Just For Laughs Interview: Kurt Braunohler
Midnight Poutine: You're involved in a variety of forms of comedy - stand-up, sketch and improv. Do you need to flex different muscles for each, or can you transfer what's required of one type of performance to the others?
Kurt Braunohler: Yeah, I've found that. You know, I've done improv for probably 14 years now and I only started doing standup about five years ago. I found that the transition from improv to standup was incredibly difficult. What I gained from improv and what I brought to standup is a general confidence about being on stage. In fact, I even lost that a lot of times because with improv, really, it's not so much a requirement that you finish a sentence with people laughing. You can be building something in improv and the audience will be very patient, but in standup, that patience just doesn't exist. The expectations are much higher when you're doing standup. And that's what I've really been jazzed about with standup. It's far more difficult and I really enjoy the challenge of it.
MP: So even though, unlike improv, the material for standup is prepared, it doesn't necessarily facilitate the performance or laughter.
KB: Even with things that I wrote when I first started, I think if I performed them now they might work, whereas when I performed them then, they didn't work and that was just because I was nervous and didn't own it, you know? Once I kind of figured out how to write a joke a little bit, I think the previous nine years of improv really helped me with my stage presence. That said, I don't do standup the way I improvise and I don't improvise the same way I do standup. Right now I've gotten fully into doing standup; I'm not really doing improv any more because it takes up all of my time.
MP: Bunk sort of combines these worlds, merging scripted material with improvised material. It also brings comedians, many who have improv experience, into this hybrid environment. Do you see that as an ideal setting for your comedy?
KB: I would've never in a million years have imagined that I'd get to host and write on a show that is perfectly made for me. It kind of utilizes all the skills I've been working on for the past decade, so it's pretty awesome.
MP: Has the show changed at all from how you and your fellow writers initially envisioned it?
You know, not too much has changed. I think IFC did a really good job of maintaining the spirit of what we created when we first shot the original pilot on spec. The main change is the scoring. That's where the main change happens. Originally our scoring was just in units of luggage or dinette sets - I would just award people 35 dinette sets - but IFC really wanted to have a narrative of people playing for things. So, while we had charitable causes that the contestants were playing for in the first episode, they weren't tied to anything. Now we tie the contestants' points to their causes.
MP: Do you think, in the history of game shows, anyone was ever happy to win the dinette set?
KB: Yeah, you know, they must've needed a shit-ton of dinette sets in the 70s because the number they awarded is mind-boggling. I don't even know what a dinette set is and everybody must have four or five now (laughs).
MP: How have the contestants enjoyed the show? Coming in, have they really embraced it? Have there been some contestants that, once they got on camera, didn't work out as well as you'd hope?
KB: You know, I think everybody has pretty much nailed it. It was really exciting to work with all of them. I was performing with people like Andy Daly and Tom Lennon and Dana Gould who are all heroes to me, and every single one of them left their tapings being really excited about the show and saying, "hey man, your show is really funny." I thought to myself "this is a huge moment!" I was excited that they got it and they appreciated it and they liked being on it.
MP: On the show it seems like you have a really great rapport with those three in particular.
KB: I didn't know any of them personally. People like Eugene [Mirman] and Kumail [Nanjiani] are really good friends, and Ethan [Berlin], of course, I'm really good friends with, but with those three, I just didn't know them before we shot the episodes and they were so cool to work with.
MP: The show has goofy and, at times, surreal humour. Were there any specific influences that you and the other writers wanted to tap into?
KB: Well, I think our influence was us thinking, "can this be dumber? If it can, let's make it dumber." Also, we really looked at game shows, asking ourselves, "what are the tropes of game shows that we can make fun of?" What's nice about them is that we're all familiar with them - it's like a second hand vocabulary for us. Like, "oh yeah, that happens; they spin a wheel. Why spin a wheel?" So we looked at what we could do that just made fun of all that stuff, and that was really fun.
MP: You capture the smarmy and somewhat sleazy personality of a Tom Bergeron or, for a reference from the glory days of game shows, Bob Eubanks, the guy who hosted Card Sharks in the 80s. What is so inherently funny with these characters?
