By Buddy Early, October 2020 Issue.
Comedian, Actor. Delightful Human Being. Those are words one might use to describe local comic Jill Kimmel. Mostly because those are her words.
Making a living as a standup comedian in Arizona is not easy. The state is not exactly a hotbed of comedy clubs and a thriving comedy landscape. But that’s exactly what Jill has been doing for the last six years, since she left her last office job to pursue her love of the stage. COVID-19 has put a damper on things for all entertainment professionals, however, and the comedy scene was no exception.
“Before March I had a residency at Jimmy Kimmel’s Comedy Club in Las Vegas, I was working cruise ships and touring. I had military tours scheduled,” Jill told me one afternoon over coffee. “It was really going great. It was like, this is my year!”
The six years of pounding the pavement, hoisting shows at local bars, opening for “big names,” doing voice-over work, commercials and industrial films was about to pay off.
“I really was going to be a working comic. No more of my dad helping me with my car insurance,” she beamed.
“And then all this shit hit.”
Since March, places “kept opening and closing” and it’s been difficult to maintain steady work. When she does get a gig nowadays, she brings her own microphone and refrains from any meet and greet afterward.
I met Jill almost 25 years ago, when I was friends with her brother and would mooch off their parents for free meals and the occasional sleepover. To call the Kimmels a comedy family is an understatement. Jill and her brothers clearly had their sense of humor from handed down from mom and dad — the dry wit of father Jim and the outrageous (“soaking wet”) comedy stylings of mother Joan. And Jill’s children (known affectionately as First Born and Favorite Daughter) can dish out the snarkiness to mom as much as they receive it.
While striking out on her own as a part-time performer Jill worked 9-5 office gigs, jobs like proofreader and executive assistant. Her comedy at the time was often mined from her days spent at those jobs, including one woman she simply refers to as “the dog freak.” Nowadays, with no office mates to lampoon, her act is focused more on social commentary, although she revealed she has been updating that resume in case Covid-19 keeps taking a toll, because “I like to eat.”
“(My act) is very much about a middle-aged, gonna be 50, children leaving for college, empty-nester.” She added “It’s me learning what it’s like being an adult.
Catching up with Jill in mid-August, we chatted about all sorts of things, including a great many that are not suitable for print. Among those printable topics are her status as an ally for LGBTQ and other progressive causes; losing fans and followers as a result of her outspoken liberal views (“I’m not famous enough to lose anything,” she told me.); what’s acceptable in comedy these days; making funny in the age of Trump and The Rona; and her future.
Echo: As a full-time comedian/actor, how have you been able to make ends meet during the COVID-19 pandemic?
JK: I had a few decent paychecks coming in after the public closures hit, so those helped. Plus, I filed for unemployment like almost everyone else. I was fortunate that I didn’t have to wait on mine once it was approved … I have friends who filed in April and they still haven’t received any money. They’re in NY, AZ and Las Vegas. It seems there’s no rhyme or reason to why certain people are having issues, and some aren’t. It’s absolute chaos, and it’s terrifying to think about how long it will last.
I recently wrote about how Trump and the climate of this country the last four years have drained me of my sense of humor. How have you been able to find things to joke about during this shitshow?
The upside to not really performing right now is that I don’t have to pretend like everything is fine or find things about the situation to make funny. On the few occasions that I have been able to do a show, I make sure the audience knows we are all in this together — we’re fighting a common enemy, and that enemy is still Donald Trump. Oh, and COVID-19.
Standup comedy has always had a reputation for being misogynistic, both in male comedians’ sets and the general acceptance of women trying to break into the club. Have you experienced that in your career?
I actually have not experienced any misogyny, and if I have, I’m just a stupid girl and must not have realized it. I mean, maybe the last name helps. If people think I am possibly in the position to either enhance or ruin their career, they’re probably more likely to be on their best behavior. The truth is I am too busy working on my own career to worry about ruining someone else’s, but it’s a fun little piece of protection to keep in the weird useless little zippered portion of the pleather wallet I got on clearance at Ross. Kind of like a virtual can of mace. I really feel for anyone who faces the kind of prejudice and bullying I have heard about. It’s hard enough to get turned down for bookings because there are just too many comics and not enough weeks at a club to book everyone. But to have trouble getting work just because you’re not a man is such a slap in the face. I recommend looking at club calendars and emailing the booker: “Hi, I noticed you only have two female headliners booked for the next three months. I’d love to round out your calendar and get a weekend with you!” Puts the sexism issue right in their face.
I know you offstage as someone who is loud and outspoken for progressive causes — LGBTQ equality, Black Lives Matter, treatment of trans individuals, as well as an advocate for all marginalized communities. Do these things ever come up in your comedy?
I don’t talk much about progressive causes on stage because my style of comedy is what’s considered “relatable not debatable”. OMG I just made that up and I feel really cute. But yeah, I will speak out against homophobia, racism and other bullshit all day long in my private life or on social media. But when I perform, I just want to make people laugh. There are political or social commentary comedians who are great at educating people through humor, but I am not one of them. You have to be really informed and prepared for any type of heckling that may come your way, and all I know is “don’t be a shitty person,” as opposed to a lot of hard facts.
How often do you lose fans or followers because of your outspokenness?
I don’t lose a lot of followers or fans because they generally know what they’re getting into when they follow a Kimmel. But there have been friends I’ve lost along the way, either because I just couldn’t believe their archaic way of thinking, or they hated that I was a complete bleeding heart. There have been a few losses that really stung, but their support of Trump or #alllivesmatter is not something I can easily concede. It’s shocking when you find out someone you respected or liked or even loved has a view of the world that is so narrow and ugly. It makes you question yourself, and how you never saw it before. In the end, I’m better off when those people (who you calling “those people”?!) remove themselves from my social media, but it definitely takes me on a weird little journey of self-doubt.
