Jackie Kashian’s new album is I Am Not the Hero of This Story. To me, she is the hero!
The South Milwaukee native was preparing to record the album and had all forty-five minutes ready to go. Then Election Day 2016 happened. Time to write new material, even though it was practically the eve of recording and even though she doesn’t usually do political humor.
So when a storyteller who’s pretty much perfection gets ahold of our current political scene, you’ve got some blockbuster comedy. But initially, the time crunch worried her. Were a few short weeks enough to bring the material up to her exacting standards? As it turned out, yes!
The first ten minutes of the album are political and include Jackie’s dismay that even we reluctant stepper-uppers are going to have to step up. “I was hoping to coast to the twilight of my life and fall over in a heap … And now I have to get up … I was not raised to be the hero of anything, but I guess I will be.”
There are also beautiful lines about the United States’ new position in the world and more. They’re all part of the reason I Am Not the Hero hit number one on iTunes and Amazon and number three on Billboard.
The other reasons the album flew up the charts? So many.
There are great stories about Jackie’s family: her hilariously pragmatic dad, her brother’s sang-froid, and her grandmother, a survivor of the Armenian Genocide of 1915 who emerged with an unbreakable sense of humor.
Jackie also has new material about fan-favorite topics: her famed love of reading, being “an early adopter of anti-social behavior,” and her marriage to a video game designer which, atypically, inspires comedy for its lack of complaints.
Jackie, who also created the popular Dork Forest podcast, kindly spoke with me by phone while I dorked out about her fabulous comedy and fourth album, and about grooming and social challenges, reading, and romance.
Teme: I read that your comedy career began with heckling Sam Kinison. What did you say to him?
Jackie: He said he was from Peoria and I said, “I’m sorry.” I had perfect timing, but a terrible line. He mopped up the floor with me. I was very, very drunk, so neither one of us had a chance, quite honestly.
Teme: What did he say?
Jackie: I have no idea, but I’m sure it involved cursing.
Teme: It’s pretty brave to heckle Sam Kinison!
Jackie: I don’t know that it was brave. I was 18 years-old and I’d had six shots of tequila. It was almost my first time out in public.
Teme: How did you decide that you wanted to do stand-up?
Jackie: I didn’t. I only knew that later that night the club manager told me, “Open mic is on Sunday.” I’d been interested in other types of show business. I’d wanted to act and sing, but I was never willing to do the work. Stand-up comedy, it turns out at least initially, is just a great day of hanging around. I’m really good at that. But I was addicted from the get-go.
Teme: What are the keys to great storytelling and keeping people engaged?
Jackie: The key is knowing when the story is over and making sure that it’s personal and relatable. Everybody has a story that other people can relate to, whether it’s “I don’t like the line at the grocery store” or “my mother was an alcoholic.”
If you’re going to talk about something that’s widely available like going to the grocery store, you need to make sure that it’s more personal. When you talk about something super personal, like mental illness or a death in the family, you have to take a step back and make sure it’s relatable. They are two different skills.
Teme: How did you decide to make the new album cover look like a Little Golden Book?
Jackie: I told the artist I wanted the art based on the Dan Frontier series I read as a kid. Then I sent the art to Stand Up! Records and the label’s graphic designer put the Golden Book binding on it. I was like, “Oh my god, that’s genius!”
Teme: The cover brought me back to being a kid when reading took me to a peaceful place away from everything.
Jackie: Yeah, that’s an excellent point because it really does. It reminds you how great books are.
Teme: When did you decide to include political comedy in this album?
Jackie: November 8th around 10 p.m. Pacific. Not even kidding.
I don’t know how to not talk about it. My real worry was I didn’t know whether it would be funny. I’ve never had anything so fresh and untried on an album. I do albums every two to four years, so I want the jokes to be perfect, even though as soon as you record something you write three new punchlines. There’s the master and then a week later, you think of a new punchline.
Teme: That’s like after an interview. An hour later I think of the question I didn’t ask.
Teme: Your political jokes are hilarious. I love the part where you ask, “Why do I have to be the one to step up?” Personally, I don’t want to. I hate that we have to, but we have to.
Jackie: Right, I was hoping that the democracy and the republic would just work. Turns out, sometimes you have to massage it.
Teme: Yeah, it’s daunting! Do you have a favorite track on the album?
Jackie: It’s the “moccasin” track. Possibly because my moccasins are my favorite shoes. Do you have a favorite track on the album?
Teme: I loved all of it. I loved the bit about forgetting to brush the back of your hair because I do that all the time. I was out yesterday and the only reason I remembered to brush the back of my hair was that you reminded me.
Jackie: Well, then my work is done, isn’t it!
Teme: Yes, thank you! Usually, I come home and realize I have a tangle on my head the size of a Jumbotron and no one said anything. Also probably my jacket was misbuttoned. I don’t even know if this is a question, but who are these people who always remember to brush the back of their head?
