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Laurie Kilmartin

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AARON CAIN: Welcome to Profiles from WFIU. I'm Aaron Cain. On Profiles, we talk to notable artists, scholars and public figures to get to know the stories behind their work. Our guest today is Laurie Kilmartin.


She's a comic and author, and comedy is both her night job and her day job. Laurie Kilmartin is an Emmy nominated writer for Conan O'Brien's talk show on CBS. And as a stand-up comedian, she's appeared on Conan, Jimmy Kimmel Live, Comedy Central, and in comedy clubs around the country. And she was a finalist on season seven of Last Comic Standing. Laurie Kilmartin grew up in Santa Clara County, Calif., in the shadow of Mt. Diablo. She attended UCLA, did some competitive swimming, and moved to the Bay Area to pursue acting before starting her stand-up comedy career gigging around in the Pacific Northwest. Some of the topics she covers in her standup and in her writing aren't taboo, but they aren't exactly tame either. In 2009 Kilmartin released a comedy album called Five Minutes to Myself, comprised of material that she was not allowed to use on the air. Punchline Magazine called it “one of the top comedy CDs of that year.” Laurie Kilmartin is also pretty outspoken about politics, parenthood and the entertainment industry in a weekly podcast she shares with fellow comedian Jackie Kashian called The Jackie And Laurie Show. She's the author of two books. Her first - well, I can't say the title of her first book in its entirety on account of a naughty word. But I can say the subtitle, The Parenting Guide for The Rest of Us. The book is a tongue-in-cheek and thoroughly inappropriate how-to guide for awful mothers and it was a New York Times bestseller. The title of Laurie Kilmartin's second book can be said on the air, but only just. It's called Dead People Suck: A Guide for Survivors of The Newly Departed. When her father lost his battle with cancer in 2014, Laurie Kilmartin's own experiences processing grief with humor inspired her to write a practical, comical and heartfelt guide to coping with the dearly departing. Laurie Kilmartin was in Bloomington to perform at the comedy attic. While she was here, she joined me in the WFIU studios. Laurie Kilmartin, welcome to Profiles.


AARON CAIN: So how did you get started in this life of comedy of yours? Were you a funny kid or was there a time when your humor - you remember it kind of activating or was it always there?

LAURIE KILMARTIN: I think I was funny within a very tiny peer group, but I was not a class clown because I was afraid of being laughed at, I guess. And so I had a couple friends I was funny with, but I definitely didn't have that reputation school-wide for sure. And I got into standup because I had dropped out of college and I was incredibly depressed. And I had originally wanted to be an actress and I had gained 60 pounds and I was like, there's nothing for me, you know? It just seemed like that wasn't a place that I could go - acting, Hollywood, all that kind of stuff. And I started to go watch standup shows in San Francisco and downtown San Francisco at The Other Cafe, which is on Haight Street, and the Punch Line and Cobb's and I was like, “oh, my God, I could do that.” And then I became really obsessed with stand-up and it's been, you know, 31 years.

AARON CAIN: I'm wondering kind of how the ratio worked there between just the delight of seeing someone making people laugh and the joy of the environment in a club like that, versus the other half that you mentioned - the – “I can do this.” Was the feeling that you saw an audience getting part of your math for wanting to get into it yourself?

LAURIE KILMARTIN: No, it wasn't. And even still, I'm always thinking of the next laugh I'm trying to get and using the audience's laugh to think ahead. That gives me a couple seconds to move ahead of everybody while they're laughing, hopefully. And even back then, I - the comics that I saw that made me want to do stand-up were ones that weren't very good because I was like, “I'm better than that guy. I know I can be better than that guy and he's getting work.” I remember seeing Dana Carvey and he was phenomenal. He was amazing. I saw him in a bunch of tiny little rooms in the Bay Area. And I thought, “oh, well, I can't do that.” There's no way I'll ever be that good, you know? But I'm better than the guy who opened for him. I could be better than that guy. And so that actually has been my motivation a lot of times when I'm trying to do something that I think I can't do is I see somebody who I think I could be better than. Same with writing. I didn't try to write on a TV show until I heard one of the writers that got hired for this one show and I'm like, “you got to be kidding me, that guy hasn't written a joke in 10 years and he got a writing job? Well, I could do that.” And that's how I motivate myself.

AARON CAIN: So, it doesn't sound like it's quite as simple as saying that you're competitive or that stand-up is competitive. It sounds like that there's another layer there - that you can kind of hear the opportunities going by that someone's missing, say, in a performance that you're watching.

LAURIE KILMARTIN: I guess so, yeah. Or - I mean, I remember seeing - I have their faces on my head. They were nice comics, but I remember just going, “that joke isn't very smart. That one's lazy. That one's dumb.” and I know I could write better, smarter jokes than that person and, you know, hopefully learn to tell them too. But for some reason somebody doing a bad job motivates me more than somebody doing a good job.

AARON CAIN: That would maybe discourage you - like, “oh, man, like, I can't touch that.”

LAURIE KILMARTIN: Yeah. Dana Carvey - I was like, “that's never going to happen,” you know? It never did. But I'm a very different comedian from him now, you know? But I wasn't sure if that was a female thing where there aren't many women doing something, it's hard for women to imagine themselves doing it. You sort of need an example. And, you know, it was usually when I saw men who were really bad at it that I was like, “wait a minute.”

AARON CAIN: So you might have been more motivated by men who were really bad at it than you would've been by a woman who was really good at it.




AARON CAIN: So in the CIA they...

LAURIE KILMARTIN: I told you not to talk about my years with them.

AARON CAIN: ...They have a word for a set of skills that are not obvious to most folks but are incredibly vital to success and survival, and that word is “tradecraft.” So let's talk a bit about “jokecraft.” I know that your day job is writing for Conan O'Brien, your night job is doing stand-up, so both your day job and your night job are comedy. What goes into writing jokes? Because I think people assume that people just get up there and it's all riffing, it's all spontaneous, but a lot of sit-down work is involved. So what's a day at the office like - either office? Either the one on the road or the one, you know, near Conan's office.

