Q&A With Kurt Braunohler
The absurdist comic has a seriously bright future
By Sean L. Malin,
4:50PM, Fri. Sep. 16, 2016
On his personal Tumblr page, Kurt Braunohler describes himself as someone “inserting absurdity into strangers' lives to make the world a better place.” Although this eccentric phraseology may sound like a self-effacing goof, Braunohler is one the few comedians active today whose work is unanchored by misery.
For 15 years of performance, he has opted for antics, gimmicks, and gags, most extremely clever but distorted by a sense of fantasy and Steve Martin-like disconnection from the governing principles of mainstream stand-up.
In a sense, he truly does make the world better – the world of angry, snarky comics, at the very least – by turning his idiosyncrasies, rather than his frustrations, into jokes. It is lucky, then, that Braunohler is touring his latest act around the country, with a stop at the North Door in Austin on Sat., Sept. 17. We spoke with the stand-up about the legacy of American absurdism, Braunohler’s working relationship with Austin comedy, and the recent personal tragedy pushing his jokes in an entirely new direction.
Austin Chronicle: I hope it’s a good time. Where are you right now?
Kurt Braunohler: Yes, this is good, this is great. I’m touring right now – currently, I’m in Cleveland.
AC: According to your publicist, you will finish out the tour in Portland to shoot a new special for Comedy Central. How many more dates until then? And why didn’t you go for sweet, beautiful Austin?
KB: On the road, I have 12 or 13 more shows, then a few more in L.A. to prepare for Portland – about 17 prep shows altogether. It was between Portland and Denver for the special. I’ve played in both places many times, and the audiences there are always so great. Austin audiences are always wonderful as well, but everybody’s been recording stuff in Austin recently. It turned out that Comedy Central had never recorded a special in Portland, so they were really excited to do it there. Also, I recorded my album, How Do I Land?, there, and my record label, Kill Rock Stars, is there.
AC: I know you have a longstanding relationship with South by Southwest. How often have you toured in Austin? What’s your relationship like with our comedy here?
KB: I’ve been to Austin many times. I was at Cap City [Comedy Club] maybe half a year ago, and that was really fun. I’ve done that festival – Fun, Fun Festival? Fun Fun Fun Fun …
AC: If you just keep repeating “fun,” you’ll eventually hit it. Fun Fun Fun Fest.
KB: Fun Fun Fun Fest, then, which was great. And I’ve done South By at least five times. Moontower [Comedy & Oddity Festival] once.
AC: In Austin, we have an ongoing trend of snarky or sometimes aggressive comics – people who are cynical in their approach to comedy. But watching your last Comedy Central half-hour felt like a breath of fresh air because you are positive and hyper-optimistic onstage, and it is sort of beautiful. How much of that is the character you play, and how much of it is you? Or to simplify: Do you believe in people?
KB: I … do. [Laughs] I think that was more how I was a long while ago. I would say I’m generally pretty positive. But that is not a factor [in my material] now, I would say, because I’ve matured a little and I’ve become a little darker.
AC: You’ve soured somewhat.
KB: Yes, there is a little more of an understanding that the world is just not a good place.
AC: Has getting married helped or hurt your perspective in that regard? You talked about being in a really long relationship on NPR a while ago, and that did not seem particularly optimistic to me.
KB: Well, the relationship I was talking about there was one from a long time ago, not my wife. But I have been with my wife for five or six years.
AC: Still a very significant relationship. Does your relationship make you see the world as a more beautiful place? Or does it feel like it is you and your wife against this nasty world?
KB: It is definitely the two of us against the world. Being married helps against that. But my mom also recently died, which has deeply colored my view of the world, as well as my stand-up. That isn’t necessarily something you will see in the stuff I will be doing at the North Door because I’m essentially just prepping my upcoming Comedy Central hour on this tour. That’s the kind of material I’m working with now, not …
AC: Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. I can’t imagine you would tell many jokes about that.
KB: Thank you, but again, I am still myself onstage, and I am still relatively absurd. That’s just my personal life.
AC: I interviewed Brett Gelman a few months ago, and as you might know, Gelman used to be comedy partners with Jon Daly, who you went on a water skiing PR nonsense trip with. Gelman is an absurdist, too, but he is on the dark end of the spectrum from where you are.
KB: Oh, yeah. Yeah, that’s right. [Laughs]
AC: One thing that he and I talked about was that for absurdist comedians like you, there is a looming cloud of comparison to people like Andy Kaufman on one end or to early Chevy Chase on the other. There seems to be an overwhelming urge in the press to compare this generation’s absurd or surreal comics to that generation’s, which is hard to justify because it is not flattering necessarily. Have you been at all dogged by those comparisons?
KB: No, no, not at all! The only comparison that I really get that often is Steve Martin, and I take that as a deep compliment. Being compared to any of those guys would be, in my mind, only complimentary.
AC: I believe that, but isn’t it a bit of an easy out sometimes? Putting you in that category means thinking of you more as a gagster or a prankster when in actuality, compared to those comics, you are a joke machine. Despite what you have become famous for, your material isn’t just you yelling, “Kristen Schaal is a horse!” 100 times in a row.
