Finding Joy in the Saddest Depths of Capitalism with Kasper Hauser

The San Francisco comedy group Kasper Hauser has a knack for the absurd. For instance, their name is derived from that of a mysterious 19th century feral child from Germany. But beyond the far flung fringes of the unusual exists a sharp grasp of the delicate balance between comedy and tragedy. Since 2000, Kasper Hauser’s four members – Dan Klein, James Reichmuth, John Reichmuth and Rob Baedeker – have been writing and performing comedy that adequately represents where they are existentially, both as a group and as individuals. They have just released SkyMaul2: Where America Buys His Stuff, their second parody of the popular SkyMall airline catalog. I talked to James Reichmuth and Rob Baedecker about the new book, the group’s history and the significance of bowling a 298.

Let’s just start from the beginning and talk a little bit about your group. When did you guys form?

James Reichmuth: We started in 2000. We had all gone to college together, so we had done things together in various pairs or groups. For example, three of us were kind of the principle people behind an indie film called Fishing with Ghandi. We had done little sketch stuff and various things together but we didn’t form the group Kasper Hauser until October of 2000.

What were some of the early incarnations of what you were doing as a group?

Rob Baedecker: We started onstage right away in San Francisco and it was all pretty much pure sketch comedy with only the four of us ever. We originally wore these Harlequin suits, the checkered suits with the little puffy balls on them. We were really committed to the suits. There were two blue ones and two white ones. We had two identical twins, James and John, in the group and we just liked the color and symmetry. Then we switched over a few years later from using costumes. But we were absurd-to-real sketch from the beginning.

JR: We weren’t trying to make a statement. We went to Edinburgh in 2002 and did a run there at the Gilded Saloon. The press called us Dadaists, like, a Dadaist sketch group. Really we were just totally stripped down. We wanted no sound and lights and we used no costumes, but we had these blue and white satin suits with these balls on them and the industry people would see us and they’d be like, “Oh, you’ve gotta be fucking kidding me.”

RB: We did like the simplicity and blank canvas. All costumes and sets were in the imagination. We just didn’t bother at all.

JR: Yeah, it was a trip. An unforeseen aspect of that – the audience just quickly accepted who you said you were – a man, or a woman, or a fourteenth century whatever in this harlequin suit. It created this whole opportunity for a little switcheroo gag that we never would have thought possible. After a couple years, we went more for traditional sketch style.

So when did you retire the costumes?

JR: I remember the show. It was probably in ’04 maybe. We were doing our really abstract show. We would perform out of a tent that was on the stage. And you were inside the tent with no sound and lights of any kind. Like, we had a disco ball in the tent and we had a mic. We had battery powered amps. We had everything from the inside of this tent.

RB: Didn’t we send them off into space in ’04 with the Hubble telescope?

JR: They’re going into the Smithsonian but they are in space right now. I believe it was June of ’04 because I remember the show.

The sketch festival thing really started to – it seemed like Seattle started that and then San Francisco Sketchfest totally sprung in January of ’02. We were part of that original six troupe group that co-founded SketchFest under the auspice of the group Totally False People. That became a yearly thing. That became foundational for us, that particular Sketch Festival. Otherwise, we were playing festivals and theaters around the country. We would go to the old UCB in New York and UCB LA and IO West and Chicago and things like that. You know, traditional sketch venues.

What do you think is so special about San Francisco as it relates to sketch comedy?

JR: I’d hate to hear Rob muddle through that answer.

RB: I think there’s a nice distance from LA and New York, of course, where not everything is an industry showcase. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it feels like there’s more space. We were never focused on the TV industry, per se. I think there’s a little more latitude. There’s a little more freedom. Do you agree, James?

JR: I do. I think there’s a couple things. One is you’re entering a really rich comedy tradition for a small market city. It has one of the richest comedy histories of any city outside of New York, LA, or Chicago. It has really interesting and wild ensemble style comedy going in the late ‘50s and in the early ‘70s with the San Francisco Mime Troupe and I think Acme Trucking might have been there for a little while. I could be wrong about that. And of course I’m blanking on the one big group that came out of there.

