Kristen Schaal - Heart of daftness

This article is from 2008

Kristen Schaal and Kurt Braunohler

Kristen Schaal and Kurt Braunohler

Kristen Schaal merges sinister and sweet with terrifying success. Claire Sawers chats to her while hoping she doesn’t do that angry, erotic sheep thing

Mostly, I’m wondering what Kristen Schaal’s voice will sound like when she answers the phone. The one she uses in the cult comedy show, Flight of the Conchords, where she plays Mel, the crazy stalker to the Kiwi’s folk duo, is sugary-sweet, like some twisted cartoon five-year-old. When she ‘accidentally’ bumps into her heroes outside their apartment, she’ll dribble coyly, like a tiny My Little Pony fan chewing on bubblegum, then casually bring up some of the prison rape fantasies she’s been going over in her mind.

As it turns out, that’s pretty much how she speaks. Treading a fine line between girly innocence and out-and-out unhinged, during our chat it’s hard to guess when the sweet enthusiasm (she loves using words like ‘magical’, ‘amazing’ and ‘delightful’) will give way to some slipped-in remark about a drugged-up prostitute or a tragic road accident.

And therein lies her charm. When she appeared at last year’s Fringe, before Flight of the Conchords had aired on British TV, she sucked in crowds and critics with her surreal blend of the dark and the utterly wholesome. A master of the comedy surprise, she expertly messed with the audiences’ expectations, hiding behind the mic like a cute, frock-wearing lady-child with puffed-out hamster cheeks, then dropping in gags about accidental killings or lesbian love affairs. Among the rave reviews she received, the comedy editor of this very magazine hailed her as a ‘bona fide kooky monster’, saying her show was ‘impossible to erase from your mind’.

‘That was such a sweet thing for him to say!’ she coos. ‘It really blew me away.’ She waits half a beat, then turns deadpan. ‘I slept with him backstage after the show.’ [Comedy Ed: should my mum read this, I categorically deny the accusations. She’s just making it up. That’s what comedians do, OK?]. Schaal began developing her helium-high, gawkish comedy persona while trying to get into acting at school. ‘I’d be doing these serious plays, but I’d always get something wrong,’ she lisps, letting out a miniature giggle. ‘I’d do something funny without meaning to and it made people laugh. I decided if it was coming that naturally, I should stop fighting it. So I gave in and did comedy instead.’

After joining a college comedy troupe and studying improvisation in Chicago, she finally dipped her toe in the stand-up waters of New York’s late night comedy scene and soon had a hit routine. In 2006, she won HBO’s Best Alternative Comic award, and a place in New York Magazine’s Ten Funniest New Yorkers You’ve Never Heard Of. Earlier this year, Schaal followed in the footsteps of other US comedy talents, Maria Bamford and Demetri Martin, when she won the award for Most Outstanding Show at the Melbourne Comedy Festival, coming joint-first with Nina Conti.

‘Every comedy piece I’ve done has always been fabricated,’ she says, referring to her habit of wandering around her weird imagination like a small child on mushrooms. ‘My real life is pretty boring, so it’s definitely more fun to write about stuff that pops into my head.’

Previous sketches have involved a three-act play about the dangers of marijuana, where a goody two-shoes girl tries a joint, quickly becomes a prostitute and is dead a week later from a drug overdose. The entire skit lasts about five minutes. Or there is her improvised work with her comedy partner of the last four years, Kurt Braunohler. In a YouTube clip where Braunohler is holding the camera, he asks her to act like a sheep lost in the woods. As she baas and bats her huge brown eyes, he then asks her to act erotic. In under a minute, she’s morphed into an angry, erotic sheep, tortured by the death of her mother.

‘Kurt is such a gift,’ she says of the other half of this comedy duo. It’s a professional relationship she claims, before adding enigmatically, ‘Sometimes boundaries are crossed.’ When writing new material, Schaal says she normally comes out with an offbeat idea that they both act out. After taking it on a surreal flight of fancy, one hour later they usually have a new sketch. ‘It’s so hard to find someone you connect with on that level. It’s so much easier writing with Kurt than by myself.’

Audiences will be able to see Schaal and Braunohler in action when they bring Double Down Hearts to the Fringe. The hour-long sketch show centres on a play acted out in reverse chronological order. With a plot that takes in harelips, phone sex, gambling and a ‘really beautiful’ scene between Pocahontas and the famous American colonist John Smith, it promises to be typically oddball fare. ‘I bet every comedian says it, but we’re really not coming to Edinburgh for the reviews,’ says Schaal, sounding suspiciously serious for a second. ‘Last year was like, “Wow! I need to prove myself”, but this time it’s more about having fun with Kurt.’

Their 13-night run is sandwiched in before Schaal heads back to New York to begin filming the second series of Conchords. Although she still struggles to make out what her co-stars Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement are saying through their ‘mumbly’ New Zealand accents, she’s looking forward to getting back into stalker mode.

‘Before that starts, I’m going to treat Edinburgh like the big party that it’s supposed to be,’ she says. ‘Last year was amazing; I never went to bed before 5am. I somehow avoided jetlag and stayed on New York time the whole month. As soon as the show’s over, Kurt and I will take it to the streets.’ Although last year she claimed no one had a clue who she was, Edinburgh’s streets will no doubt contain a lot more of her fans this time around. Although hopefully none of the stalker kind.

Kristen Schaal and Kurt Braunohler, Assembly Rooms, 623 3030, 11–23 Aug, 9.10pm, £11.50–£12.50 (£10–£11).

Kristen Schaal and Kurt Braunohler

  • 4 stars

'Bona fide kookie monster' Schaal offers more of her surreal blend of the dark and utterly wholesome in the company of her comedy partner Braunohler. 'Part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe'.

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