LAURIE KILMARTIN: Well, the monologue joke writing is really different than writing for myself. Monologue jokes - we write out a list of premises - the monologue writers - and we sort of share them. Premises are just things that are happening in the news that day. And then we all sort of start writing jokes off of them. It's two sentences. The first sentence is a true fact. And, you know, you can manipulate the language a little bit to push it one way or the other, but it has to be true. It can't be made up. And the punchline is the lie - it's the joke. I write, you know, 30 to 40 lies a day. You know, it really depends on the news cycle. Sometimes the news cycle is so depressing. And it also - currently, the way the news is now, it feels like the same three people are in the news - the president, et cetera. You're just like - everyone has fatigue over writing about the same topics all the time. I think a couple years ago it was a little more fun because there were just more people in the news, you know? And I think now our current president is a celebrity as opposed to - we used to have celebrities and politicians and now they're the same giant orange person. And it just - it gets tiresome to always, you know, have him foremost in our minds.

AARON CAIN: Before I read the book and saw the movie The Prestige, I never knew about magic tricks having these three traditional acts. You know, they've got the pledge and the turn and the prestige, you know? There's so much structure in something that we don't think about. Like, a magic trick's a magic trick, someone gets up there and does something magic. But even just now to hear you describe - first, you've got a true statement and then you have a lie.


AARON CAIN: The form that's in a joke.


AARON CAIN: So what's different then about when you're writing for yourself?

LAURIE KILMARTIN: Well, you know, the monologue joke is a very structured thing and writing for myself is a little different. I guess I try to start out with a true feeling, you know? My act isn't all true 100% because true things aren't necessarily funny and I feel my obligation is to get a laugh, like, every 15 to 20 seconds, you know, or every 30 seconds. Whatever rhythm I'm in. So I don't want to go off - and other people do. Other really funny comics do a little more what I consider storytelling, and I don't. I like to, I guess, end up with a story, but it's usually a series of jokes that I've been working for a long time that end up lining up really well, and it sounds like a story at the end, but it didn't start that way. And the story may be completely untrue.

AARON CAIN: So, it's a bit of a magic trick right there, it sounds like. Where...


AARON CAIN: ...Because what do I hear all the time when someone's laughing at a stand-up comic? They'll say, “oh, my God, that's so true.”


AARON CAIN: And that I think leads someone to believe that, “oh, well, then true things are funny.”

LAURIE KILMARTIN: Well, I feel like emotions are true. Like, I spend time on stage dealing with emotional truth and not, you know, necessarily actual truth. I talk about having a child a lot and my emotional truth is that I'm exhausted and it's really hard and I didn't want to have a kid and I had one because it - because Anna Nicole Smith had one and I was like, “well, all right, if she can do it I can do it.” And...

AARON CAIN: There you go again being competitive.

LAURIE KILMARTIN: (Laughter) That's true. Oh, my God, you're right. And then she died. (Laughter)

AARON CAIN: (Laughter).

LAURIE KILMARTIN: She - if she'd have died one year earlier, I probably wouldn't have had a kid. Yeah, I kind of talk about that emotional truth and I think women - or, you know, just any audience member that has a kid - or whatever I'm talking about - connects with it that way, you know?

AARON CAIN: They feel that emotional truth of the exhaustion...


AARON CAIN: ...Of feeling overwhelmed...


AARON CAIN: ...But they might not believe if you say something - not exactly derogatory towards your own child, but something less-than-fully warm and loving.

LAURIE KILMARTIN: Right. Right. Right. Honest, you know? Yeah. I mean, there are facts - like, my kid is 11, he's half Hispanic. And those are actual real things that I use. But then, that's just a baseline. And then I go off into fantasy land and hopefully comedy land - funny land - joke land.

AARON CAIN: I'm still captivated by how much is structured and how much isn't when it comes to creating jokes - creating something that seems to mean the most to us when it feels spontaneous, something like humor.


AARON CAIN: And so how calculated are you when you say, “OK, so I wanted to share something about the emotional truth of myself and my child” - or “vibe it” more, for lack of a better word. How do you know when you're hitting that emotional truth - well, I think I know the answer. I shouldn't even bother to ask because the audience will probably be the last person who really tells you if it works or not - if that truth...


AARON CAIN: ...So what's that like when you're finishing your work, so to speak, in front of real life humans rather than at the laptop?

LAURIE KILMARTIN: That's funny because I was on a plane yesterday coming here and it was a plane without Wi-Fi, so I was forced to work on my act instead of tweeting. And there's this chunk I'm working on that is - it needs to be very particularly ordered and I keep almost getting it or I'll get part of it, and then it just keeps - it's like whack-a-mole and it's driving me insane and I need to get it down in the next, like, three weeks because I'm doing it on a TV show. So I wrote it out and I put - like, I wrote it each sentence of it and I put a space between each sentence so I could kind of see - like, it would actually physically give it room on my - not the paper, but the iPad I was writing on - to see where, OK, this is too much words with no laugh - you know, it's too much information, you know?

AARON CAIN: You can sense the rhythm of it.

LAURIE KILMARTIN: Yes. I'm just giving people information without a joke. And that really helped to be forced to do that. I just want to turn off the Internet now. I think and my act would be so much better if there is no Internet. When I was writing them, I thought I came up with some good ideas and some good notes, and then I tried implementing them last night and there were six different notes in this one chunk alone I was trying to address and I got in my head a little bit about – “did I do that one? Did I not do that one?” And then I stumbled on a word. And when you stumble on a word, you break the rhythm and that joke's dead. Even - it might still get kind of a laugh, but you broke the rhythm. It's weird, there's a spontaneity in comedy, but there's also - you cannot break the rhythm. That will ruin a joke and it's very structured.

AARON CAIN: Well, that's the other thing I was wondering about, because another one of the magic tricks of stand-up comedy, it seems to me, is riffing. You have a lot of structure and like you're saying there is a rhythm that you can't violate, and yet there is such a thing as spontaneity. There is stuff that you're absolutely taking in what's going on in your environment and you're making stuff up on the spot - or are you? When I've seen good stand-up comedy, I always wonder. The best of it seems like, “oh, my gosh, this is all just completely coming from this person right now in this moment,” and I'm pretty sure that's not completely true. What's the difference then? When you're creating your own rhythm in the moment, are you able to kind of do that editing in real time where you feel, “it's on, it's on, it's on,” and then – “OK, it's not so on right now” - when they're not words that you have practiced in many performances and have painstakingly written?