RB: There was The Committee and Firesign Theater.

JR: Right, Firesign Theater in ’86. So I think San Francisco might just have a slightly more amateur – in a good way – side of it. Like Rob is talking about it, it clearly is not the center of the industry. It has a slightly more wild and artistic side and it’s a very prog-comedy community because you can get good there. It’s not cutthroat in any way and you’re coming out of a place that had Robin Williams and Patton Oswalt and great predecessors.

Did you name your group after the old German kid that emerged with all the wild tales?

RB: Yes. You just opened a door to a whole special club. There’s a lot of cash you’re going to get. It’s kind of like a Willy Wonka situation you just got yourself into. Congratulations.

Someone mentioned Kasper Hauser in a New Yorker article about feral children that James found in a dumpster, and we always like the name. We liked the symmetry, we liked the idea of a feral child not speaking the language, so it stuck.

JR: It was amazing, the list of these feral children’s names in this article. They were incredible. It was like The Krupina Bear Girl. The Justedal Snowhen. The list was just too much. Then the name Kasper Hauser was there. That was ’93 when I saw that article and I was like, “That’s it.” I didn’t know about the Herzog film, I knew almost nothing about it. It was just like, I like the name. That’s it. Then when we got serious in 2000, we didn’t come up with anything better. We always liked it. Look at the names Python came so close to picking. I can’t imagine we would be worshipping a sketch group today called The Zinc Stoat of Budapest. You look at their rejected titles and think, “Wow, it’s important.”

When I first saw your name I thought, “This sounds like a company that would make machine parts for a particle collider.”

RB: We do that too. That’s where the money comes from.

Or a super professional, very top-notch engineering firm or something.

RB: Yeah, it’s got that German sort of mechanical, technical ring to it.

JR: And you have twins. Reichmuth, Baedecker and Klein, those are the surnames. It worked on many levels.

Today marks the release of your book/parody SkyMaul 2. This one’s called, “Where America Buys His Stuff.” Any reason for painting America with a male paintbrush?

RB: [Laughs.] A male paintbrush. Just gonna take some time for that one.

JR: While you answer, I’m gonna jack off.

RB: I’m sorry. I assumed that was going on already. I don’t know how that one came up.

JR: I do. I do. You just came up with it out of the blue! We were going with a straighter name that sort of broke down the fourth wall, like, “America’s Funniest Catalog,” or, “American’s Funniest Fake Catalog,” which might have a better marketing value for the demo that you want to buy your book, even if they have no chance of actually liking it. But Rob just said it out of the blue. So I think it was just because you’re so used to hearing it said correctly, but why on earth would we call America a her?

RB: I think there’s the trope of having countries and ships being female. Then the background of SkyMall that the main audience is travelling business alcoholic dads. It’s all these products about golf, booze and stuff to get for your kid because you never see them.

Right, right. So you had your first one, “Happy Crap You Can Buy From A Plane,” which was incredibly well-received. It got really good reviews, so a sequel seemed inevitable. How do you go about approaching a sequel to something that’s so niche and dead-on in its parody?

JR: I think, like a lot of things in comedy, you generally approach things simply, not in a meta way or formally about we what this book should be like. Tonally, it is pretty different than the first one, but that’s just because of where we are right now. It’s not because we said we have to be less snarky and more absurd. We’re just different people. So most of it comes about organically. Anybody who is in comedy, or any craft, knows if you just do it every day, it’s going to come to you. The first one was really great for us, especially among comedians, among people who are really into comedy, so I felt a little pressure of that shadow.

RB: I don’t know, James, if you’d agree, but there’s a tendency to just fill different containers and the container almost doesn’t matter to us. We’ve written a number of books on wildly different subjects and they’re all parodies, but it’s all sort of an excuse to create detailed, funny content and we can dump it in a number of shapes. In that way, I don’t even know if we thought of it as much different. It’s just a continuation of the work we’ve always been doing.

