"I Get Recognized at Least Once a Day": An Interview with Kristen Schaal
She wrote The Sexy Book of Sexy Sex and is the Women's Issues Correspondent on The Daily Show. The upfront female comic sits down to talk to PopMatters about comedy, fame, and so much more ...
If you're unfamiliar with the comedian Kristen Schaal, you might think her a little shy as she walks up to the microphone on a darkened stage and clears her throat. Wearing a ruffled white blouse, Schaal solemnly intones: "Act One," like a sixth-grader during final dress rehearsal for the school play. Her huge blue eyes dart nervously from side to side.
"Oh wow, this sure is a fun party, Bobby," she says, grinning sheepishly. "Woo! I sure wish I could relax. What's that? You say you have the perfect thing? Gee, what's that, Bobby? Gasp! Marijuana! I've heard about that. My dad told me to stay away. No, I guess he's not here. OK, Bobby, I'll take a smoke of your marijuana! Thank you very much."
Again, Schaal self-consciously announces: "Act Two, One Week Later." But then her voice and body language change. Her upper lip curls and she places her hands bossily on her hips -- think Jodie Foster circa Taxi Driver.
"Hey baby," Schaal says, spitting out the syllables like they're dirty words she's not afraid to say. "What's your hurry? Don't you have time for some of this sweet poontang?" She pauses as the audience laughs, and lasciviously licks her lips; she looks like a twelve-year-old trying to be sexy. "Yeah, that's right! I'm for sale. What? No, I'm not dirty. I'm the cleanest hooker you'll find! Yeah that's right; I haven't even had sex before. No, I'm not scared! All I care about is making enough money so I can get my hands on some of that glorious reefer."
Schaal squints as she imagines the "glorious reefer," and her voice escalates: she sounds like a Muppet with access to a helium tank.
Schaal takes a beat. "One month later," she whispers ominously into the microphone, before turning away from the audience to muss up her hair. She turns around shivering, rubbing her bare arms with her palms. "Oh, I'm so cold," she says. "I have this one last hit of doobie reefer, and then I'm done for. I never wanted it to end this way -- a pot addicted junkie prostitute who's missing a lung and fueling terrorism?! If only I'd had this vision of me lying in the gutter before I'd taken my first hit!"
Schaal dramatically dies from her last hit of pot, standing mostly still on stage letting out pained "ows," and "oh Gods."
Schaal performed in June at the Just for Laughs Festival in Chicago, and is slated to appear at the festival's Montreal shows in July. No matter what she does, zaniness can be expected. Schaal is 33 but looks 19, thanks to her full cheeks and Shirley Temple curls. (When I casually referred to Schaal as a "girl," she corrected me and said "woman.")
Schaal's prettiness is quirky, exemplified by striking, expressive features; her very large eyes most of all. Her lips are pouty and malleable, as if made from silly putty. In addition to the festival circuit in venues like JFL, Schaal is currently the senior women's issues correspondent on The Daily Show, but is perhaps best known for her role as crazed superfan Mel on HBO's Flight of Conchords.
Schaal's unabashedly goofy approach to comedy makes her incredibly appealing to audiences. She's not Hollywood sexy, like some of her up-and-coming contemporaries --actress/comedian Anna Faris of The House Bunny comes to mind -- nor is she as stylized and practiced as Mindy Kaling, who plays Kelly on NBC's The Office and is also a writer for the show. Like all good comedians, Schaal appears to be fearless, and seemingly doesn't care about looking pathetic or vulnerable. Her underlying sweetness allows her to use sensitive material explicitly (drug addiction, prostitution, tossing a shrieked "cunt" or two into her standup routine) and we end up being charmed by her anyway. As many of Schaal's predecessors (everyone from Mae West to Sarah Silverman) have demonstrated, a cherubic smile paired with a filthy joke can be a winningly hilarious combination. Audiences warm to Schaal because she is charismatic and adorable, but she succeeds as a comedian in part because her looks don't dictate what comes out of her mouth.
Even if Schaal doesn't yet command immediate name recognition, she's rapidly gaining exposure. Exemplified in her portrayal of Mel on Conchords, Schaal has proven her forte is playing goofy characters that are offbeat to the point of being slightly creepy. Mel lurks in front of the apartment of Bret and Jemaine (Conchords' stars: roommates, bandmates and the Mel's dual raisons d'être) waiting for them to emerge. When they do, Mel is totally transparent in her love: "Oh, hey guys," she says, jumping up from her hiding place in the stairwell. She's wearing a t-shirt on which she's written "Flight of the Conchords" in sharpie. "Oh, hey, whoa! It's crazy meeting you here." "What, outside our house?" Bret asks. "Whoa, yeah," Schaal giggles. She has a great gurgly laugh.
