Jackie Kashian: Better with a Punchline!


Jackie_KashianJackie Kashian once heckled Sam Kinison, worked for Bill Kinison and was part of the fabled Alternative comedy scene alongside peers like Maria Bamford, Patton Oswalt and Paul F. Tompkins. If that isn’t enough name-dropping in the first sentence, you may not be a real comedy fan. From appearances on Conan, Comedy Central and Last Comic Standing, Kashian is an honest to goodness working comic. Her podcast The Dork Forest ( features hundreds of episodes with the elite of the comedy world.

Kashian will be appearing at Rooster T. Feathers, in Sunnyvale, CA  on April 16-19th get your tix here:


Was there a scene in Madison, Wisconsin when you first started?

In 1984 there were seven of us and there was a comedy club owned by Sam Kinison’s brother, Bill. It was underneath a pool hall, Coke dispensary. It was a dirt baggy pool hall called State Street Infirmary. Underneath it was a place called The Comedy Cellar. There were seven of us and I think it was Steve Marmel and Eric Alver and Hannes Phinney and three other guys. Hannas and Steve are the only ones still doing stand-up, and myself. They had been doing it a little bit longer, about a year a year and half. I came in with Jim Olski and this other guy. It was supposedly the boom, right?

That’s what legend tells us.

I never experienced that boom. What I got was ten bucks a week, but I could go up every single night and do five to ten minutes. That was the boom for me. I got a 1.8 that semester and then luckily the club burned down. So by 1985/86 there was no more comedy club. Then the seven of us went and found open mics and Eric and Steve started creating their own one-nighter spaces. Then I was able to get up maybe once a month, maybe three times, but I decided I wanted to graduate. Actually it was decided for me by my sister who told me I would want to graduate. “You’ll want that Poly-Sci degree from the University of Wisconsin to fall back on.” I am happy that I graduated. She said, “It’s only three more years.” I wasn’t that great at college.

Was the club bringing in headliners?

Yes, but they were only getting super new headliners. The headliners Bill was bringing in 1984 were people willing to work for $300 for the week (which was terrible), air and a crummy apartment to stay in. I only trot out the names when I meet somebody who started in the early 80s. If you have been doing stand-up for a long time, you get a sense that it means something. It doesn’t. There is a cumulative effect when you do anything for a long time. You can be exceptional, and doing it for a long time is really the only way to be exceptional. Few people are very talented from the very beginning. But if all you got is the time, it’s like saying, “I’ve been sober for 30 years, but I’m still the worst prick you’ve ever met in your life.” Then you are not using your powers of sobriety wisely. Right? So whenever I meet a comic, and invariably it’s a gentleman, and he tells me, “I’ve been doing this since ’77.” That’s when I mention I started in 1984. Everyone else who is just nice and asks how long I’ve been doing stand-up, I tell them I count the 1980s as just one year. Because of that 8 month thing and it was invaluable to go up every night for 8 months. Stand-up wise, not academically.

The legend of the stand-up boom is seen through such rose-tinted glasses, it couldn’t have been that great for everyone.

The legend is that anyone that could do ten minutes, got $1200 a week, was flown in and given champagne and you did cocaine off a hookers ass. None of that was my experience. I was in the middle of Wisconsin. Bill Kinison did say, “You are going to find this experience invaluable” we as a group said, “We could put a value on it.” But he was right, in the end. I was 19 at the time and what would I do with $100 except drink it away. He wasn’t right to take advantage of us. In the long run, the 8 months and getting to do the stage time was more valuable than the money.

What happened after you graduated?

That was 1988, I screwed around for a couple of years, I went to Europe and worked in a hot dog stand in Cape Cod. Then I moved to Minneapolis in 1990. That is when I essentially started over. I had a small advantage due to the experience I had, but thought I had a bigger advantage. Whenever you move to small town you have to reprove yourself. It’s one of the biggest problems when comics move to LA or New York it doesn’t help to say, “I don’t think you understand how big of a deal I was in Georgia.” “I do understand, in other news, nobody cares.” You will have the advantage when you get the stage time, you can prove it. Like any job. You shine because you’re good at it. That’s what happened in Minneapolis, I moved up relatively quickly. Some people moved up faster, but it was all good. By 1993/4, I was doing a glamorous amount of what I like to call, “Shitty one nighters.” In 1994/95 I had a day job, but they were incredibly understanding because they were hippies. I was doing Thursday/Friday/Saturday runs every week.

