Comedian Kurt Braunohler on his new show and partnership with Kristen Schaal

Comedian Kurt Braunohler on his new show and partnership with Kristen Schaal

Kurt Braunohler has been a staple of the New York comedy scene for years, largely due to the genial, 7-year-old variety show Hot Tub, which takes place weekly in a Brooklyn concert space. He co-hosts the show with Kristen Schaal, and together, they have uncanny chemistry, a propensity for experimental stand-up bits, and a welcoming attitude toward comics and variety acts who share their sensibilities. They’ve toured the festival circuit with the show, and have tried to adapt it for television. Over the last two years, the tall, imposing Braunohler has also found success outside the partnership. He appeared on Delocated and The Heart, She Holler, and he was featured on This American Life, where he described a Rumspringa-like break he and an ex-girlfriend took from one another. (Braunohler also told a version of the story in his one-man show, The Amish Guide To Fucking.) Next up is a gig that fits Braunohler like a glove: He’ll host Bunk, IFC’s new faux game show created by Ethan T. Berlin and Eric Bryant, in which comedians compete against each other in ridiculous contests like “Shame That Puppy.” In anticipation of Bunk’s première, The A.V. Club sat down with Braunohler to discuss how he came to host the new show, Hot Tub bits that were famously ill-received, and how stand-up compares to surfing.

The A.V. Club: You were brought in to help with Bunk early on. Were you always going to be the host?

Kurt Braunohler: It’s kind of hazy. I knew Ethan—I coached him in improv, and we had written on a MTV game-show pilot together—and I remember him saying the idea of Bunk essentially came to him during that show, because the ideas we really liked and thought were funniest were never made, and all the dumb ideas that we didn’t [like] were actually made. Literally, it was his idea of just making a game show that was funny. 

AVC: And you guys don’t follow the rules that normal game shows lay out?

KB: The rules of game shows limit stuff so much. I remember on Money From Strangers, being in the van—not even performing—and there was a lawyer there the entire time. “No, you can’t give money for that. Yes, you can give money for that. That’s a partial answer. That’s a full answer.” We’re just such a litigious nation; people will go on a game show and sue because they didn’t win. But once you’re free of the rules, then it’s just making fun of the structure. So yeah, they asked me to come help work on it, and I think someone was like, “You should try out hosting.” We tried out every element of the show before a live audience; I think the first one was at the [People’s Improv Theater], the old PIT space, and it was just for fun. It’s been a long time. The pilot went into the New York TV Fest, I dunno, last year? Two years ago? 

AVC: Had you always wanted to host?

KB: Oh, it’s totally within what I do. I like hosting things. When they approached me with the idea, I was like, “I want to host this,” 100 percent. Because it’s so fun. I love smarminess. I love high-status creepiness, because the creepiness undermines the high status, but that person is oblivious to how creepy they’re being. And game-show hosts are that. That guy on Family Feud [Richard Dawson] who would always kiss every single woman, even if they’re 13-year-old girls—and kiss them on the lips, and hold them around the waist tight while they competed. What a creep-o. And the fact that Pat Sajak was drunk. He just came out saying they shot four episodes a day, and by the second one, they were wasted. He and Vanna [White] would get wasted. I love that. They’re such weirdoes. It somehow dovetails weirdly into what I like as a stand-up, which is that high-status creepiness. And then the structure of the show is weird too, which helps. 

AVC: Do you have a hosting persona?

KB: I have a hosting tone of voice; they are tangential to each other. The Bunk-hosting persona is very cheesy, and more creepy than he needs to be. Just really over-the-top, where every word has this squirminess. And when I host Hot Tub, it’s much closer to my stand-up self, but it’s still slightly different. My stand-up self can be low status with the audience if I want to. But with a [game-show] host, you can’t be. The audience needs to fully trust that you’re in charge and know what’s going on even if you don’t, and they can relax and enjoy the show.

AVC: So you have to take control?

KB: For me, at least. When Kristen hosts, she doesn’t need to be that way, because the audience is endeared with her. They’re just along for the ride, even if the show is awkward and weird. But for someone that looks like me—that looks like the science teacher—I have to project that weird male authority that says everything will be okay, which I fought against for so long. But when I gave in, oh, people respond. 

