the big payoff

So, What Happened on Kristen Schaal’s Hour Special, and Why It Was Brilliant

Yesterday, we ran an interview with Kristen Schaal. She spoke at length with her friend/interviewer Kurt Braunohler about how her one-hour comedy special, which would be airing that night, went terribly. “Why would I be excited about it? I mean why are you excited about it? [Laughs.] You and I both know that it did not go well.” There were no specifics about what went wrong — just a general vibe that it was a disaster and she wanted to distance herself from it. The commenters were not happy about this vagueness. “Am I the only one who feels like I’m being manipulated into watching it to find out what the heck went wrong?” NINETHREESIX wrote. However, Schaal’s wonderful special last night proved that this ambiguity was all worth it.

So, what actually happened?

After about 30 minutes of terrific, wholly unique stand-up, things “started to go wrong.” She told one joke about a lazy eye that didn’t go so great, started asking for water, and nervously kept on saying “r-plane” instead of “airplane,” which ultimately derailed her. She mumblingly left the stage, only to return to get heckled by a little girl, who took over with three minutes of killer stand-up. It all culminated with Schaal rallying to tout her big closing bit with a dancing horse … which was quickly “ruined” because the horse she said she flew out on an “r-plane” bailed on her. She then spiraled out of control and had a big screaming fight backstage with Kurt Braunohler.

As you can see above, or in all of the clips that are up on Comedy Central’s website, at no point did Schaal wink or nod to the fact that this chaos was all scripted. This was the same ambiguity that caused such a stir in the interview. Instead, Schaal continued to play it straight as the moments grew increasingly absurd. And after her backstage fit, the special ended with a bit in which Braunohler sang a song with the lyrics “Kristen Schaal is a horse” over and over again while Schaal danced like a horse. (This bit has been profiled on the NPR program “Radiolab.”)

This was a payoff that was actually an anti-payoff. There was no resolution: This was not an elaborate shaggy-dog story building to a punch line that made it all make sense: The coda was just the dumbest (in a great way) joke possible. The awkwardness, the bad jokes, the insecurity — it was all revealed to just be part of her self-described “surreal brand of whimsy.” It brings to mind the early episode of Community in which Abed pretends to be an alien to weird out Troy, only for Troy to explain to Abed that the seriousness to which Abed took the prank was weirder than if he was an actual alien. There is something hilarious about trying so hard for something so dumb.

A lot of her defenders in the comments of the interview appropriately made comparisons to Andy Kaufman. In many ways, Schaal is deeply indebted to the comedian most famous for played-straight absurdity and his attempts to playfully deceive the audience, drawing out bits to excruciating lengths. (Not surprisingly, Schaal was once the winner of the Andy Kaufman Award for originality and creativity in comedy.) If anything, the mixture is just a little bit different. Kaufman often used his anti-comedy tools to a serious, almost confrontational end: forcing audiences to revise their expectations of what is comedy. Like reading The Great Gatsby until the hall empties out — it’s a very funny idea, but only after the fact and if you weren’t there. Schaal takes the expectation of revising expectations as a sort of false buildup for silliness. Last night, there wasn’t a big point to make about what comedy is, other than that comedy doesn’t have to make a big point about what comedy is. It can just be a woman dancing like a horse.

What Happened on Kristen Schaal’s Hour Special