Published on February 26th, 2011 | by Sharilyn Johnson


Jamie Kilstein: Almost always fearless

There’s aren’t many comics who’d fly in the door five minutes before their show because they lost track of time at martial arts session. But Jamie Kilstein’s reason was a good one compared to the alternatives, because images of him being detained at the border had taken over our thoughts of those awaiting him at Comedy Bar.

Thankfully, he made it into the country unscathed (with time to spare for an interview), much to the pleasure of one very appreciative audience. And as it happens, this was the one time he didn’t have trouble getting entering Canada.

Jamie hereby presents the VIA Rail border-crossing story, along with tales of selling books, being booked, and educating himself beyond the books, and a surprising experience he once shied away from.

Jamie Kilstein: I was going to do Just for Laughs, and I was super excited. It was the first year I got it, I was doing New Faces. Which is like, for a young comic, is like THE thing. They asked why I was there, and very proudly was like “to do comedy!” Very naive and like “aww shucks! I’m here to do standup! This is my big break! I’m going to Montreal! My name is Jamie!” I was just ecstatic.

And they’re like “that sounds ridiculous! Come to the snack car!”

And they brought me in there and asked if I was getting paid, and I was like “no”. ‘Cause you don’t get paid for New Faces. I had to pay my way up there, and I was like homeless. That’s the one thing [the cop] didn’t believe, that I wasn’t getting paid. And it was this amazing moment when he goes “so why are you doing this show?”

And I go “well, you do it for exposure, it’s like your big break. You don’t need to get paid for that.”

And he goes “That sounds like a scam to me.”

And part of me was kinda like “yeah, kind of! Sort of!”

Finally I convinced him. Just for Laughs is actually really good about sending these forms in to let the border guys now, but I was with a really shitty manager at the time who just spaced.

I’ve been to fucking China and I’ve had no problems getting in, but Canada is the only place…

Third Beat: What was the Conan experience like as far as your material being managed beforehand? Did they go through it with a fine-toothed comb like other shows do?

JK: The booker [J.P. Buck] originally saw me in Edinburgh, when HE was unemployed. He got to see me do a full hour, so I was really lucky. He just became fan. And then he recently came to see me do a full hour at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York. So it wasn’t that I was going to send in my only 7 minutes that I want to do on Conan, and you either approve it or don’t approve it. I got really lucky, because he knew he wanted me on the show. So he’s like “alright, out of all the completely inappropriate stuff you talk about, what can we make appropriate?”

Another late night show wanted me to do it, but they kinda wanted me to do it not the way that I wanted to do it. To his credit, J.P.’s biggest concern was “how can we get it on tv and be as true to you as humanly possible?”

If you watch the piece, I don’t curse, but I got fuckin’ death threats for it. I got to talk about drones. I got to call out McDonald’s by name, they didn’t make me change it to “fast food”. I got to say that we’re murdering innocent people. I got to say that Obama should be over there fuckin’ fighting. I got away with a lot of shit. And I got death threats, and apparently some of the people at the show were taken aback. But the booker was great with it, the producer approved it, standards and practices approved it. I don’t know if I’ll be back on the show. I hope so.

It was weird, I got more of a reaction from the political world than I did the comedy world. Which again I’m happy with. Journalists who are my heroes wrote me about the show, and that’s sort of what I wanted. My wife’s pep talk was “say what you want to say because it’s important, and say it like you’re never going to be on tv again”. Which was kinda like the only way to do it. Because if you go on and just tailor some half-assed generic set, you might get on another show, but who cares? Who’s going to remember it? I think it’s kinda cool that I got death threats. Nobody gets death threats for being like “my wife, she’s…”. Who gives a shit?

I wish I cold play it cool, but I was really emotional. There’s no Johnny Carson moment anymore, so there’s no big break. I’ve watched all my friends, people who started before me, people who started after me, get tv spots, and some of them still have day jobs. I was just going to make my career like I was never going to get on tv. My wife and I lived out of our car for two years, I squatted in New York for another two years.

