Comedian Jen Kirkman had no plan when she enrolled as an acting and dance student at Emerson College in the ’90s.
“I didn’t have goals or solid ideas . . . I just thought, ‘Something will happen.’ I was a dreamer,” the Needham native says.
Then one night, she saw Norm Macdonald at the Comedy Connection in Boston, and everything changed.
“When I saw live comedy, I just felt compelled. It’s not even that I thought I was funny — I just felt: ‘I have to do this,’ ” says Kirkman, who’s readying for a hometown gig at The Wilbur on Friday.
“I saw Norm [a little while] later after I started doing standup . . . I was kind of stalking him backstage, and I said, ‘I want to be a comedian. Do you have any advice?’ But deep down I really was hoping he’d go, ‘Oh, you’re a comedian? You should be my opening act!’ And he was like, ‘I don’t know. It’s hard. You gotta keep doing it.’ And I felt so stupid, I just kind of slunk away like, ‘Thank you.’ ”
Kirkman seems to have figured it out. Since her time on the Boston circuit, she’s done two Netflix standup specials (“I’m Gonna Die Alone” and “Just Keep Livin’?”), written two best-selling memoirs, and amassed screenwriting credits that include “Chelsea Lately” and the award-winning Amazon series “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”
Q: You started out as a comedian in Boston.
A: My first gig ever was at the Green Street Grill. Eugene Mirman — he started in Boston as well, he started a little open-mic back there. It was 11 p.m. on a Thursday, and the only people there were, like, other 22-year-olds who didn’t care if they didn’t sleep. I performed for maybe 20 other like-minded people and I was like: “I’m gonna keep doing this!”
Q: And when did you feel you could do this?
A: I felt it right away because I was obnoxious. I was really over-confident. I lost my footing when I moved to New York and couldn’t make audiences who weren’t exactly like me laugh. Then I found it again . . . Honestly, we’re always questioning ourselves.
Q: You have two Netflix specials. How did that come about? They approached you?
A: Yeah, they actually did, and it was really cool because when I did mine in 2014, there weren’t a lot of comedians yet on that platform. They don’t tell you the ratings, but I knew they were happy with it because they gave me another one right away. I have another hour ready to go, I just don’t know who is going to buy it yet. Now there’s more of a landscape, not just Netflix.
Q: So I love “Mrs. Maisel,” and it’s funny because when I saw you were a writer on the show, I could see parallels between you and the main character. Your personalities — there’s some connection.
A: It’s funny, that’s what everyone says. I didn’t write a ton of her standup — we all contributed here and there — but Midge Maisel is very similar to [show creator] Amy Sherman-Palladino, and Amy and I are similar. It’s a coincidence that I worked for a woman that I’m really similar to, and then she created a character that’s similar to her. It’s kismet.
Q: Would you write for more shows?
A: I’m pitching some shows now, so if those get bought I’ll be busy writing my own pilots and stuff. I’m in the Writers Guild, so that’s how we keep our insurance. I love being a loner and going on the road, but then I also love being in a giant room of people and helping write jokes and come up with stories. I need to go back and forth.
Q: You talk about life without children.
A: It’s funny, I never meant it to be a thing. What made it become a thing was the reaction that I was getting from people. Strangers who would come up to me: “You’ll change your mind! Blah, blah, blah,” and I thought: “Wait. If this is happening to me, it must be happening to everybody.” I’m trying to give other people who have to suffer these same insane questions over and over a little relief.
Q: You talk about catcalling, which is relatable, too.
A: You know, as women, we’ve all been dealing with this forever. And in the last few years, now women are talking about their experiences with sexual harassment, big to small, and men are going, “Oh, I get it.” And I’m getting a lot less resistance when I talk about this on stage. Guys are handling it very well. I tell them, “You’re one of the good guys. You paid to see a woman talk for an hour, and you’re not interrupting her.”
Q: You’ve done “Drunk History” a few times.
A: I’m friends with Derek [Waters], the creator. Derek had this idea, after a friend got really drunk one night and wouldn’t stop talking about jazz. He’s like, “No, Derek, let me explain jazz to you!” And Derek thought how passionate drunk people are when they care about something, and thought, What if I got people drunk and asked them to talk about something historical?
Q: I never knew if people were really drunk, or just acting.
A: No, we’re really drunk. If you saw outtakes before we’re fully drunk, you could tell.
One I did was actually about Boston. It was about Mary Dyer. She was a Quaker and I think before we became independent of England it was illegal to be a Quaker, and they gave her a chance: “Stop being a Quaker, or leave, or we’ll hang you.” They hung her on the Boston Commons. Winona Ryder played her, which was awesome.
In the episode, I say, “She’s in an unmarked grave on Boston Common, nobody’s ever honored her, blah, blah, blah.” It’s totally not true. Right near the State House, there’s a giant Mary Dyer statue that I’ve walked by thousands of times. I never got the chance to publicly correct that, so there’s my exclusive.
Jen Kirkman performs Friday, Sept. 13, at 7:30 p.m. at the Wilbur, 246 Tremont St, Boston. Tickets are available at thewilbur.com.