Kristen Schaal and Kurt Braunohler: interview
Time Out spends a day being silly with kooky New York comedians Kristen Schaal (Mel from 'Flight of the Conchords') and Kurt Braunohler, ahead of their new show 'Double Down Hearts'
There is nowhere quite like New York on a bright, crystal-clear, cold-enough-to-freeze-your-ears-off morning just before Christmas. As I wander lazily through the East Village I wave at two Santas who cycle past me spreading pedal-powered goodwill to one and all.
I arrive at the ultra-trendy wine bar, Terroir, for my interview with darlings of the NYC alternative comedy circuit Kristen Schaal and Kurt Braunohler (pronounced brown-oler and not brown-holer as he points out helpfully on his MySpace page). The place is a lot classier than I am, it’s premier-cru-trendy where I’m more bourbon-in-a-brown-bag-shabby. For a brief moment I sit there, intimidated into indecisiveness by the exotic wine list.
'What have you ordered?’ Braunohler asks bursting into the bar energetically and offering me his hand. He’s blond, square-jawed, 6'3" and looks like your standard all-American boy. If he hadn’t gone into comedy he could easily have played Superman or perhaps just married the prom queen, owned a successful real estate business and coached little league on the weekends.
Schaal is more singular in appearance. Sharp mischievous eyes peer out from under her mop of curly hair. Slightly gawky and gangly, she is unmistakably Mel from the hit HBO series ‘Flight of the Conchords’. In this strangely popular tale of two Kiwi folk singers who come to New York in search of fame and fortune, she plays their sole fan/stalker.
The sommelier persuades us to try his latest cocktail, a sherry bloody Mary. While we wait for him to produce the drinks I ask them when they first met?
‘It’s top secret and we’d rather not say. Next,’ giggles Schaal.
Braunohler looks pensive. ‘Wait, I want to work it out. Was it 2004?’
‘I thought it was ’87,’ she offers.
‘There were two times, ’78 and ’87 but they were just glimpses as we walked passed one another.’ He smiles lovingly at her.
‘Yeah, I was just going down the down escalator and he was coming up the up one but it stuck in our minds. I was like: “Who’s that ugly nerd?” ’
‘And I was like: “Somebody’s lonely.” ’
‘He was really ugly as a kid.’ Schaal adds for no apparent reason.
‘I was,’ nods Braunohler. ‘I looked like a fat lesbian as a child. Which is a fine look on a lesbian but on a 12-year-old boy who just wanted to be cool in Neptune, New Jersey, it made things very difficult.’
And what was it like growing up there?
‘It’s just total suburban awfulness. My days were filled with incredible boredom interspersed with going to the Kwik-E-Mart for some excitement and to smoke cigarettes. But the boredom made my creativity blossom,’ he finishes with mock gravitas.
‘He had it easy.’ Schaal interrupts. ‘I grew up on a cow farm in Longmont, Colorado, where there was nothing to do at all.
A freezing Tim Arthur (left) with Kurt Braunohler as Father Christmas
'Nowhere to skate or ride a bike. Even the Kwik-E-Mart was too far for my little legs. Except this one time, when I got up really early and walked all day past the lake, past the pond, through the fields and eventually made it there. But the next day I couldn’t walk because the walk had crippled me, and the joint where my leg meets my hip was all swollen.’
‘Oops, someone’s a martyr. It’s true though, she was crippled, you can still tell from the strange gait she has when she dances,’ Braunohler says, taking a sip of his drink and shuddering. ‘That is not very nice. Let’s order some wine instead. You’ll need to drink a bit before we head off.’
They actually met at the People’s Improv Theater, which is where they cemented their professional relationship and developed the effortless style of whimsical antagonistic improvised banter which fuels much of their routines.
‘Most of the show we’re doing at the Soho Theatre, “Double Down Hearts”, has been culled from the best stuff we did there in the “Hot Tub” variety show,’ Braunohler explains in a moment of straight-talking lucidity. He leans over and starts rummaging in a bag under the table. ‘Now, enough of this, it’s time to get you dressed. Here you go, put this on in the toilet.’
He hands me a box containing a Santa outfit complete with beard, belt, red coat and trousers, hat and boots.
‘Why?’ I ask.