Jackie: They were raised by parents who said, “Sit up straight!” People who had more of a hands-on upbringing than myself. I think my stepmother wanted me to be more of that, but she got a hold of me too late. Posture was already over. She did her best.
Teme: We probably gained some extra time in not brushing the back of our heads.
Jackie: That’s going to free up our elder years.
Teme: I also love your gym teacher explaining friendship by drawing a graph in the dirt.
Jackie: The history of that joke is an author on Twitter commented that stand-up comics never talk about friendship and love. Mark Maron tagged me in response and tweeted back at her, “Have you never seen Jackie Kashian’s act?”
And so I consciously started thinking about friendship. I knew I’d been a pretty solo kid. I thought, “When did I really learn what friendship was?” And then I remembered my teacher. She drew a very basic line graph and said, “Hey, you gotta start talking to people, kid.” And I was like, “What do you mean?” And she very succinctly said, “I mean, start talking to people.” It was very nice of her to take that time to be a teacher in the middle of being a teacher.
Teme: I related to that, too. As a kid, I went a whole year without talking. “Selectively mute,” I think it is. I’m still kind of that way. How do you get to a place of ease in social situations if you’re not naturally inclined?
Jackie: It continues to be a thing where I have to force myself to interact. There are two kinds of social anxiety. There’s the kind that makes you shut up and be super quiet and there’s the kind that makes you talk too much. I have both of those, but it manifests itself more in talking too much. I become super chatty with strangers. I interact inappropriately. Out in the world, I’m part of the village raising the rest of the world. They didn’t ask for any help. So keep it together, Kashian! It seems to be an ongoing practice kind of thing.
Teme: I know it is for me, too. I’ll think, “Don’t open your mouth. Don’t say anything.” Then I say something anyway and I’m like, “Oh my god. I can’t believe I said that,” even as I’m saying it.
Jackie: Because the words are unfamiliar and then you just blurt something. Then you’re like, nope, that wasn’t helpful at all!
Teme: Exactly! I’m really careful to prepare for interviews. Otherwise, I don’t know what my brain is going to come up with. I don’t know how people develop the knack of being at ease in social situations. Or is the secret that everybody feels that way?
Jackie: I think the latter, although I think some people are better at it. Everybody has challenges to a varying degree. I’ve got a dozen nieces and nephews. I spend a fair amount of time with them and in each and every one I can see degrees of what I’ve been working on my whole life. I think, “Oh, she’s doing that thing that I did in my 20s! That’s too bad.” I wish I could tell her the trick to avoiding it, but I know I never listened. So I give it a shot but they are, for the most part, unmoved by my advice.
Teme: Well, it’s good to try. I wish somebody could have observed me and said, “Don’t say that!”
Jackie: Like some sort of time travel. “Nope, don’t do it!”
Teme: Yes, a button where I could take myself back. Even four seconds would be helpful sometimes.
Jackie: Remember in Galaxy Quest? It was eight seconds. Enough to fix one error.
Teme: I look forward to that technology.
Jackie: Time travel. Correct our errors before we extinct ourselves.
Teme: I love the track on your album about time travel, too.
Jackie: When would you want to go back to?
Teme: I don’t know if I would go back to a historical era or go back to fix something in my life. How about you?
Jackie: I wouldn’t fix anything in my life. I’ve read too much time travel fiction. I know if I went back and fixed something, my life might be worse because of the ripples. If I fixed something, would I make my life better? I might make different mistakes. I’d rather go back to be a fly on the wall and then of course get smacked as a fly. Which is okay.
Teme: Where would you want to be a fly?
Jackie: I’d go back to the old growth forests, the original forests in Wisconsin, like a thousand years ago. It’s really beautiful. I think of it as the shire. Like going home.
Teme: It is so beautiful there. Speaking of home, I love the way you speak about your husband and how he said that part of marriage is being a burden to each other. That was one of the most romantic things I’ve ever heard. What do you advise for a happy, peaceful marriage?
Jackie: A relationship should be like roommates with benefits. With a roommate you’re polite and you’re courteous. You keep the common areas clean. I want to make sure I’m treating him as nicely as I would a stranger. That I’m being at least as polite to the guy that I love the most as I would to a person I met on the street. Just because we live together and he supposedly loves me the most doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be polite to him or should be a slob around him.
Teme: That’s excellent advice. When did you know he was the right one?
Jackie: We’d been going out for about six months and I liked him so much. I kept thinking that it was easy. There wasn’t any drama. We laughed a lot and it was just fun. Then he said that he loved me and I said I thought I loved him but I was unfamiliar with the emotion. And he said, “You love me!” It became an exercise in trust because I was so new to the whole idea of having a relationship. There was no “ah-ha” moment. It grew from liking him and wanting to be with him a lot. He’s genuinely easier to be with than anyone. My sister’s my best friend and he’s just as easy to be with as any of my family. It’s always a good sign when there’s no work to it.
