Comedian Jen Kober Is Fearless
Comedian Jen Kober has boundless energy and a warm Southern accent that is mmediately endearing. Her honest material and her knack for musicality combine to deliver an entertaining show, whether she's onstage for 10 minutes or 45. Kober has been popping up in film roles (American Pie Reunion) and on television (Up All Night and Treme), but right now she's on a college tour before appearing on an episode of the upcoming Fox series The Mindy Project, starring Mindy Kaling. Kober spoke to The Advocate last week about her Justin Bieber-inspired haircut, how she deals with hecklers, and meeting hicks in all parts of the country.
The Advocate: I can tell by some of your videos, versus a recent live performance at Don't Tell My Mother that you had a pretty major hair chop.
Jen Kober: I got cast in a movie as a lesbian, but apparently it wasn't enough that I am a lesbian. They felt they needed to indicate that with my hair cut, so they cut it pretty short, and then once it was there, I was like, you know what? I'm just going to go for it. I'm just going to hit the Justin Bieber look really hard and see what happens.
Your mom appears quite frequently in your material. Does she mind?
She doesn't mind, but she is very concerned that what I tell people about her is true. She's all like, "Well, no, this is what really happened..." but I tell her, "Mom, I can tell people what actually happened, or can I just have it be funny and not scare people." She's very concerned about the accuracy. I was just at home a couple of months ago, and I did some shows, and she came up to me after the show, and she was in it a lot, because I had just written all this new material. She's like, "Am I going to get some kind of royalty check or something from this?" Like yeah, Mom, expect residuals on my stand-up material.
OK, so you're putting out funny music, and you have a fantastic singing voice, you're getting more TV and film roles — are you going for an EGOT (Emmy/Golden Globe/Oscar/Tony)?
[Laughs] I can sing. I don't think I have the greatest voice. I think I'm just loud, which people can appreciate. They're like, "Oh, but I can hear her sing." I think all comedians really wanted to be rock stars, but they couldn't sing, so they told jokes. That's my theory. Obviously, since I can sing a little bit and I have Garage Band on my Mac, I just play a lot, and I've produced a couple of songs with my buddy Kii Arens. It's something I love to do, and I definitely try to work it in in every facet that I can. But I think if I actually tried to have a singing career, people would be like, "Umm, you need to maybe tell some jokes." So I try to keep that happy balance of letting myself be a rock star when I can, and then just being a comedian most of the time.
You have a theater background, right?
Is that something you may go back to, since you've been doing a lot of television and film and stand-up work lately?
If I had the chance to do theater, I would. It's my first love — being onstage and working in an ensemble. Last summer I did a one-woman show, and it made me miss theater so much. In a comedy club, drinks are being served, and there's table conversation, and people are blowing smoke at you. But in a theater, it's different. People are listening, and they're there to see a little something more, and I really love that. But there's really no money in theater. I'm actually trying to develop a sitcom now, and we've been talking about what we want it to look like and what the style of the show would be. I'm talking to these executives and they're like, "We should really go with the single camera because that's what's so hot now," and I'm like, "Absolutely not." I need the audience there, I need a bunch of cameras. It feels so much more theater-style to me.
Speaking of drunk, talkative audiences, how do you deal with hecklers? That seems like the most terrifying part of being onstage, but that's just my opinion.
That's what I'm probably the best at — shutting someone up! When I first started doing comedy, by the time I really got into comedy full-time, around 1999, the comedy clubs were for people with names. If you didn't have a big name, you couldn't perform there. So you end up doing shows at a sports bar or a biker bar or a hotel bar — places where they don't do comedy every night, so the crowds are a little bit rowdy. If they're in these smaller towns, where everyone knows everyone there, you're dealing with a lot of conversation. People are there trying to talk to their friends while you're up there trying to do comedy. All of that honed me to take care of hecklers. I've gone through the trouble of writing all these jokes, and damn it, you're going to listen to them. So I'm not afraid to call anybody out, I'm not afraid to say what I have to say to make you calm it down. So when somebody starts heckling me, I shut them up very quickly. In fact, most of the time, when I get heckled, the person comes up to me after the show and is probably a little intoxicated, and they let me know they were helping me. They're like, "Wasn't that great, the way I was saying 'this' and 'this,' and then you got to make fun of me, and everyone laughed?" So it's occurred to me that when people heckle, they just want to be part of the show. So I let them, and they have a good time, and I usually end up giving them a free CD or something, so they don't end up shooting me in the parking lot.
