I’ve been a huge fan of comedian Jen Kirkman for years. Ever since I first heard her 2006 standup debut Self Help, I was hooked. Her immaculate timing, her wry self-deprecation, her feminist perspective. She followed it in 2011 with Hail to the Freaks, which took things to the next level. Funny and intelligent, she mixes pop culture with social politics and everything in between.
I devoured her 2013 book I Can Barely Take Care of Myself, especially since it humorously attacks the view that people must have children in order to fulfill their destiny as mature adults. My wife and I decided not to have kids, and it’s refreshing to see someone so succinctly reflect our beliefs on the issue.
When I found out she started a podcast called I Seem Fun, I raced to subscribe. Every week she mixes feminist perspectives, tales of oddballs on airplanes, and reflections from her life. She moves from DMX to Kurt Cobain to Dolly Parton, from #yesallwomen to the art of writing to dealing with stress. Along the way she uses funny voices to ridicule annoying people, especially those pestering her on social media. As usual, she jokes about herself as well, like when she gets the episode number wrong. It’s a fun hour-long show and it always jumps to the top of my queue when a new episode is released. (The only other shows that do this are The Dana Gould Show and My Brother, My Brother, and Me.)
Kirkman is very friendly with her fans, and I’ve used the opportunity to communicate on several occasions. I thanked her for her feminist response to the #notallmen trend, and sent her an email (which she read on the show, and found amusing) about a time someone showed me a bad movie. When I referred to her joke about the hapless librarian in It’s a Wonderful Life as “podcast gold”, she favorited my Tweet. As silly as it may sound, it’s quite rewarding when a comedian you respect and admire so much takes the time to respond.
Why She’s Mad At Me
Without intending to, I became one of those people pestering her online. One of the characters Kirkman uses occasionally on the show is “The Corrector”, a nasally doofus who takes great pride in disputing tiny technical details. She’ll say something in passing, and then acknowledge that perhaps there’s some tiny point that a pathetic jerk might quibble with (as people often do online): “Well, technically..” (As she points out, it’s usually men who engage in this nonsense, and they often target women as part of the mansplaining phenomenon.)
A week and a half ago, on Episode 60, she started by making fun of The Corrector, since she delivered the introduction flawlessly: “Hey, I said it right! ‘Well, technically…’ I don’t even know.. That guy had nothing to say. He stopped himself.” She sounded almost sad, like she wanted The Corrector to find some small thing to complain about.
So I thought it would be funny if I played the part. I wrote a series of Tweets (yes, more than one) pointing out that “right” is an adjective, and “correctly” is the proper grammatical term in that instance. I pointed out that I am an English teacher. I tried to be intentionally obnoxious so she would realize I was only playing an annoying character, instead of my charming, gracious self. But that’s not how it came through. (Perhaps I thought she might remember me from our past interactions, but that would have been ludicrous.)
She responded angrily on Twitter: “Are you kidding me?” Many of her followers sent me angry Tweets as well, and I felt really bad for days.
Then today she released the latest episode of her podcast, which includes a special “bug off” comment to me. (I’ve provided just the relevant 60-second slice.)
Needless to say, this made me feel sad all over again.
Why She’s Right to Be Mad
Everything Kirkman says in that sound clip is 100% correct. It’s obnoxious when people nitpick about grammar, especially in contexts where it doesn’t matter. As I tell my students all the time, all that really matters — except when you’re trying to get a job or impress your future in-laws — is that the other person understands what you’re saying. (This is the split between prescriptive and descriptive grammar.)
People who use their knowledge to annoy other people are insufferable and pathetic. They are quick to say “I’m just joking” or use some other smug excuse, but that doesn’t change the fact that their comments are obnoxious and pointless. It’s like lame white guys rapping badly; even when you’re doing it ironically, you’re still a lame white guy rapping badly. (Learn how to spit with a flow like The Rhymenoceros and The Hiphopopotamus, and then it can become something else.)
So while I thought I was being clever and insouciant, in effect I was just being a jackass. As with other forms of harassment, intention doesn’t matter. I should have realized how irritating my comments were, and prevented myself from sending them. (I try to be extremely conscious about my gendered interactions, and I think I’ve got a good track record as a male feminist. Still, as she points out, it’s important for all of us guys to check ourselves when communicating, especially online.)
I know what I meant, but it’s irrelevant, and I respect people who call me on my nonsense. (It’s one of the things I love most about my wife.) More to the point, I shouldn’t wait for other people to point out when I’m being dumb. As I Tweeted the day after the original debacle, I should get a tattoo on my forearm that reads: “You are NOT FUNNY when you’re being pedantic about grammar.” I can’t beat myself up about this stuff, but there’s a fine line between doing that and failing to learn from my mistakes.
The Bizarre Intimacy of Social Media
When politicians first began appearing on call-in TV shows, the political cartoonist Tom Tomorrow made fun of the idea that we can feel close to the people on The Box With Colors. Facebook and Twitter have only made this phenomenon more surreal, with our favorite celebrities in such easy reach. (Kirkman points out that she’s far from the level of celebrity most people expect, but she has 139,000 followers and she appears regularly on a popular TV show.)
This proximity brings a bizarre paradox: We feel like we’re becoming friends with the people we talk to on Twitter, even though we exchange only brief slices of words in the midst of lots of other activity. I know that I shouldn’t really be hurt by Kirkman’s comments, just as I shouldn’t get filled with excitement when she likes something I say. But I am, and I do. I suppose these things are all part of the irrational complex casserole that is human emotion.
Through the video game podcast I co-host (and my own politics/economics podcast), I’ve gotten to know some people over social media, and I’m always amused when I find myself on the other end of this exchange. Sometimes people will thank me for providing something fun for them to listen to on the commute, for example. Our audience is relatively small, and we don’t get annoying stuff on social media. I can only imagine how annoying it would be — especially for women in a world where so many guys are oblivious to both their privilege and their potential to be irritating — to deal with random yahoos online all the time.
So while (of course) I’d rather not be blocked from Kirkman’s Twitter feed, I don’t blame her. If you’re reading this, Jen, please accept my apology. I thank you for calling me out on my obnoxious idiocy, and I hope we can still be friends. (Well, technically, we’ve never been friends. Dammit, I’m doing it again.)