They both smile beatifically and tell me I’ll find out later. I’m sent to the bar’s tiny toilet to bump, squeeze and yank myself into the outfit. By the time I emerge I find both of them also dressed as Saint Nick. We quickly gulp down one of the finest glasses of wine I have ever tasted, but before I can ask for its name we’re hailing a cab and heading down to South Street Seaport.
The Santa Convention
As we sit squashed, fat Santa belly to belly in the back of the taxi, I ask them about their habit of winning numerous comedy awards such as Kurt’s Best Insane Guerrilla Theatre Award or Kristen’s Andy Kaufman Award or the prestigious Barry Award they won together at the 2008 Melbourne Comedy Festival.
‘To be honest, I’ve got so many I can’t keep track,’ Schaal says with faux nonchalance. ‘I don’t know if I’ve done good unless I’ve won an award. In fact, I won’t perform unless there’s an award involved.’
‘We hope there’s an award for best off-Soho show when we come to London,’ says Braunohler. ‘If there’s not can’t you create one for us? Like a “Best Kooky Monster Award” or something. You guys love to use the word “kooky”.’
‘And “quirky”, right?’ Schaal adds. ‘Perhaps you could combine them. “The Quooky Award”?’
I promise to see what I can do.
When we arrive at the docks we find the whole place swarming with Santas. There are literally thousands of them in every direction. Santas skipping, Santas dancing, Santas roller-skating and all drinking everything and anything they can get their hands on. Apparently Rudolph won’t be the only one with a red nose this Christmas.
‘Welcome to SantaCON. The Santa Convention. It’s my favourite day of the year in New York,’ Kurt says, beaming from ear to frozen ear.
Started by the Cacophony Society in San Francisco in 1994, this annual Santapalooza flash mob aims to celebrate human spontaneity and goodwill. It’s spread faster across the world than reindeers on speed, but nowhere does it with a fiercer sense of fun than New York and the 5,000 or so revellers with whom I’m now engaged.
3,000 Santas take over the Staten Island ferry
We head into a dive bar called Jeremy’s to begin our game of catch-up with our fellow Santa brethren. The place serves beer in huge Styrofoam cups and has bras pinned to every inch of the ceiling. Even the stuffed moose on the wall is wearing one as a
I soon notice a lot of the Santas pointing at Kristen and hear them whispering things like: ‘Hey, isn’t that her off that programme?’
Did she ever think ‘Flight of the Conchords’ would be such an international smash?
‘I didn’t expect it to be as big as it has been. Nobody did. I was just excited to work with Kiwis because they’re laid-back and fun. But I never imagined it would become so successful. It’s been totally life-changing and only for the good. We get to do shows to bigger crowds and everything has opened up to us because of its popularity.’
There is no jealousy from Braunohler about his comedy partner’s success; he’s genuinely pleased for her – and it’s undeniably opened up opportunities for both of them. ‘It’s been the biggest thing. Because it’s the coolest show on TV it’s helped us no end. I think that and our internet programme “Penelope, Princess of Pets” are what have got us the pilot we’re shooting for Channel 4 in 2009.’
I stay with them all day as the SantaCON flashmob moves around the city. First it heads on to the Staten Island Ferry, where 3,000 Santas salute the Statue of Liberty. Then it takes the subway uptown to a club, Santos’ (or Santa’s?) Party House, where we spend the rest of the night dancing in a Bacchic frenzy of festive cheer with reindeers, Grinches, pole-dancing polar bears and even one rather unpleasant flashing Santa in a mankini. Before we part I ask them about their writing process – how do they harness their fertile and fluid, if somewhat scatty minds?
‘I can’t begin to articulate our process,’ Schaal says, looking suddenly serious. ‘It’s so specialised, so stream of consciousness and beautiful. It’s like a Martha Graham ensemble piece mixed with Alvin Ailey… but mainly we write it from things that we rip off from other people’s comedy shows.’ She pauses. ‘I’m kidding.’
It’s time for me to go. I bid farewell to my two, slightly bedraggled Santa companions and wend my merry way across the city to my hotel. The whole day is a perfect metaphor for Schaal and Braunohler’s own particular brand of humour: insane, life-affirming, silly and above all hugely enjoyable.
‘Double Down Hearts’ is at the Soho Theatre January 20-February 1.
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