Jessica Kirson is more than a talented comedian, podcast host and performer. She’s also a loving wife and mother who is just as dedicated to her family as she is to her career. Jessica sat down with comedy superfan and writer Sara Dahms before Jessica’s show at Zanies in Chicago just a few months ago, before fears of Corona Virus dominated worldwide conversations, and was a completely open book. If you don’t know her by now, you will by the time you finish reading this interview… and to know her is to love her.
The Interrobang: I’ve been a fan of yours for a long time. I remember seeing you at Just for Laughs in Montreal. I went to Jay Oakerson’s “What’s Your F@%king Deal?!” and he had you on the floor mic at that particular show. You had these funny characters and voices and you were so expressive, it was hilarious! I wrote about you in my JFL write up that year. One of the things I wrote was that you and Jay had this playful “Martin and Lewis” kind of energy that I really loved.
Jessica Kirson: It’s funny that you said Jerry Lewis because when I was growing up I used to watch all of his movies and I would laugh hysterically at the silliness and the sounds and faces. I think a lot of my stand up imitates that, like Lucille Ball, The Carol Burnett Show or Saturday Night Live. People often ask me if I was a fan of stand-up and I wasn’t. I was a fan of that kind of comedy.
The Interrobang: Besides having “Jerry Lewis energy” the other thing I wrote about you was that you were amazing at crowd work. I said that you had a super-fast wit and were able to think of hilarious comments for every single person you talked to and that you had this ability to read each person’s energy.
Jessica Kirson: I love crowd work and saying things in the moment. That’s why I love Big Jay. Crowd work is an art and a lot of people don’t understand that. They think that most of us do it and really not a ton of comics do it. I definitely read peoples’ energy well. I have to admit that. Thank you. I think that comes from having very moody parents. You learn how to walk on eggshells and you have to read peoples’ vibes and their energy. It’s definitely a big part of it. Also, my mother’s a therapist so I’ve always been told why people do what they are doing my entire life. It’s like I’ve been coached on how to read people. I’m also incredibly sensitive, almost to where it’s a problem. It’s good because it makes me a good comic but it’s bad because I could be in line at a store and feel someone’s energy and get sad because they’re sad. It’s that extreme.
The Interrobang: It’s like a super power. You have to use it in the right way, which you do through your comedy. You found a really good profession for yourself. It makes you really stand out.
Jessica Kirson: Thank you and it’s funny you say that because it has taken me all of these years to finally feel that I’m funny. I’ve been in this career for 21 years and literally within the past 6 months I’ve said to myself, “Wow, I do come up with stuff quickly” and I’ve never given myself that before now.
The Interrobang: What was the turning point that made you start to finally see your talent? Was it Bill Burr? I mean having Bill Burr reach out and believe in you is a really big deal! You know if he say’s you’re funny, it’s true. He’s not going to bullshit you.
Jessica Kirson: Yes, definitely, but you know what? It started before that. This is an interesting story. It started the night of the Patrice O’Neal benefit, which was actually the night that Bill Burr saw me. He hadn’t seen me in years. It was in a huge theater and it was one of the best sets I have ever had… Ever! It was just like everything connected and it was insane. It was me and all the guys and everyone was like, “Holy shit!” and I remember at the end, I said to myself, “Take it in.” I literally stood out there and took a moment. It was very conscious. I was like, even if it’s uncomfortable, I’m going to stand here and take in the applause and laughter. I stood there for like an extra ten seconds. Then, soon after, I got the special. A lot of comics were retweeting it and saying, “This is the funniest person I know” and I never even knew that person laughed at me. I just took it in and for the first time thought, “You know what? I deserve this.” I have worked so fucking hard and I never thought like that before.
The Interrobang: That’s spiritual. It’s almost like the moment you opened yourself up to that, all of these good things started happening for you.
Jessica Kirson: It is! You have to do that if you want to really excel. My mom is a speaker and a seminar leader and is always like, “You have to intend. You can make things happen if you just say it’s going to happen.” She is always saying to me, “Believe that you’re a star. Act like you’re a star, channel it.” It drives me crazy when she says stuff like that but she’s right.
The Interrobang: You talked a little bit about being uncomfortable and having to walk on eggshells in your home when you were a kid. What made you feel that way back then?
Jessica Kirson: My parents were very intense and very moody and they had a horrible marriage. My dad was very sensitive and very moody. He could be funny and loving one minute and then angry and yelling the next. There was a lot of screaming and yelling and I would be in my room alone a lot, not wanting to be around the craziness. I never really prayed as a kid but I would actually get on my knees and pray that they would get divorced. That’s how bad it was.