LAURIE KILMARTIN: I will deviate from my structured act when I get tired of being in that corset, which is like every 15 jokes. I'm like, oh, get me out of here. So then I like to just kind of connect with the audience and sometimes I just - you know, I'm looking at people while I'm telling jokes and I can see, OK, this guy's looking at his phone and he's distracted. And if I don't stop this, other people are going to start noticing him and maybe pulling out their phones. So I need to talk to him. So I'll finish up that joke and then I'll start engaging and then seeing what comes from that. That is usually all spontaneous. The only time it's irritating - an audience member is irritating - is when they're trying to be funny and it's like, “no. Here's the rules: I'm funny. You answer my questions. I make fun of you. That's how it goes.” So when they don't follow those rules, that gets, you know, irritating. And I usually just leave them alone after that. I don't want to deal with that.

AARON CAIN: These days, do you find that relationship with the audience changing? Are people abiding by that contract the same as they always did?

LAURIE KILMARTIN: For the most part. I think, you know, when you're on stage with a mic, you are an authority. You're given authority in a way that a cop is given authority, and usually when people are confronted by an authority figure they sort of immediately start - they clam up a little bit. They go, yes, no. You know, you have to pry answers from them but they're not aware enough to try to keep up their own facade. They get a little scared. And so most people answer a comedian truthfully, which is great. That's the most fun thing.


AARON CAIN: You're listening to Profiles from WFIU. I'm Aaron Cain. My guest is author and comic Laurie Kilmartin. In addition to playing comedy clubs around the country, Laurie Kilmartin is an Emmy-nominated staff writer for Conan on CBS and the co-host of a weekly podcast called The Jackie And Laurie Show.

I heard you say something in your podcast - the podcast that you do with Jackie Kashian - and I found myself wanting you to go into it in more detail, so, hey, here you are and maybe you will. There is an implication that this is kind of a golden age for comedy right now, or at least it's someplace now that it hasn't been before. And one big part of that, it seems to me, is the role that social media plays in it. You're very active on Twitter, for example, and one wonders “OK, well, is she active on Twitter as a person or as a professional comic?” Is that a necessary part of it? But what I'm driving at is: I wonder if that contract between the voice of authority and the comedy club, the person with the mic, the funny one and the folks who are there to laugh and have a good time but not necessarily participate. I'm wondering if you're seeing a change at all when everyone kind of has their own microphone through social media to some extent.



LAURIE KILMARTIN: No. The audience - we're physically together. We're in a confined space. So I haven't noticed people being more noisy or loud than usual. Usually it's alcohol, not Twitter that makes people… (laughter).

AARON CAIN: Oh. So the classic then.

LAURIE KILMARTIN: …self-emboldened. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

AARON CAIN: Same as it ever was.


AARON CAIN: Another thing, a piece of alchemy in stand-up is what they call “crowd work” - when you're engaging someone in the crowd in dialogue. From my point of view, seeing that, it just seems frighteningly close to relinquishing control. Like, how surfers must feel where you're kind of controlling it but Mother Nature is always going to bat last. And so I wonder what that has been like for you. Have there been instances where that's gotten kind of out of your control, or are you always driving the boat?

LAURIE KILMARTIN: You know, I think as a comic you get better at crowd work the more you know yourself on stage and the more comfortable you are on stage, because no matter what someone throws at you you're always you. So you can respond from that place. And it takes a really long time to be that comfortable onstage. It really just takes decades of being on stage to be able to respond as yourself in any situation. So right now, I don't feel like I'm ever thrown off kilter by the audience. Sometimes somebody's kind of strange and I can feel the rest of the crowd getting restless. And I don't want to spend a lot of energy on it because, you know, much of comedy is crowd control and feeling the energy of the audience. And if the right side of the room can't hear what you're saying to the guy in the left side of the room, they start getting restless. You're always sort of managing that and, “how much energy do I spend on this person before I go back to my act,” which is what a lot of people would rather hear or they want to hear - they're like, “oh, hey, you've talked with that guy for two minutes. He's annoying. Let's move on.” Like, you can sense it, the relief when you move on from somebody that's irritating versus some audience members are so fun to talk to. And the crowd loves it. It's like wow I wish I could have that interaction with that person in real life. You know, like, I wish I could tell that guy he's an idiot because I sensed he was an idiot when he walked in and because I have a mic I can do it. And he takes it. You know, I couldn't do it offstage. He would get angry, but onstage I'm given this power to tell somebody what they are in my opinion. And if it rings true, the rest of the audience will be laughing. And the guy has to take it. That rarely happens in real life.

AARON CAIN: Maybe that's why they call it crowd work and not person work, because to hear you describe it, it sounds like even though it seems like maybe you're singling out one person at a time you're being sensitive to the crowd…


AARON CAIN: …and what they're feeling and how they're reacting. So you're not working one person...


AARON CAIN: ...ever, really.

LAURIE KILMARTIN: No, I'm working the crowd. Right. It's a combination of - for me, I want to be 100% alive. And if I've told too many jokes in a row and I start feeling like I'm on joke autopilot, I try to snap myself out of it. And I want - I want the crowd to feel it, too. I mean, I think part of what's so fun about stand-up is you're sort of tense, because you never - you don't know what's going to happen. I mean, you don't know if the comedian's going to go insane and start saying crazy stuff or if someone in the audience will, and what's going to happen. And that sort of tension that might actually literally keep you closer to the edge of your seat is part of what makes the show so exciting.

AARON CAIN: Pretty much any artist you will happen across will tell you that they don't do this for the money. Is that what it is for you, that thrilling uncertainty of not knowing how it's going to go? Is that what keeps you coming back?

