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The larger comedy community was introduced to Kristen Schaal through her work as lovable stalker Mel on Flight Of The Conchords. And only a short time following the end of that show, Schaal became a constant in new and exciting comedy projects. She’s appeared in Human Giant, How I Met Your Mother, and Modern Family, and even popped up in the pilot of Mad Men as a switchboard operator. Her voice graced Toy Story 3, and she can currently be heard in the new animated series Bob’s Burgers on Fox, which also features the voices of Eugene Mirman, Andy Kindler, and H. Jon Benjamin. She also maintains a steady presence on New York stages, performing in occasional improv shows at the People’s Improv Theater and going up regularly at independent stand-up shows, including one she co-produces with Kurt Braunohler. The A.V. Club spoke to Schaal about her piecemeal work on Bob’s Burgers, her ever-evolving definition of “quirky,” and stand-up bits that shouldn’t be repeated.
The A.V. Club: How do you typically get involved with voiceover projects?
Kristen Schaal: I don’t really shop around. I just need for someone to ask me to do it, and I do it. This one was especially fun because it started years ago when Fox was experimenting with Loren Buchard’s idea. We would go into a studio and record a scene together; six months would go by and they’d ask for another scene. After a couple years of that, I never really considered that Bob’s Burgers would be an actual, realized show. [When they got back in contact,] it was always a surprise, like, “Oh, that’s a thing again?” When I got the email from Loren telling me Fox had picked it up, it was out of nowhere. But it’s been really fun to do, like, a press conference with Eugene. [Laughs.]
AVC: You just finished 15 interviews for the show, in a row. How do you stay present during those arduous junkets?
KS: It’s tough. You don’t want to, but you end up repeating yourself. In the beginning you say like, “My character is described as these three adjectives.” Then you wanna give them three different ones, but by the end you’re just like, “Forget it.” If they’re gonna ask the same question, I’m gonna answer it the same way…One of the guys put a funny interview online where Eugene and John Roberts and I lost it at the end of a three-hour junket. John Roberts started doing impressions of every character from The Facts Of Life.
AVC: How did you learn to conduct interviews?
KS: Trial by fire. [Laughs.] I’ve learned you have to be a bit more guarded. And also that you can’t really make jokes. They don’t come across in print. Sarcasm doesn’t read sarcastic in print.
AVC: You do a lot of writing for yourself. What goes into the decision to work on something you didn’t write?
KS: I love the idea that I have the power to look for the projects I can put myself into, but I’m still at that level of just being happy to have a job. I haven’t been in the position too much where I was offered a job and was like, “This job isn’t going to be fun because it’s something I wouldn’t want to watch.” I’ve been lucky. The projects I’ve gotten to work on are projects I’d want to watch myself. That’s what I try to shoot for. That’s not always the case in this business. Usually the projects I really like watching, I’m not getting asked to work on…For me, my big break was doing Flight Of The Conchords, then people who were fans watched some of the stuff I do. I lucked out on their sloppy seconds.
What I look for in jobs are things that are quirky. But I would hate to say that and then have to take work in a mainstream movie that’s not exceptional. People are so critical of the jobs you take, and I try very hard to do work that I’m proud of, but sometimes it’s like, what do you want? I’d love to be in all of Wes Anderson’s movies. [Laughs.] As far as getting to do Bob’s Burgers and Toy Story, I’m lucky that people who want to do fun and exciting things want to work with me. I’m just not at a place where I said, “Ooh, Toy Story 3: I think I should get involved in that.” [Laughs.]
AVC: You maintain a very regular stand-up schedule, where your comedy has been labeled “alternative.” How did you fall into the alt comedy scene?
KS: I realized I wanted to put myself up at least once a week in New York, and so I would write new material every week. It turned out the places I was going were dubbed “alternative” places, so then I was an alternative comedian…[Nowadays,] I’ll find that if I’m doing a college gig, I stick to the stuff I know works, because I’m getting paid. If it’s a show I’m not getting paid for, like the one I host with Kurt Braunohler in Brooklyn, I try every show to do brand new material.
