Between spots on Up All Night, United States Of Tara, and Chelsea Lately, and his rigorous touring schedule hitting colleges, festivals, and clubs throughout the country, Matt Braunger has had a busy few years. His stand-up material, which has roots in the seemingly opposing camps of personal storytelling and the flight of fancy, where tales of childhood pranksterism commingle with absurdist visions of drunken superheroes and vengeful owls, has been honed to a fine point for his new album and Comedy Central special, Shovel Fighter, which comes out this July. The A.V. Club spoke with Braunger before his Just For Laughs show at The Hideout June 15 about his television appearances, his friendships with other comics, and why he’ll probably always put his albums out on vinyl.
The A.V. Club: Did you always know you wanted to work in comedy?
Matt Braunger: I was always interested in comedy, but initially, I went to school for acting. I went to college in New York, and every actor I knew that stayed in New York after school was living in these, like, 4-foot-by-4-foot apartments, or living with seven roommates. I’m sort of a big guy, so that didn’t sound very appealing.
I knew someone who lived in Chicago, and she was in all of these productions, working under all of these different teachers, and it occurred to me that I could move there and get good, before I went for it anywhere else; it’s such a good training ground. Because I was getting literally no theater work there either, I started taking improv classes to have something to do other than waiting tables.
AVC: When did you start working toward being a comic? Was it a slow path from improv to stand-up?
MB: I did improv for about two years, and then I started going to open mics, where I met Kyle Kinane and other people who started around that time. It wasn’t immediate, but it was there when I got kicked off of my improv team, which was when I turned to the dark side of the force and did stand-up by itself.
AVC: You worked on the final season of MadTV. Between that and your time spent on improv teams, do you find yourself missing sketch and improv as comedic outlets?
MB: I’m always writing stuff like that, but it’s not something I put a lot of my energy into, as much as for stand-up or writing ideas for shows. I’m actually going to be pitching a bunch of short ideas to Comedy Central soon, and that’s been fun, having somewhere else to channel my energy.
MadTV was a blast, and so was doing sketch and improv in Chicago—even though you probably knew no one was going to show up. Those early shows forced you to write and perform for yourself, which is the best way to look at it.
AVC: Based on the sort of shows you play in L.A. and your Twitter feed, it seems like you’re pretty close with folks like Kyle Kinane and TJ Miller, both of whom also got started in Chicago. Do you think you guys remain close simply because you’ve known each other for so long, or is there a deeper connection, a common ground amongst your specific generation of comics?
MB: I think it’s both, with those two specific examples especially. Kyle and I became drinking buddies and both liked the same things. We had similar sensibilities and are still like brothers today. To extrapolate that further to involve people like Pete Holmes and others, we never want to sell the audience short, which I know sounds cheesy. We are definitely entertainers, we have that egotistical thing going. As George Carlin would say, “It’s all about big me!” But we also don’t want anyone to walk away [from our shows] going, “Why did I waste my time?”
That’s the pressure we’ve all put on ourselves, even at our most inebriated or tired or hungover moments, we know you can’t really phone it in, because there’s people there watching you. We came up seeing people who get on stage and say, “Oh, great, three people in the crowd, what’s the point?” I was always like, “Well why did you get onstage then? Why bother?”
AVC: There does seem to be a heightened level of engagement with the audience during your set. It’s always very conversational, whether you’re doing written material or not.
MB: Yeah, for sure, every time you go up, it’s different, and it’s weirdly—God, for want of another term—special in it’s own way. It could really, really, suck, or it could be great, and you never know. I think we’re all trying to constantly be better, and have different stuff, which is tricky to walk that line, between the stuff you’ve honed and the stuff you want to try out. In any case, you have to be having fun along with the audience, which is kind of the point.
I remember early on doing opening spots for people at Zanies, and one guy I remember just crushed and had a great set, but you could tell he’d probably done it a thousand times. He got offstage, and he was weirdly shaking, like he had the DTs. When he talked to me, he had this thousand-yard stare, as if he hated what he did and had just walked out of a foxhole in World War I, and I remember thinking, “God, I never want to be like you!” It wasn’t fun for him. Maybe he had a lot of kids or alimony or something, but it was purely a punch-the-card job.
AVC: It’s almost like comparing a jaded session musician to a young kid touring in a van with a punk band.
MB: Yeah, but even a session musician can still get a kick out of the music he’s making. I think it’s almost more like someone that shoves a needle in his or her arm to stay straight just to get through an office job. As if it’s like, “If I don’t put this in my arm, I’ll get the shakes and I won’t be able to make copies.”
AVC: You’ve appeared on scripted TV shows like Up All Night and United States Of Tara in the last few years. Would you be interested in taking on larger roles if they come along as a way to resume your past life as an actor, or are you more comfortable doing smaller, character bits?