AVC: Why did you fight against it?

KB: For a really long time in my life, I fought against how I look. Because I was raised Catholic in school, where everyone had to wear a suit and tie. I hated everything that stood for. And I realized when I walked down the street, everyone would see the guy I hated and not the guy I was. For a long time, I dressed like an idiot. In college, I had a fully shaved head with just two horns. Like a coxcomb of hair that I would sculpt into two horns. I looked like a crazy person. So for a really long time, I tried to disassemble that association, but it never worked. It made it look like a guy who looks like me trying really hard.

AVC: When did that change in your comedy?

KB: I did improv for seven or eight years before I started writing comedy. And when I finally did—again, seven or eight years ago—I started writing with Kristen, and we just informed each other’s style so much—our senses of humor are the same. But she had been doing stand-up for five years previous, so she had a developed sense of “herself,” with quotes around it. She wasn’t doing setup/punchline; she was doing a solo performance that was very funny. I would write for her, and it worked very well. And then I would try and write for me—I was trying to be so weird so much, I took it to the level where it didn’t make any sense, and I also couldn’t do that [material], the way I look. I later realized the way you look has such a heavy influence on the way people perceive you in the first 30 seconds, walking out and talking into the microphone. So I started writing for myself instead of Kristen. And that’s when things started clicking for me in stand-up.

AVC: On This American Life, you spoke a bit about your upbringing, as well as the self-imposed “Rumspringa” from your long-time girlfriend. How much did your background influence your comedic “finding of one’s self”?

KB: I came into my own—stand-up wise—after all that [Rumspringa] stuff had happened, and I started talking about it onstage. Because that was the first time I had a very recognizable scenario: People are very familiar with being single and dating, and this was the first time I had been in this situation. I felt the need to talk about this stuff, not in a trite, awful way, but in a way I wanted to. So all of a sudden, there was this level of vulnerability that crept into the more absurd bits I was doing at the time. Finding that baseline of talking about myself personally, mixed with the absurdity, is when I think I fully started to click with stand-up.

AVC: You’ve had a comedic partnership with Kristen for a long time, but this year, you’ve gotten a lot of attention outside that partnership. How has that process been, separating and doing your own thing?

KB: It’s fascinating. It’s a really gradual thing. I don’t think there was ever a point where either of us made the decision to go do our thing. It was really because we had been performing together so long. We traveled, we did Edinburgh [Fringe Festival], Melbourne [International Comedy Festival], all these festivals and colleges doing our doubles stuff. Kristen got really busy. Also, having to be dependent on someone else to make your living is never a good position to be in. Kristen’s been amazing, always including me. When she gets solo gigs at colleges, she just brings me along. I’ll do stand-up, then she does, then we do stuff together. She’s always been amazing in that way. I realized that couldn’t be the only way I operate. I’d been doing stand-up for years, but in the past two years, I’d say, I really put all of my focus on that.

What would stop me in the past was that I would be putting my focus and energy into a Kurt-and-Kristen sketch, or tour, or project. And so all my writing energy would go into that, and I’d have only a little juice left for myself. All of a sudden, I switched that formula, where all of my energy was put into writing for myself. And then the Kurt-and-Kristen stuff was relegated to doing Hot Tub and when we’d tour together. Kristen and I still hang out, we’re still best friends. I’m going to be maid of honor at her wedding. And we still work together, and want to work together—we’re working on a pilot in the UK now. So there’s no end to that relationship in any shape or form; it’s just now I can be known as Kurt Braunohler, instead of Kristen’s comedy partner. 

AVC: What has it been like these last two years, suddenly getting solo attention?

KB: I really like it, and not because I don’t like spending time with Kristen or anything like that. But doing something with one person is a thousand times easier than doing something with two people. Even scheduling an interview is so much more difficult with three people—including the interviewer—than it is with two people. The simplicity, I really like it. I like just getting on a plane with my backpack, doing a set, and coming back. It’s gotten me excited about doing more and more stand-up—and also the craft of stand-up, and why it’s important, as opposed to any other type of comedic expression. I recently listened to Doug Stanhope’s last record [Before Turning The Gun On Himself], and that kinda blew me away with what stand-up can be used for. 

