Interview: Kristen Schaal and Kurt Braunohler
By Jay Richardson
Kristen Schaal and Kurt Braunohler
You could cut the sexual tension between Kristen Schaal and Kurt Braunohler with a knife, finds Jay Richardson. But these comedy partners are only playing it for laughs
I'M SITTING opposite Kristen Schaal and Kurt Braunohler in the dimly lit Assembly Club Bar and the sexual tension is electric. Or, at least, electronic. Her laptop has been erratic since her arrival in Edinburgh and she's flirtatiously imploring Braunohler, a sometime computer repairman, to come by and fix it. He's wary of encouraging this invitation for life to imitate porn but eventually acquiesces to her kittenish entreaties and head on his shoulder. With their respective partners back home in New York, these are dangerous waters for the hosts of variety night Hot Tub to dip their toes into.
"Some people say creative force and sexual force come from the same place," ventures the strapping Braunohler, with what could be the opening dialogue of a bad erotic thriller. "And I think a lot of female-male double acts implode because of that."
"If they're really good, they'll end up f***ing," his saucer-eyed companion blurts out.
"Once they start f***ing though, all their energy goes into that and not so much the writing," he continues, nonplussed. "You lose security," she sighs.
"The trouble is," he adds, "you have to be totally open with a comedy partner, more so than a romantic one, because if you're f***ing you're being really considerate of their feelings. We're considerate of each other. But if I don't like something, I say so. And if she doesn't like something, she says so, without worrying about hurting me. If she ever does, we yell about it and then it's over. Whereas with a couple, there are too many levels of drama."
"Please write 'f***ing!'" squeals Schaal.
Labelled kooky, quirky and alternative for their leftfield, animal-preoccupied humour, the duo's comedy tends to be seen as cute rather than carnal, even though Schaal is best known for playing Mel, the unhinged stalker in Flight of the Conchords' television show. But that could be changing. Schaal is senior women's issues correspondent for The Daily Show, and recently published The Sexy Book of Sexy Sex with her boyfriend Rich Blomquist, one of the show's writers, a spoof self-help guide featuring such explicit headings as 'Things You Shouldn't Think About While Masturbating' and 'Tools Of The Trade When Trading Bodily Fluids'.
Meanwhile, for the first time in the UK and during this run of Hot Tubs, Braunohler is performing stand-up and presenting excerpts from his solo show, The Amish Guide To F***ing (cancelled as a full hour earlier this month because of television commitments). Having been with his girlfriend for 13 years, they reckoned a good test of their love would be to temporarily split and, in the spirit of Rumspringa, the Amish ritual by which teenagers are encouraged to experience the secular world, see other people.
So understandably, the New Jersey native is incredulous that anyone could perceive him and the Colorado farm-raised Schaal as loveable, asexual muppets, pointing out that comedy is "an extension of being a kid - all they want to do is talk about sex after nine years old".
"Our personas are still developing," Schaal agrees drily. "They're constantly shifting, like Lady Gaga. We'll be just like her in five years time, copying the way she's copying others."
Regardless of sexual frisson, the pair have a fond chemistry, finishing each other's sentences but more often launching each other on to tangential flights of enquiry, about French cave paintings or octopi penii. They set up Hot Tub in Brooklyn six years ago as an experimental space where they could showcase cabaret artists and develop material, after meeting as part of an improv troupe.
Plucking funny ideas out of thin air is a surprisingly effective way of getting to know someone it transpires, even if "you're lying all the time", Schaal suggests. Improvisation, she thinks, "gives you a sense of somebody's energy for sure. How playful they are and how fast they can think is the key to summing a person up pretty well".
Braunohler maintains that "a good improviser is someone who's incredibly vulnerable on stage, so if someone likes the way you improvise, they kind of like you".
Schaal's television credits include writing for South Park and appearances in Mad Men, The Simpsons, Ugly Betty and latterly, to some acclaim, the cult animation Bob's Burgers, alongside cameos in films like Toy Story 3 and Dinner For Schmucks. Those are some pretty hip collaborations. But as her comedy partner relates at the climax of The Amish Guide, an improvisation he performed with Sacha Baron Cohen led to the Borat star becoming furious with him, so you never know who you're going to click with.
Backed by house band Adira Adram and The Experience, Edinburgh's Hot Tub is a more polished and stand-up heavy show than it is in New York but its experimental origins survive in the brand new sketch they create every day. And they have plenty of musical and cabaret guests. "We have to win the crowd over before we start messing around," Schaal says.
There's no eponymous jacuzzi though, that particular prop having long since been packed away. "We used to have a blow-up kiddy pool on stage that we would force the acts into after they'd performed, that they'd have to sit in and watch the rest of the show from," Braunohler explains.
"It was only after two years, watching the video of a show, that we realised just how horrible it was. You have these performers, comedians mostly, watching other comedians, with the audience watching them. It was so unfair."
Schaal appears ashen. "Comedians don't laugh, even when they like something," she laments. "They study."
Various television commissioners are still studying and trying to comprehend the pair's online series turned 2010 Channel 4 pilot, Penelope: Princess of Pets, in which Schaal portrayed a woman who can talk to animals with Braunohler as her orphan friend Kyle.
"We're not talking about the fact that it might well be on television soon," he states enigmatically, before clarifying: "If anyone reading is a British television network and wants an amazing pilot, we've got one."
At least Edinburgh loves these American former Comedy Award nominees and the feeling is mutual. "It's just so intense," Braunohler declares. "Not only do we get to see everyone we haven't seen all year, all of our foreign friends. There's something about the marathon quality of the Fringe that you pass through some weird kind of performance wall where it feels like magic."
"We're starting with solid gold," affirms Schaal. "By the end, it'll be platinum. Or diamonds. Or whatever the heaviest material in the universe is. Plutonium? Oh my God, we're going to kill!"
• Hot Tub with Kurt And Kristen is at Assembly George Square until 27 August. Today 7:35pm.