Teme: I love your material about him. It’s how a marriage should be when you’re really at home and have that level of connection and support.
Jackie: A comic last night said to me, “I want you to know that you and Andy can never break up because it’s going to kill me.” I said, “Okay, calm down. It’ll be okay!” We’ve been married for ten years. We’ve been together for thirteen and we’re doing good. We have to keep working at it and I stay aware of whether I’m doing everything I can.
Teme: Hearing you talk about your marriage reminded me to be kinder and more patient with my husband because we tend to complain about each other to each other. I also enjoy hearing about your love of reading. What are you reading now?
Jackie: I’m mostly re-reading. I recorded an episode of Dork Forest yesterday. Al Madrigal was on. He brought me a Jack Reacher novel. He loves Jack Reacher. So I may read that next. I just finished a science fiction fantasy book.
I read a variety of different pulp. I read mystery pulp. I read some romance novels, mystery novels, cop procedurals. And then I read nonfiction. I just finished The Federalist Papers. I love Hamilton, so I went down a Revolutionary War rabbit hole. I just finished listening to a book about Marquis de Lafayette.
There are usually three things going on. I’m usually reading a book, re-reading a book and listening to a book on Audible. And then I read a lot of comic books. My new favorite is Motor Girl by Terry Moore about a woman who’s home from Afghanistan after two tours of duty. She has PTSD and it is dark and funny and very sweet. What are you reading?
Teme: I love comic books, too. I just read one about a boy from Syria whose family moves to Europe and back to Syria again, but I’m blanking on the title. [Note: it was The Arab of the Future by Riad Sattouf.]
Jackie: If you read a lot of books, you get lost in the titles and authors, sadly.
Teme: So true! What would you say is the best or most unexpected thing that’s happened in your comedy career?
Jackie: One of the most surprising things is that in the last two years I’ve gotten a lot more attention than I thought I would have. I’m fifty and a lot of times your career winds down in stand-up once you hit forty because people stop caring.
I’ve always been a pretty good comic. I’ve always been happy with my work, but it feels like I’m in a really good place right now. So I think that’s been one of the most surprising things. I always think that I’m doing the best I can, so I didn’t think there was anywhere else to go. Which is, of course, absurd because you can always get better.
Teme: That’s a great way to think. I sometimes feel I don’t know specifically what to do to get better and how.
Jackie: That’s the trick, right? There’s no way to make yourself get better except to keep doing what you like to do. There are plateaus. And then all of a sudden, it’s like an unlock of your brain and you take a leap up. If you’re lucky. If you’re open to it, I think. About two years ago that’s what happened. It was kind of amazing.
Teme: What do you think is different?
Jackie: All I know is that I’m willing to talk about things that I hadn’t been willing to talk about three years earlier. In this new album I talk about things I wasn’t willing to talk about a year-and-a-half ago.
My album This Will Make an Excellent Horcrux  has a sexual abuse story in it. My husband and I worked out one of my sexual assaults in a live-action role play because he’s a game designer. It was essentially like a costume party with game mechanics. His suggestion was that we recreate a bad situation and we do the thing that happened, but we do it to each other. We laugh, we cry, and at the end of it, we take back the night. And it worked! It was funny!
It was funny, although it very easily could have been some weird, sad fact. Boo hoo, or full of rage. My punchlines could have either come from a sad place or from a rage-filled place and they don’t. They come from a celebration of the healing.
Teme: That’s so powerful. How do you do to get ready for a show? Do you have any pre- or post-show rituals?
Jackie: Before shows, I do laps and after shows I tend to read a book and go to sleep. I like to take a nap between 3:00 and 5:00. One of my favorite things to do. People always ask, “Can you eat before you go up?” I’m not going swimming!
Teme: What are you thinking before you go on stage?
Jackie: I think about what I want to get out of a show. I want to make sure I have fun and the audience has fun, so I try to gauge the audience. Like right after the election, I was at the Denver Comedy Works and I did not do anything remotely political because I assumed, I think correctly, that people were trying to get away from it for a little bit, if only for an hour.
I try to pick material that’s going to make people happiest, but I also want to do my favorite jokes. And then sometimes I think about trying a new joke that needs work and I’ve got to stick it in the middle so that I can entertain, do the new thing I have to work on, and then entertain again if it doesn’t work. So I’m usually thinking about what material to do and how to make it work best.
Teme: What is a typical day like?
Jackie: I get up and I do a lot of social media stuff. I send out emails to find more work and I do my podcast two or three times a week. I do stand-up at night three or four times a week if I’m in L.A. and more if I’m on the road. I read a couple of book and I eat some meals. That’s all.
Teme: Any question that I missed or anything we should add?
Jackie: No, we might have even solved some problems. I think we did some vital work.
Teme: I think so! Thank you, and I think my husband will thank you, too!
Visit Jackie’s website at http://jackiekashian.com/
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