Even in the darkest of times, stand-up comedian Jessica Kirson can find humor.
To wit, she told NJJN that when her father died of cancer three weeks into quarantine, the rabbi who was officiating the funeral said that her family would have to bring their own shovels to the cemetery to prevent spreading the virus.
“And I’m like, ‘Jews don’t have shovels, we don’t do shovels,” Kirson said, a nod to the perception that Jews aren’t especially handy. “We were laughing about it for a week, like saying what we should bring [instead], like my grandmother’s ladle … I literally had to borrow [a shovel] from my sister’s neighbor who’s not Jewish.”
This gallows humor, as well as stand-up routines in which she frequently interrupts her own narratives with biting, often crass asides, and a willingness to mix it up with the audience, makes it a little difficult for me to reconcile with the reserved voice on the other end of the phone.
“I am more and more of an introvert as time goes on and the older I get — and a lot of comics feel that way because it’s exhausting to have to be on, and you’re not just on when you’re on stage, all day you’re hustling, you’re on the phone with people, you’re trying to, you know, get shows and do interviews,” said Kirson, who grew up in South Orange. “I mean, I’m grateful, but everywhere you go people are wanting you to tell jokes, or be on, or be funny.”
Lucky for her, she is funny, and she’s parlayed her zany sense of humor into a successful career in comedy and acting. Besides having performed on “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon” and a regular stint on “The Howard Stern Show,” in 2019 Kirson released her own comedy album, “Bill Burr Presents Jessica Kirson: Talking to Myself,” and she hosts a podcast, “Relatively Sane.” Her acting credits include “The Comedian,” a 2016 film starring Robert De Niro (Kirson also served as a writer and producer); the HBO series “Crashing”; and the Kevin James sitcom, “Kevin Can Wait.”
Most recently she had a small role in the just-released “The King of Staten Island,” a heavy comedy starring Pete Davidson of “Saturday Night Live” and directed by Judd Apatow. Though she appears in just one scene, it’s — subjectively, I suppose — the funniest in the movie, involving a robbery-gone-wrong and a pharmacy owner who snaps upon catching the thieves mid-heist.
Kirson’s bread and butter, though, is telling jokes to Jews, about Jews.
“Boy, it’s heaven when it’s Jewish people,” she said. “For me, it’s much harder when it’s not, because our people just laugh at everything. We can laugh at ourselves. … not a lot of groups can do that … I’ll go on and make fun of our traditions and our different things we do and people crack up.”
There was some trial and error along the way. Kirson said she often performs in front of older Jewish crowds in Florida — as she says in one of her routines, “most are 80, 90, some have passed” — and found the audience was protective of her, as if she was their
“I’d say these things about being unhappy or blah blah blah [and] they would get upset,” she said. “So I learned to like pad things with jokes and say, ‘It’s OK, I’m happy now.’” Which is true; Kirson lives on Long Island with her wife and four daughters, ages 13, 4, and 1-year-old twins.
For the most part, her humor lands well with Jewish audiences. For the most part.
“The people that get maybe more sensitive are the ultra-Orthodox.”
(That statement led to the following exchange: “When on Earth do you do stand-up for an ultra-Orthodox crowd?” “I have done it when I do the Passover shows in Florida.” “Ah.”)
Those shows can be challenging. Once she performed for a mostly Modern Orthodox audience, but the rabbi was clearly far to the right of the congregants, so out of respect she kept it “squeaky clean.”
“Nothing offensive, nothing about my lifestyle, you know, just really safe and easy and funny,” Kirson said. Afterward the rabbi complimented her routine but added, “Just so you know, you can’t sing in front of Orthodox men.” What did she sing? “Happy Birthday.”
“He said, ‘My son and I were covering our ears.’”
Kirson’s family is something of local Jewish royalty. One of her stepbrothers is Zach Braff, star of the long-running sitcom “Scrubs” and director of several movies, including the critically acclaimed “Garden State,” and another stepbrother, Joshua Braff, is an author of several novels, including “The Unthinkable Thoughts of Jacob Green” (Algonquin Books, 2004). Her mother, Elaine Braff of North Caldwell, is a respected therapist, and Elaine’s husband of 30 years, Hal Braff, was a community leader, renowned for volunteer endeavors, such as aiding the students of Weequahic High School. Hal died in 2018.
Family is clearly important to Kirson, and she gushes about her own. Not that she couldn’t use a break about now, her usual travel schedule having been upended by a certain pandemic.
“It’s a lot. Especially now it is unbelievably crazy being home, because I have been on the road for 21 years. So it’s nuts,” she said. “I’m not kidding. I’ve been on the road for 21 years. I mean constantly, so I’ve never been home for even two weeks at a time, I don’t think.”
After being cooped up for four months,
Kirson is willing to go to extraordinary lengths to escape.
“I’m just performing anywhere now. I’m like, ‘Do you have a barn? I’ll perform in your barn, I don’t even care where I have to go.’”