Talking to Kurt Braunohler About Kill Rock Stars, Hot Tub, and Doing Dumb Things for the Pure Joy of It

By

More people are probably fans of Kurt Braunohler than even realize it. With his affinity for absurd pranks, both big and small, he’s brought tiny moments of utter stupidity into the lives of people who have never seen him on television, listened to his podcast, or caught his fantastic weekly standup show Hot Tub, which he and comedy partner Kristen Schaal brought from Brooklyn to Los Angeles earlier this year.

Now Braunohler is releasing his debut album, How Do I Land?, on indie music label Kill Rock Stars, and in doing so becoming the first comedian on the label. I got the chance to chat with him over the phone last week about being excited to interact with strangers, his unique podcast format, and his plans for late night.

Why did you decide to release the album on a music label rather than a traditional comedy label?

Primarily because I love Kill Rock Stars, and I’ve always loved – since I was 15 years old – all of the music they’ve put out. So I just kind of geeked out and got so excited at the thought of being able to do it with Kill Rock Stars. It’s a very personal choice, but also I thought it was cool that I would be the first comedian on their label. Essentially a legendary label, as well. I thought that was just too good of an opportunity to pass up.

Did they come to you or did you go to them?

It was actually on Twitter. I tweeted a joke and they retweeted it. And then I made a joke about how, if my 15-year-old self knew that Kill Rock Stars retweeted a joke of mine, at first he’d need Twitter explained to him, but then he would really be excited. And then we just started chatting from there and I think I asked them on Twitter if they ever thought about doing a comedy record, and they immediately said, “Oh yeah, we’ve been talking about it a lot.” And I think later that day, I talked to Portia [Sabin], who runs the label, and we agreed to do a record together. It was very quick.

Was it different than working with a more traditional comedy label?

Yeah, it was much more punk rock. [Laughs] It was super simple, really easy. It was based on a personal conversation as opposed to paperwork. It definitely felt right, from the beginning.

And I have to ask you about your pre-order deals. How did that come about?

Well, that’s a thing that Kill Rock Stars does for all their bands. They have a pre-order time where people can get some extra special things if they’re super excited about the record, and I just wanted to make mine as dumb as possible. So we’ve got a hand towel with my face on it, which is very dumb. It says “Keep it dry.” I have a t-shirt that says “Noting But Net!” which is a reference to a punchline. And then the glass double dong that’s personalized engraved with a message from me, I just thought that was really classy. And it also references a bit on the album.

It says on the website they’re sold out. Is that true?

It’s not true. I don’t know why the website’s saying that. Everybody can order as many double dongs as they want. [Ed. - The site’s been corrected.]

You talk on the album about how you like to bring these little moments of absurdity into people’s lives. I was reading the text conversation you posted the other day and I was wondering if you find yourself on the lookout for weird things like that, or do they just happen to you?

I don’t know. I mean, I think that happens to people. I think it’s just a matter of being excited about interacting, you know what I mean? Being willing to interact with strangers. [Laughs] Because I’m sure we all get weird texts every once and awhile from numbers we don’t recognize, but I think most of the time we would just ignore them. And just seeing it as like, oh this could be fun. Or it could be awful, but I’m willing to risk it.

Do you have any tips for people who want to add a little bit of that absurdity to their own lives?

I think, just do things for the pure joy of doing them. And if you’re just doing that, I think you’re gonna be doing a bunch of stuff [laughs] that’ll effect other people.

And I want to ask you about Hot Tub. How have you found it different doing the show in LA versus doing it in New York? 

You know, the interesting thing about it is that we’re doing it in Silver Lake, which is essentially the Park Slope of Los Angeles. And so the crowds are very similar. I would say the main difference would be in New York, we built an audience. We did it for years and years and years, and even when we moved to Littlefield, we had many nights where there were 20 people in the audience and it was 10 degrees outside. And we felt like we built an audience and then we had an audience. Whereas we brought a show to LA that kind of everybody already knew about, and so right off the bat, the first show was just packed. For a few months after we started, it was just sold out every night. And then people in LA started to hear about it, and then I think for a few months there was a kind of attitude from a lot of shows of like, “Okay, we’ve heard a lot about this. Let’s see.” There was kind of a “prove it to us” attitude. But that’s also gone away, and now I think we’re actually finding our audience, which has been great.

Has the show itself changed?

