When Allison Kilkenny and Jamie Kilstein met nine years ago, they were both working as clerks at Borders, “where all the outcasts from Barnes & Noble go,” as Kilstein puts it. Both wanted to write, Kilkenny as a journalist and Kilstein as a comedian. But instead they spent their days, like many struggling artists, as reluctant and frustrated bookstore employees. “We had mental breakdowns,” said Kilstein.
Not long after meeting and falling in love, they convinced each other to quit and take an indefinite working road trip. “We got a Saturn, which was made of plastic and tears,” said Kilstein. They pledged to keep at their new careers as a freelance writer and standup comedian until they made enough money to support themselves. That took about a year and a half. Yet, the two still felt they hadn’t cracked mainstream media; they weren’t making much money or feeling like their work was gaining broad attention.
So they did what so many people these days are doing and started a podcast.
Nine years later, the two are married and together host the popular political show Citizen Radio. With a new book coming out this month, Fast Company sat down with the couple to chat about how they tackle the news on their own terms.
For comedians, you seem to take on a lot of unfunny topics. How do you make them resonate with your audience?
Jamie Kilstein: I think that a lot of people think of comedians as class clowns, when in reality it’s the saddest kid in the room in the back reading Harry Potter and crying, rather than the person who pantses the nerd, or whatever kids do.
There’s a lot of vulnerability in good comedy. We admit when we aren’t experts on something, or when we got something wrong. It’s so much better to do that, then to pretend you’re an expert and lead us into another failed war.
Vulnerability can come from a lot of places. Why have you two decided to focus on politics?
Kilstein: A lot of people use comedy as a defense mechanism and a coping mechanism. For us, it transitioned into politics naturally because politics is really scary; climate change is really scary; these wars are really scary. And because we’ve always used humor in our lives to defuse scary situations, and once they’re defused to try to tackle them. We started doing that with our show and in our writing and in my standup, and we saw that it made people who didn’t think they were political–because anytime they turned on the news they sensed bullshit–political. Comedy is the language for outcasts.
When did you first start getting interested in politics?
Kilstein: I got into politics through comedy. I knew I wanted to be political. When I turned on CNN and saw the same old withering, wrong, hack pundits I just didn’t think they were speaking to me, compared to when I listened to George Carlin, or Al Franken. It’s that language that spoke to me.
We just know that there are so many people that feel the same way. They do care about people and these issues. Before Twitter and podcasts, they had nowhere to go; they could sense bullshit. That’s sort of the audience we have.
Yeah, tell me more about your listeners.
Kilstein: We started cultivating our audience through my standup shows. Every day our email box is filled with emails that would make you cry–just the sweetest, funniest emails from people who are like: “I was apathetic or depressed or felt alone.” We’ll literally get emails that are like: “I’m a black, lesbian, vegan from Mississippi, thank you for making me feel like I’m not crazy.”
Allison Kilkenny: We call our listeners maniacs, our little maniacs. I think it’s rare to find that kind of community.
How do you decide what to cover on a given day?
Kilkenny: It’s usually what gets us really riled up. If we see something during the day. Jamie calls me, “Did you see this bullshit?”
Kilstein: Sometimes Allie won’t tell me what the story is because she wants my legit rage.
Also, if there’s a story that is dominating the news, usually that means it’s being dominated in a shitty, generic, dumbed-down way. So we will try to find a different angle. Like when all of the nude leaks happened a couple of weeks ago, we weren’t blaming the women, or talking about selfie culture. We treated it like what it was, which was criminal, and talked about it from that angle and tied it into street harassment and how people think of women as theirs and as property.
Kilkenny: Oftentimes we’re placed in a position where we are responding to the media failing.
Hence the name of the book #NewsFail…
Kilstein: Yeah. But we try to we try to stay away from Fox. We’ll talk about Fox News if they do something insanely racist. We try to hold our side accountable. We would be on our eighth book if we pointed out all the horrible shit Fox News does.
Once you decide on a topic, how do you put together a show?
Kilkenny: A lot of what we do on the show is improvised. We don’t have a strict structure by any means. it’s an hour-long conversation that occasionally goes into improv bits.
Kilstein: What’s really cool about improv is it forces you to listen and respond to the last thing your partner said. When you watch the news, people are clawing to get to their pre-written sound bites. A lot of times it’s very forced, and they’re not responding to the host or the person they’re debating. They’re trying to crowbar their point of view in. When I start listening to Allison or she starts listening to me, the conversations evolve, or get really cool, or weird, or deep, or personal.
Kilkenny: I think what our show has is the active listening, and the vulnerability. People really respond to the vulnerability. Most of what happens on our show is discovered on our show, which is deep and exciting for us. We cant’ really space out. That’s what makes it fun for the listeners.
Since you’re not pundits on CNN, how do you establish authority?
Kilkenny: I don’t know necessarily how important authority is. You see big white pundits screaming over their desks, that’s not authority. That’s you projecting your insecurity over the world.
Kilstein: I like to maintain authority by constantly dropping that I do mixed martial arts in conversation. We’re very confident in our beliefs. We just inherently know that we’re doing the right thing and sticking up for the right people.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers and comedians?
Kilstein: Worry more about making good content. You’ll be able to bypass the bureaucracy, bullshit, and bosses. It’s very sad that journalism, and comedy, and art treat the artists so poorly, especially with the left wing, where you’re publishing articles about minimum wage and worker’s rights. Do it yourself and you can tell all of those people to fuck off.