MB: Yeah, absolutely, I’m always auditioning for acting stuff. I’m kind of a guest star/regular on Up All Night. Myself and Jean Villepique play these un-self-aware, slightly assholish, judgemental neighbors, and it’s the most fun thing in the world to get to be the dickhead Ned Flanders. I’d like to do more. I’d like to do a play or two down the line and, of course, movie and TV work. Acting’s always something that’s with me, and that’s helped me, in terms of stand-up, inhabit the characters I encounter in stores I tell. The cool thing about doing stand-up is that once things start to get going for you, you can pick and choose gigs more and have more time to audition or create roles for yourself. When people ask “Are you an actor or a comic?” I always think, “God, do I have to choose one?”
My thing is that I didn’t get into comedy to get acting work. That was a big thing when I first moved to LA. You had guys who weren’t getting auditions during pilot season, and their agents told them to try stand-up to get exposure. Not to generalize, but you’d see a lineup of people at a club, and it’d be these really good-looking guys that would just eat shit. I’d almost feel bad for them, it’s almost like saying, “Oh, you should try boxing, give it a shot!” And then you get your ribs broken. You can jump into it, but most people are not fucking amazing the first time they go up.
AVC: To most people, stand-up looks like a pretty easy gig, but there’s a lot of work that goes into making it look easy.
MB: You have to be comfortable with yourself onstage and not care that all of these people are looking at you and literally waiting on every word you’re about to say. That can mess with you.
But yeah, I love both stand-up and acting. The cool thing about comedy is that it’s always there. Acting work can be few and far between, just because of the dearth of projects. You know, I’ve got kind of a unique look. Knock on wood, there’s always going to be stand-up work to pay the bills, and luckily it’s something that I love.
AVC: You’re also something of a regular on Chelsea Lately, and have performed as a part of the Comedians Of Chelsea Lately tour, but your stand-up doesn’t really seem influenced by the sort of pop culture dissected on that show. Are you accessing a different skill set when appearing on the show?
MB: Absolutely. It’s almost as if you have to switch up your muscle memory on that show. All they do is pop culture, and I’ve done maybe five pop-culture jokes in the past 10 years or something. The cool thing about that show is that, even though it’s not really up my alley, they’ll give me a list of topics, and that day I have to make up jokes for them, and then they go on TV. So it’s this tightrope act, and Chelsea Handler, love her or hate her, she puts really funny comedians on there.
As for the tour, I actually only went out with them once. It was a great weekend, with me, Jen Kirkman, Sarah Colonna, and Loni Love. We had a great time. It was fun being the only guy on the lineup, which is rare, and performing for crowds that kind of knew who I was but not really.
AVC: Your first album, Soak Up The Night, was released on vinyl and digital download only. What inspired that choice?
MB: Well, these days, everybody downloads their music. Even if someone buys a CD, they’ll put the files onto their computer to have it on their iPod. I figured that the amount of people that actually buy comedy albums is so small, that I’d go ahead and make a record on vinyl. It was a novelty at first, and it was actually the first vinyl release on Comedy Central Records.
I grew up on comedy records. Even though they were before my time, my parents had them, so I think I’ll always do that. My new album is coming out in July and I’m doing the same thing, vinyl and digital download. There’s a download card inside all the vinyl sleeves, so that’s the best of both worlds, future and past. I try to make the packaging fun and funny, like the cover of this new record is going to look like an album put out by a folk-rock star in the ’70s. It’s one of those things that are as much a fun souvenir to have. If I was a person that was really into comedy, it would be something I’d want to have on my shelf, whether I listen to it or not, because the cover makes me laugh because it’s so stupid.
AVC: Have you noticed a shift or evolution in your material since your first record?
MB: It’s hard to say. That first album, I’d had all these years to put together my favorite stuff, and I had maybe two years between the last one and this one—but there was never a time when I felt like I was rushing it. I did the record last October, and recorded my hour special in December, and it’s pretty much the same material. There are a couple different things on the album that aren’t on the special, but they’re basically the same. At first, I was going to give them different titles, but the record company and my manager were like, “You shouldn’t do that!” And I realized it would be kind of dickish.
In terms of my evolution, I couldn’t tell you. The stuff on the first album, I like it, but I’m so tired of that material, I’ll never really do it unless someone requests it. That’s not to say I’m a snob in that way, but sometimes you’ll do a show where people are like, “Oh, you didn’t do this bit!” Sometimes at shows, when I have time for one more thing, I’ll take requests if anyone has them. I first saw Patton Oswalt do that when we were both at Bumbershoot, and I thought it was really classy, really awesome that he did that.
I like the new album and the new special, but I’ve already got a ton of new stuff that isn’t on there at all. I think that's what you have to do, walk the line between entertaining the audience and developing as a person, you don’t want to go too far either way. On the one hand, if you’re doing stuff everyone’s heard but doing it amazingly, people will get tired of it, but you can’t go the complete other way where you’re always working on new stuff that’s hit-or-miss, and the crowd’s like “Jesus Christ, put together a solid set. I paid $20 for this.”