[Laughs] Yeah, I still commend you. Sounds terrifying.
One time when I was in Seattle, I was just talking about the hurricanes that just happened. This was in about 2006. Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, and I was living in Lake Charles at the time. We got hit three days later by Hurricane Rita. So I was telling my hurricane story onstage in Seattle, and I'm like, "Blah blah blah, Hurricane Rita," and this woman stands up in the back and goes, "It was Hurricane Katrina. you dumb bitch!" You could hear the whole audience go "Oooooooh!" So I was like, "No, bitch! It was Hurricane Rita! Why don't you pick up a newspaper!" I was like, "It was my house that got flooded. Don't tell me what the name of the hurricane was!" She ended up getting escorted out of the show because she was so drunk and kept screeching. That was the only time that I got into it with a heckler in a mean, angry way. Sometimes it doesn't feel like a comedy show, it feels like a firing squad.
You're from Louisiana, and you've toured all over. Do people respond to your material differently in various parts of the country?
You have to read every new place differently, but I will say this: Whether you live in the South or not, there are hicks everywhere. One time, I was driving from New Orleans to Chicago, and we stopped in Effingham, Ill. Illinois — it's the Midwest, you know? So we stop at a waffle house in the middle of nowhere, and we ordered breakfast, and [the waitress] had a heavier Southern accent than I did. She asked if I wanted maters on my sandwich and taters on the side. And I was like, "Oh, my God, she said maters and taters in Illinois!" That's when I put together, that there are Southern people in every state. So that was encouraging and made me laugh. I think when you get to some of the bigger cities, you can be a little more intellectual or free with what you say. But the show you do in San Francisco is not even the show you do in L.A. The crowds are different, the aesthetic is different. It's nice to get to do both. I have lots of material, so adapting it to where I am, and who I'm talking to, is part of the game.
So what is your touring schedule like right now? Lots of colleges, right?
I'm leaving Monday for a 10-day college spree, and then I'm back in L.A. for a couple of weeks, and then individual dates and stuff, but I'm trying to spend more time in L.A. because I really want to get my sitcom developed and do more acting work. I do a lot of little parts on shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm and Happy Endings and Up All Night. They're fun because people are like, "Oh, my God, it's Jen Kober," and then 10 seconds later I'm off the screen. It's a fun way to get my face out there and legitimize why I'm out here. People in my hometown are like, "Why the heck are you in that Los Angeles? What the heck would you do out there?" So it's fun when they get to see me.
I played a 911 operator in The Killing Field, which is this crazy, dramatic, scary movie about a crime that happened in southeast Texas, which was near where I lived. I got this email from a guy, who I guess was a 911 operator for that same area. He was like, "You were so good, you were so believable." I think I was literally on the screen for maybe 30 seconds. I said, "911, what is your emergency? ... Ma'am, put the phone down, stay in the house, and close the windows." It wasn't like it was some groundbreaking, dramatic role, but this guy knew me and had been a 911 dispatcher and thought we had bonded like we were brothers. I want to stay a little more grounded to continue acting, but I can't imagine not doing stand-up. I always say that I do the shows for free, but they pay me to get on the airplane.
Oh, you don't like to fly?
I don't not like flying, but it's just such a hassle. For the next few shows, I'm flying into Chicago, meeting up with one my friends, who is going to open for me, and then she and I are driving to every gig. We're literally driving 4,000 miles in 10 days, and then I'm flying home. Last time we did this — and my friend is a big girl too — they rented us a Fiat. We were two big girls in a little Fiat. Every time we would get out, you could see it rise up four inches.
That could be a web series — Two Big Girls in a Fiat.
Fat in a Fiat. We kept saying we wanted it to be a Fiaaaat. We just needed a little more room. We kept feeling like we were going to Hulk out at any moment.