A lot of Americans seem to expect entertainers to not have opinions, or at least keep them to themselves. (We’ve all seen your brother become a target of this criticism the last few years.) How do you respond to someone who says you should “just tell jokes?”
It’s amazing how people think that anyone should be exempt from having an opinion. Just like an office bookkeeper is allowed to talk about how to plant a garden, an athlete can discuss racial injustice, a comedian can talk about what stocks he has invested in, and a lawyer can recommend a great BBQ sauce. Everyone is allowed to state their own opinions. You don’t have to listen to or follow their advice. People know that, right?
We seem to be walking a fine line between being sensitive to everyone’s triggers and the long-standing comedy tenet that “anything goes.” How do you draw the line?
I think that anyone should be able to say anything they want. Then the audience gets to decide for themselves whether they find it funny, and whether they want to continue to support this artist. It’s the same principle as entertainers having opinions. if you don’t like it, you don’t have to endorse or listen to them. Too many people want to control what is being said so they don’t have to take personal responsibility for deciding who to support. No. I’m gonna say what the fuck I want to say, and you can take me or leave me. Not my job to censor myself so you can feel comfortable.
A lot of people use the example of “punching down” as a guide for what is fair comedy and what isn’t. That seems like a nice, simple guide; but is it too simplistic?
I don’t like punching down as a general rule, but sometimes funny is just funny. If the jokes feel right to you, tell them … and like I said before, let the audience decide.
Hecklers are the worst. The. Worst. They should be thrown in a quarry for years of hard labor. You once had an audience member punch you. Please tell that story.
I was on stage in Tucson, talking about how I like to find fault with certain people I don’t like. I was saying “No matter what she does I will say something bad, like ‘Look at this jerk feeding the homeless! Oh, what an asshole, now she’s curing cancer!’”
So, a woman in the front row got up and left after I said that, and her friend stood up in front of the stage and told me that the woman’s daughter had cancer, which is why she left. That I offended her with what I said. At first, I felt bad about it, but then she started cursing me out and talking crazy. So, I told her I was sorry that I offended her, but I had no way of knowing that the woman’s daughter had cancer, and it was just a comedy show.
She ended up throwing a glass at me, jumping on stage, and physically attacking me. She was finally pulled off me by a manager, the sound guy and the headliner. The cops never showed, so I filed a report over the phone. I had the whole thing on video thanks to some audience members, and yet the cops dropped the charges the next day because they didn’t know who she was, even though I had the license plate of the vehicle she had arrived in.
It was traumatic, because one moment you’re up there making a big room of people laugh, and in a split second you’ve got someone attacking you for no reason. I had a tough time getting on stage for a short while after that. Mentally, it messed with me. I was upset by the attack itself, but probably more so by the fact that the police didn’t seem to think it was important. They didn’t even tell me they had dropped the charges; I only found out when I called to check the status a few months later. I really thought they would be outraged and help me get justice. I guess I watch way too much Law & Order: SVU.
Since you first ventured into standup, so much has changed in your personal life. How has your act changed?
My comedy is personal stories, so after I lost over 100 pounds, went through a divorce and started dating again, it felt really unnatural to still be making jokes about a life that no longer existed. Certain jokes can be altered or adjusted, just by making them past tense, but they kind of lose that “oomph” when they are no longer important to me personally. I had a lot of jokes about being overweight, and I found out the hard way that those were not something I could keep in my act. The more weight I lost; the fewer laughs I would get at the weight jokes. It was an interesting study in human behavior. In contrast, the audiences still loved jokes about my former husband, but they didn’t feel good for me to tell anymore, since I had moved past that stage in my life. Stories about him just felt I was one of those people who just keeps harping on how their ex did them wrong. It felt gross, so I moved on from those as well.
Your parents are now in California full-time, closer to your brothers. Now that both your children are off to college there, will there be a move to the Golden State in your future?
Probably not until the first of the year, but absolutely, it is time. I’ve talked about it for years, but now that the kids are both attending college in California, there’s no reason to stay in Arizona. I love my house and my neighborhood and the comedy clubs here, but I honestly don’t see my friends very often, I don’t go anywhere except for work, and I always talk about how much I miss my cousins and everyone who lives in SoCal. So, it’s time to break away from my comfort zone and make the big move. Hopefully we can get a handle on this virus so acting and comedy starts up again, and I can make some real progress in my career. I should qualify for the senior citizen roles at the rate we are getting this pandemic under control, so if they’re looking to recast The Golden Girls,” I AM IN!
Without a doubt, I’d say yours is the funniest family I’ve ever known. Who’s the funniest?
We do have a very funny family … lots of great personalities, and the willingness to display them. Of course, everyone knows that Jimmy is a genius comedic writer and creator, but there are so many more. My cousin Sal is irreverent and hilarious. His sister Ivy is whip-smart and diabolically entertaining. My cousin Micki has a way of saying the most innocent things in the most comedic way. But I guess I would have to say that my younger brother Jonathan is hysterically funny in a very dry, ridiculous way that appeals to me on so many levels. I love absurd humor, and Jon really nails it.
Even with all the industry uncertainty right now, tell me there are upcoming opportunities for Arizona folks to catch your act?
I wish I could tell you that and sum up this article on a super happy ending, but I can’t. People can follow me on Instagram and Twitter to keep up with me, but I have nothing booked, most of the clubs are closed, and my unemployment just ran out.
But hey, at least I don’t have cancer! *ducks*