LAURIE KILMARTIN: Well, you know, comedy feels like - even though I know it took me decades to get to be able to do it pretty well, it also feels like a thing that could be taken away from me because I can't identify it and I don't know where it comes from in my head. It's some part of my brain that I - I just - every night, I hope it's still there. And so, every time I finish a night of shows I'm like, “I still got it!” (laughter) And I hope I have it tonight. You know, I have two shows tonight. I hope I - I mean, I feel like I still have it. I don't think it went away overnight, but it could. It's not like a drafting table and notepads and pens where you're like, “I have all the tools that I need to draw a building,” if I'm an architect, or something. It's all in your head, and you don't know where it resides. And you just have to hope it's there every time you hit the stage.

AARON CAIN: You just dropped a couple of hints that I think are answers to my next question, but you've used a pretty strong word for the career path of a comedian in an opinion piece you wrote for The New York Times. You called it “the quest,” and you called it “brutal.” And you've survived this quest, and you've seen victories on this quest. So, as you look back - you know, I hate to turn this into a retrospective. You know, “this was your life in comedy,” but you've been doing this professionally for some time now. What do you think it is that’s seen you through?

LAURIE KILMARTIN: I guess I feel unseen, still. I feel like I'm still discovering how to do stand-up better. I know that when I go back and listen to - and I don't do this frequently because it's so painful - like, listen to older tapes, like, from five years ago. I'm just, like, mortified. I'm like, “oh, I'm so much better now,” you know? Or I wish I could go back in time and fix that person or fix that joke. And so, I still feel like I can be better one day. And so that keeps me going. And also I keep having new things to talk about. You know, I have a kid that's growing up, and I'm heading into a different age. I'm 52 right now. And that's - it's all so different and weird to me. And my position as a woman in the United States is changing as I am now middle aged as opposed to a potential thing that's 25. You know, it's always 25 or 30. You're like, “maybe one day this person will be really successful.” And now middle aged it's like, “you know, if it happens it won't be like - it'll just feel different,” you know? And so, that's a thing to grapple with and talk about on stage and sort of try to control and own.

AARON CAIN: In that same opinion piece for The New York Times, you described your career as “30 years of swimming under over and around sharks.” And I'm loath to be one of those people who calls you a female comedian rather than a comedian. But you've had a lot of insightful things to say about what it's like to be a woman in this business, both in your own writing and in your podcast with Jackie Kashian and with the #MeToo movement that throws your comments into even sharper relief. Are you more hopeful these days? Do you feel a change? Is that another thing that motivates you to keep you coming back, or is it harder now than it's ever been?

LAURIE KILMARTIN: Well, I mean, I love how comedy is changing. A lot more nonwhite males are doing stand-up. You know, a lot of women, a lot of women of color, a lot of gay comedians. There's a lot of people that aren't white guys doing stand-up. And they're bringing a whole different crowd to comedy clubs. And, like, last night's late show was - there were a lot of guys there, and they weren't dragged there by their girlfriends to see a female comedian. They seemed to enjoy comedy (laughter) and have laughed at comedians, female and male, black and white. And they were kind of open to me. And it was great. I guess I noticed that when I first started and was working the road in the '90s it was mostly couples and the headliner was always a white guy, almost always a white guy. And he had a predictable line of thinking, you know, his wife wouldn't have sex with him, his - you know, it was all sort of predictable and the laughs were sort of predictable. And now the comedy is - it's attracting so many different people and those people are getting work. Comedy was attracting different comedians since the get-go, but it was hard for them to get work. Club owners would only book white guys and occasionally a woman. But they, you know, acted like they should have deserved a Susan B. Anthony award for bringing a woman in. And now it feels like it's really changing, the booking is changing - that's bringing in a different audience. And it's bringing in a smarter audience and an audience that has watched a lot of Comedy Central, watched a lot of Netflix. They know more about jokes, and so they tend to demand more from jokes, which is good, too, if you're a good joke writer (laughter).

AARON CAIN: We do always try to eschew product placement here in public radio, but you said something just now that made me think: Netflix.


AARON CAIN: Back in the day, it seemed that stand-up comics, the brass ring was always, “OK. Got to get on the Carson Show, got to get on Letterman,” and now it seems like it's the Netflix special. “Where is my Netflix special?”

LAURIE KILMARTIN: That's my question.

AARON CAIN: That's your question. “Where the heck is...”



AARON CAIN: “Where did I leave that thing?”


AARON CAIN: Well, it sounds like that's been a necessary piece of fuel for this change you're talking about. You have more comedy literacy because of things like...

LAURIE KILMARTIN: Yeah, right. Right.

AARON CAIN: …you can binge comedy...


AARON CAIN: a way that you couldn't do maybe even five years ago, let alone 10 or 20.


AARON CAIN: Have you felt that change to be a pretty sudden one or has it been a little bit more gradual, everything you were just talking about, the audience is changing, the makeup of the people who are getting work changing? It's weird how that seems akin to arguments for education that generally improve something if we make a group of people more literate about it.

LAURIE KILMARTIN: Sure. Right. Right. Right.

AARON CAIN: And people might not think, “well, surely comedy behaves the same way,” but it seems like that's what's happening.

LAURIE KILMARTIN: Yeah, it feels like it. It feels like the industry has always been like, “all right, we're going to have one female comic this year (laughter) and she's going to get everything. And then we're going to do another one next year.” And there's a lot of really funny women that aren't getting what they deserve. There's a lot of funny guys that are getting what they deserve. It's just it's still really frustrating. It still feels like there's not enough spaces for us. I mean, I'm talking about myself, but I can name 15 friends of mine off the top my head that are, like, criminally underserved on Netflix and Comedy Central that are really, really funny that you guys would like. You guys would enjoy - people that are listening. They would make you laugh, but you can't find them because there’s still a focus on white guys and young comics. That's the other thing that's frustrating is like, you know, there's some of us that have been doing it without major success for a long time, not because we're not funny. There's not been major success, but it’s because we have million extra hurdles to go through to just make an average income. And I'm mostly talking about female comics. And it's sort of like a time where it feels like now the industry is, like, “yeah, we want women under 35.” That - I mean, that really, really helps. And there's a whole bunch of us that are really good. Like, we've got a backlog of material, and we're ready for something. But it doesn't seem like they're gravitating towards older female comics.