JR: I totally agree. It’s an extremely broad light for comedy. Some of it’s as broad as the news is for The Onion. And with this we even wanted to push it a little bit further. We have a comic in the back. Some people said, “Well, you wouldn’t have a comic ad like you would in ‘70s or ‘80s comic books in a real SkyMall.” But if you push it, people don’t mind. This is just an excuse to put anything funny in there and that’s just how we operate with all of our books.

When I was flipping through, even though it all fits in under, ‘Weird Products That You Can or Cannot Use,’ in looking at it, I noticed several recurring themes. Some of them were actually products that make sense. Almost in the way that stoners would sit around and dream up ideas, like the Drug Sniffing Dog Sniffing Dog. That’s actually a pretty good idea. But then I think there was stuff that actually had a very dark tone to it in its simplicity, like the Downwardly Mobile Jacket. It was just a suit jacket that you would see somebody wearing who was not doing so well in their career. When I saw it I was like, “Oh, man!” because I’ve seen a lot of people wearing those. Then there’s really absurd stuff like the All-weather Dunce Cap that’s just plain fun. When you dump all this content that you’ve created, are you thinking of it in batches of comedic themes? ‘This is absurd, this is a critique on business and this is X.’ Is that how you do it, or is it all kind of random?

RB: That’s a good question. I would say no, we’re not categorizing it in advance. But you hit on a theme, and I think it is there in our comedy, which is satire of the kind of striving, impossibly optimistic, American can-do. It’s a cultural value. Optimistic business obliviousness. This sort of idea that anybody, through the miracle of commerce, can achieve despite obvious dramatic irony. And the jacket is a great example. It’s tragic and comic. You see the flaw from the outside but there’s a kind of poignant yearning. We’re attracted to that in our books and onstage.

JR: Yeah, that’s been a major theme: Striving. That’s been since the very beginning and I think it could be embodied. Like, we have an image that we’ve never used of a tattoo with the five Olympic rings but below it, it would just say, “Almost.”

RB: James, what is your ring? The bowling ring?

JR: The bowling ring for me was the most epic. It was the most amazing Kasper Hauser embodiment of that striving that you’re talking about. I went to a pawn shop in San Francisco. I looked in the window and saw this ring with a 298 written on it and I didn’t know what it was. I thought it might be an Elk Lodge number. I go in to see this beautiful ring – well, tacky, but beautiful – and it’s a bowling ring from the American bowling conference that somebody bought to commemorate them scoring a 298. The only way you can score a 298 is to have a perfect game going into the very final ball, at which moment you miss not one pin, but two pins. But now there’s one more step and that is this: When you buy a ring that says 298, you are agreeing that you are never going to bowl a 300.

RB: It’s also a great score!

JR: Yeah! It is! But it’s also got that asterisk forever. Good job, 298! So what happened? So that’s that striving thing. But you’re dead right, thematically. We will look at products and say they’re very overtly too similar. “That’s three dogs with things coming out of their butts, I think you should only have two of those and not three.” But not thematically the other way. It’s like looking for arrowheads; you just take what you get. Then it’s really about whether the group thinks they’re funny. The process thematically is going to have more about who you are and your life right then.

I know exactly what you’re saying. I really like what you’re saying about striving because I find the futility of our efforts in general as humans is something that breaks my heart and makes me laugh at the same time. Sometimes you catch yourself in the middle of something and you realize that you’re taking yourself very seriously and your chance of failure so high and you just have to step back and laugh about it because otherwise, you’d have to continue laboring under a delusion that it’s going to be a success, or you have to give up. Those are the two extremes. I think if you can just sort of laugh your way through it and realize when you’re being a cliché… it becomes something that’s bearable. We’re all going to fail constantly at things we’re trying really hard to be good at.

RB: Yeah that’s very well said. Have you seen that Far Side cartoon where it’s the guy at an orchestra with one cymbal and his other hand is empty and his thought bubble is saying, “I won’t screw up. I won’t screw up.” It’s this earnest striving and you can just see the disaster, this cosmic, totally relatable imperfection.

