An Interview with Kristen Schaal
Among her many other pursuits, Kristen Schaal regularly cohosts the cornucopic and duly lauded Hot Tub Variety Show with her friend and fellow comedian Kurt Braunohler, who once described watching Schaal onstage as “a little bit like a billion suns exploding in each eyeball.” Doing an interview with Schaal is not so different from being privy to your own private variety show. Over the course of our conversation, she mimicked no fewer than a dozen voices and imitated a dead cockatiel.
Schaal’s life also bears some resemblance to a variety show. She’s recently garnered praise for her role as Mel in the HBO comedy series Flight of the Conchords. She’s taken her stand-up to cities across the U.S., and to the U.K. and Australia. With Braunohler, she’s developed the series Penelope: Princess of Pets for the online site Super Deluxe (so far, only three episodes have been posted, but more are in development and the fourth will double as a New Pornographers music video). She’s appeared in many other online shows and shorts, in movies, on TV, and in commercials. She’s also the founding member of the Striking Viking Story Pirates, a program that promotes literacy and artistic expression in New York City schools by adapting stories kids have written into theatrical productions put on by professional actors. She’s won boatloads of awards and distinctions: Best Alternative Comedian (at HBO’s 2006 U.S. Comedy Arts Festival), Best Female Stand-up (at the 2006 Nightlife Awards in New York), the Second Annual Andy Kaufman Award (hosted by the New York Comedy Festival), and Australia’s Barry Award, to name just a few.
Schaal is very generous with her audiences, although she never panders. Her work, which she’s compared to “tiny plays on stage,” might include dramatic readings from the newspaper, audio recordings of crickets laughing, or mock marriage proposals. It forces audiences into a kind of kinetic perceptiveness, making us feel smarter just for keeping up with her.
This interview took place on a wintry day, over coffee and enormous bowls of granola. We met at a bird-themed restaurant in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, and given that we were in Park Slope, famous for its brownstones and its babies, we probably shouldn’t have been surprised that our breakfast coincided with mother-toddler sing-a-long hour. While we chatted, we were regaled with such classics as “The Alphabet Song,” “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes,” and “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider.”
I. THE BIRD DECADE
BLVR: How much do you think environment affects your comedy? I’m partly thinking of the fact that you grew up on a farm in Colorado and so much of your work includes animals. So, for example, you and Kurt Braunohler have a sketch where for more than two minutes you dance around, kind of like a horse, and he claps his hands and says “Kristen Schaal is a horse” over and over. And of course there’s also Penelope: Princess of Pets, in which you play Penelope, a young woman who’s gained the ability to talk to animals when she “becomes a woman.” And then last night at the Hot Tub blowout, there was a lot of cricket humor. I’ve heard that when you were growing up, you would perform for the cows, like dinner theater. I’ve also heard you make a connection between farm-dwelling and animal comedy.
KS: I think because I grew up surrounded by animals, I just found them inherently funny. Also, you can really place whatever personality you want over them. It’s not like they’re going to say something that changes it. [In Midwestern mom voice] “Oh, I guess you’re not sassy. I thought you were sassy, but now you’re actually very religious.” So that’s what’s fun about them; they’re almost like your imaginary friends, in a way. You can make them whatever you want. Which is probably why I turned to them a lot. I have a really weird relationship with animals, because when you’re on a farm, they’re a commodity. We would eat the cows. And ship them off to be slaughtered. And so it wasn’t like—
BLVR: They weren’t your pets.
KS: You have to grow a detachment to them. We also lived near a busy highway, and we lost a dog, like, every year. It was a really weird relationship with animals growing up on a farm, which is probably why it’s coming out a lot in my work.
BLVR: Two of your headshots involve birds. There’s the stuffed rooster and the plastic parakeet, respectively. And also, the primary companion for Penelope is an alcoholic cardinal, Ruby. So I’m wondering if birds are sort of your spirit creatures.