AARON CAIN: OK. Disclaimer number one, I am not trying to make an apology for the biases in this industry. Disclaimer number two, this is a pretty weird analogy. So go ahead and tell me it's stupid. But I want to bounce it off of you anyway. You mentioned that you've been doing this a long time but you don't feel like you've achieved that level of success that maybe someone who has that Netflix special who might have just come out of nowhere seem to achieve. But did you ever think of yourself as being like a symphony musician? Ninety-nine percent of the people playing in symphony orchestras on this planet you don't know who they are.


AARON CAIN: But they're absolutely operating at the top of their game.


AARON CAIN: They're very well respected, and the people who know about, say, in that case, classical music know them, respect them - know them even if they live halfway around the world.


AARON CAIN: ...Because they're functioning at a very high level and they are making a living doing it. So by some estimates, that's success.

LAURIE KILMARTIN: Yes, I totally agree. I mean, I make my living in comedy. My day job is writing jokes. I mean, it's a dream come true. And my night job is telling jokes that I wrote. So it's all good. Like in one sense, and you look at the history of the world, I'm doing fine (laughter). And if you look at what women have been allowed to do, I'm so lucky. But then, you know, you're also allowed to want more, you know? You're allowed to go “OK, thank you for this morsel (laughter). I want dessert, too. I also want ice cream,” you know?

AARON CAIN: Well, or to go back what you said earlier, it's OK to want more, as you say, but it sounds to me like you want better, that that's been a motivator all the while, from the very beginning is doing better. Improving.


AARON CAIN: Or even, if we can get this purple with our prose, contributing to the art form. Making it better.

LAURIE KILMARTIN: Well, I don't think - I always think I'm just making my own act better. I don't necessarily know if I'm contributing to the art form, or anything like that. That's a little grandiose to think about, but I'm just trying to make my own jokes tighter. Basically that's my entire quest (laughter).


AARON CAIN: Author and stand-up comic Laurie Kilmartin. You're listening to Profiles from WIFU.

What role do you think humor plays in life privately, or publicly, or politically? And has that changed? How people are using humor? The role it plays in their life?

LAURIE KILMARTIN: I think if you come from a funny family that's just going to happen for you, and my family, my dad and my mom - my dad was pretty funny, and my mom's funny. But do you mean, like, politically now or...

AARON CAIN: Could be that, too. You talked about family, and that made me think that maybe humor is a language of affection. We don't always call it that. We just think, “oh, that's a funny family. That's a less-funny family,” but it's a way that they show love for one another...


AARON CAIN: ...It’s kind of caring for each other through humor. Either I'm going to help you cope with some humor right now or I'm going to make this moment a little more fun with some humor right now. This is an affectionate act.

LAURIE KILMARTIN: Oh, I see what you're saying. I guess, like, how I deal with my son is a lot of things I can't change but I try to make him laugh while he's doing it, while he has homework, while he's doing piano practice and stuff. I can't change that. “The piano teacher is coming, and I'm making you do this. But I can try to make you laugh a little bit while we head to the keys.” (laughter)

AARON CAIN: Speaking of some of the roles that humor can play, you have written two books. Your first book has a title I don't think I can say on the radio. I can perhaps paraphrase it as “Less-Than-Ideal Mom.”

LAURIE KILMARTIN: Could you say, “Shoddy Mom?”

AARON CAIN: Shoddy. Oh, that's good. Yes, it's like that’s only sort of “vowel-ically” different.


AARON CAIN: And then your more recent book, Dead People Suck, that I can say on the radio, barely, A Guide for Survivors of The Newly Departed. It is a book that you wrote after losing your father to cancer. And it is very funny for something that is so helpful and poignant. Or maybe I should say that it's very helpful and poignant for something that is so funny. I'm not really sure how to put that. And it's really instructive, too. That's the other thing that really struck me about it reading it was that it could be just about you. But it's taking the form as a how-to book.


AARON CAIN: How did you arrive at that format?

LAURIE KILMARTIN: Well, you know, the parenting book is that - it's basically jokey funny sort of real but sort of bad advice for new parents. And most of it you shouldn't take, but you could at least laugh at the idea of, you know, running into 7-Eleven and leaving your baby in a car and putting a blanket over him, so he looks like laundry, so you can just get a coffee without taking a baby out of the car seat, which is a hassle, you know, and you don't want to get arrested, so you have to disguise it. Now, you could do that or not. I did it. My son's fine, and everything worked out OK. But maybe some people wouldn't. But at least it's kind of, you know, comedically written and you would at least enjoy it and maybe feel like the things you do – “well at least I'm not as bad as Laurie (laughter) at this.”

AARON CAIN: But that also gets back to what you're saying earlier the idea of emotional truth.


AARON CAIN: It may not be - the events may not be identical, but the feeling - the feeling that you get is. You can relate to that. You get wanting to do that.

LAURIE KILMARTIN: (Laughter) Yeah. I mean, the - I do think it's good advice to when you have a newborn: get a fan - that's one of those loud box fans - and turn it up on high and just get to sleep every night. Like, you don't have to go every time your baby cries. Turn your fan on. You won't hear it. There's no guilt. You'll wake up eight hours later refreshed and ready to give yourself to this infant who wants everything from you.

AARON CAIN: You're not afraid to get pretty personal in your humor in general, but in this book in particular pretty explicit and I'm going to say ruthlessly self-effacing and honest. Do you consider your humor both as a writer and as a comedian to be more personal than that of your peers? Or maybe I should put this another way: do you see that there is a trend of increased confession and introspection in humor these days?

LAURIE KILMARTIN: I do I think comics are being a lot more honest. I - like I said, there was kind of an archetype of a white male comic that ruled the '90s.

AARON CAIN: Like dinosaurs.

LAURIE KILMARTIN: Yeah. Yes (laughter).

AARON CAIN: Roaming the earth.

LAURIE KILMARTIN: And they all kind of told the same jokes that sounded like Tim Allen jokes. You know, it was all, “guys like this and women like that.” And they were really playing the gender stereotypes pretty hard. And they worked for that time. But now people are smarter. People are - you know, people have been more honest about who they are, you know, so that gender stereotypes don't really play as well anymore, you know? A lot of women don't like to shop. A lot of women go to the bathroom by themselves. So those jokes don't work like they used to. I forgot the question.