If Schaal's physicality lends itself to comedy, her voice seems designed to scream out lines like "You're ruining baby faces!" as she does in an old web sketch, Redeeming Rainbow, on YouTube. Schaal's cadence is high, a little squeaky, and slightly lispy, making her a natural fit for animated characters, like the triceratops Trixie in last summer's Toy Story 3, or middle-schooler Louise in the new Fox series Bob's Burgers.
When I met with Schaal at a sandwich shop in Manhattan one blustery afternoon in late March, she looked like your average gal-about-midtown: hoodie, jeans, turkey sandwich on rye. Her wacky voice, which has become a calling card of sorts, was definitely recognizable, but considerably toned-down. Schaal was professional and polite, slightly guarded, even. Both Western transplants, we bonded over a love of Boulder, the Rockies, and I-25.
Schaal's childhood home is often described as a cattle farm in Longmont, Colorado, but it turns out this is only half true. "People keep asking about the farm,'" Shall said. "And I was just looking at my own Wikipedia page, and I realized that's why -- it says I grew up on a cattle farm. It was more of a hobby farm, though. My dad was also a construction worker and my mom was a secretary -- it wasn't like we were like slaughtering cattle every morning." Still, Schaal acknowledged, her house was out in the boonies: "There were no sidewalks, which makes it hard to rollerskate."
Schaal spent a year at UC Boulder before transferring to Northwestern University, where she studied performance art by default because the theatre department was full. She moved to New York in 2000, and started doing stand-up at comedy clubs, alongside other offbeat comedians, like Eugene Mirman, future Daily Show correspondent John Hodgman, and Kurt Braunohler. Braunohler and Schaal currently co-host a weekly comedy variety show called Hot Tub. On his collaboration with Schaal, Braunohler writes: "Working with Kristen is like working with an open flame in a dusty room filled with oily rags, it's dangerous, it's exhilarating, and you think you want to kiss that flame, but you know you'll get burned. I've been creatively burning my mouth on Kristen Schaal for six years, and I don't want to ever stop."
Schaal's fans range from little kids to comedy buffs in part because her body of work is diverse and prolific -- she's performed on television, in movies, and in all sorts of live theater venues. She's a writer, too, producing her own sketch material and coauthoring a parody sex manual, The Sexy Book of Sexy Sex with her boyfriend, Rich Blomquist.
Schaal's Daily Show job is partly a result of her relationship with Blomquist, who is a writer for the show. Schaal and Blomquist write her Daily Show sketches together, and then they're presented to Stewart and the rest of the writing staff. When she started working for The Daily Show, Schaal was ambivalent about her role as a women's issues correspondent:
"At first, I thought 'Oh no!' because I felt like I didn't know how to do that, I hadn't really thought about women's issues before. The problem was partly that you could watch the news for hours but there wouldn't be a lot about women's issues. It's not that these issues don't exist; it's just that people aren't talking about them." Schaal continues: "Well, there was the whole breast cancer screening controversy last year -- Brian Williams was covered the shit out of that. But then Rich and I had to figure out, what's funny about that? What do we say about that? It's a challenge."
Still, Schaal's body of work is diverse enough that for many of her characters, gender is irrelevant. This is particularly true of her stand-up material. In one well-known sketch from Hot Tub, Schaal gallops from side to side, half square dance, half tap routine while Braunohler, her co-host, claps his hands and taps his foot. It looks like a barnyard Riverdance. In a folksy "hey, pardner" drawl, Braunohler starts to sing: "Kristen Schaal is a horse, oh Kristen Schaal is a horse. Well look at her dance, well look at her go, oh, Kristen Schaal is a horse." Schaal is grinning maniacally, waving her hands around, palms facing the audience. Braunohler sings the same refrain over and over as Schaal goes through her dance moves. Eventually, his voice becomes hoarse and ragged.
Schaal's smile is frozen in place, but she starts to look tired, too. Each time the verse starts again, the absurdity of the bit is compounded. The words start to lose meaning, the dance routine looks less choreographed and more like running around. The audience can't quite believe it when they begin the cycle again, for a fourth, fifth, tenth time. The humor comes from Schaal and Braunohler's complete apparent faith in their material.
At the sandwich shop, Schaal was recognized once -- by a middle-aged man who approached her in line and said: "Hey, you're funny!" He waved goodbye to Schaal as he was leaving, and she politely smiled and nodded back. I asked Schaal what it's like, to be in the process of gaining celebrity. "It's weird," she said, immediately, before pausing for a moment to think. "When it first started happening it was so thrilling. You go from nobody looking at you to people taking second looks. I remember really loving it -- and then feeling so guilty for loving it. Like, 'That's gross, Kristen.' Also telling myself it could go away at any moment, and I'd be so sad. Like, 'Don't enjoy this too much.' And then, it just didn't go away."