JR: And there are a lot of jokes, not all, because like you clearly pointed out, some are just straight product parodies of products you think could work and they’re not strongly socially satirical. But, the people – like we’re big fans of Beckett and Flan O’Brien and that was always about that; the really existentialist thing of, “I can’t go on. I must go on.” It was a cruel joke that, no matter what you did, we were all gonna end up in a box. We’re not morose people at all, but…

RB: Not always.

JR: You are. No, but there’s a strong theme of just what you’re talking about. A sort of dark side of the existential realities of death, freedom, isolation, and meaninglessness.

I was looking through your Twitter feed and you are actively marketing the book. My favorite way was a picture of a SkyMaul 2 catalog replacing the real SkyMall in the back of an airline seat. Have you actually done this more than once, or was this just for the sake of the tweet?

RB: We did that with the first book, which was pre-Twitter. We would leave it on the seatbacks and actually watch people discover them.

JR: I was the one who did the recent one and I absolutely left it. I only did one because I needed to keep one, since it’s pre-release. My wife was like, “No one’s gonna get it,” and I was like, “But I just tweeted it. I’m not going to a lie about it.” You never know what will happen. But in terms of doing it for a whole plane, that’s our dream. I don’t know how you’d do that, unless we get Virgin or somebody like that and produce a sample for them that’s clean enough for them and short enough for a whole plane. We would love to do that.

There’s a banner on the upper right hand corner of the book that says PARODY. Was that your decision, or was that the publisher’s decision?

RB: The lawyer. I think the first SkyMaul, there was an article in the SF Chronicle from the SkyMall CEO saying she loved the book. So they clearly have a sense of humor.

If you’re selling giant concrete bigfoots for your garden, I think you must have a sense of humor. Some of the stuff you can buy in there is crazy. That’s why looking through yours, at first it seems so absurd, but then you start going through and you’re like, “This is so on point.”

RB: In the real catalog some of those are even crazier than items in our book, for sure.

JR: That’s why you have to keep adding stuff that is essentially a statement, a vehicle for a statement, like the “I Should Have Invented a Solar Car” kit. Something like that that says, “This is not a solar car kit. It’s a kit with bad-for-you foods and cigarettes and stuff for somebody who is saying, ‘I had all these plans 30 years ago and I should have invented a solar car.’” That’s how you stay ahead of SkyMall; by making products a vehicle for comic statements. Because it’s getting harder to out-SkyMall SkyMall. Clearly.

So what do you think is next for SkyMaul?

RB: They’ll probably pulp any that are left over. Is that your question?

JR: I love that word. That’s my favorite word.

RB: I don’t know how they do it. I think they just light them on fire or put them in a lake.

JR: Book pulping. I love it. It’s not book burning; it’s book pulping! It’s an industry. We’re turning your book into a liquid. The, before it was just a sample from the book, but now it’s not. We just redesigned it and it went live a few days ago. Depending on the response – I have not seen good, freestanding e-commerce parody – so the plan is to update that and start using parody products to reflect what’s going on. Maybe even start responding to events the way The Onion does to keep people up to date with the books.

RB: We’re interested in different and unusual forms. A few years back, we did a website called WonderGlen with Ben Karlin, the head writer at the time of The Daily Show, and it was a complete world of a fake production company that the viewer had “accidental” access to and you could see all the goings-on of this ridiculous production company. But it was again, this container of a miniature world. That’s what we love. It was this fake comedic world.

JR: Yeah, microcosms. There might be a SkyMaul 3, we’ll see. The great thing about the style we have is that you just keep wandering to whatever interests you the most. We’ve just been incredibly fortunate to have people that support us to do that and by “that,” I mean our wives. No, our fans. That’s been one of the greatest things since 2000, people teaching us and telling us to keep going. I know that sounds a little bit cloying but it’s really true. It’s the most absolutely gratifying thing about it. If you really hit somebody hard in the way that a middle of the road style comedy doesn’t really have the chance to do so much, you kind of take a chance and you take a little bit of a gamble and you give up a few people in exchange for really hitting some of them hard and that has always been our main goal.

SkyMaul2 is available now.

Finding Joy in the Saddest Depths of Capitalism with […]