And even though there’s no “come over to the couch, suddenly you’re famous” moment, Conan was the show that I grew up on. So as a personal thing, it was definitely like a “you’re arrived” moment for me.

I was a nerd. I took pictures outside the lot. I called my mom before I went on. Allison, my wife, was with me ‘til like the last second.

No one knows this, but when the curtains open, it looks like it’s on a pulley system right? It’s not. It’s these two fucking scary biker dudes who are holding the curtains. So I’m having this emotional moment [backstage]. Somebody gave me something to read, that was very important. It was from a comedian who I really admire, who died. From their family. So I’m reading it before, getting kinda chocked up, and I thought I’d have this moment by myself. And I just had these two dudes, fuckin’ tattooed, totally bald, staring, their arms are criss-crossed. So you hear Conan give the introduction… and that is the last fuckin’ thing you see before you see the audience.

As a comic, what’s really cool about it is that the audience is really contained, so it seems like this really small intimate theatre. You’re playing to them. You’re not supposed to really look to your left side. You come out and there’s only one camera, and you’re just playing to that theatre. Once I got my first laugh, it was amazing, and you can see me loosen up. If that first laugh hadn’t come, it would’ve been a nightmare. You can hear Conan when he laughs, and he laughed during my first two jokes. But then during the rant I couldn’t hear him. I don’t know if he was just terrified, I don’t know. But it was cool. He was really nice to me.

I met him a couple of years ago when I was working at Borders…

I was the worst employee ever. I remember a dude who came in who saw me do standup the night before. He looks at my face and goes “oh, I saw you at the Boston Comedy Club!” and his eyes drift down to my nametag. And he goes “ooooooh”.

And as if he witnessed some terrible fuckin’ tragedy, he goes “what happened?”

And you have to explain how comedy works. And comedy doesn’t work well in the city.

When I first moved to New York, I had to flyer. And I told myself “this is artistic, this is what everybody does to get to the top”. And now that I’m older, I’m like “that shit’s probably illegal”.

I would work all day at the book store, and I’d have to eat in the city, and then I’d go out and flyer for five or six hours. Totally unpaid. For five minutes of stage time.

And sometimes, that five minutes of stage time… if Dave Chappelle stops by and does an hour and then everyone leaves, I either do a set for two people after Chappelle or I get bumped. And they promise you a better spot the next day, but you get the better spot and you’re so fuckin’ nervous so you bomb.

And I think that’s why comics don’t write as much or experiment. When you’re suffering so much for stage time, you want to kill. If you do that much work and you bomb, that’s all you have to think about. You just remember that bomb in your gut.

TB: And you can only get your friends to come to a bringer, like, once.

JK: Yeah and I had to bring them from New Jersey. So they had to pay for a train ticket, then they had to pay for a cab because we were all afraid of the subway, and then —

TB: Wait, you’re from Jersey and you were afraid of the subway?

JK: I went to New York and I was with my friend and his mom. And I go “should we take the subway?”. And she goes “I heard a man got head-butted to death last week”. I didn’t know that was a thing. I didn’t fuckin’ know you could head-butt somebody to death. So I didn’t go into the subway for two years, so I was spending so much money on cabs because I was just terrified.

The first time I was in New York I got into a cab, and they had pre-recorded messages from celebrities [including Eartha Kitt]. And here’s all I heard: “meee-owww”. And I was like “oh, I’m being kidnapped”. Because I didn’t know what was happening. And the doors were locked.

So they had to go to the show, pay for the show, and pay the two drink minimum, to see a shitty show. They’d pay all that just to see the worst show they’d ever seen in their lives.

TB: Have you always been political, or did you discover you were political when you started doing comedy?

JK: I wasn’t political at all. I dropped out of high school when I was 17. I didn’t go to college. I just started doing standup right off the bat, and I moved to New York. I knew I wasn’t religious, and I knew that gay people should have equal rights. And that was it. And I maybe knew who the president was. So I very poorly started making religious jokes.