AVC: What is stand-up to you?

KB: I’ve always been someone who would say the point is to be funny, and I still think the point of any stand-up obviously is to be funny. But Doug talks about the sense of justice. [There’s a bit in which Stanhope describes a whale eating its trainer after a Sea World-type show, and how that type of finality would be a great way to end his own career. —ed] Something clicked in my head, that said, “It doesn’t have to be a punchline, or a concept, or just be a gimmick. I really do value a sense of sadness. I definitely don’t have any material that brings justice to something, and I don’t aspire to it. But to know that it can be this cool, funny take on a human being’s life, and not just on the funny parts of the life—that’s another thing This American Life helped me realize: It comes off a little sad. Which is kind of how Ira [Glass] wanted to craft it, but to me, it was never sad. It was funny, weird, and hilarious. And that’s how I used it as a framework in my hourlong stand-up show. But I purposely didn’t do any of the bits I did in the show, because I wanted to get to the other side.

AVC: In that same bit, Stanhope also talks about how fed up he is that he’s been talking about issues for a long time, yet hasn’t seen any change. He wonders about the futility of stand-up.

KB: I think that’s a fascinating thing. That’s a level of grandeur we can have as stand-up, because we do so many hundreds of hours of stand-up that we think, “People must know what’s going on with me.” I’ve been doing this hundreds of hours, and people are like, “Who are you? I’ve never heard of you.” It’s just like, “Every night, I get up and talk about this shit, and you have no idea what I’m talking about.” Guys like that have a notion of stand-up being an art form and being important. Whereas, I’d always come at stand-up from what I’d term the “improviser’s mindset.” A lot of improvisers mistakenly assume stand-up is awful, because there are a lot of stand-ups in the world that did not appeal to me. It was so easy to make a blanket statement when I was improvising only: “Stand-up’s terrible.” It’s so ignorant and stupid to do that. But it’s easy to do that. So that’s where I came from. To find this obsession blossoming with stand-up comedians as heroes—fucked-up heroes—is exciting.

AVC: Why do you think stand-up is the only one of the three comedic art forms that’s been fully embraced by the industry?

KB: That’s another thing I’d rail against and be pissed off about when I improvised and when I was writing sketch. I went through the whole gamut of shit you can do in comedy. I went from the one that makes you the least amount of money, to the one that makes you just a little more than the least amount of money, to the one that you can make a fucking living. And I’ve only been able to make a living from stand-up in the past few years. That’s what would make me angry: The industry has such a rigid idea of what they can put on TV, and it still does fucking piss me off. Definitely networks—certain networks—refused to give Kristen and me a show together because they’re like, “These shows are stand-up, and that means one person talks.” And it’s like, two people can’t fucking talk? I’m sure people can conceive of it, and if it’s funny, it’ll work. That’s always made me mad. I’ve come full circle, but that’s what I was always railing against.

AVC: Some people seem to be coming around. Bunk is a sketch show disguised as a game show. 

KB: Yeah, it’s a sketch show disguised as game show, and with a huge amount of improv that’s not really improv. Which I really like.

AVC: The bits you do at Hot Tub are super-experimental—

KB: When you say super-experimental, you mean “not funny,” and I agree with you. Kristen and I have experimented as far as you can go into not-funny. 

AVC: At the first Hot Tub I saw, you guys covered yourselves in blue paint, then rolled around on paper. You ended with that. 

KB: We were trying to spell something out with our bodies on the paper. We have so many bits like that. We have one we still love to this day that no one likes, and we’ve done so many times. Which is as the audience enters the theater, we’re wrapped up in giant paper cocoons, the two of us, and you can’t tell it’s human bodies; it looks like piles of paper onstage. We’re there for 15-20 minutes, then the lights go down in the house, and up onstage, music plays, and we’re born out of the cocoons. Kristen has these beautiful butterfly wings on, and I have two dildos on my back. But I can’t see them, and so I’m talking about her beautiful wings and like, “What about me?” And she says, “You have two dildos growing out of your back,” and it goes on from there. No one ever enjoyed it. That’s the thing Kristen and I really like: that weird performance-art shit, and it’s a bummer that stuff doesn’t get laughs. Because if we could get laughs with it, we’d only do weird, absurd things. Like “Kristen Schaal Is A Horse!”, that’s one of the few things we’ve done that’s up our alley and really connected with people.

