Comedian Jessica Kirson — known for her self-deprecating humor, crowd work and character-focused comedy — returns to her home state for three shows this spring and summer.
On May 12, she will make her NJPAC debut at a 7:30 p.m. show, which is sold out, as well as a second show at 9:45 p.m. Then, on June 9, she will head to her hometown of South Orange for a show at SOPAC during the venue’s inaugural Pride weekend. On Aug. 25, she will headline in Atlantic City, at the the Music Box at Borgata Hotel Casino and Spa.
You may know Kirson from her Comedy Central special, “Bill Burr Presents Jessica Kirson: Talking to Myself”; her two podcasts, “Disgusting Hawk” and “Relatively Sane”; or her album of old-school prank calls with Rachel Feinstein, The Call Girls.
Coming up, she has a currently untitled sitcom deal in the works with 20th Century Fox and Bill Burr’s company All Things Comedy. This summer, at the Village Underground in New York, she is set to shoot a crowd work special with no pre-written material. “No woman has done a crowd work special. So that’s awesome,” she says.
I recently spoke with Kirson about her style of standup, the intersection of comedy and social media, her master’s degree in social work and more.
Q: What should audiences know about your style of stand-up?
A: I like to describe it like, you don’t have to think a lot. I’m really an entertainer, it’s very old-school. I feel like people just want to see a show now and not have to think so much, and have short attention spans. I don’t talk about heavy subjects like politics, or what’s going on in the news. I don’t bring up anything that divides people, ever.
I’m self-deprecating. I do a lot of characters, which people love. And it’s more of a high-energy kind of show. It’s fast-paced. You’re constantly on your feet.
I do a lot of crowd work, which I’m known for, and people love that. It’s not just one kind of style. I do all different voices. I worked for Howard Stern for a while, doing prank calls, and I’ve always been a character comic. So people feel like they’re constantly being entertained.
The male comics will always say, “I don’t see you as a female comic, I see you as a comic.” I don’t stick to female-centered things at all. I don’t bash men. I don’t talk about women’s problems. I purposely appeal to men and women. A lot of times guys will come to my shows without their wives or girlfriends, which is very rare for a female comedian.
Q: As I was watching videos of you, I saw that you also sometimes turn around when you’re onstage and talk to yourself.
A: My special on Comedy Central that came out a couple of years ago was called “Talking to Myself.” So I do this thing I’ve done for years, where I turn around, put my back to the audience, and I talk to myself onstage. And yeah, people love that, because it’s like an internal monologue where I’m having this conversation with myself. And it’s very, very real. You know, like, “It doesn’t matter what people think about you,” you know, “You need to take care of yourself.” Like all this kind of psychological stuff.
My mom’s a therapist in South Orange, where I grew up. She was a therapist my whole life and saw clients in the basement of our house. And Zach Braff is my stepbrother. (His debut movie) “Garden State” is so centered around, like, parents. His father was a therapist in the movie. And so my mom’s a therapist, who’s (Braff’s) stepmother. His mother’s a therapist, his stepfather’s a therapist; there’s all these therapists.
Q: And didn’t you study social work?
A: I went to NYU for a master’s in social work. I was headed to be a therapist. But it was so depressing. I couldn’t leave it and then go on with my day. I took on all the stuff about it, and it was too depressing. So I always say, I feel like (stand-up is) the same thing except I don’t have to listen, I talk now. Sometimes I do Q&As after my shows, and they end up being these therapy groups. It’s hilarious.
Most comics’ Q&As are really funny. People ask funny questions. But mine get very deep. They’re all about anxiety and depression. So I have a very close connection with my fans. It’s amazing the messages I get and the connection I have to them.
Q: Yeah, the issues we deal with really are sometimes funny, even if that’s messed up to think about it that way.
A: It’s hysterical. You know the quote: “Comedy is tragedy plus time.” Comedy comes from angst and problems and issues and tragedy. Look at what is going on in this country, in this world. And we have to try, if we can, to laugh at the world and what’s happening. I mean, some of it you just can’t, of course. It’s why I don’t make fun of politics, because I don’t find any of it funny. People hear enough about it constantly that I don’t think I need to bring it up when they’re going out to try and enjoy themselves and laugh a little. I just keep things light during the show.
Q: And then, like you mentioned before, you do crowd work. You involve the audience. I wonder if that’s harder because you have to be more in the moment. Whatever the person says, you have to work off of.
A: It is, but I love it. Some comics would never do it because it’s just not part of what they do. And then a lot of comics that are starting out do it, and they’re horrible at it. But some comics do it, and we are very good at it because we’ve done it for so many years. And people want to see us do it.
There are, if you went on my TikTok, and my YouTube, literally hundreds of comments a day, like, “Please talk to me when you come to Utah,” “Please bust on me when you come to Chicago.” It’s constant comments, asking me to pick on them, ask them questions. “I’m coming to this show, can you talk to me?”
It is hard, but that’s always been my thing: on-the-spot humor. Quick. There’s some people who are brilliant at sitting down and writing a joke, which is not my thing. Whereas some of my friends can do that. And they wish they could do what I do.
Q: Why do you think the audience loves that crowd work? Why do you think they want to be picked on?
A: It’s like TikTok: Everyone wants to be a star on TikTok. And it’s like when all that reality show stuff came out. Everyone wants to be a part of the show. They want the attention. You know, people feel like they’re friends with me. They’re close to me. They want me to talk to them. They like being busted on. They watch the roasts. I think that’s a big part of it.
Q: I’m glad you brought up TikTok because I wanted to ask you about the intersection of social media and comedy.
A: It’s everything now. It’s so amazing. When I started out, it was towards the end of this, but if you got “The Tonight Show,” that was it. You’ve made it. Like, you get a sitcom, you’re a star. I’ve done “The Tonight Show” three times and it’s like, it’s a good clip to get other work. But the fact that I have almost 500,000 followers on TikTok and YouTube is enormous. It’s everything in your career now. You have to have numbers on social media, or else you’re not gonna go anywhere. I mean, unless you get a big break somewhere. But it’s the only way to get people to come to your shows. Before, it was television.
For example, I told you, I’m doing a crowd work special. And I’m not even trying to sell it. I’m putting it up on YouTube, which is crazy. Years ago, even five years ago, I would have immediately tried to sell it to Netflix or Amazon or Apple. And I have, like, the biggest comedy manager in the business at William Morris. The fact that I’m not even trying to sell it tells you everything. I’m putting it up on YouTube because I’ll get more out of it because of the fans and because every comic will push it for me, like Bert Kreischer, Joe Rogan will push it for me, Whitney Cummings. Everyone will say, “Watch Jessica’s special,” and with all that support, I don’t need to put it on TV. It’ll get millions of views. Like when you put it on Netflix or one of those channels … you don’t even know, like you have no idea, if it’s even popular or not.
Q: Your show at SOPAC is part of their LGBTQ Pride weekend. Will that theme inform your material for that show?
A: Yes, and that’s important to me now, because I am disgusted. I just can’t even believe what’s going on in this country. It’s crazy. So anytime I can be involved in a cause or organization for something for Pride, I’m glad that I can be a part of it and bring some humor to people. Because my community is just devastated by everything. Scared and stressed out. And I’m able to bring some humor to people. It’s a good feeling.
For more on Jessica Kirson, visit jessicakirson.com.
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