AARON CAIN: Just having a generally more honest or confessional nature...


AARON CAIN: ...In comedy these days.

LAURIE KILMARTIN: And I think stand-up is attracting people that want to do it like that, you know? It's much more fun. It's really fun to find something in your real life and to push it around and to craft it and to mold it and to bake it and to flatten it until it's a joke. Now it may - by the time it turns into a joke and may have nothing - it looked nothing like the thing it started like; the actual events. But you turned it into something. And that feels like a win. That feels like a victory.

AARON CAIN: Well, people have unironically referred to things like cooking and baking or making model airplanes as therapeutic.


AARON CAIN: So, surely, if those things are, then comedy can be. Or is that too clichéd to even ask: is comedy therapy?

LAURIE KILMARTIN: Sure. I mean it - I think anything you do that makes you feel better is some form of therapy. You still have a job to do. There's comedy that's therapy. It's still got to be funny. You have to adhere to rules where you need to get a laugh every so often. Again, whatever your metronome is. But you have to adhere to those rules. But other than that, it's a little bit more than therapy. Therapy, I guess, seems unprofessional. Like, I can paint. No one would want to see it (laughter). You know, so that might be more therapeutic. And comedy, stand-up is pretty strict. So, for me it does work as therapy, but also I'm creating something. So it's kind of above and beyond that, as well.

AARON CAIN: There's maybe another issue here, too, which is the way we deal with things publicly versus the way we deal with them privately. And, you know, stand-up being an explicitly, delightfully public act. But when coping with loss, for example, as from your book, that would seem to be private. And yet I'm really struck by something that you said in your book. You wrote that, “there is no such thing as private, personal or keeping it in the family because that is how we suffer now. Publicly. With hashtags.”


AARON CAIN: And that seems like more of a societal change...


AARON CAIN: ...than just something that happens to you as you cope with loss, or something that's happened to stand-up comedy.

LAURIE KILMARTIN: Yeah, that was weird. When my dad was dying, I started tweeting about it because I was home with him. He was doing home hospice, and I didn't want to leave his side. So instead, I was writing jokes. And then I thought I won't go out tonight and tell them I'll just hang out with my dad and I'll just tweet the jokes. I didn't have very many followers. I just wanted to get them out of my system. And then people started paying attention to those. And, like, I posted a picture of my dad and my mom, you know, when my dad was dying and my mom was holding his hand. And I put it in Facebook forgetting that Facebook owns every picture you post. They sold it. There were news articles about how I was tweeting about my dad, and they used that picture. And for a second I'm like, “gosh, my Dad's never had his picture in the Daily Mail. Is this the one he wants in (laughter)?” But I don't think he cared at all. He was an engineer. He wasn’t a vain guy at all. And, you know, I guess I was writing about my grief and my feelings as a daughter watching this man I loved sort of leave, leave the earth, leave my house, leave the world, leave our family. So, I felt like that was mine and I got to do what I wanted with it.

AARON CAIN: Was it a way to make him more permanent in that moment?

LAURIE KILMARTIN: I think so. Yeah, for sure. Yeah. You know, it's weird. I - when my dad was diagnosed with cancer, I started telling jokes about him and it was my way of - I feel like this because I talk about my mom too - about how I'm trying to kill her because she lives with me. And it's my way of actually keeping them alive because I almost feel like if you say it to the fates – “you can't let my dad die of cancer because I made all these jokes about how I want him to die of cancer, so you can't,” you know? I made jokes about wanting, you know, inheritance and stuff like that, although they had nothing. That was part of the joke. But of course that doesn't work. Just because I make a joke calling something out doesn't mean it's not going to happen. But it still feels like it. It feels like my only power is to go, “I know what you're up to, universe, but guess what? I already made jokes about it. So you don't win. I win this one.”

AARON CAIN: You're calling the universe on its...

LAURIE KILMARTIN: …Its gall. “How dare you take my father?”

AARON CAIN: ...Yeah. It seems like some weird combination of exorcism, on the one hand, of the feelings that are so horrendous. On the other hand, you're making a statue...


AARON CAIN: ...that lasts through the ages. You're sort of trying to get something out and commemorate it for eternity at the same time.

LAURIE KILMARTIN: Right. And plus the feelings are so huge and they were unknown to me - you know, that kind of grief and that fear of losing somebody. And then, when they're gone, that whole thing - that's a different wave of emotions. And all I had to work with was my limited ability to write jokes and I'm like, “OK, that's what I got. Those are my tools. Here I go.”

AARON CAIN: Well, now, not to disagree, but there was another thing that you brought to the table in that moment, which was being a parent. And there's a passage in your book where you talk about that. I was wondering if I could have you read a little bit the section that's called "If You've Given Birth, You Can Give Death."

LAURIE KILMARTIN: Yes. OK. “If you've given birth, you can give death. We need a name for helping one's elderly parent die. The experience so perfectly mirrors childbirth that I can't believe parent death hasn't been trademarked. The final weeks of my father's life reminded me of the first weeks of my son's. Friends said that their red, wrinkly baby in my arms was beautiful and friends insisted that their red, wrinkly old person in my arms looked good. Then everyone returned to their normal lives, leaving me to try to keep this helpless thing alive. Like babies, dying people want all your attention - all of it - ahem, dying people say a thousand different ways all day long. ‘Were you thinking of dashing out for coffee? Oh, no you don't,’ plots your dying person as he keeps you home with a passive aggressive coughing fit. ‘You're staying with me until I'm gone. Now pat my back.’ Dying people are hard work. As with babies, you can only relax when they're asleep. If you have young children, you'll be in the zone. A baby in one room, it's grandparent in the other, and you darting from crib to hospital bed, prepping one for life and the other for the grave. All your years of multitasking have led you to this moment. Remember, if you're childless and you've hospiced, give parenting a try. You'll be good at it.”

AARON CAIN: Did you think of that as this was happening or is this something that occurred to you upon reflection later?

LAURIE KILMARTIN: Oh, that was reflection for sure.

