Definitive Guide of How Not To Interview
I was just thinking – that’s what I do when I travel. And read. One of my favorite things to read is interviews with any kind of public figure. When I read Vanity Fair I immediately turn to the Proust Questionnaire on the back page before I get to the smart-y pants journalism. One thing I can’t stand- I’m sure you’re with me – is when you buy a magazine with your favorite so-and-so on the cover and can’t wait to dig in and you get…fluff. The same old recycled PR. The same old “everything in a positive light.” I fall for it because every once in a while I read a really intimate, thoughtful interview with someone and so I’ll always take my chances.
I do understand that celebrities have an image to protect – that image sells their movie tickets and albums and as stupid as it sounds to you and me – there are people out there that would be REVOLTED to learn that maybe Julia Roberts isn’t the nicest person on earth full of light and love or that [insert name here rhymes with Ba-volta] isn’t straight and isn’t going to strut to their house in bell-bottoms and twirl them on the dance floor – thus those people will stop supporting the celebrity. Also, celebrities have publicists – people who sit with them during interviews and make sure they do not get too personal, misquoted, or start to trust the journalist too much. It’s not always the interviewer’s fault.
Which leads me to what I’m writing about here. I do press – way less high profile – but all the time. At least fifty times a year all over the country and some of the world. And I get asked the same questions OVER and OVER and OVER again. I have a publicist. The kind that gets me press. Not the kind that watches over me like an overlord making sure I say the right thing. I have nothing to protect. As a comedian and a not-celebrity one, not much is at stake if I say an outrageous thing or give a crazy opinion or let someone in too deep. And yet – NO ONE takes advantage of this. I mean, I want people to have boundaries. Obviously let’s be polite and not ask people crazy, personal questions that could harm others but…. you get the idea.
In the interest of this not sounding like an ungrateful complaint – I put it to you this way. You, busy person who has a lot to read, don’t you want to read something interesting when you read a press article? Do you really care how I got started in comedy? If I’m really drunk on Drunk History? When I realized I was funny? Who cares? Don’t you want to know something about me? Or a person?
When I do press – usually the person interviewing me has a few weeks lead-time. And I get the same questions. Why go into a cool profession where you get to talk to performers and people with something to say or maybe just people who say normal things but in a funny way and then—-just throw it away with boring crap?
WHAT NOT TO ASK COMEDIANS (SPECIFICALLY JEN KIRKMAN) ANYMORE AND WHY GUIDE
HOW DID YOU GET YOUR START IN COMEDY?
Unless this is someone’s first interview, the answer is out there. It’s on Wikipedia and I’ve talked about it on my podcast and I’ve answered it in hundreds of interviews all available online. Oh, and I wrote about it in my book that came out in 2013. If you only have ten minutes by phone to talk to someone, why waste two of them with this boring question? The answers are always the same. “I started doing open mics.” There are no other starts. No answer will ever be as interesting as the plot of E.T. But also, it disengages your subject right away. We are on the phone thinking, ‘Did they do no research? This is sort of a waste of time.’ Howard Stern, my favorite interviewer, if you listen to him, will incorporate boring facts IN his question. If you don’t have a research team like Howard, you do have Google and five minutes before you call someone. If you must conduct some background check type interview perhaps you could come armed with that answer and do something like this.
“So, I read that you got your start back in 1997 at the Green Street Grille – a bar in Somerville Massachusetts that Eugene Mirman turned into a comedy night –“
And then ask the question from there.
If you must talk about this maybe it can go something like this, “So, I read that you got your start back in 1997 at the Green Street Grille – a bar in Somerville Massachusetts that Eugene Mirman turned into a comedy night – do you remember anything specific about that night? What outfit did you pick out to wear? Did you have a drink? Did you invite people you knew? What was your expectation going in?”
See how many different nuances and emotions can be evoked doing it that way? We never would have gotten there if you didn’t do your research first and incorporate it in the question.
Some may argue, “No, I KNOW how you got your start but the people reading my newspaper don’t!” Again, incorporate it in your question and also assume the people reading your newspaper don’t give a fuck. It’s not that interesting.