What was the business owned by hippies?

A T-shirt and poster shop called Northern Sun Merchandising. A lotta pro-choice, Native American co-opting, peace and social justice stuff. I did customer service so I got at least 5 minutes a day of stand-up just talking to people. I did the road in 93-96, then I did Aspen and moved to Los Angeles. Whenever you attend a comedy festival there is always one person who will say, “You should move to Los Angeles, they’re going to love you.” And they do. I’ve lived here since, 1996, I think, its all a blur, there’s no seasons here.

Before the Aspen Comedy Festival did you have any TV credits?

I did local TV in Minneapolis. I was the fan in the stands of the St. Paul Saints, which is a baseball team. I don’t know anything about sports and I was asked to go around and do these little vignettes. I made every one of them political, for no reason. And, they let me go.

When you got accepted into Aspen did you feel like your talent and passion was being recognized?

No. I didn’t know I was supposed to be validated. It’s one of the greatest things about my comedy career. I had to learn there were gate keepers. I had to learn to be afraid of industry types. The biggest industry I was trying to impress in 1995, were guys who owned bars and did one-nighters for $200. When I went to Aspen the stakes were raised so high and I didn’t know what the hell I was doing.

First comedy TV gig?

My first TV gig was on A&E it was Stand-up Comedy on the Road with John Byner in 94/95 and then Aspen in ’97.

When you moved to LA, what were the clubs that welcomed you?

What happens when you move to LA in the late nineties is you go to mics. It was the beginning of the Alt. scene. It was Janeane Garofalo and Patton Oswalt and Zack Galifianakis and Paul F Tompkins.

And Maria Bamford.

Maria and I have been friends since 1992, because she’s a Minneapolis comic. I’ve known her for a gazillion years and she’s one of my best friends. She also the best working comic today. Her material is funnier and more diverse than anything going on out there. Which is amazing considering we are in a golden age of comedy.

Did the Alt. comics just rebel against formats that were too entrenched in the clubs?

In ’96 you had to stand in line for the Tuesday Laugh Factory open mic. There was also an open mic at The Improv. You could hang out at the Comedy Store and fend off terrible commentary from dirt bags and try to get some stage time. I didn’t want to do any of that. I just wanted to do stand-up. I don’t care where I do it. It was an addiction from the get-go. I did a music and story-telling mic. There was a place in Culver City that was sort of the cool kid place run by Vance Sanders. He was incredibly supportive and he would put everybody up. He was also smart and funny. An important part of Alt. was it wasn’t clubs. You could do a coffee shop, but it wasn’t bars. We are back to bars in LA, but for the longest time it was coffee shops and bookstores and record stores. In the early 90s the kings were Jerry Seinfeld and Steven Wright, guys who could write a joke like it was an operation. Incredibly specific, and they were beautiful jokes. Alt was about not that. Not set-up, punch. Surgically well-written absurdist stuff. I had a friend who wanted to do Largo and Luna Park in LA and he was like what do they mean by Alt? Actual mean comics would say it was the alternative to funny, it was the alternative to actually doing stand-up. There were a lot of slams. But as far as I could tell, Alternative comedy is you tell the story of how you came up with the joke. Then you tell the punchline. That is how I’ve always written jokes. And they tighten up over time. The story is tight and the punchline is a real punchline.

What’s your biggest challenge with Alt comedy?

People say and do hilarious things, I could just go onstage and tell those stories and my time will be up. You would have had your two drinks and that would be it. My greatest challenge is to write a punchline that is inherently funny by itself. I have a thousand funny stories about my dad, and I am willing to just tell those, but I need to twist or angle the story towards a punchline. Its better when there is a punchline. Put that on a shirt!




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