KS: Oh, yeah. I love birds. Birds are really in now, too. They’re on T-shirts, they’re everywhere.
BLVR: It’s funny for an animal to be “in.”
KS: I know. You remember when wolves were “in” once, too, in the ’80s? This is the decade for birds. Yeah, so I think birds are cool—they’re obviously awesome because they fl y and stuff. When I was in high school, my parents would go to Hawaii a lot—they still do—and they brought back a yellow bird, a cockatiel named Kiwi that they put in a cage in the kitchen. And it just depressed the shit out of me. I was like, really? This is what you want? You want this thing that could fl y around in a tropical place to sit in your kitchen? In Longmont, Colorado, in a fucking jail? Oh, it made me so sad to look at it every day. And I tell you what, after I went to college, they came home, and they found Kiwi spread-winged at the bottom of his cage [Demonstrates with arms], dead.
BLVR: Oh, god, like a crucifixion.
KS: Like, I’m out, I’m out. Yeah, it just made me sad. So I think that’s why I use animals and birds in my work— because, you know, there’s a lot of sadness in comedy. But I really feel a connection to birds. I just think it’s so wrong to put a bird in a cage. I can’t think of anything worse.
II. THE JOURNALS OF A DEAD CATERPILLAR
BLVR: I wonder if part of the reason comedy is such a thriving medium right now is the fact that a lot of the criticism seems to be pretty horizontal, i.e., coming from other comedians and fans, instead of “top-down.”
KS: Well, here’s the thing I found really interesting. I got to spend a couple months in the U.K. doing shows, and I got maybe twenty-fi ve reviews from their papers and magazines. Real reviews, you know? They care about their comedy over there to the point where they’ll write about it. Comedy’s just not taken as seriously over here. It’ll never get nominated for any Oscars, even if it was a shitty year for drama, and you’ve got a great movie like Waiting for Guffman. They don’t care.
BLVR: Do you regret the absence of criticism? Or do you feel it’s kind of liberating, too?
KS: You know, it’s a mix. In Edinburgh and London, I was thinking, Oh my god, they’re reading reviews. And everyone who’d been over there said [in conspiratorial voice], “Just brace yourself—everybody writes reviews. You’re going to have to, like, take it.” And it does make you stronger. I also always tend to agree with whoever says something terrible. I’m thinking, Oh, god, who are you? You’re so right, I hate myself as well. Let me look you up, let’s have coffee. [Laughs] It’s really gross.
BLVR: I guess we all have that tendency.
KS: Yeah. I’m used to it over here—I mean, used to it not being taken seriously. And I do feel it allows you to experiment more. You can do a show and try having jokes with crickets laughing and not care whether or not someone’s going to write a review on the web the next day—who cares?—so that’s actually very freeing. But it’s a mix, it’s a mix.
BLVR: You play so many different roles, from an old woman who doesn’t really speak but just acts out scenes from movies, to a horse, to an advocate for Amelia Earhart. But you do have a sort of distinctive stage persona, and I wonder why you think you get asked about yours, and what your relationship to it is, if one can have a relationship to a persona.
KS: I dig it. I like that people are interested in it, and I like that that there’s a mystery around what’s real and what’s not when I’m onstage. I think that comes from people being used to comedians talking about real life. That’s the majority of what stand-ups do, they’ll say [in gravelly man-voice], “And this happened to me at lunch.” And they’re pushing the truth, but it’s also something that you can see could have happened to them. And I don’t really write anything that’s true, so I think that’s why people wonder, Well, what is she really like? I think that’s why it’s happening. I like it, though. It surprises me when I hear it. I was living with a woman and someone found out she was my roommate, and they said, “Oh my god, is she really like that?” And I thought that was so funny. I’m glad it’s blurred, that it seems almost real enough that maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t. I don’t know, what do you think? You’re hanging out with me.
BLVR: Yeah, but I guess I’m also putting you in a position where you have to perform, kind of.