It’s pretty much the same show that we were doing at Littlefield right before we left. But when we started at Littlefield, we were definitely doing a different show in the beginning than at the end. Because when Kristen and I started Hot Tub, we would write very complicated, full sketches that we would start the show with cold. Like, we wouldn’t even talk to the audience, we would just launch into this complicated fucking weird sketch, and then the audience would just stare at us for 20 minutes. And then we would start the show. And that happened for six years or so, until we realized how to host a show. We had a real long learning curve. And now it’s much more organic. We’re not writing sketches that we’re doing at the top of the show. We’re just doing your classic hosting thing, fucking around with each other and kind of inviting the audience into watching a show.

You recently started doing a podcast [The K Ohle with Kurt Braunohler on Nerdist]. And even though I’ve listened to several episodes, I’m not sure I could explain it to somebody. Can you explain it?

Yeah, it’s a multi-format podcast. It currently has three formats that rotate. One is The Boat Show, where comedians talk about boats, a subject of which they have no information about. And Pet-O-Philia is just a show about pets. We just chat about pets. And then Get Lost is where I take someone, I blindfold them, put them in my car, and then drive them somewhere they’ve never been before, and then we explore that place together, and they try and figure out where they are.

Why did you decide to do a multi-format podcast?

It was actually, I had pitched those three formats to Nerdist, and Katie Levine, who is my producer there, said, “Just do all three.” It was her idea to do all three. And I was like, “Really? That won’t eliminate the audience? Like, they’ll get used to one thing and then it’s changed?” And she’s like, “Yeah, but nobody does that. That would be interesting, I think.” And so I have to give credit to Katie. And so I was like, “All right, fuck it. Let’s do it.” And then we’ve got a new format that’s coming out hopefully soon, which is a RadioLab parody called Fact Time.

How do you decide who’s going to be on which format, or is it sort of luck of the draw?

It’s 50/50. It depends where I am in the cycle and also who I think would be good for what. I think what I’m realizing is like, Boat Show needs to be someone who comes from an improv background. Pet-o-philia can really be almost anyone, but is really good with even just your straight-ahead normal standup comedians. And Get Lost can be really anybody who’s just interesting. They don’t have to be funny, because we’re just gonna go explore together.

Do you have a favorite of the three?

No, I really don’t. Everybody seems to really love Get Lost. That, of course, is the one that’s most difficult to accomplish, that requires the most research and travel. And if I could do that every week I would, because that is the cloest to my heart. I just simply could not do it every week. I love improvising on stupid things, so Boat Show hits my need right there. I’m wondering if people are still liking it? I don’t know. You know, the nice thing about the multi-format is that, if people are unanimous in like, “We don’t like this format anymore,” the format’ll just drop out and I’ll replace it with a new one.

So you think you’ll continue adding formats as you think of new things that would be fun?

Yes, 100 percent.

That’s a fantastic strategy, because it could become anything and it’ll still be under your brand.

Yeah. I mean, really what I’m imagining is this podcast is a frontrunner for my late night talk show. This is where we experiment as much as we want to experiment and find the things that work, and then later, maybe in two years, transfer it over to television.

Is this a set plan or is this a hypothetical late night show?

Oh, it’s a hypothetical but also set. [Laughs]

So that’s your ultimate goal, a late night show?

Yeah, I would like to have my television show. That’s the three-year plan.

And you also tell stories at the top of your podcast. Do you see that as a way to work out material?

Yeah, definitely. Almost every episode, I tell a story up top. I’m kind of viewing it as just kind of the same thing that we do with Hot Tub. Kristen and I started Hot Tub so that we’d have a place where we would be forced to present new material every week, and I’m really looking at that first 10 or so minutes of the podcast as an opportunity to do that but to a larger audience.

And you just did your first late night set, on Conan. How did it go?

It went really well, I’m very happy with it. On the day, I was not nervous at all. And then, probably 30 minutes before go time, I started pacing. And then when you’re standing there before the curtain opens, I had to definitely do breathing exercises ‘cause I was like, “Oh God.” Like, your heart just starts racing and you’re like, “Chill out. I have to seem like I’ve fucking been here before when I walk out there.” I think it looked smooth from the outside, but internally, it was like a little volcano going off inside my body.

And I got what I consider to be a huge compliment from Conan, because he came and shook my hand and said, “That was very funny. You have a really original voice. We’d like to have you back.” And I was like, “That’s so cool!”

Well that’s a good sign for your future TV show; that’s where Pete Holmes’s started.

Exactly.

So you’re already on the path.

[Laughs] Fingers crossed.

Kurt Braunohler’s album How Do I Land? is available August 20 on Kill Rock Stars. Kurt Braunohler tweets and vines at @kurtbraunohler.

Elise Czajkowski is a Contributing Editor at Splitsider. She could use a bit more stupidity in her life.