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How Kristen Schaal Came to Terms With Being a Stand-up Comedian

Kristen Schaal

Kristen Schaal is one of the most original, inventive comedians of the last 20 years, but is she a stand-up? It would appear to be a simple question, considering she performs every week at the stand-up show she co-hosts with Kurt Braunohler, Hot Tub. But it’s not so simple, since Schaal didn’t come up through the typical stand-up channels — while starting out, she was more likely to perform in performance-art spaces than stand-up clubs. On the most recent episode of Good One, Schaal talks about coming to terms with her position in stand-up and the process behind her conceptual bits.

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.

Why do you like this joke?
It might have been my first joke. Well, I don’t even really call it a joke. It’s a bit. I had a dream about it. I had a dream I was onstage trying to perform and the birdcage was empty. From there it evolved to the song. I don’t do it in my half-hour special, but when I would perform it live before, I would sing “I Got You Babe” without the bird.

You just did half of it?
Yeah, and I would wait for it. It would just get sadder and sadder.

The special was in 2009. When did you have the first idea?
I probably was doing it for at least about two years before. I did it almost immediately because at the beginning of my career, I was constantly putting up whatever new material I could think of in little clubs and open mics. I did purchase a birdcage. That was a lot of money. I went to the pet store, got a birdcage.

You’re, like, “I’m committed to this.”
Yeah, that is the thing when you pick a prop. I love that bit so much, I tried to do it with a fish tank and that didn’t work so well. Then I thought it would be funny to do it with a horse. So when I still living in Brooklyn, I was able to get my hands on saddle. I picked it up and carried that saddle on the subway because I couldn’t pay for a cab at that time. Dragged it all the way to UCB and did the bit. Just like the bird, the horse leaves and there’s a giant note under the horse that looks like a horse wrote it. I remember the audience’s reaction wasn’t as enthusiastic as I wanted for the weight of the saddle. So I drug it home, and never did that bit again until my one-hour special. Now I have this saddle in my bedroom and every time people come over they’re like, “Wooo, kinky!” They all think it’s a sex toy. It is not. It’s just my albatross of comedy props that I’m not giving up on.

Do you still have the cage too?

Mhmm. I got a better cage when I did the special. I had a tiny little red cage and I used that for the Andy Kaufman contest and the Aspen Comedy Festival. Then I got a nice gold cage that was TV-ready. It was a TV cage!

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 carrying a birdcage 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.

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 onstage.

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.

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.

Did being in character allow you to make that joke at the start about how you wanted to do the special with Kurt but you’re more famous than him, so you just did it yourself.
That was true. Kurt and I did want to do a special together. And that was a point where I was more famous from the show, but the work that I was doing with Kurt, I was enjoying a lot more. I was getting pushed to do a special of me, but I was using all my energy writing sketches with Kurt and they wouldn’t let me and Kurt have a thing. It was so annoying. That’s why I sort of made it into a joke.

In both specials there are jokes that involve animals. I know you grew up with animals, do you think that’s part of what draws you to that?
Yeah, I think so. I would project human qualities on to them always. And I found them really sad. Growing up, I’d be like “Oh my god, you’re a dog. That’s so depressing because you’ll never know what school’s like and you can’t sit at the dinner table and eat the same food as us. You’re just a second-class citizen in the worst way. I hate that you’re a dog. I hate it so much.”

I was thinking about Steve Martin’s approach of not giving the audience a clear cue to laugh, so that they surprise themselves with their laughing. You work in that same area. How does that affect your comedy?
In some regard, it takes the pressure off in expecting a laugh and then not getting it and taking a deep breath and plowing forward. On the other hand when you write this sort of material, if it really isn’t working [laughs] …then you have no escape. There’s no Plan B. You can’t just shift gears or go to another subject. That is really scary, but when people start laughing and they’re just enjoying it in ways that you expected, but didn’t know for sure, it’s just the best.

You performed in different venues than many comedians starting out. What did that mean for shaping your act?
They had a lot to do with it. When I first moved to New York, I was so depressed and sad because I couldn’t get even a waiting job. I’d just walk in and be like, “I’d like a waiting job.” And they’d hear my voice and then be like, “No.” Then I stumbled into the show Eating It at the Luna Lounge. I was instantly like, “[Gasps] I’m supposed to be in New York.” I went every Monday night, stood in the back, and talked to no one for about two years — just took it all in. In the meantime, I’d discovered Surf Reality with Faceboyz [Open Mic], when you would go and everyone could perform. You would just put your name into a hat and everyone would get eight minutes.

Was it more of a performance-art than comedy space?
You could do stand-up, but there were a lot of people using it for whatever they needed at the time. I felt like there was a minority of cases where people were using it almost as their therapy. I saw a guy call his dad on his cell phone and ask him why he ruined his life. His dad did not realize he was on speaker in front of an audience. I loved it. Surf Reality and Collective: Unconscious with Reverend Jen were the two that would make sure that I had new pieces ready to go every week.

I felt like totally free to do whatever I wanted. Also, I graduated from Northwestern with a degree in performance studies. I remember this one time where I was doing this crazy character who wore a wig and she would perform famous movies like Star Wars and Jaws without any words. It was all in nonverbals. I did it at a show, called the Gong Show. It was perfect for that because I won a George Foreman cooker. I remember thinking, “This is good. This is actually a good character.”

But the problem is being in those worlds separated me from what could’ve made me money. Like Conan had some scouts coming to Stand-up New York on the Upper West Side and I got a slot. I remember I was temping at a law firm as a paralegal, working nights, but they let me go to do this showcase. I came after people doing real stand-up, like, “So I got divorced…” They were telling jokes as themselves and people were there and they understood the agreement and I went up with this woman who wasn’t speaking English and people couldn’t handle it. They were just like, “No.” I bombed so hard and I crawled back to the law firm and I was just like, “I don’t understand. I got a George Foreman Grill at this Lower East Side Gong Show with all these weirdos and …” It’s just not translating! So ultimately it hurt and it helped.

How important is it for you to create context, a universe where your comedy make sense?
It’s not at all. What’s fun is that it would be out of context. It didn’t matter where it was, but then it didn’t always work.

I’ve heard you never specifically wanted to be a stand-up comedian. How do you feel about that now?
I started stand-up because I wanted to be an actress and nobody wanted to cast me in anything. It was the way I broke in, but I don’t consider myself a stand-up first. I do consider myself a comedian. But as far as stand-up I just took such a different road with it. I don’t do exactly what the people that I think work really hard at it do. I don’t feel like I get to have the privilege of being called a stand-up. But I am a stand-up.

The other day I was doing Family Feud and Steve Harvey came out was like, “Aw, so we’ve got ten stand-ups here.” I was like, “Eleven,” looking at him, and he gave me a high-five. He was like, “That’s the only thing that matters to me is my stand-up.” Afterwards, one of the people on my team was like, “None of us are stand-ups. He didn’t even research.” But then I was like, “Oh, well actually, I am.” They’re like, “Oh you are?” I’m like, “Yeah, I am, I actually really am.” I’ve been doing it. I have three specials. I have a show that’s been going on 12 years. I guess I really am. I guess I just have to say I’m a stand-up.

How Kristen Schaal Came to Terms With Being a Stand-up Comic