KS: That’s true. That is true. [Laughs]
BLVR: Do you ever feel your role is to teach your audiences to appreciate a new kind of comedy? To retrain audiences in a way?
KS: I don’t think so. I’ve only had it happen a couple of times where people were like, “Why is she reading those journals from a dead caterpillar?” You know, very upset. But usually audiences are super savvy. If it’s enjoyable to watch, they’ll watch it. Hopefully it’ll be enjoyable. That’s all that matters.
III. ALTERNATIVE COMEDY IS A CELEBRATION
BLVR: I wonder if you think comedy is a world that’s still sort of male-dominated—not necessarily in its performers, but in terms of its consumers.
KS: Oh, yeah. It’s a total man’s land out there. People assert that men like comedy more than women do, especially in that demographic of fourteen to twentyeight or whatever. And I violently disagree with that, and I hope to god that’s not true, because I associate comedy with intelligence, and—I just don’t think that’s true. It’s pretty maddening.
BLVR: Why do you think that is?
KS: We’ve really come a long way, and it’s just in this period now that it’s progressively getting better every year for women. But I feel like it can still get a lot better. I’m glad I wasn’t doing this twenty, even ten years ago, but I wish it was ten to twenty years in the future. For ex ample, I did an interview with an online magazine, and I made the mistake of looking at their message board, and it was just fl ooded, fl ooded, with comments about my appearance, and some people were like [in dude voice], “Yeah, she’s hot,” or “She’s cute, she’s OK.” And then, “Oh, she’s a dog, she’s ugly,” whatever. And I was thinking, Oh, shit. Not one of them was saying, “Oh, her comedy stinks,” or “She’s stupid”—you know? Which sucks, because you interview a comedian who’s a man, and commenters are going to talk about the quality of his work and not the quality of his face or his breasts. There’s maybe one woman who’ll jump on the message board and be like [in affronted voice], “That’s so sexist!” But there’s only one. I don’t know who she is, but I appreciate it.
BLVR: You won Best Alternative Comedian Award in 2006 at the HBO U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen. I wonder if I could get you to talk a little about the label “alternative,” because I know that it’s something a lot of comedians resist, and I’m wondering why that is, and if you could defi ne “alternative comedy” and what it’s an alternative to?
KS: I think pretty soon that term is going to become obsolete. I feel it fading away even now. “Alternative,” I think, was just created because the comedy world was growing, and so they were thinking [in confused voice], Well, what’re we going to call these people? Because back in the day, stand-up was dominant. You could label everything: this is stand-up, and you are doing sketch comedy, and this is a sitcom, and that’s all there is, folks. Except for Andy Kaufman, who was super before-histime. The word alternative is sort of a celebration, I think, of the growth of comedy, so it’s a nice word. I don’t resist it. I like it. I don’t have to have an expectation for my work. [In showman voice] “What is she?” “She’s alternative.” “Oh, OK. Let me relax, and not wait for the punch lines.”
BLVR: When was the advent of alternative comedy, do you think?
KS: I don’t know. I think it would be a mistake to try to put a fi nger on it. I would venture to say that maybe David Cross and Janeane Garofalo, and—but I don’t know if that’s correct. I think the UCB [Upright Citizens Brigade], too, and improv, and—I would say alternative comedy started with Second City, even. I would say alternative comedy started with vaudeville, to be honest with you.
BLVR: Do you think there’s an analog with what’s happening now to an earlier period in comedy or performing arts?
KS: I used to say—but then I realized that I need to do some research, probably—I would say [in enlightened-stoner voice], “It’s great, man, it’s like the early days of Ernie Kovacs and television—they didn’t know what was going on, so anything could happen.”
BLVR: Yeah, I was going to ask you how you think the ascendancy of so-called new media has made the genre of alternative comedy possible.
