Talking to Matt Braunger About ‘Up All Night,’ 15-Minute Podcasting, and Making Standup Personal

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Few things are funnier to Matt Braunger than a good old-fashioned dumb joke. That’s why his favorite six-second Vine video features him tucking his shirt into his underwear, and why he beams with delight as he belts out a made-up Inception theme song (“Girl, it’s a dream inside a dream inside a dream inside a dream…”). His high-energy 2012 special, Shovel Fighter, teems with silly moments like these, punctuating his commentary on the gender politics of strip-club etiquette and tales of acid-laden pub-crawling.

Raised in Portland and trained in Chicago’s improv and standup scenes, Braunger has landed gigs on Up All Night, Pushing Daisies, United States of Tara and the last season of MADtv, though he insists no one remembers him from that show. He’s also worked on projects of his own, like the eponymous single-camera pilot he made with Chicago contemporary Kyle Kinane and The Office’s Brent Forrester, which Comedy Central ultimately passed on. Braunger is currently developing a show with J.D. Ryznar, creator of Channel 101’s Yacht Rock, and aiming to tape a new hour special by the end of the year.

I recently spoke with Braunger about his work on Up All Night, the vigor of a 15-minute podcast, and why parodying a Springsteen album cover for his next special might backfire terribly. 

I hear you rapped an entire Big Daddy Kane song from memory at Just For Laughs’ “Hip Hop Karaoke” last month. That’s very impressive.

Thanks! That was a childhood dream. You don’t get a prompter — you literally have to know the whole song. My manager grabbed this organizer and was like, “Well, you know, Matt was in a rap group in college,” and he responded, understandably, “What the fuck are you talking about?” I just grew up being a huge fan of hip-hop all through my childhood and into adulthood. I didn’t expect to get there and it would be like, fucking 8 Mile. But it was just a blast. There is a genuine Susan Boyle kind of thing happening with me doing it. Like, “That guy? But he’s white, in his 30s! Come on!”

I opened for Dave Chappelle the last night of [Just For Laughs], and I got more people coming up to me just walking around town like, “Hey, you’re that guy that raps!” more than anything else I did. It’s not something I want to keep going, where it’s like, “Hey, instead of you doing your act you’ve done for over a decade and worked on, how about you just rap? And then we’ll laugh and watch you.”

What was it like opening for Chappelle?

It was a dream. They told me the night before, and I was just like, “Oh, God. Well, there’s no getting drunk tonight!” He’s the nicest guy ever, and he does two hours of effortless genius. I mean, if you get a chance to see him lately, like now — do it. The audience was very supportive. Part of me half expected, as soon as I got out there, for them to go “We paid $60, get off the stage!” But they were great.

On to Up All Night: What was it like playing Gene, Chris and Reagan’s neighbor?

It was a blast. I got to be, as I call it, “Asshole Ned Flanders.” I was the neighbor who has no self-awareness of how obnoxious he is. Every time I went in, I’d open the closet of my dressing room and just see the worst clothes: Tommy Bahama shirts that are way too big, and cargo pants, and always, always Crocs. I remember they’d cut us after a scene, and I’d be like, “Um, can I change?” And I never would, but part of me wanted to.

So myself and Jean Villepique [who played Gene’s wife, Terry], we’d show up and judge the hell out of Chris and Reagan [Will Arnett and Christina Applegate]. It was fun to work with some of the people we just are genuine fans of. I felt like everyone else was doing the heavy lifting — we kind of just got to show up and get thrown a softball and just knock it into the sand, because we got these amazing lines.

What’s your take on the writers’ attempts to transition to multi-camera before it was canceled?

Man, I don’t know what it was. I think since the ratings were not great, it was kind of a long bomb that the producers came up with — meaning, just a Hail Mary pass. From what I understand, a show has not gone from single-cam to multi-cam since, I think, Happy Days.

I didn’t have a lot of confidence in [the show] coming back because I didn’t know how they’d rig that, and I heard all kinds of rumors. The writers didn’t tell us anything, especially not Jean and I, because we were still basically recurring guest stars. But I heard everything from [telling] part of the show from the baby’s perspective [to] behind the scenes stuff, and I was just like, I don’t know how any of that is going to work at all.

Tell me about being uninvited from the Moontower comedy festival after agreeing to a brief set at South by Southwest (SXSW). You covered most of your feelings in a Tumblr post, but do you feel like there’s bad blood now?

No, I don’t think there’s any bad blood. I do wish that the people who book comedy in Austin and the SXSW festival would kind of just be on better terms.

The thing is, when I’d gone to Austin for SXSW, I met with one of the organizers from Moontower and we basically just stated our feelings plainly, and got along great. She understood, and I feel like we hashed it out, and I don’t know what’s happening for the future, but I know that I was glad that we had a cup of coffee and talked about it. I’m all for locally run comedy festivals, just like Bridgetown. It does nothing but good, and people love them.

