Comic genius: An interview with Jessica Kirson

Aside from death and taxes, few things in life are certain. However, you can be sure of two things when you attend a show by out comic Jessica Kirson. You will laugh so much that you will be in physical pain (but you won’t mind) and you will probably find something offensive in her act (but you won’t mind).

The most refreshing and original comic on the scene, Kirson competed on NBC’s Last Comic Standing and has had her praises sung by comic goddess Joy Behar. Her elastic face and gift for voices take Kirson’s comedy to another level altogether. Before starting her 2014 tour, which stops at the University of Tampa on March 26 at 8 p.m. Kirson talked with us about her work.

WATERMARK: Your family is featured in a lot of your material. How do they feel about being the subject of jokes? 
JESSICA KIRSON: They don’t care at all. I mean, I’m never mean-spirited about it. I never say anything that I would feel guilty about [laughs]. They’re fine about it. They’re very much a part of who I am in my humor, so I talk about them a lot. My mom’s a therapist, so there’s a lot of material there.

Would you say that your sense of humor is genetic?
We always laugh together, through everything, the pain that has happened in our lives. Whenever my family gets together, we all laugh. That’s what we’ve always done. My parents are both very funny. My father is hysterical; he’s got a great sense of humor. My mother is funny; but she doesn’t mean to be. It’s one of those things.

Something else that stands out in your act is your facial expressions. The confident, ugly girl is a good example. They are really spectacular. Do you practice in front of a mirror?
[Laughs] Thank you! No, I’ve always been making faces my whole life. Even as a little kid. Someone just sent me a picture of when I was little and I was making a face in the picture. I’ve always done that.

Again, my father is very expressive.

I’ve always been silly and made faces. I was the class clown. Actually, I started comedy 15 years ago because my grandmother took me aside and said, “Every time people are around you, they’re always laughing.” She was watching me sit with people in my family at some event or something. She said, “You should be a stand-up comedian.” I’d never thought of it before. I never thought I could do it. I ended up taking a six week class and trying it. I was very nervous to do it. I had to work through that, because I was panicked to be on stage in front of people. She was right [laughs].

You also incorporate accents and voices in your act.
As a kid, growing up, in junior high school, high school and college, I was always imitating people. Their voices and faces the way they look. All that stuff. I have a knack for that, for imitating people.

Do you have a favorite accent to do?
I love doing my Jewish grandmother. I also love imitating a black woman. Those are the ones that everyone really likes.

Something else that’s really unique is the stream of conscious aspect of your work.
There are a couple reasons for that. I teach comedy and I tell people that if you are in your head, you should address what’s going on. Meaning that if someone (in the audience) is not laughing and just staring at you, and it’s bothering you, you have to address it. Otherwise, you’ll think about it the whole time and you’re not present.

I feel like so much of being a great standup is being present and in the moment. Once in a while you’ll do something and it will click and you’ll get a huge laugh. But sometimes you have to work through something. For a while that didn’t work and I had to learn how to do it and at what times. When the joke doesn’t work that well or if it’s something new or if it’s something I didn’t get the laugh I felt I deserved or I’m used to getting for something, I’ll turn to the side.

It’s really like a motivational thing. “You’re very talented. It’s okay. You worked very hard.” I’ll end it with something like, “Wheat bread is still bread, it’s not a vegetable.” I’ll end by telling myself something real, something I didn’t realize.

It’s interesting because it’s both therapeutic for you and also entertaining for the audience.
It’s very entertaining to the audience because it’s honest and real. If a joke doesn’t work that well, the audience knows it. It’s kind of a way of breaking it up and turning to the side. Sometimes I’ll say, “That’s a really funny joke. You just need to work on the punch line.” It’s just all honest. I feel like the more honest you are with the crowd, the more they laugh.

Speaking of laughing, what did it mean to you to have Billie Jean King laughing so hard at your jokes on Celebrity Apprentice?
It’s always a big deal to have people like that laughing at you and to have people say things to you. I just performed with Rosie (O’Donnell) and she was like, “You’re brilliant!” When I did that show, Kevin Kline was in the audience, and a bunch of other people. It always means a lot when someone who is very talented, especially a standup… I had Robin Williams hugging me and kissing me after a show, saying “You’re so honest. You’re fearless. Keep doing what you’re doing.” Those are people who’ve been through the struggle.

You make good use of YouTube with your The Jessy K Show. Do you think it’s important for a comedian to have a presence on YouTube as well as doing a regular standup tour and making club and television appearances?
I think it’s important to have a presence anywhere you can. Now it’s not just about being a great standup. I’ve done the Tonight Show twice. If you were a great standup, and you did the show, that was it. You were seen and discovered. Now the whole business is different. I always tell people that you have to do different things, such as YouTube, blogs, Twitter, all different ways of promoting yourself. It’s not easy. It’s really time consuming, but you just can’t depend on standup.

I’m glad that you mentioned doing standup, because you appear to spend a lot of time touring. How much of the year do you spend doing that?
It’s hard to say. Sometimes it’s more than others. In the beginning I did anything, any show. For a long time I’ve been very selective. I can’t do a week on the road at a horrible club the middle of the country for no money. It has to be worth it for me for a long time now, because it’s too depressing.

I worked hard, so I’ve been able, thank God, to pick and choose the things that I want to do. But I will be touring a lot because I’m doing a lot of colleges again. Stuff comes up all the time.

I realized over time that you can’t just do everything and give up your life. There was a time when I was doing 10-20 shows a week. I try to do as much as I can. The hardest part, for me, of being a professional standup is to balance everything. You have to have a personal life. I realized that over time. At times when I haven’t, I’ve only focused on standup, my career didn’t go as well and I was miserable.

Jessica, would you like to do a sitcom or film work?
Yes. I did a CBS pilot, with Jim Breuer, that didn’t get picked up. I’m in a movie coming out in January that Nick Cannon wrote and directed, so I think that will change things. I’m always working on different projects and different things.

What about being on SNL?
That’s my dream. That’s really everyone’s dream. Not everyone, but a lot of people. I really believe that whatever’s supposed to happen happens. I know a lot of people who have been on SNL and are on SNL and they are miserable. It’s a hard show to be on. I came very close to being on MadTV. I don’t know what my calling is, what I’m supposed to do. I’ve always felt like I was supposed to do a talk show. I don’t know if that will happen. We’ll see.

More Info:
WHO: Jessica Kirson
WHEN: 8 p.m., Wednesday, March 26
WHERE: Reeves Theater, University of Tampa


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