KB: I think what it is is over-confidence... like an undeserved over-confidence, which I think is really funny. I think it's funny too when someone who's really confident abuses their power and it reveals their creepiness. I think a lot of game show hosts... they're not abusing their power like some horrible Jerry Sandusky or something, they're abusing their power in the same way as like... well they can just be creepy, you know? And I like the idea of revealing that creepiness. Richard Dawson would kiss everybody and it was so creepy.
MP: How fast is a filming of Bunk? Is it pretty quick, or are there multiple takes?
KB: It's one take for almost everything. When we record the show, the live taping is about an hour and twenty minutes and then that gets cut down to 22 minutes... and we shoot, I think, six challenges and end up using four, so two challenges are on the cutting room floor.
MP: What can Montrealers who haven't previously been to a Hot Tub performance expect?
KB: We've been doing Hot Tub in New York for seven years, that's actually how Kristen [Schall] and I first started working together. You should expect some super-awesome guests... we're going to have a bunch of guests from the TV show Bob's Burgers, so I think people like Eugene Mirman and Jon Benjamin and Jon Roberts; they're all fantastic, awesome comedians. And then you can expect Kristen and I to do some of our double act, and also we're going to be doing some standup. It should be a packed show full of fun, weird comedy.
MP: When you write with Kristen, do you focus on your own voice, or do you also create material for her?
KB: Well, we both write for each other. One person will usually flesh out a script and then we'll improvise within that structure. You know, for the first three or four years we were working together I was constantly just writing for the both of us and then, only recently, just kind of shifted over and started writing for myself more... because it is like a brain switch, a little bit, between writing for myself and writing for the two of us.
So... a lot of our stuff now is much more improvisational; we'll start off with an idea and just kind of riff it out on stage as opposed to the way we started - we were very scripted, we would really write everything, we would have very specific beginning, middle and end pieces every show. Now we've gotten a lot looser with it.
MP: Do you find that this approach has changed the show for the better or is it just different?
KB: Yeah, I think it's just different... you know the reason we started doing these was because we would write these intricate sketches and then we would start the show with them and people would just stare at us because it was way too scripted. Now we've found what I think is a nice mix - especially when you're hosting, where I think you need to be upfront and very loose just to get people used to the idea that they're going to see people talking on stage. After improvising for a bit, that's when we slide into something written and that, I think, works the best.
MP: Now that you're doing such a variety of work, is it hard to find a balance?
KB: No, I think it actually all feeds into itself. As a comedian you have to be constantly trying to make the next thing and I think, via trying to do that, it influences all the other things you're trying to do. Like, doing Hot Tub helps my standup because I get to try 10 new minutes out every week, and doing Bunk helps my standup because it gives me that level of confidence where I'm able to walk into a TV studio with an audience and just run the room. You know, when you first start doing comedy it feels very compartmentalized - you're just working on this thing and you don't know how it effects the other things - but then as you kind of get on and you've been doing it for a little bit, everything starts to inform everything else and it just helps you to become a better performer.
MP: Is there anything you look forward to when you come to Montreal?
KB: I love the food... Montreal has such amazing food. Every time I go there I have something that blows my mind, so I'm looking forward to just eating a lot... and going on top of that hill... what's that hill called?
MP: Mont Royal?
KB: Yeah! I love Mont Royal.
MP: What do you love about poutine and what do you hate about poutine?
KB: What I love about poutine is that it's delicious and what I hate about poutine is that once I finish I have to take a nap.
MP: How did you spend your 14th birthday?
KB: Where I grew up your 14th birthday was a big deal and you would have a huge party... like, you would invite the whole school to these parties. I remember we had a disco ball and I remember I thought it would be cool if I wore one of those southwestern Navajo ties...
MP: Bolo ties?
KB: Yes (laughs), I wore a bolo tie. I thought it would be cool and guess what? It is NOT cool when you're 14 and in New Jersey.
MP: How did everyone react to your party?
KB: Well, in school I wasn't very popular, but there was an agreed upon policy that if you had a party, people would be civil there... so people, I think, were civil to me. It was very exciting; I was like, "people are being so nice!", whereas normally that was not the case (laughs).
MP: Looking back, would you have wanted to spend your birthday differently?
KB: No. I loved spending it at the Spring Lake Firehouse in Spring Lake, New Jersey.