AVC: At one of the shows I saw, you and Kurt doused yourselves in paint, then rubbed your bodies against a blank piece of paper.
KS: That never was done before, and that’ll never happen again. [Laughs.] We did a bit about bedbugs; I told Kurt that I had sex with Satan, and he had impregnated me with bedbugs. Then we threw peppercorns into the audience. I mean, if I describe the things to you, you’ll instantly know why they were only done once. [Laughs.]
AVC: How did you meet Kurt?
KS: We were both doing improv at the People’s Improv Theater [in New York], and we wanted to do a variety show. I wanted to provide a room for people to come and do even weirder things than I was seeing. In the beginning I wanted to have themes, like everyone who came would have to do something related to “water,” or “blue.” But it turned into whatever we could get. [Laughs.]
AVC: What’s your stand-up schedule like now? How often do you go up in a typical week?
KS: Three times. It’s important; I think it refines your work. I’m finding it’s also important to take breaks.
AVC: Was there a particular time you burned out?
KS: Maybe now. [Laughs.] I go through cycles: I get excited, then I think I perform too much and I never want to set foot on the stage again, then I’m excited. I think it’s healthy to let it come-and-go. The thing about stand-up is that it’s a show that goes year-round. Everyone else who has a regular gig, you can at least take breaks. You can’t really clock out of stand-up.
AVC: Do you find yourself exhausted with the freelance schedule?
KS: I would function better with a regular job. When I do get work—like for example tomorrow I’m working one day. Sometimes I’ll get lucky and it’ll be for a week or two. I’m so happy to be around people. I just really like people, and being a freelancer can be lonely during the day, when you’re at home trying to write anything you can. Flight Of The Conchords was so wonderful because I had a family for two years. Then I lost them!
AVC: How do you handle the grind?
KS: I make lists. I’ll get on the Internet for too long, and I don’t have a boss sticking his head in the door like, “Hey Kristen, you probably shouldn’t read that.” I’ll be on the Internet for so long, I get bored with the Internet. I find I don’t get anything done until about four o’clock, when I realize I’ve wasted my day.
AVC: Was there a moment when you realized you knew exactly what you found funny?
KS: I can’t think of a specific moment, but I do remember getting more excited when I would watch South Park episodes, when things were pushed beyond what I’d normally hear in a joke.
AVC: You mentioned “quirky” earlier. The industry doesn’t really treat “quirky” well. There’s normal, then there’s quirky, and there’s very little middle ground.
KS: All the best movies are the ones that are cut from a more middle ground. That’s why I’m going to write that. I’m trying to get a TV show made right now, but you know. I have no power. I’m just sitting and waiting for them to call and say, “We’re passing.” It’s a comedy Western I wrote with my boyfriend Rich Blomquist. It’s a half hour, kinda ridiculous. It’s a long-shot, but all the characters are quirky, so there’s no going back.
AVC: How long did it take to write that script?
KS: It came out pretty quickly. I think we were able to write it in about a week or two, but we had outlined it a few months before. But I pitched the idea a year ago. This has been a fun one. It was one of those things where I didn’t wanna procrastinate on it because I enjoyed it so much. I would get things done ahead of deadline. Whatever happens, it was encouraging that writing was fun again.
KS: Yeah the Western wasn’t even supposed to be—it was my project, but then we’d be sitting at brunch and he’d ask how it was going. I’d say, “I have this character, and I’m thinking of doing this and that,” and he’d say, “That’s good, and you should also do this.” Next thing I know, we’d written an outline together. [Laughs.] We both have similar sensibilities that play off each other really well. It’s easy to work with him, too, because we work together. We don’t have to rent an office or anything. And if it’s fun, it’s almost as fun as going out. [Laughs.] I know that sounds so gross.