AARON CAIN: Well, it's weird because this is something that popped into my head when we were talking about comedy and the mechanics of comedy - doing crowd work, for example, staying alive to the moment while also hitting all of the rhythmic gates, if you like, of your act. I had a professor once upon time who was really obsessed, in a good way, with multitasking. And it broke her heart to read some studies from some of the same people that she liked to cite that were saying, “you know what? There's actually no such thing as multitasking. Turns out we're just unitaskers who are unitasking very quickly.”


AARON CAIN: And we can never really multitask the way we think of it, where we're actually doing several things at once. Do you feel that all of your years of multitasking in comedy prepared you?


AARON CAIN: Fair. Fair and concise.

LAURIE KILMARTIN: Not at all. No. It was - those were a couple of wild - I mean, emotionally wild weeks. You know, when the doctor said, “we'll try this last round of chemo,” and they did and the tumors didn't get smaller and - you know, right before that, my dad had just enough energy to come visit me in Los Angeles. They also wanted to do a new round of chemo and I talked to his doctor and I said, “well, should we skip this trip and my dad do the chemo?” And he said, “no, you should take the trip.” And in retrospect, obviously, the doctor figured the chemo wasn't going to work. I mean, he was 83 and he had seen this cancer a million times before. So, he was saying without telling me that, “if this is the last weekend your dad can physically do a trip, you should do a trip.” And we went out to Joshua Tree with my son. It was great. I have great memories from that trip. But then, when my dad went back to the Bay Area - he went back on, I guess, Sunday, did the chemo on Tuesday, and Thursday they said, “it didn't work, come home.”


AARON CAIN: You're listening to Profiles from WFIU. I'm Aaron Cain. I'm speaking with stand-up comic and author Laurie Kilmartin. Laurie Kilmartin is an Emmy-nominated staff writer for Conan on TBS and the co-host of a weekly podcast called The Jackie And Laurie Show. She's also the author of the book Dead People Suck: A Guide for Survivors of The Newly Departed.

When looking back at your father's battle with cancer, you reserved some pretty choice words for cancer itself. You said, “we're bringing ribbons and yellow wristbands to a gunfight.”


AARON CAIN: And you went on to say, “Cancer is dumb. Cancer never learns. It's been trying to survive for millennia, but like Lennie from Of Mice and Men it only knows how to pet things to death.”

LAURIE KILMARTIN: Well, yeah, I mean - and there's sort of some odd praise for Ebola in that chapter too because Ebola, when it senses its host is dying, jumps to the next person. So Ebola knows how to live. Ebola keeps fighting for itself, you know? And cancer goes, “all right, I found somebody. I'm going to stay here.” And you want to go, “yeah, why don't you stay there? Why don't you stay small, you know, and manageable? Just go hang out in one lung. Why do you have to spread all over the place? You're going to kill the whole body and then you're dead too.” If cancer is listening to this broadcast, please rethink your priorities. I'm trying to help you. My dad should still be watching M*A*S*H reruns and, you know, maybe having a hard time breathing because he's got one tumor in his lung. That's what should be happening. I don't know why you had to go to his pancreas, you know? And his kidney. Slow down.

AARON CAIN: (Laughter) Parasites also get a bad rap.


AARON CAIN: They're more successful probably than any other form of life on the planet.

LAURIE KILMARTIN: They really are.

AARON CAIN: There are more things living off of things than there are things to live off of. And yet people are squicked out by them, but most of them keep their hosts alive. Most of them don't disturb that balance.


AARON CAIN: Or they accidentally kill them. But most of them don't, and they don't get enough love. So, yes, I'd certainly, for what it's worth, echo your ire about cancer.

LAURIE KILMARTIN: Yeah. I mean, apparently it's been around since the dinosaurs and it hasn't learned. That's ridiculous.

AARON CAIN: Well, sharks too. They haven't evolved either. So there you go. They're jerks.

LAURIE KILMARTIN: Maybe. Really? Aren't we the jerks?

AARON CAIN: Maybe. What have sharks ever done wrong?

LAURIE KILMARTIN: I'm team shark. When it's shark versus human, I'm on the shark side.

AARON CAIN: Well maybe that's because you were a swimmer when you were at UCLA.

LAURIE KILMARTIN: I identify more with them.

AARON CAIN: You identify with - you've got to keep going. Just like sharks, you never stop. One key point of Dead People Suck, if I'm interpreting it correctly, is that living people might be even worse.


AARON CAIN: And that how they interact with the bereaved can have some pretty devastating effects.


AARON CAIN: Is there anything that you would like to share - a little piece of advice not directly quoted from the book about that - about how to be better at helping people who are going through things?

LAURIE KILMARTIN: I wrote a chapter about this, and I think the best thing to say is, “I'm sorry for your loss,” and that's it. You don't have to be original. People think it's not original and it sounds trite, but when you're hearing it, it doesn't feel trite. You feel those words. You hear someone say they're sorry, that they have sorrow for you, and you hear the word loss. And from my perspective, I'm like, they recognize that this is a loss and that's all I need. I just needed someone to go, “I see your whole body is a bruise,” you know, “I see it and I'm sorry.” And that's all I needed. You know, I didn't need someone to try to be funny or anything like that. I just needed an acknowledgement.

AARON CAIN: This is an extraordinary thing about human nature, maybe. Because something I've noticed - and this is dark - but in the wake of some tragedies that we all live with now - for example, mass shootings - what I'm constantly hearing is people trying to attach themselves more closely to that tragedy. “You know what? I knew the person who was the roommate of the person who got killed.” “I was walking by that building four days before that happened.”


AARON CAIN: People are trying to somehow cope with a grief that isn't theirs by getting closer to it.


AARON CAIN: Did you experience that at all - that that was something you sensed motivating people is that they were trying to make sense of their own feelings by attaching themselves to a grief that was not their own?

LAURIE KILMARTIN: Maybe. I mean, I think in those - what you're talking about is also people are in shock that such a horrible thing can happen, and so they want to kind of figure - they're just trying to manage their shock. You know, even if it's not grief, they're trying to control it and contain it. I don't know. No one said anything overtly horrific to me, so I just gave people latitude if they accidentally said the wrong thing. I think before my dad died I didn't know how to talk to anyone about death because I really hadn't lost a parent yet. I hadn't been dipped in that sort of awful candle wax yet, so I was uncomfortable with it. I didn't know what to say. So I assume those people are in that place. You know, if you're around long enough, you'll lose somebody. And then you'll know what to say.

