They were toasts of the town in Montreal last summer at the prestigious Just For Laughs Festival, won the biggest award earlier this year in Melbourne, Australia, and were the only Americans nominated for the top prize at this summer’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland. New Yorkers, of course, have come to know and love the majestic weirdness of Kurt and Kristen for years now. They headline Comix this weekend (Sept. 5-6) with Gabe & Jenny hosting and Shayna Ferm as an opening act.
The duo of Kurt and Kristen (he’s from New Jersey, she’s from Colorado) teamed up more than four years ago when both Braunohler and Schaal were improvisers at the Peoples Improv Theater looking to host their own variety shows. Though they hadn’t performed together before, the chemistry, Braunohler said, was "pretty immediate!" Their
initial show, Hot Tub, was a hit at the PIT and eventually moved to Pianos, then to Comix.
"It was kind of amazing," he said. "Obviously, when you first start doing stuff, we were feeling each other out, but I think we just fell in love with performing with each other." It didn’t take audiences long to feel the same kind of love for the quirky duo.
Their current show, "Double Down Hearts," takes scenes from a play told in reverse to create a running narrative "for fitting in all the weird s&*@ we want to do in between," Braunohler said.
That weirdness, though, has captivated audiences on several continents. Does their style of comedy play better abroad than it does in the United States? "Kristen and I have different opinions on this," Braunohler said. "I think yes. Specifically with the U.K., and a little bit with Australia, there’s more of a long history of sketch comedy, (Monty) Python and stuff. And in America, the mainstream vocabulary is stand-up, so things outside of that structure seem
weird and strange. Of course, what we do is weird and strange anyhow."
Perhaps their most popular routine is a dance number, quite simply titled, "Kristen Schaal is a Horse."
I don’t want to spoil it for you, but if you’ve already seen it, look here to see how well it went over before a televised audience in Melbourne! Now let’s learn more about this example of genius in simplicity…
"We only did it twice out there (in Edinburgh)!" Braunohler said. "In Melbourne we did it every day, 30 shows…and I lost 10 pounds." Why only twice? "Kristen had surgery recently so she wasn’t feeling so well. We took it night by night. We’d literally finish the show and I’d look at her for a nod…One night we did it and got a partial standing ovation, and we didn’t even do it that long. But I didn’t want to push her, plus we hadn’t done it in so long."
What’s the longest you’ve let that bit go? Do you even know? "I think probably close to five minutes," he told me. "I purposely don’t keep track. I feel it out…you have to pay attention to what the crowd’s doing…there are waves that happen. You want to end on the crest of that final wave."
After a month in Scotland, their constant improvising has helped improve and evolve their show, so
"there’s a lot of extra jokes that didn’t exist before we went to Edinburgh," Braunohler said.
So how did you like Edinburgh this time around? "Both of us have been over twice, but separately. This was our first time together," he said. Was that the missing ingredient? "I don’t know. You tell me. We nailed it this time."
Was it easier the second time navigating the Fringe? "I thought it was incredibly helpful. For me, it was just being familiar. I didn’t expect it to be as different as it was. Living there for a month. First time I was there, in 2004, with the Neutrino Video Project…the festival is a world unto itself…it has all of these idiosyncratic rules about how it operates. The reviews can make you or break you. But if you get a good review in the Scotsman, it’s great. If you have a ton of great reviews, but the Scotsman says you’re s&*$, tough luck." And the weather. "And the toilets smell so bad, it’s amazing," he said. "Even the nicest restaurants, the toilets are disgusting." So there’s that. "Once you know what’s going to happen, it’s totally cool."
"The first time I went over I had the classic Edinburgh experience," he said. "Pay your own way. Suffer. Go flyering every day. Have no one in your theater. Be working your heart out and be owing someone $15,000. This one was a fully-produced show. They set up a nice place for us. We didn’t have to flier. All of our shows sold out."
What’s going on with Penelope: Princess of Pets? Only three episodes have aired on Super Deluxe, the most recent one in April.
"It looks like they should be released very, very soon," he said. "They have a contract they can agree to, they just have to f&*$ing sign it. Six are coming up. I really liked working for Super Deluxe. It just shows when you’re working for giant corporations, you can’t just say, let’s do this cool thing! Hooray! You finish these things and it sits on a shelf for nine months. It’s like making a baby. It’s been sitting on a shelf for a baby-making amount of time."
What about teaching and directing? While Schaal won last year’s ECNY for best female stand-up, you also were taking home a trophy for best director? Do you still have time for that? "I still teach every week at the PIT," he said. "I still do improv every Wednesday at the PIT. I haven’t directed that much. Last thing I directed was a Stickerbook talk show. I really like to direct. You don’t get the thrill of the performance. But you kind of do. You feel like you’re helping people, which is a good thing, but you’re also feeling smart when things work, you can say, look how smart that was. If you can make something cool and collarborate, that’s fun, too."
How much do you inform each other’s solo work? "I don’t know for her, but for me, I’m always thinking I want to take it one step further, just to surprise her," he said. "But now, a lot of my newer stuff, she hasn’t seen it."
Schaal recently began working as a correspondent for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. You can see a few of her appearances here. When she taped her new half-hour Comedy Central Presents special last week, she employed Braunohler for bits throughout the special as her prop man. "We both wanted to do it together," Schaal told the audience. "Because I’m more famous, they said just I could do the special." The audience laughed, appropriately. But Braunohler got plenty of opportunities to contribute to the show.
They’re also working on TV projects for the BBC and American
networks. Schaal begins shooting scenes for the second season of HBO’s
hit sitcom Flight of the Conchords in the coming week, as well.
That show’s first season included bit parts for several New York
comedians. Could there be a reunion for Kurt and Kristen on HBO in 2009? "I think the only bit parts are for Australians this time around, so I’m working on my Australian accent," Braunohler said. "But my girlfriend is Australian, so that’s helping."
A shorter version of this interview appeared in today’s New York editions of the free Metro newspaper. You can see Kurt Braunohler and Kristen Schaal live this weekend at Comix in New York City.
Related: For more of Braunohler talking about his previous comedy efforts, read the interview he gave to my friends at The Apiary.