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A funny thing happened to Jen Kirkman

Comic sees star rise as writer and performer

By Joan Anderman
Globe Staff / June 11, 2010

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The first time Ron Kirkman watched his daughter do her stand-up comedy bit about masturbation on television, he walked into the kitchen of his Needham home and refused to come out. His wife, Joan, flat-out forbade her youngest child from mentioning her mother onstage after being memorialized, in an exaggerated Boston accent, as “always smiling, never happy.’’

But it wasn’t long before Jen Kirkman’s previously mortified parents were winging their way to Hollywood and popping out of the wings during their daughter’s set at the Improv.

Explains her mother: “As Jen says, this is her job. She’s supposed to say these things. That’s what makes her funny.’’

Stand-up comedian, television writer, and Needham native Jen Kirkman has found a lot of ways to be funny lately, and it’s paying off. Two years ago she was tapped to be a writer and round-table regular on E!’s late-night talk show “Chelsea Lately.’’ In January, HBO’s “Drunk History: Douglass & Lincoln,’’ in which she stars with Will Ferrell and Don Cheadle, won the jury prize for best short film at the 2010 Sundance Festival. (The online film series features inebriated narrators, in this case Kirkman, sharing their versions of historical events.) This week Kirkman started a new gig that marks a huge step up in her career: writing for the new NBC romantic sitcom “Perfect Couples,’’ which will premiere as a mid-season replacement in the network’s 2010-11 lineup and revolves around a trio of less-than-perfect relationships. Tonight, Kirkman comes home to perform at the Wilbur Theatre as part of the “Comedians of Chelsea Lately’’ tour.

In comedy and in life, timing is everything. Kirkman grew up the youngest (by a decade) of three girls, spending hours watching reruns of “The Law rence Welk Show’’ with her parents and hanging out at the Needham Golf Club, where her father was general manager and where she relished moving hole markers after hours to confuse the morning golfers. Kirkman started tap-dancing when she was 5, tried and failed to assume the mantle of class clown in elementary and middle school, and found her place among the arty kids at Needham High.

As a young girl, “Three’s Company’’ and “Taxi’’ were the highlights of her day. Roseanne Barr and Bill Cosby rocked her world. But “The Carol Burnett Show’’ was the clincher.

“What I loved was how they would laugh during their sketches, how Harvey Korman and Tim Conway couldn’t keep straight faces,’’ Kirkman says. “As a kid I thought, Here are grown-ups who aren’t acting like grown-ups, and if there’s any way I can do that, anything that gives me that vibe, I will,’’ Kirkman says.

Kirkman went on to study theater at Emerson and spent two post-collegiate years in Boston, working at Boston Ballet and Broadway in Boston and cutting her teeth at the Comedy Studio in Harvard Square. After a six-year stop in New York, Kirkman landed in Los Angeles in 2002, where she promptly got to work waitressing, cleaning houses, answering phones, and becoming a comedian.

Now 35, Kirkman tied the knot last year with director and editor Neil Mahoney. Lately her stand-up act — which is how “Perfect Couples’’ creators Scott Silveri (“Friends’’) and Jon Pollack (“30 Rock’’) discovered her — is rife with meditations on marriage. Kirkman’s humor is rooted in honest pragmatism, with a twist. Thanks to the statistical odds of outliving her husband, for instance, wedding planning prompts musings on what kind of widow she wants to be. “I try to talk about marriage honestly,’’ says Kirkman. “I have this idyllic love life, but my mind just won’t accept that. I would like to bring a new guy home every night. I try to make humor out of that situation.’’

It’s no surprise to learn that Joan Rivers is one of her heroes.

“She’s a symbol of hope for me,’’ Kirkman says. “She was up there with Steve Allen and Bill Cosby in the ’60s when women weren’t really doing stand-up, talking about her feelings and being divorced and, even though it’s tacky, the gynecologist.’’

As befits an ambitious woman juggling a writing job by day and a stand-up career at night, Kirkman burns the proverbial candle at both ends. We spoke at the ungodly Hollywood hour of 7 a.m., pre-coffee. She rolled out of bed, tiptoed into the living room, and was as sweet and sanguine in conversation as she is snippy onstage. Kirkman can come off as downright mean-spirited in her live act, on TV, and especially on Twitter, where she has attracted 25,000-plus followers with an uber-bitchy persona that she’s adopted. A recent tweet: “Just walked into a brand new beauty supply store on my street. Is this feeling of wonderment + possibility what being a mom feels like?’’

Last month the Huffington Post named Kirkman one of Twitter’s must-follow comedians. “I’m not a big fan of young people,’’ Kirkman explains, “and the tweets are my response to the Internet generation, which I find to be really unsophisticated.’’

Among her peers, Kirkman is well-loved. Chelsea Handler calls her “a little crazy, a little neurotic, and wicked smart.’’ Kirkman’s most compelling quality, Handler writes in an e-mail, is “a choreographed dance she does to ‘Thriller’ that she performs late at night. That is Jen’s true light.’’

Her sloshed performance in “Drunk History’’ is pretty darn radiant, too. After guzzling two bottles of wine, Kirkman tells the story, on camera, of the friendship between Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Shots of Kirkman in her apartment — heavy-lidded and crumpled on the sofa — are interspersed with scenes of actors in period dress (Ferrell as Lincoln, Cheadle as Douglass) mouthing her words — hiccups and cussing and incoherent ramblings included.

“What’s funny is everybody thinks I was acting,’’ Kirkman says. “But I was really drunk.’’

Derek Waters, who created the “Drunk History’’ series, corroborates her story. In fact Waters edited out the part where Kirkman threw up because “I don’t want people to see Jen Kirkman get sick. She’s too perfect. There’s no one in the alternative comedy world who doesn’t like her. She has so much heart and she’s so natural. . . . I think she has a very Larry David aspect to her, and I can see her getting her own ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ kind of show.’’

That would work for Kirkman, whose ultimate goal is to establish herself as a comedy brand, Judd Apatow-style. That singular, instantly recognizable voice is something she’s been aiming for, at first intuitively and later with unswerving focus, since she was a child. When Handler handed Kirkman her big break on “Chelsea Lately,’’ it was a dream job that Kirkman says was like being back in nursery school, with everyone talking at once and yelling out ideas and fighting to be funnier than the next kid. It tapped straight into that deliciously unadult vibe she was so drawn to as a child, and it was hard to say goodbye, even though she’ll be back as an occasional guest on the show. But when network TV calls, aspiring brand names listen.

“Sitcoms are what got me excited about show business,’’ Kirkman says. “This is exactly, exactly where I want to be.’’

Joan Anderman can be reached at anderman@globe.com.

JEN KIRKMAN

At: Wilbur Theatre, tonight at 7:30, with “Comedians of Chelsea Lately.’’ Tickets: $32, $43. 800-745-3000, www.ticketmaster.com