Amelia Earhart advocacy
Among her many other pursuits, Kristen Schaal regularly cohosts the cornucopic and duly lauded Hot Tub Variety Show with her friend and fellow comedian Kurt Braunohler, who once described watching Schaal onstage as “a little bit like a billion suns exploding in each eyeball.” Doing an interview with Schaal is not so different from being privy to your own private variety show. Over the course of our conversation, she mimicked no fewer than a dozen voices and imitated a dead cockatiel.
Schaal’s life also bears some resemblance to a variety show. She’s recently garnered praise for her role as Mel in the HBO comedy series Flight of the Conchords. She’s taken her stand-up to cities across the U.S., and to the U.K. and Australia. With Braunohler, she’s developed the series Penelope: Princess of Pets for the online site Super Deluxe (so far, only three episodes have been posted, but more are in development and the fourth will double as a New Pornographers music video). She’s appeared in many other online shows and shorts, in movies, on TV, and in commercials. She’s also the founding member of the Striking Viking Story Pirates, a program that promotes literacy and artistic expression in New York City schools by adapting stories kids have written into theatrical productions put on by professional actors. She’s won boatloads of awards and distinctions: Best Alternative Comedian (at HBO’s 2006 U.S. Comedy Arts Festival), Best Female Stand-up (at the 2006 Nightlife Awards in New York), the Second Annual Andy Kaufman Award (hosted by the New York Comedy Festival), and Australia’s Barry Award, to name just a few.
Schaal is very generous with her audiences, although she never panders. Her work, which she’s compared to “tiny plays on stage,” might include dramatic readings from the newspaper, audio recordings of crickets laughing, or mock marriage proposals. It forces audiences into a kind of kinetic perceptiveness, making us feel smarter just for keeping up with her.
This interview took place on a wintry day, over coffee and enormous bowls of granola. We met at a bird-themed restaurant in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, and given that we were in Park Slope, famous for its brownstones and its babies, we probably shouldn’t have been surprised that our breakfast coincided with mother-toddler sing-a-long hour. While we chatted, we were regaled with such classics as “The Alphabet Song,” “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes,” and “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider.”
THE BELIEVER: You won Best Alternative Comedian Award in 2006 at the HBO U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen. I wonder if I could get you to talk a little about the label “alternative,” because I know that it’s something a lot of comedians resist, and I’m wondering why that is, and if you could define “alternative comedy” and what it’s an alternative to?
KRISTEN SCHAAL: I think pretty soon that term is going to become obsolete. I feel it fading away even now. “Alternative,” I think, was just created because the comedy world was growing, and so they were thinking [in confused voice], Well, what’re we going to call these people? Because back in the day, stand-up was dominant. You could label everything: this is stand-up, and you are doing sketch comedy, and this is a sitcom, and that’s all there is, folks. Except for Andy Kaufman, who was super before-his-time. The word alternative is sort of a celebration, I think, of the growth of comedy, so it’s a nice word. I don’t resist it. I like it. I don’t have to have an expectation for my work. [In showman voice] “What is she?” “She’s alternative.” “Oh, OK. Let me relax, and not wait for the punch lines.”
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