Kirkman from a visit last September to Brew City, at the same venue she’ll be performing at this Sunday evening: Turner Hall Ballroom. In fact, as she recalled to WUWM Comedy Contributor and Milwaukee Comedy Festival founder and producer Matt Kemple, she had a rather odd experience just before the show.

“A friend of yours from middle school is outside, and wants to come backstage and talk to you," someone announced to Kirkman backstage.  Not only that, but they had a yearbook they wanted her to sign. Not knowing of any friends living in Milwaukee, Kirkman figured it was just someone trying to get backstage, so she told the person, “Tell them I’ll do it onstage…and I was going to…but I totally forgot to do that. I never did it. So [there's] someone who claims they went to middle school with me, lives in Milwaukee, and was waiting to get their yearbook signed.”

With that mystery still lingering, Kirkman makes her return to Turner Hall, just a few days from now. When Kemple announced that Kirkman was headlining the festival, many told him that they were followers of hers on Twitter.  That’s not the only way that she connects directly with her listeners, though – her weekly podcast, I Seem Fun: The Diary of Jen Kirkman is often in the top 100 in comedy on iTunes. Speaking about her podcast, Kirkman says, “I love it, because it’s who I really am.” In fact, when fans of her podcast say they’re coming to her show, Kirkmn knows, “they’re going to love the show even more than they think.”

As a stand-up for almost 20 years, Kirkman has toured internationally.  Asked what differences she noticed between audiences, Kirkman remarked that British and Australian crowds tended to be quieter in their appreciation of her material. “When I came back from Melbourne and then did the show in Brooklyn,” she said, “I was like ‘ah-ha’ – that’s the sound I was looking for. It’s like something that’s only in my head.”

One thing that she finds is the same around the world? The drinking.  “If I could ban alcohol from shows, I would. Or just two.  Two before you come in. Whatever makes you laugh, but doesn’t make you vomit. Let’s stay in that area.” 

One place Kirkman won’t be going back to anytime soon is Dublin. After bombing a show in which she seemed set-up to fail, Kirkman took some advice from a well-meaning bartender, which only made matters worse. The next day Kirkman performed to a more receptive audience, explaining what had happened the night before, and finished her stay on a more positive note. That show, she said, went well. However, Kirkman is straightforward about the prospect of doing stand-up again in Dublin: “It’s going to take me a while to get back there.”

As she did successfully in her second Dublin show, Kirkman has the ability to be in the moment and connect with her audiences.  Kemple asked how that strength figures into her writing process. As far as writing for stand-up, she says, “It’s all improvised from my mouth and then I record it…it’s very instinctual. I will get this, like, cosmic vibe that material is coming, and I will just know…It’s almost like someone who’s pregnant and they’re trying to get into labor, it’s like ‘Come on, come on - get out, get out!’…My act is not off the top of my head, but it starts that way.” 

Kirkman also knows instinctively when it’s a good night to go out and try something new in front of an audience. Speaking to that high-wire aspect to her comedy, she comments, “I feel like it’s the most fun part. Cuz if I’m going to be live in front of people, why not use that to my advantage, and really make myself scared, or use the intensity of that pressure.”

The Milwaukee Comedy Festival begins tonight at Lakefront Brewery and runs through the weekend. You can see Jen Kirkman Sunday night at Turner Hall Ballroom, where she will be signing copies of her new book I Know What I’m Doing and Other Lies I Tell Myself.