WHAT IS IT LIKE BEING A WOMAN IN COMEDY?
I actually have a request that my publicist sends people when we are setting up interviews – that under no circumstance do they ask me this. Usually they ask anyway and it’s always dudes who want to know. Here’s the answer. What it’s like is we get asked that question a lot. We don’t know what it’s like in one way because we have nothing to compare it too. We haven’t ever been anything else in comedy. Also, there is sexism in the WORLD so really what you are asking is what is it like to be a woman in a sexist society? It sucks. Please help us work towards equality on all levels. There are no stories of people yelling out “women aren’t funny” to me but because there is sexism in the world and I am a woman who is out in the world there ARE realities to being a woman on the road. Pay wage stuff. Cab drivers meant to get me home safe making me feel uncomfortable. Needing extra security. Blah blah.
But why is this question in a ten-minute interview that is supposed to showcase how FUNNY I am in order to sell tickets? It’s a huge topic and very, very nuanced and political – so why…. again WHY do I need to go there when my male peers don’t in their little blurbs? Because whenever I’ve answered the question it’s bit me in the ass. The articles always, ALWAYS become: HEADLINE: JEN KIRKMAN WHO IS AT THE FUN THEATRE THIS WEEK SAYS THERE IS SEXISM IN COMEDY. And then guess what happens to this woman in comedy? I get awful Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, comments from dudes telling me to lighten up, stop being a victim and on and on.
Look. Amongst ourselves women talk about this – and maybe sometimes in a more in-depth interview with another woman if it pertains to her subject. But it’s a fucked question and on it’s face just asking it is a little insensitive of dudes and smells of just not getting it. And I think most interviewers would know not to ask a comic who isn’t white, “So, what’s it like to be a black comic?” You know you wouldn’t do it. Don’t do it to women. We don’t need to constantly be reminded that we are seen as “other.” Just ask me about Donald Trump’s hair or Wolf Blitzer’s beard or something. Let me make a joke. The people reading your paper will laugh. Then they will buy tickets to the show I’m doing as they got a really good idea of my spirit – instead of reading a symposium on sexism.
ARE YOU REALLY DRUNK IN DRUNK HISTORY?
Yes. It’s a reality show. And it’s been around over a decade and on Comedy Central for three seasons. There is so much information out there about this show because hundreds of comedians, celebrities, and it’s creators are out there doing press for the show all of the time. This isn’t a question you need to ask me about. I’ve answered it over a hundred times and I’m always floored to be asked it. That goes for, “How did you get involved?” “Were you good at history?” These questions have been answered.
Maybe another angle could be: Don’t you feel bad for your friends in AA who can’t be on this show? What do you do when you get home from the shoot? What are some behind the scenes things we don’t see on camera that you’ve done? When was the first time you got drunk in real life? Have you ever done something really embarrassing when you were drunk? Have you ever had a drunken hookup? Have you ever regretted anything you’ve said when drunk? Ever been drunk with your parents? Trust me. Those will get you good answers and you can lead into it with, “As a five time narrator for Drunk History – I know you actually get drunk every time on your drink of choice, wine – so tell me about drinking in general….”
Now you’re off and running to an interview where you might get an answer out of me that no one else has!
WHAT IS CHELSEA REALLY LIKE?
Really? What…is my former boss and a bona-fide celebrity really like? You think I’m going to give you some expose and you’ll run an article about ME with a headline about HER? And you want me to what…talk shit? Not gonna happen. Also it’s rude. She’s a person. So the answer stands that she’s really like what people are like. Complex and human. She’s just like you except with more money and fame. And besides my job was about writing for a TV show and getting work done by a certain time for the producers every day. I wasn’t in her face all the time studying her every move, analyzing her private versus public persona. That’s what my mom would do if she had the job. But people who work in these jobs, we’re like nurses. We don’t flinch at blood. We’ve seen it all. Nothing is special or that weird to us and we’re only going to normalize it for you with our boring answers of the reality of writing on a TV show is that you work a lot, have no life and eat lunch at your desk.