KS: It’s a huge part of it. For example, Penelope: Princess of Pets is an idea that, I tell you what, I even pitched it around to some suits, and they shrink in fear. They say [in scared-person voice], “Oh, oh, what else do you got?” And
I say, “Oh, OK, well, it’s that show,” or—“There are these four white twenty-somethings living in a big apartment in New York!” And they say—“Oh, yeah, yeah. We’ve sold that before—in fi ve different ways. Let’s sell it in six other ways.” But yeah, the Internet is great, because it’s getting the people who do weird stuff money so they can make it permanent in a form.
IV. “ANDY KAUFMAN WAS THE FIRST PERFORMANCE ARTIST.”
BLVR: You were one of the founders of the Striking Viking Story Pirates. You go with other performers into schools and get stories from kids, and then perform them back to the kids with costumes and choreography and professional actors, right?
BLVR: And you also play a lot of roles that are children or adolescents, like Penelope—although Penelope is decidedly not for a child audience. I think there’s even one episode, “Cardboard,” maybe, that has a for-eighteenand-older disclaimer—
KS: Oh, yeah. We do say AIDS. Bird AIDS. [Laughs]
BLVR: But I saw a story you did online for Striking Viking. You star as Abbey in “Abbey is Sile,” [silly] which is a little bit short on plot, but hugely entertaining. Basically, Abbey’s not allowed to go to various friends’ houses for sleepovers because she’s too silly.
KS: That was a story written by Sophia Morales BelloBarcelo. It’s maybe three sentences long. [Laughs]
BLVR: Do you see yourself in a mentoring role?
KS: Oh, yeah, I’d like to. The Striking Viking Story Pirates is great, and it’s only getting better and better. They’re infi ltrating more schools. When I was growing up, if there’d been a program like that, I think it would’ve been so helpful for me. I had a mentor in high school—thank god—Dee Covington, who kind of pushed me to get out of Colorado. It was almost that thing where if she hadn’t been there, I probably would still be in Colorado right now. So, yeah, I would like to do that more.
BLVR: Do you think comedy can be taught?
KS: No. I really don’t. I think comedy is just personality, you know what I mean? It’s what your perspective is, and you can’t really teach perspective on the world, I don’t think.
BLVR: So your teacher who was so instrumental, she wasn’t a performance artist?
KS: She was. My town was a target town for teenage pregnancies in Colorado, so the city council set up a creative program. And she pitched one, and it was basically six of us in high school, creating these improvised, sort of structured dramas, about safe sex and violence and racism, and then we’d go into the schools and perform them. It was really good. It was so important to me, too, to get into that program, because my family was like, “You should just go to CU [the University of Colorado].” Which I did, for a year. But then my mentor said, “You’ve got to get out of here.” [Whispers] Thank god.
BLVR: You did performance studies at Northwestern, and I’ve read that you sort of think of yourself as a “performance artist with a funnier edge.” What’s the difference, do you think, between comedy and performance art, if there is one?
KS: I think performance art is a little more visual in general than live comedy. Comedy is more verbal. I use a lot of visual gags, and also play with the environment of the stage. At stand-up clubs, that’s not even an option. It’s just a circle. So it’s basically like, just turn on a CD and have a listen. That’s how they can make albums. Someone was saying, “Oh, we want to make a CD of your stuff.” And I said, “You can’t. What are you going to record? When my bird’s missing in the cage? That’s not going to be funny.” So I think that’s the difference: visual versus verbal.
BLVR: And you have a hybridization of the two.
KS: Yeah, I like to mix it up. Kurt and I did a show in Chicago where it was some of my one-woman show mixed with our sketches, and he opened with standup. It was so fun, and afterward—because they’ve been bringing in lots of stand-ups—they were really excited. They told us that it was the fi rst time the whole stage had actually been utilized. People like to say, too, that—not to compare myself in any way—but Andy Kaufman was actually the fi rst performance artist. You know, he would set an alarm clock, eat some mashed potatoes, and just sleep in a sleeping bag onstage. What an asshole. I love him.