The Interrobang: I was the same way, Jessica. My dad was a cool Brazilian guy who wanted to go out with his friends on the weekends and have fun and my mom was a traditional, family centered Italian girl so that caused a lot of fights between them and he worked nights so we’d have to be quiet all day so we didn’t wake him up and that was rough too. My parents were married for 20 years and fought like cats and dogs. They finally got divorced when I was 10. My siblings were all upset about it but I was like, “Thank God! Good for you, mom! I’m proud of you!”
Jessica Kirson: That was very similar to the way I grew up. My mom is a therapist and she saw clients in the house. I had to be quiet everyday while she was seeing clients so I get it. My parents were married 18 years and got divorced when I was 12. I was the same way. I was smiling and laughing when my parents told me about the divorce.
The Interrobang: I’ve heard you talk about your relationship with your mother on your podcast, “Relatively Sane” and I loved it when you had her on as a guest. You are so funny and so honest about even the most serious things, but through it all you are always silly. I love it!
Jessica Kirson: I try. People can get pretty heavy and then some people just won’t go there at all. It’s very interesting. Some people will just stay very closed and that’s annoying but there are a lot of comics that will go there.
The Interrobang: Your Bobby Kelly episode is worthy of an award. Actually, if there was an award show for podcasts, that episode deserves to win all of the awards! Do you have a favorite episode?
Jessica Kirson: Bobby’s is definitely one of my favorites. Gary Gulman’s was the most helpful for people. A lot of people messaged me and said that it helped them so much to hear because he was hospitalized and talked a lot about depression. The funniest one was Chris Distefano’s by far. You are going to die laughing. Both Chris and I have said that it’s one of the funniest things either one of us have ever done. Jim Breuer’s is great too.
The Interrobang: I can’t wait to go back and listen to all of your episodes and I’m sure they are amazing but that Bobby Kelly one… OMG! You have a solo intro before you actually bring the guests on and from the time you first introduce Bobby, it was less than 60 seconds before he revealed that he was molested in a closet when he was a kid. I couldn’t believe that he just came right out and said it. I mean, I knew about him battling addiction and being sent to juvie when he was a kid and I have always worried that someone might have hurt him in that way but I never knew it actually happened until your show.
Jessica Kirson: I was surprised it came out right when we said hello but that’s what I want. I love interviewing people. I would love to do a talk show. I love it when the connection is there and we can talk about their life and upbringing. I don’t want to talk about comedy for an entire hour but some people can only talk about comedy. I’m so silly and I do so many shows that I want a venue where I can be serious too and show that side of my personality and that’s why I do my podcast.
The Interrobang: I love that you’re embracing both the serious and silly sides of who you are!
Jessica Kirson: It’s so important to be silly in life! There are so many people who aren’t and some people judge you for it. It’s like, Oh my god! You only live once! Stop being so serious and fearful and heavy all of the time!
The Interrobang: One thing a lot of people may not know about you is that one of your daughters suffers from a pretty serious heart condition. You just said, “You only live once” and that reminded me of something Ron Bennington once said to me when we were talking about my heart condition. He asked me, “Do you think that’s why you love life so much?” and I was like, “100%!” Do you think going through those difficult experiences with your daughter has made an impact on how you live your life?
Jessica Kirson: Definitely. When was your last surgery?
The Interrobang: My first open heart surgery was when I was 4 and my last major surgery was my second open heart when I was 12. They put adult sized valves in so hopefully that will be my last one.
Jessica Kirson: That’s what we’re hoping. I’m dreading the next surgery and I’ve been thinking about it a lot. She has a major problem. You know what I also realize lately? People cannot handle when someone’s not ok. They’ll be like, “But she’s ok right?” and I’m like, “No, she has a very damaged heart and it’s not ok.” I mean, she’s ok right now but she needs more surgery and she might need more than one or two. Her doctor is very good, thank God. He wanted to take her case because it’s so rare. I think being in this situation, with her, a bunch of times now, makes everything else less important. It makes this so little. I think going through a sickness, yourself or a family member, puts everything in perspective.
The Interrobang: It’s definitely made me embrace life. I know you embrace silliness on stage but how are you at being silly and playing with your kids when you’re at home?
Jessica Kirson: I’m so playful! I’m too playful! I get them riled up constantly. I love having girls and being silly with them because a lot of times girls aren’t taught to be silly.
The Interrobang: They are so lucky to have you and having that connection to comedy will only help your daughter. My love for comedy started when I was sick as a kid. My mom loved comedy and we would lay on the couch and watch National Lampoons, all of the John Hughes movies, all of the Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks movies and we’d laugh and it made being sick a lot easier. I heard you mention on your podcast that you were raised by a nanny. What was that like?