I started listening to Bill Hicks, hearing him talk about the war and stuff. And it’s funny whenever I do press in London and stuff, people always ask me about Hicks. It’s not because I’m similar to him. It’s just because we’re both American, we both made a living overseas first, we both talk about politics. And he’s dead, so he can’t say “Jamie’s not like me”. They always ask if he influenced me comedically, and he didn’t. He made me want to be brave.

I knew I wanted to be political, but I’d watch the news and I didn’t know what was going on because I dropped out of high school. I didn’t know basic things, like who was in charge after the vice president. I felt intimidated and I felt stupid. I think that’s why a lot of kids are apathetic. Not because they’re lazy, it’s because they’re embarrassed because they don’t know how to learn about this stuff. And what do you do when you’re embarrassed? You’re really defensive and you act like it’s stupid.

Comedy phrased it in a way that I understood. I was like “oh, I get this”. I think when comics say stuff like “you can talk about politics, it’ll never change someone’s mind” and talk proudly about doing dick jokes, it’s a lie. Hicks taught me about politics. So they’re statistically wrong. Percentage-wise, they’re right, but it can happen.

[Early on] I was not good at being political. I was making fun of things instead of sticking up for people. I’d make fun of religion and be like “that’s stupid. You believe what? You idiot.” There was nothing clever to it. Now, I’m trying to use comedy to stick up for people, which is harder and more rewarding and I think actually means something.

TB: Tell me about your ink.

JK: My favorite one [left calf] is my Calvin and Hobbes one, and it’s huge. I re-read it as an adult and it’s just everything I believe in. Friendship, love, imagination, questioning authority, taking care of the planet. It’s just amazing. And so smart. And Bill Watterson never sold out. Notice there isn’t a Hobbes stuffed tiger. Which would make a bazillion dollars. He just refused. And when he felt the series was over, he ended it. Really sweetly, too. I just love that.

I have a half sleeve on my right arm that starts with the big bang, and it’s just an evolution thing. When I talk about evolution there’s definitely a part of me that’s like “fuck you, stupid Christians!” But I mainly got it because if there’s any mantra I’ve ever had, it’s just to keep getting better. That’s been my only goal of comedy.

When my goal was “how do I get an agent?”, when my goal was “how do I get on tv?”, when my goal was “how do I get Montreal?”, I sucked. I was terrible. When my goal was “how do I evolve as a comedian, how do I get better, how does my writing get better?” and I stopped caring about that stuff, coincidentally everything started to happen.

And then I have a monkey fighting a dragon on the entire bottom half of my left arm. When we were living out of a car, my wife bought me this stuffed monkey for my birthday that we kept on the dashboard. And we created this back story for it, because we started to go crazy on the road. So we had a whole backstory and personality, and it would evolve every day. We actually wrote a script about it, and right now I’m talking to the producer of Family Guy who loves it. Which is amazing. So we may make something about it which would be the greatest thing ever, where he’s like this failed businessman neo-conservative awful little monkey, but he’s adorable.

And the dragon means nothing. Essentially what happened is, there’s this amazing artist named Chris O’Donnell who tattoos out of Adorned in Brooklyn. He just became a fan of our work, and his specialty is Asian-influenced. I didn’t have much of an interest in getting that, but then I was like “can you do my monkey fighting a dragon?” And he was like “fuck yeah I can!” So that’s that.

Kilstein performs again Saturday night at 8pm at Comedy Bar. Tickets are available for $15 in advance by clickin’ here, or $20 at the door.

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About the Author

is the author of the book Bears & Balls: The Colbert Report A-Z. Called "one of the city’s most discriminating comedy critics” by NOW Magazine, Sharilyn has been covering comedy for longer than she cares to admit. She served as the comedy reporter for Winnipeg's Uptown Magazine for five years, and was the host of the radio show Laugh Tracks for three seasons. Her work has also appeared in the Toronto Star, the Winnipeg Free Press, The Apiary, and on CBC Radio's national comedy programs LOL and Definitely Not the Opera.

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