FOR YEARS, the gap between stand ups and improvisers has been largely apparent. However, as with many things in life, things occasionally meld to prove there can be an exception to any rule. Comedian Kurt Braunohler began as an improviser and soon built himself up to be one of the most familiar faces in that industry. Yet unlike many who continue on (though he still does), Braunohler decided to start anew with a career in stand up. And as much as it seems the two art forms may overlap, the truth lies in the complete opposite. Regardless of that knowledge, Braunohler took the challenge on and hasn’t looked back.
Kurt talks to TSJ about improv, his drift into writing stand up, and his debut comedy album, “How Do I Land?”
The Smoking Jacket: Growing up, was comedy always your thing?
Kurt Braunohler: No, not at all. I wanted to be a marine biologist. Then I realized I was terrible at science. Then I wanted to be a priest until I learned you couldn’t have sex with girls. [laughs]
TSJ: [laughs] You started in improv but I’ve heard it wasn’t always an interest for you.
KB: I hated it in college. The improv group on my campus was called Butter Niblets, so that’s probably why I found it terrible. [laughs] But, of course, that was before I found long-form improv. Before I discovered that, the idea just seemed so cheesy and dumb. But when I took my first UCB class in ‘98 I was like, Oh, look at this. It turned it all around for me.
TSJ: What was different about that?
KB: It was just that I had never done improv because I thought it seemed so dorky. Then I tried it and after the fist time I was like, I’m doing this for the rest of my life! It was a great feeling.
TSJ: Totally. It’s a rare one too. When did you start actually writing material?
KB: It wasn’t until I met Kristen Schaal and we started doing “Hot Tub.” It’s funny, part of me is mad at improv for being so fun and wonderful. For eight years I didn’t step outside of improvising; I didn’t write at all. I’ve only been writing and performing stand up for about seven years.
TSJ: How did you find the writing? Was it as exciting and challenging as improv?
KB: They’re so different. I started writing for myself and Kristen, so that was more like improvising, just coming up with ideas and bouncing them off of one another. We wrote independently, but also together. I’ve come to realize that writing for stand up is such a long process, and it takes so long for you to be comfortable onstage. Then you can worry about getting good.
TSJ: Did the education and experience in improv help at all in stand up?
KB: I always thought that knowing improv would help me if I ever went into stand up, but I found the opposite. Stand up is very difficult. It’s the most challenging and rewarding thing I’ve ever done in my life. It took me a really long time to feel like I was doing a good job. You hit at certain point in stand up where it works 50% of the time and you think that’s a really, really good percentage. [laughs] You hit a point where you’re killing only half the time but you think, I’m doing pretty, pretty fucking great! There’s no other profession where 50% of the time matters so much. Doctors can’t be like, “Only half my patients die. I’m doing well!
But I wouldn’t say I felt I could confidentially play any room until maybe two years ago. I think that makes sense, about five years in. That’s when I felt I could go in and adjust my approach to any room and come out thinking it wasn’t a total failure.
TSJ: I imagine that’s one of the hardest things, being able to do it in front of anybody.
KB: Exactly, and that was my goal. Improv audiences are very limited; you can only do it in very specific ways. And when I started in stand up it was like that. My act would only fit in very, very specific places. My goal as a stand up was to expand and make sure anybody could enjoy it. Like, for example, my mom and her friends. [laughs]
TSJ: The cool thing about you is that you’ve made a name for yourself in improv, sketch, and comedy. It seems to be a difficult thing to accomplish.
KB: Totally! It was like starting over, which I think is the reason that more incredibly funny people who have gotten into improv don’t move into stand up. They just busted their ass to get good at one thing that’s hard enough, and then they have to do it again? It’s difficult and takes time.
3000 THINGS ABSURDISTS LOVE
TSJ: Is there a fear from people in improv to do stand up?
KB: I think it depends. The improv community is so loving and supportive, and when you do it, it seems like everyone else doing it are buddies and it doesn’t matter how good you are. Everyone will support one another in improv. That’s what I’ve found. In stand up, I think it is much more competitive. You’re on your own. It’s still supportive but it’s just different. I disliked stand up when I first started improv because I automatically thought of those hacky, 80’s road guys.
TSJ: What changed that?
KB: Honestly, it was seeing Eugene Mirman come up in New York. I saw him, and he was so funny and strange. I thought, this is weird yet hilarious and people love it! So I thought maybe I could try that out.
“It’s always better to do something than to not do something, even if you’re scared.”
TSJ: So, “How Do I Land?” This is your debut comedy album. How was the experience of recording?
KB: It’s been a great experience! Really good fun. I’m pretty thrilled with the whole process. It’s been very tiring but totally worth it. I’m so happy to finally have a physical thing to give to someone and say, “This is what I do.”
TSJ: Oh, definitely. I get that. Is it true you raised money on Kickstarter and had a skywriter write “How Do I Land?” in the sky?
KB: Oh yeah! We ran a Kickstarter and raised $6,000. I hired a guy to write that over downtown Los Angeles.
TSJ: Did you get any crap for that?
KB: Not at all! No one called 911 or anything. I couldn’t believe it. Apparently you can write whatever the fuck you want in the sky and nobody gives a shit. [laughs]
TSJ: [laughs] So you’ve relocated to Los Angeles after living in New York for so long. How are you enjoying the scene out there?
KB: I love it! It’s very difficult for me to ascertain because I came up in New York, but what I can say is that it is a very healthy comedy scene here in LA. From the amount of New Yorkers who came here to other comics from all over the country who came here, it’s a very healthy scene, really fun and fantastic. The shows are great.
THE QUIET ORGASM
It’s inherently different in that not everybody does a show and stays at the bar afterwards to hang out like in New York. I’m sure there’s some of that with younger comedians but it’s more difficult to do that here than it is back east. But I do love it a lot.
TSJ: Some people have said to me that you go to New York to hone your stand up chops and go to LA to be in show business. Would you agree with that?
KB: It’s really tough to say. I’m trying to think if there are any comics I personally know who came up in LA, and I don’t know if I know any. Maybe it’s true? But I do think the one difference is that the amount of “high-quality” shows in LA are not as present. There are tons in LA but not as many as in New York, I think. You can be in New York and do four shows in one night. I don’t know if I could do that here in LA. I don’t think so. It’s different here. There aren’t as many little shows. At least, I don’t think.
TSJ: My last question doesn’t really have to do with comedy. I know when you were younger you moved far into the woods for a month and learned to be alone and live with it. Hearing you speak about that is very interesting to me. I’m curious how that experience, that moment, helped in getting you on the path where you are now.
KB: That’s a really good question. I think just the choice to do that is part of it. I hadn’t done comedy then, but the choice to go into the woods and be on my own was almost as important as the experience itself.
I also think it helped me not to be afraid of doing things where you risk a lot, because even though it sucked for 75 percent of the time it still gave me an overpowering experience that I really have applied to the different areas of my life, not even just in comedy. It’s always better to do something than to not do something, even if you’re scared.
TSJ: That goes along with you’re view of absurdist comedy. I watched you on “Modern Comedian” doing things that add absurdity to other people’s lives, things that make them laugh in little ways. Has that always been a part of you?
KB: Yeah, I think it always has. I’ve always loved those weird, absurdist moments in life. And I think that’s why I enjoyed improv. I loved the absurdity of what would come out of people’s mouths. We’re so weird; people are so weird if we don’t edit ourselves. That’s what I’ve always found fascinating about people, what comes out if you don’t have a filter. It’s really interesting and tells a lot about a person.