Selfie taken by Jordan Firstman for W magazine.
At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, writer and comedian Jordan Firstman was one of the first prominent social media users to take note of a new trend on Instagram. Celebrities who did not typically engage with their audience were suddenly “Going Live” on the app, but it was clear that they didn’t know what to do once they’d arrived there (as evidenced by the amount of times actors like Reese Witherspoon would spend the first five minutes of a live-stream saying hello to every single person who commented).
Firstman—whom you may already know from his work as a writer for Search Party (a series in which he appears for a small role each season), his ode to Laura Dern at the 2020 Independent Spirit Awards, or his Criterion-approved short film Call Your Father—decided to take a stab at doing an impression of this celebrity mode of Instagram engagement.
“I observed something when that started happening,” Firstman told W over the phone. “[Instagram] Lives are so weird. Some people are nailing it, like Ziwe and Sydnee Washington. There are some people who are using the format in ways that are new and exciting to watch. But otherwise, I would rather see a celebrity get interviewed and then have a talented journalist put [the conversation] into more palatable words. When you’re on Instagram Live it’s like, ‘You’re making us not like you anymore! Let the journalists make your words beautiful!’”
Since April, Firstman has uploaded at least 14 “seasons” of his Impressions series, which include spot-on imitations of inanimate objects, abstract concepts, and characters alike. Some highlights include his impression of banana bread’s publicist, his “hugely slept on” impression of a documentary filmmaker in the year 2020, his impression of a Gen Z guided meditation, and most recently, an impression of the coder who is responsible for the simulation we are living in, also known as 2020—a performance that required next-level commitment to the bit, so much so that he accidentally broke his laptop after spilling coffee on the keyboard. (He is now in the market for a new computer, and is keeping his fingers crossed that one of the feature screenplays he wrote on the old one before it broke was safely uploaded to the Cloud.) “I was truly and deeply alone for the first two months [of quarantine.] I had nothing, so these things helped me feel connected,” Firstman said. “Either creating the characters in the Impressions or giving inanimate objects points of view, it helped me feel like I was part of something.”
When Firstman decided to go Live on Instagram himself as a follow-up joke to his first impression, he was doing it for just a few thousand followers, many of whom were already familiar with his particular brand of a self-aware, delightfully chaotic, horny mastermind. Suddenly he noticed a familiar name lurking in the comments—the controversial stand-up comedian Lisa Lampanelli. “I was like, ‘Lisa fucking Lampanelli is in the comments section? Bitch, you’re getting in the Live!’ and I requested her to join. Me and Lisa fucking Lampanelli were live for 30 minutes,” he said. “That was a moment where I was like, the internet is beautiful. In what other world can something like this happen? Sometimes it’s torture and hell, and sometimes you get to go Live with Lisa Lampanelli. And that’s what I want children to know.”
In the past few months, A-list celebrities like Ariana Grande, Chrissy Teigen, and Jennifer Aniston have begun liking, commenting on, and sharing Firstman’s Impressions with their own followers. But he is determined to not let that massive celebrity audience affect the way he performs online, whether that’s by potentially offending a Hollywood actress with his “impression of an actress trying to justify her role in a children’s animated film” or his “Secrets,” in which he opens his DMs to followers willing to share their deepest, darkest secrets—which he later posts anonymously, with added commentary, on his Instagram Story.
“I remember when I did a round of secrets and there were some really dirty secrets, and I pissed on camera during the secrets. And Jennifer Aniston was watching it. And that’s okay,” he laughed. “Everyone is equal on my page. If they don’t want to see what I’m doing or they don’t want to see a certain part of my identity, that’s for them to pick and choose.”
People are not the only subjects of the comedian’s observant eye. Firstman has been quarantined at his home in Los Angeles, with not much else to do besides look at objects around the house, assess what their point of view would be if they had one, and give them life through his Impressions. “People and the world are multifaceted and contain so many realities,” he went on. “I like inhabiting inanimate objects for that reason. [I’m] just starting to look at everything as a part of it all. If you’re looking at a house plant and feeling its experience or looking at a fork and feeling its experience, for me it gives me a sense of—it sounds so New Age—connectedness.”