WHEN DID YOU FIRST KNOW YOU WERE FUNNY?
This is what I call A Limited Question Based on Only The Asker’s Version Of How It Works. It’s like asking a basketball player, “When did you first know you could probably nail a three-pointer?” Who knows? Maybe that’s not how it happened. Funny is hard to define. Is it instinct? Science? Luck? A question that could illicit a funny answer and gets you into the same area:
Did you ever think you were funny but you just weren’t there yet but had no idea? Do you think you made an ass of yourself?
A comedian would rather tell you about the time that she started taking anti-depressants in the 1990’s and thought she had a riveting take on how the side-effects are more depressing than depression. And bombed. Who wants to sit and talk about themselves saying things like, “Well, I always knew I was funny…” Blech. Gross. Also, sometimes people don’t do comedy because they think they’re funny. I know. It’s hard to explain. That’s why that question doesn’t really make sense – except to someone who doesn’t do comedy and didn’t bother to put any effort into his or her interview.
WHO ARE YOUR INFLUENCES?
Maybe this is a good question for Keith Richards or people who play music influenced by the blues but it doesn’t quite work that way for comedy. Besides, I thought Gallagher was the funniest comedian when I was young. The first comedy I saw on TV was The Muppet Show and The Carol Burnette Show. Both, I’m sure influenced me, yet I’ve never gone on stage with or as a puppet and I didn’t pursue a career in sketch comedy. So…. I suppose we can talk about what my favorite TV shows are growing up? Or maybe another question could be
What qualities do other comedians have that you admire?
That way I can get into how much I admire my friend’s who stay positive, work hard, know how to travel, take risks on stage, have a good writing ethic, somehow manage to always have new material to work on, etc. A comedian’s influences change all of the time depending on where they are in their career – and unlike music, most comedians can’t quite take from other comics and build on it. It would be too obvious and you’ll just be called a rip-off. It’s another one of those questions that someone who doesn’t do comedy asks – but with an authority that assumes EVERYONE HAS INFLUENCES IN THE LITERAL SENSE JUST GIVE ME A LIST OF NAMES. And now your readers are just reading a list of names. What’s interesting about that?
WHAT IS YOUR ACT ABOUT?
Well, it’s hard to say because I do my act for a living. I don’t do descriptions of my act for a living. I’m assuming you’ve seen it? No? Oh, so you did no research before the interview and would like me to provide another unfunny answer wherein I just describe my act.
Maybe you could watch some and form a hypothesis about what you think my act is about and you could ask a question based on that?
So, Jen, I watched your stand-up special and in it you talk about your personal life but you also have this odd little story about running into a guy who didn’t know what a lime was? Would you say you want your act to be more personal or was that lime story a sign of where you are going in the future? Or do you equally love doing both – the personal and the observational and absurd?
This would spark – I don’t know, a thoughtful answer and perhaps discussion. If anyone wants to know what my act is like they can go to Twitter and learn that I’m some people’s Spirit Animal and other people think I suck. And that’s what can be so interesting about talking to a comedian. You’re usually talking to a hyper self-aware person who while they may not sit around analyzing their own work – they definitely analyze the world around them. And we have a big world full of double rainbows, terrorism, plane crashes, iPhone updates that crash our phones, Steve Jobs movies, love, death, work, bad jobs, good jobs, pants that don’t fit, Climate Change, people still getting mad at sharks for biting them, God, atheism, blood moons, and the possibility of aliens. Why not just TALK to someone about subjects we all think about in the back of our minds? And then your subject comes off interesting and people will want to buy whatever they’re selling – and what comedians are selling are themselves. Help them out. Don’t make them come off boring with your questions about how they knew they were funny. If any comedian tells you they knew they were funny – please title your article, “I Talked To a Pompous Jackass.”
I look forward to doing more press – it’s a part of my job that I actually love. But let’s all try to not bore the readers. Like I just did with this blog.
Research! Research! Research!