KB: Yes, that is true, I really, really like jokes. And I want to have a lot of jokes when I perform. I don’t mind the absurdism tag because I know that if you come to see me, you are going to hear a lot of jokes. I think if you watch my stuff, too, you’ll notice how many jokes get in there. I don’t feel like that tag is a problem – it is merely from people trying to find a vocabulary for you. So, yeah, maybe this isn’t an adequate vocabulary for me at the moment, but that will change over time, and people are clearly trying.
AC: You are very difficult to classify as a comedian. Part of that is how many different formats you have worked in. You did a very traditional stand-up set on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon and you have a Kill Rock Stars comedy record, but there is also your water skiing, the skywriting prank, and the fake game show you hosted, Bunk. This is a badge of honor, but you must be somewhat difficult to promote.
KB: [Laughs] Yes. I’ve noticed that stand-up comics really start to take off if they have a three-word description or something. Like: Patton Oswalt: “Nerdy Smart Guy” or Amy Schumer: "Party Girl Who Talks About Sex.” I definitely do not have that, and it isn’t the sort of thing you can just force, either. It has to be a process of discovery.
AC: What other borders are you beginning to cross in comedy – are you writing for other people? Are you acting?
KB: I am acting. My acting does not have much to do with my stand-up career – it’s been more about “how good are you at acting?” It is about whether or not I can be funny in the room. In that regard, it has been going pretty well. I just did a Judd Apatow-produced movie that will be coming out next year.
AC: Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon’s film, right? I have heard rumors that you wrote a bit on it.
KB: That’s right.
AC: Is there a writers’ room? What was the process of joke-writing for an Apatow film?
KB: No room – I was on set pitching jokes directly to Holly Hunter, Ray Romano, and Zoe Kazan. I pitched jokes for myself to say. The first day was very stressful, but after you get the hang of it, it becomes really fun, of course. Pitching jokes for Holly Hunter is fun because all I did was make up Southern expressions that don’t exist. Then she’d say them as if they were real expressions.
AC: Your height, six feet-plus, and the way that you look are gifts for appearing onstage. I hope you won’t mind me saying this but your headshot features an amusingly patchy beard.
KB: Sure, okay …
AC: My point is that your body lends itself to physical comedy, and that is a major part of your stand-up act and your early performance art stuff. Have you gotten to the skill level yet where you can use your appearance to the same ends onscreen?
KB: Using physicality in my acting is a huge thing for me, even if I’m not doing anything. It’s important to center your performance in your body, I’m learning. In the movie The Big Sick, I play a comic, and there’s one part that I just improvised where I am doing stand-up. I started doing this bird thing … [Laughs] Hopefully it stays in, because I thought it was kind of funny and very physical comedy.
AC: Before our interview, I watched your episode of Ari Shaffir’s Comedy Central show, This is Not Happening. Given your height and the way the stage is set up in the center of the crowd, you completely dominate the episode. On the other hand, when you and Kristen Schaal perform together in a place like The Virgil, Kristen sometimes takes over. As a somewhat newer actor, are you moving toward being a John C. Reilly or Brett Gelman-type supporting character, or is your acting career shaping up more towards the lead?
KB: Honestly, it’s been across the board. I played the lead in a movie called B-Roll, which was a small indie. I play a real big asshole in that. I also played a huge asshole in this Hulu show, Deadbeat. I enjoy acting anyway, but I really enjoy playing an asshole. In the movie, I play a kind of failed, goofy comic, so he’s an asshole, too. He is just there for comic relief.
AC: Do you think playing an asshole is, for someone as peppy and positive as you can be onstage, a kind of ventilation system? It lets the cynical prick in you finally see the light of day.
KB: Yeah, maybe! This might be weird to say – I know it’s weird – but I think I’m … well, I think people would say that I’m a pretty nice guy. But that is what makes it funny! It’s always funny when you see someone who people think of as nice playing a real piece of shit. That tension is very funny.
AC: I was sorry to hear about your mom. Has her passing made these more cynical or aggressive behaviors easier to access for you, whether that be in your stand-up or in the comic asides you bring to The Big Sick?
KB: This hour that I’m touring now was completely written before my mom even got sick. This is all material from before. But the next hour will be all about my mom, probably. As for acting, if you’ve experienced tragedy, I do believe you are able to be a better actor. You can access emotion more easily when it isn’t far from your real life.
AC: Training or coaching usually helps to bring that out, too. That’s why so many comics meet with acting coaches when they start getting big film roles.KB: Yes, I take classes. I really love ‘em. There was another comedian who will remain nameless who was bragging to my wife the other day: “Acting is so easy. I love it so much because it’s so easy.” Then we watched their performance in a show, and I thought, “So that’s why you think acting is so easy – you’re fucking horrible at it!” Acting is really hard. I find it fascinating and fun to do, but it is physically exhausting and it is taxing. It is fucking work if you’re doing it anywhere near right.
Kurt Braunohler performs Sat., Sep. 17, 8:30pm, at the North Door, 502 Brushy. For more information, visit www.marginwalkerpresents.com.