AARON CAIN: I was wondering if you might read another passage from your book towards the end of it - a passage called "The Cemetery."

LAURIE KILMARTIN: Sure. “The cemetery - who will ignore your mother's grave when you're gone? Violet May Adkins - my mother's mother. She died at age 42 of breast cancer. Violet left behind three children and a husband, Frank, who responded by sending my mom's sister at seven years old to boarding school. Ah, men in the 1950s, what couldn't they get away with? Violet's death was an untreated wound that bled into my mother's parenting which bleeds into my parenting, and so on and so forth. I wonder how many generations must pass until Violet's death is an invisible scar on our family's body. Given all the people who were impacted by her death, you'd think we would have visited Violet's grave at least once. We have not. She is alone somewhere in the cold ground of Chicago. The few times I have gone to the city, I have not wanted to go cemetery hopping. I did not know her, although my mother always tells me I have her eyes. One of these times I should find Violet's grave and say, ‘hi,’ and ‘thanks for the eyes.’ I've been to my dad's niche - a little tomb for ashes - only once since we slid him in there in 2014. To be fair, it was my dad's first time there too. We picked that cemetery because it's Catholic and it butts up against the park where he walked his dogs. We thought it would be a place that we'd like to go from time to time, but we don't. Turns out it doesn't remind me of my dad at all, just reminds me of his funeral.”

AARON CAIN: You said that your father was thrilled that you were a comedian: was very proud of you. Do you feel that some of your sense of humor might come from his own, or is that 100% Laurie?

LAURIE KILMARTIN: I don't think my dad had a stage sense of humor. He was sort of goofy funny. I think how I parent is sort of maybe like how my dad parents. But, yeah, my dad loved that I was a comic because my dad could not speak in public. He was very uncomfortable, you know, he just liked drawing and drafting. He was an engineer. And so the thought that he had a daughter who did that for a living kind of blew his mind, and he thought it was really cool. We went on the road together. I'd bring him - you know, especially early in my career I was doing a lot of one-nighters in the northwest and there were a lot of dams up there, and so I would bring my dad and we'd - you know, I'd do a show in, you know, Eastern Washington and then we'd go drive by a dam and we'd get to see one he liked. But yeah, he really thought it was cool - and he liked my parenting book. I know he would've loved this one. I wish I could get a phone call from him just - but oh well. That's why it's called Dead People Suck, because they won't tell us what happens to them. You know, if they are out there, they really they do suck. I mean, they should let us know. They know how much we're trying to communicate with them and how much we want to know what comes next, and they're sitting on that information. That's just - that's rude.

AARON CAIN: Do you ever see any engineer's temperament and exacting methodology in your approach to writing and performing that might have something in common with your dad's line of work?

LAURIE KILMARTIN: Maybe since I started writing for Conan, because it really is sit down with the word doc and fill it up with jokes. It's not magical. It's not like you're hit with divine inspiration. You just write jokes and you keep polishing them until it's time to turn them in. And every once in a while there's a really good one - maybe a great one. Then there's some that are serviceable and it's the un-pretty part of comedy. There's no spontaneity in it. It's not like being on stage. It's not magical. It's work.

AARON CAIN: It's the nuts and bolts, if you'll forgive me for saying so.


AARON CAIN: Your father, a civil engineer - he also worked abroad a lot. He traveled a lot. He went to places like the Philippines and Saudi Arabia and Nicaragua to do things like build bridges.


AARON CAIN: Traveling around the world and helping build bridges - any other commonalities showing up here, or am I - is that too grandiose?

LAURIE KILMARTIN: It may be grandiose but I don't mind. Sure. I'd like having any sort of - any sort of link to my dad is good to me.

AARON CAIN: Well, Laurie Kilmartin, thank you so much. It's been great to have you. I really appreciate you coming in to speak with us today. Thank you for being with us on Profiles.

LAURIE KILMARTIN: Thank you for having me, Aaron. It was really fun.


AARON CAIN: Laurie Kilmartin: author, comic and the daughter of a first-rate civil engineer. Laurie Kilmartin is an Emmy-nominated staff writer for Conan on TBS, the co-host of a weekly podcast - The Jackie And Laurie Show - and the author of Dead People Suck: A Guide for Survivors Of The Newly Departed. I'm Aaron Cain. Thanks for listening.

MARK CHILLA: Copies of this and other programs can be obtained by calling 812-855-1357. Information about Profiles, including archives of past shows, can be found at our website, Profiles is a production of WFIU and comes from the studios of Indiana University. The producer is Aaron Cain. The studio engineer and radio audio director is Michael Paskash. The executive producer is John Bailey. Please join us next week for another edition of Profiles.




Laurie Kilmartin (Photo Courtesy of the Artist)

Laurie Kilmartin is a comic, author, and an Emmy-nominated writer for CONAN on TBS. As a stand-up comic, she’s appeared on CONAN, Jimmy Kimmel Live, Comedy Central, and in comedy clubs around the country. She was a finalist on season seven of Last Comic Standing.

Laurie Kilmartin grew up in Santa Clara County, California. She attended UCLA, did some competitive swimming, and moved back up to the Bay Area to pursue acting, before starting her stand-up comedy career in the Pacific Northwest.

In 2009, Kilmartin released a comedy album called, Five Minutes to Myself, comprised of material that she was not allowed to use on the air. Punchline Magazine called it one of the Top Ten Comedy CDs of that year. She is also outspoken about politics, parenthood, and the entertainment industry in a weekly podcast she shares with fellow comedian Jackie Kashian called, The Jackie and Laurie Show.

She is the author of two books. Her first, a New York Times bestseller, is a tongue-in-cheek and thoroughly inappropriate how-to guide for parents. Laurie Kilmartin’s wrote her second book, Dead People Suck: A Guide for Survivors of the Newly Departed, shortly after her father lost his battle with cancer in 2014.

Laurie Kilmartin was in Bloomington to perform at the Comedy Attic. While she was here, she joined Aaron Cain in the WFIU studios.

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