Jen Kirkman's name first came to my attention by way of Patton Oswalt on the Comedians of Comedy Tour film. In one of those moves that only a person who appreciates the nuances of figuring out where the Legion of Super-Heroes fits within current DC comics continuity, I jotted down all the names of the comedians that Patton listed at various junctures in the movie. Unfortunately, at the time I was living in the culturally dead comedically bereft ice ball of intellectual solitude known as Southwest Missouri (The Ozarks!), so I was limited to three main options for looking up the comedians Patton had referenced: bootleg tapings of performances, YouYube videos, and the occasional comic with enough good grace to put out an album I could buy. Jen Kirkman fell into this last category of saints and sinners—though oddly enough not very much in the first two categories. This meant that I bought the album blind in a very midnight-hour-California Split-roll of the dice-I-hope-this-is-good kind of gambit.
Of course now having listened to the album, I wish that I would have been able to save my good fortune towards like…winning the lottery or cheating death. Because flat out, the album is fantastic. I was not disappointed in the slightest, and since this is quickly turning into one of those hip-oh-too-self-aware reviews that the kids are always going on about, I'm going to tell you why.
Self Help begins humbly enough, with Jen Kirkman establishing the intimacy of the live setting in which she is performing while at the same time acknowledging the distance that the estranged album listener has to the recording. As she says: “I love the idea that someone who likes comedy, but not necessarily the way I do it, will hear this and be like 'the fuck is this'. Like they are so mad right now because I haven't even said a funny thing yet and then they hear you laughing and they are like 'that's not funny. I don't get it. what's going on?'. Oh I love it. And they can't see my awesome sweater, it's too bad”
For the listener it is just going to be you and Kirkman's disembodied voice for 40 minutes. The album gets off to a quick start with almost a suite of tracks dedicated to stories involving roving bands of gang-banging cockroaches. As with most bits from the set, the jokes serve multi-layered purposes both within the microlevel of the immediate setup-punchline she is doing , and on the macro level of the work as a whole as they serve to push forward the strong central viewpoint of the work. In the case of the cockroaches they serve, pointedly enough, to set the geography of Kirkman's world. The cockroaches set up where she lives, which in turn introduces the people she lives around, which then leads to the next section of the routine, a genius passage of relationship humor that manages to tell narratives about being single and dating through the lens of her not being or doing either of those two things. This introduces another main theme of the album, that of juxtaposition. It is something akin to watching a maniac try to cram together jigsaw puzzle pieces from ten different puzzles. It becomes a constant war of negations, absurdities, and contexts that at times makes for a completely compelling seat of your pants listening experience.
But where the album really hits its stride is towards the middle of the album, where Kirkman strikes a perfect balance of the absurd and mundane, beginning with her fear of demonic possession and ending with her confession to having an “adorable accident” in her pants to an unsympathetic date. It is in this section that Kirkman's delivery really shines as her voice seamlessly transitions through characters, digressions, and punchlines wrapped within punchlines. It might be over the top to say tour de force, but what the hell I just did. It is a tossup between “I Don't Want Kids” and “Don't Murder Your Friends” for best parts of the album. Though even with that said, the internal logic of the album is so strong, and the transitions are so smooth that the entire act becomes almost a Jenga-like labyrinth of finely woven narrative.
And yet, possibly the best thing coming out of Self Help is the leave-them-wanting-more sense that greater things are on the horizon. There is a play here in the construction of the jokes—in their setup and composition—that portends an almost Stein-ian interest in the elements of language within comedy. But then riding right alongside that is this complete other force on the album in terms of personal exploration that is also really compelling. Which is not to say that the album is completely raw and overly personal—just that Kirkman is adept at creating a persona such that you would be perfectly fine following her down just about any rabbit hole. I could definitely see either of those forces playing a much stronger influence on the material down the road to great effect either way. But if all we do end up with is Self Help I will be happy with that too. And so should you.