Jessica Kirson: I was brought up by a Jamaican woman and she was my mother. She was really like my mother until I was seven and I loved her dearly. She nurtured me and took care of me and I felt very, very connected to her.
The Interrobang: Do you still have a relationship with her?
Jessica Kirson: Yes, my sister and I have seen her. She must be in her late 70’s now but we’ve seen her since then a bunch of times. My mom just fired her one day and it was horrible because she was just gone.
The Interrobang: Someone took your mother away and didn’t tell you why?! That’s a trauma. That’s a major loss.
Jessica Kirson: Yes. It was a big deal. I don’t think my mom really understood the role she played in my life. If she knew how it was going to affect me, she wouldn’t have done that but my nanny was very nurturing to me.
The Interrobang: So you had the love and security of your nanny for seven years. That reminds me of what Bobby Kelly said on to you on your podcast about having a safe nurturing childhood for the first five years of his life and then everything changing for him when his mom got married to his asshole stepdad.
Jessica Kirson: I always had love around me but I definitely feel like something’s missing. I am very aware that there’s a piece of me that’s not there. I used to think it would come from audiences and it never ever, ever did, not once. The only time that I ever felt better with that is when I am with my children or when I pray.
The Interrobang: That’s beautiful. Prayer is positive thinking and when you were saying earlier about how your mother tells you to “think it” or “intend it into existence” I was thinking, that’s kind of like what prayer is. You’re putting what you want out there.
Jessica Kirson: You’re putting it out there and a lot of it with me is letting go and just trusting in something else and I have to tell you, when I’ve done it, my life has been a lot better. It’s been a lot different.
The Interrobang: The Surrender?
Jessica Kirson: Yes, and I always feel weird saying that because it sounds so religious but it’s true and I can’t deny it.
The Interrobang: I don’t repeat this story very often because it sounds so religious and it’s very personal to me but when I was having my first open heart surgery, it was 21 hours long. I had a heart attack and died on the table. I basically lost all of my heart function and was being kept alive on the heart and lung machine. The operating room nurse kept coming out to give my mom updates and towards the end, she was really just preparing my mom for the worst. My mom said that after all of the tears she finally got to a place where she just accepted. She prayed and said, “Sara was yours before she was mine. Thank you for letting me have her for as long as you did” and in that moment there was a knock on the door and it was the O.R. nurse coming to say, “Antoinette, her heart function is coming back. She’s got 20%” and my heart function just kept coming back… and here we are.
Jessica Kirson: Your mom’s name is Antoinette? That’s my daughter’s middle name.
The Interrobang: Are you kidding me? It’s also my middle name! Did we just become best friends?! LOL!
Jessica Kirson: LOL! That’s amazing. That’s my mother in law’s name, Antoinette. I can’t believe you went through all of that at that age.
The Interrobang: Well you’re going through it as a parent and I don’t know which role is harder, but you’re doing it right. You’re going with the flow, living one day at a time and enjoying life because that’s what we are meant to do! You were amazing in the movie “The Comedian,” your comedy special, “Bill Burr Presents Jessica Kirson: Talking to Myself” was hilarious, now tell me about the documentary you’re working on with FX!
Jessica Kirson: I had met with some people about doing a documentary and it just evolved into this situation with my manager bringing the idea to FX. We met with them and pitched an idea about doing a documentary about female comedians. I showed them every female comedian I know and we discussed each one then for certain reasons chose this person or that person but we have a lot of interesting people in there like Nikki Glaser, Fortune Feimster, Margaret Cho, Kathy Griffin, Marina Franklin, Sherri Shepherd, Rachel, Carmen, and so many other hilarious comedians. We’re cutting it now and it’s supposed to come out at the Toronto Film Festival. It’s amazing… I also have a deal with NBC Peacock for a show that me and Bonnie McFarlane pitched that got picked up.
The Interrobang: What?! That is so exciting! I’m so proud of you! That is a really big deal, Jessica! Congratulations! What’s the show about?
Jessica Kirson: It’s a show about my life, my kids, my family, everything!
The Interrobang: Like a sitcom show about your life? OMG! That’s awesome! Casting it is going to be so much fun for you guys! When does it start? Where are you filming? Tell me everything!
Jessica Kirson: We’re writing the script now and then will hopefully film the pilot in New York this summer. The whole thing is that I’m in a relationship with a woman and have two baby mamas yet am living a traditional kind of straight suburban life as kind of the man of the house and I have to keep the peace with my ex, with my wife and with the families. My wife is from a very blue collar, conservative family and I’m from a liberal Jewish family. Bringing these two families together is very interesting. I have some other stuff happening too and all of this good stuff has kind of all happened at the same time!
The Interrobang: Well no one deserves it more! I’m so excited for you! Good luck!