Kristen Schaal Discusses Her Best Joke

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Photo-Illustration: Getty Images

Kristen Schaal’s comedy is so singular it seems like it’s manifested more than written; it’s as though her ideas for jokes come to her in her dreams. In the case of Schaal’s singing, dancing bird bit from her Comedy Central Presents half-hour special, like most of her work, that reading is only partly true. As she reveals on her recent appearance on Good One: A Podcast About Jokes, the bit did come to her in a dream, but after that she worked to make it a perfect piece of absurdist comedic deconstruction.

In the interview, Schaal discusses why she likes it when a bit gives off the perception that it isn’t working, and the character she used to imagine she was performing as.

Listen to the episode and read an excerpt of our discussion below. Tune in to Good One every Monday on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts.

You said this joke came to you in a dream. What was in it?
Yeah, I just dreamt of an empty birdcage and I woke up and I was like, “That’s something.”

How did you add to it?
I just had to really figure out performance-wise the reveal. If it’s covered, there’s excitement to showing your disappointment when it’s revealed. It needs to be contrasted, so I covered the birdcage. Build it up, oh my god, everyone will be so excited. See the bird’s gone. I always had a note that was tiny like a bird wrote it. At some point, I’m not sure when, I thought it’d be funny if the bird calls me to have a conversation. I realized after doing the bit once that it was pretty short, but then you try to think of other things to make it worthwhile, make carrying a bird cage across the Lower East Side worthwhile.

When you decided to include a one-sided phone call are you intentionally thinking about the history of that form?
My goal in the phone call was I wanted the audience to see the most private thing become public. If we’re gonna get deep about it too, I never like talking about myself. A lot of comedians will talk about their personal lives and it’s so powerful because it’s real and it’s engaging and it’s embarrassing. I never did that, mostly because I found my personal life quite boring for the stage.

You like your own personal life, but you don’t expect other people to.
Yeah, there’s no way I could figure out how it was interesting to an audience. But I did like that vulnerability, so I was trying to bring that vulnerability through the phone call and having a little meltdown onstage. That led to my overall love of showing little bombs on stage.

What do you like about a bit not working or, I guess, the perception that something’s not working?
It’s unexpected. People go to a comedy show because comedy can go either way. A little bit of the titillation when you see a live stand-up show is that you’re pretty sure they’re going to make you laugh, but … To me, there’s always this thing of “What if … what if … How are they going to handle this if it doesn’t work out?” Because it is so raw. It’s not TV. They can’t put a laugh track in. You’re out there. I found that part of stand-up really exciting. I thought it would be fun to control that and show it and make a bomb really funny.

Beyond the original idea, how did you write the bits?
Usually when I do stand-up bits, I riff and then I remember. If I looked at my old comedy notebooks, I would be like, “A birdcage. Birds not in it.” That would be it. I remember Comedy Central wanted the scripts for the Presents special and I was like, “Oh, it’s not written anywhere …” I had to type it out. It felt gross, actually. When you look at it on paper, it sort of loses its life a little bit.

You’re like, Oh, this is very rigid and planned. And that’s the exact opposite of what you’re trying to capture.
Exactly.

Do you think of it as a character when you’re conceiving a bit?
In those days, I was always a character. And when I would write the bits, it would always be in third person of what “The Girl” was doing. My goal was that “The Girl” was always at a stand-up club where she didn’t belong. “The Girl” thinks she’s at poetry reading or whatever. She’s always in the wrong place trying to do the wrong thing for that venue. It was so helpful because it was very freeing. Because it wasn’t about me, it was about this character, which was me, but not me.

Is that still the case or do you feel like you’re now a little bit more like yourself?
Yeah, now I have to be me. I can’t hide behind that anymore because now people know who I am. Which is great. It would be really sad if they didn’t at this point, 15 years later. But it did change it for me. It’s why when you asked me my favorite bits, all of the sudden, it was all of those from that era. That was a more innocent time.

Kristen Schaal Tells the Story Behind Her Dancing Bird Bit