At this point in quarantine, a lack of human interaction and physical touch has left most people alone with nothing but themselves and their most prurient desires. “I think a lot of gay men, for the first time in their adult lives, went without sex for a month or two. That just doesn’t happen when you’re gay. I have not gone a month without sex since I was 17. It was truly my first time ever,” he said. “The first two weeks, I thought I would go crazy. Then I was like, oh I can actually do this and I’m learning and am more in touch with what I want and what I am looking for in my sexuality.”
Staying home during a pandemic and adhering to social distancing guidelines has proven to be more than a gestation period for Firstman’s creative expression—this time in quarantine and the performance of the Impressions and Secrets have opened up more space for his journey toward spiritual enlightenment, too. “I’m the person who wants to try anything that could potentially give me the enlightenment I’ve been seeking my entire life,” he explained. “A year and a half ago I was like, ‘I want to try abstinence’ because I had not tried it before. I’ve tried all the drugs, abstinence is the one thing I haven’t tried.”
Firstman had to channel the energy that wasn’t being spent on sex into something creative. “I think you can tie the Impressions and what happened on the internet into that because I had all of this energy. I have all of this sexual and creative energy and nowhere to put it, and they just went into my phone, and went into these videos and came out,” he laughed. “I think especially with “Dishes” for example, you can feel that I have not had sex for a month in that impression. And I think that’s why that impression specifically resonated with people because they were like, ‘Oh my god this is...why are dishes making me horny right now?’ It’s because I was horny,” he said.
Between the Impressions, Secrets, and the occasional thirst trap, Firstman has made it clear that he is not only self-aware of his own positionality, but he won’t judge you for yours. “So many of the Secrets are sexual, and living with sexual shame is just not my bag. I just don’t believe in it,” he said. “I was honored people understood I was not judging them, that they were free to say whatever to me.”
But like any modicum of fame, this particular barrage of attention Firstman has received for his Instagram content does come with a catch. “In this very dark time, I was connected to something, feeling really positive and understanding positivity in a deep way that I hadn’t before,” Firstman said. “But that doesn’t last forever; happiness doesn’t last forever. I had a really bad week last week and I was feeling down, which I am allowed to feel. But there is this thing of, now I have 400,000 people expecting me to bring them joy. Am I allowed to tell them ‘I’m fucking depressed today, I don’t like myself today?’ That’s something I’m navigating.”
Firstman’s content has emerged as a cornerstone of what constitutes “quarantine culture,” but the success of the Impressions are proving to pay off in a way that will allow him to continue creating work on a bigger scale after the pandemic ends. Through these performances on Instagram, he’s garnered the attention of Hollywood executives, and is hoping to get more projects off the ground. “I’ve been trying to make my own work for so long and it hasn’t worked out for many different reasons,” he said. “The Hollywood system has its issues and it’s definitely scared of complex gay people. I keep trying to fight that. I think now, if an exec goes to my Instagram they will see comments from people there that want to see complex people and complex gay people. I think it’s all coming together in a way that I feel hopeful that not just my voice but other interesting, complicated and diverse voices will start to be heard.”
“So many of my friends have blown up on the Internet because there is less TV right now and less stuff to watch,” he added. “We’re proving that this is what people want to watch. We’re here and we’ve been here and I’m hoping in the next iteration of Hollywood, they start to finally understand the power of youth and not be so afraid of it. It is really hard for systems in Hollywood to not dismantle projects! It’s so ingrained. But I’m hopeful.”
Firstman, who cheekily defines one of his many identities as “Hollywood ass bitch” remains committed to staying on the West Coast, in hopes of revolutionizing the Hollywood system, one project at a time. “I do feel like I’m supposed to be here, and I’m supposed to fight to make the things that I want to make. It’s weird for me to be talking about this because I don’t have the show yet, I haven’t done the thing yet,” he said. “But what I hope to do when I do have that is, we hear a lot about opening doors for diverse people, and I want to help open the doors for diverse ways of thinking in those diverse people. I want all stories to be told from the way that they’re supposed to be told, not the way that people think that they will be perceived. That’s what I’m trying to bring.”