Are you planning to play at Moontower next year?

Possibly. In that meeting, she said that she’d love to have me next year. But I do think they need to book it letting people do both festivals who aren’t a select group of preapproved, very, very famous people. Or just flat-out say you can’t do one or the other. But also, it’s complicated. It’s really hard to run a festival. I’m just saying, the more dialogue the better.

You recently said you were close to nailing down a new hour. How is your new material different from the old?

I really loved Shovel Fighter, but I felt like at the same time, it was all over the place. It was just like a shotgun blast; one thing didn’t relate to the next, which I think is fun. I don’t think everything has to be a rock opera. But I’m trying to concentrate on something a little more personal, and just talk about my life more. I did a couple shows at The Comedy Attic in Bloomington and had them record them. I did an hour a night and I picked my favorite of the hours. My reps have sent it out, so yeah, I’m putting out feelers. Fingers crossed, I’ll shoot it by the end of the year.

I don’t know what I’m going to call it, but in my head, I’ve just been referring to it as “Ding-Dong.” Because that’s what my friend Matt Dwyer and my girlfriend call me — Ding-Donger, or Donger for short. Like, “Oh my God, you’re such a ding-dong.” I’m one of those smart people who does dumb things. And I don’t mean drink too much, or fall down the stairs, or make the wrong turn at a light. I mean, I’ve had a bit of a willful ignorance since I was a kid because I’m an only child. When you’re an only child, you kind of have this thing in your head where your parents are like, “You’re a magical golden boy,” and then you go out in the world, and you’re like, “I’m really not.” In a nutshell, I guess it’s just only-child, attention-needing entitlement that’s also kept in check by crippling Catholic guilt, which never leaves you. You put all that into a big, ice-creamy swirl, you get “Ding-Dong.” Even though I probably won’t call it that.

The Soak Up the Night cover parodied that serious, rockstar comedian look, while Shovel Fighter played off the “guy wearing a pristine suit in the woods” 70s cliché. Which album cover trope will your next hour take on?

Boy, I’m kicking around a bunch. I was thinking I might do Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town. [But] honestly, the last thing I want is some older person being like, “I miss this Springsteen album!” Like something that’s just so exact that they’re like, “I didn’t need to bring my glasses into this Best Buy! I know what this is! Oh, it’s on vinyl — perfect!” And they buy it, and they’re like, “What the fuck is this shit?”

I can just see you getting hate mail from old people.

[Laughs] Oh, man. I can deal with any kind of negativity toward me on the internet, but a handwritten note from an old person? It would crush my week.

You’ve been doing a 15-minute podcast, Ding-Donger with Matt Braunger, to “stay productive.” Is it everything you wanted it to be?

I like that it’s a thing I did well after — let’s face it — the market was gutted. Everybody and their mother has a podcast. I was like, let’s make a really short one with just one person and no guests. I just try to make it entertaining for 15 minutes and informative on some level, so I’ll be like, “Here’s some dates coming up. Here’s a funny thing that happened.” I love good stories when I listen to podcasts; I love the anecdotes with little observations thrown in.

The one thing I get from people is, “Can you make it longer?” That’s it. Which is nice, but I just want to keep it as a little break in your day. In the end, that’s my job: to just give people a break and let people forget about their troubles.

You also just finished writing a screenplay. What is it about?

It’s based on the four months I spent in Portland. I stopped down in Portland for two weeks — God, almost a decade ago. I was like, “Oh, I’ll visit my parents and see my old friends from high school. And then it’s on to Los Angeles — I feel like a hamster on a wheel in Chicago! I’m gonna make that move. I’m gonna go and stop off in Portland, and, a DUI, WHAT?” So like a moron, I got behind the wheel of my mom’s car, and three blocks after leaving the bar, I was like, “Oh my God, I’m not on a bus!” Because in Chicago, I never drove a car; I just took public transportation. I was like, “Oh man, I’m drunk. I should just slow way down.” Which fools the cops really well. No, not at all — they pulled me over and arrested me.

So basically what they have in Portland is this thing called the deferral program, where you go through counseling and understand about alcohol abuse and things like that, and then afterward [the DUI] gets wiped from your record. The thing is, you have to do it for 16 weeks. In effect, on this visit I was sentenced by the court to live with my parents as an adult for four months. In the end, though, I left home when I was 17, so I got to know my parents as an adult and live with them. So when they pass away, I’m always going to have that time that I shared with them. That’s the heart of it. But I added a lot more twisty-turnsy funny stuff. In the end, I’m just trying to make a really funny independent film.

So where does it go from here?

I’ve just turned in what is at least close to my final draft for my partners and everybody to read. What I’m trying to do is get financing for it and just shoot it myself because I think it could be made for between $1 and $3 million, and I could just get some of my more famous friends cast as people throughout the movie. That’s the plan!

Meera Jagannathan is a writer and grad student living in Syracuse, N.Y.