AVC: As you’ve started to rely on stand-up as a living, have your guerrilla-comedy instincts dampened? 

KB: That’s a great question. But it’s two different skill sets. Traditional stand-up, which we can call network-TV stand-up—set-up, punchline, set-up, punchline—where you say your words in a specific way that people can learn and come to love and look forward to hearing. That’s a different skill, and that’s a skill I’ve been working on a lot. And maybe I can get lost in trying to work on it so much that I forget about this other part. But all it takes is a rejiggering. I try to do faster-paced, more traditional jokes, and then a longer piece that’s weirder, and then faster stuff. So you give stuff for both people. I realized [at one point] I was crazily editing my sets. Anything that wasn’t getting a huge response, I’d take it out, even if I really liked the joke. And I recently, like January, was like no, no, no. The right people will laugh at certain jokes, or else my set’ll get all blanded out. 

AVC: Are there things from your life you can’t talk about in your stand-up?

KB: I don’t feel like I can’t talk about anything, and that’s probably because I have a real problem with boundaries. There are a bunch of topics I want to talk about onstage, but I just haven’t found a way to make them funny for other people. They’re interesting to me because they happened in my life, and I’ve just been working on ways to connect with an audience with them. Like talking about my dad, who had four wives, and my brothers and sisters. Strangely enough, my other big passion in life besides comedy is surfing. I’ve been thinking—this morning, I went surfing, and coming back I [thought], “I want to write The Surfer’s Guide To Stand-Up Comedy.” I think surfing and comedy are very similar. 

AVC: In what way?

KB: On one level, they’re both one of those things where when you start doing it, from the outside, you look like an asshole. And it’s really difficult to learn. If you see someone learn to surf, they look like a disabled baby. They can’t paddle. They can’t sit on the board. And when you watch someone at their first open mic, it’s painfully awful. It takes such a long time to get mildly proficient at it. It took me two years to stand up properly on a board, from age 14 to 16. It takes so many hours to bomb at stand-up before you start succeeding. And now, when I surf, it’s similar to when I do stand-up or improvise. Things happen so quickly; I’m making minute adjustments—my body positioning, where my weight is in the curl—the same way I’m making minute adjustments to my timing, to eye contact. And both of them have a place where you’re in the moment, everything falls away, and you’re focused on this one thing. I had that idea today, so I’m going to write it up as an essay first, and then I’ll sell that to The New Yorker, and then I’ll get a book deal… My first instinct is always [to] abandon the idea and get new ones in there. That’s a real problem I have. 

AVC: That must come from having a weekly show you can experiment with. 

KB: Yeah, there are so many bits we’ve done once and never come back to. One bit we did—we were just talking about the other day, and we did it more than once, which is insane. It was our fifth show. The first four shows, sold out, crazy killer show, everybody fucking loved it. Fifth show, sold out, people are excited. We open the show sitting down on a blanket, not introducing the show; we’re sitting down and fully, dramatically doing a scene from the movie Sideways, which had just come out. Word for word. Emotionally driven scene, like the peak of the scene, for 10 fucking minutes. And then we just start the show. We had, like, three people in the audience for a year after that. That was the sketch that killed Hot Tub. We thought it would be funny; everybody had seen Sideways and loved it. How weird to see it in the context of a comedy show. It was a terrible idea.

AVC: What’s the story about your dad that you wish you could share onstage?

KB: The two-second version: I’m essentially an only child with seven brothers and sisters. My dad has had four wives. Three [siblings are] older than me, and four younger than me, with my brother right next to me. My oldest sister is 52, and my youngest two sisters that are twins are 11. I’ve lost count of how many nieces and nephews I have. [Pauses to count.] Seventeen nieces and nephews. A full half of them are older than their aunts. My oldest nephew is 19 or 20, and he has aunts that are 11. So when he was 15 and they were 6, my joke would be when they’d say Emily or Erin, I’d be like, “Aunt Emily and Aunt Erin.” My dad would say it wasn’t funny, and I’d be like, “Dad, you have no idea how funny it is.” 

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