Kurt Braunohler On Beavers And Feeding Jokes To Holly Hunter For ‘The Big Sick’

Kurt Braunohler loves beavers. The frequent @midnight panelist is widely known for his past sketch work with Last Man on Earth star Kristen Schaal, pranks with planes and butts, and his web series Roustabout — in which he rode a jet ski from Chicago to New Orleans. However, these days Braunohler is focusing more on comedy with a minor role and onset writing gig for Michael Showalter’s Sundance hit The Big Sick, and a new stand-up special for Comedy Central. And beavers, which the comic featured prominently in the concluding number for Kurt Braunohler: Trust Me.

Audiences who missed out on the special’s taping in Portland, Oregon can tune in tonight at midnight to find how Braunohler incorporated the semi-aquatic rodents into the show. Though as we discovered in conversation with him, it seems the New Jersey native’s fascination with beavers is there for all to see on social media. And if there’s anyone or anything to blame for the hilarious performer’s penchant for dam builders, it’s IMAX.

Why beavers?

I don’t think I have a great reason. I just think they’re inherently hilarious. You know, I’ll tell you. Now that you say it, it does trigger something. When I was probably, I think, 19 years old, I went to the IMAX in Baltimore in the Inner Harbor, and I saw this film on IMAX called Beavers. It was six stories tall, and it was beavers. They followed this one family of beavers for maybe 20 years, though that seems impossible because IMAX didn’t exist back then. And they transformed a tiny stream into this huge lake, and they actually got cameras up inside the beaver dam and you watched them fucking. Honestly, it was like watching six story-tall beavers having sex. I’ve never been able to find that film anywhere, so it became this mystical, magical memory about beavers. I think that’s where the obsession came from.

You tweet about them all the time. It’s random and wonderful.

Oh I do, do I? I did not realize. I guess it all stems from that. This is kind of like a therapy session now. We’re really figuring out where shit comes from.

How did Trust Me come together?

I put together the through line for Montreal’s Just for Laughs Comedy Festival. I was doing around 20 shows in a row there. Not last summer, but the summer before. And then I just kept tweaking it from then, touring with it and getting it to more of a stand-up show as a opposed to a theater piece. There were aspects of it that were much more theater-y that I chose not to include in the special, because it just worked better to have it be more of a streamlined stand-up show for Comedy Central.

I first heard you perform with Kristen Schaal several years ago. It felt more like sketch comedy than stand-up, but Trust Me is definitely stand-up. Do you have a preference for either format?

My stand-up work is much more joke and storytelling based than my sketch work, and that’s purposeful. That’s the kind of stand-up that I like. All the old sketch stuff is from probably close to 10 years ago, really. That’s when I wrote it all. I prefer doing stand-up these days. That’s where my main focus is.

Since 2013, @midnight have given comedians like Ron Funches and Jen Kirkman a boost of sorts. Did your appearances influence Comedy Central’s decision to do Trust Me?

You know, that’s tough to speak to. I did two separate pilots with Comedy Central as well. We’ve been working together for a while. I also did a web series with them called Roustabout in which I jet skied from Chicago to New Orleans. So I’ve been working with Comedy Central for kind of a long time now. It seemed, to me at least, to be a natural next step.

Speaking of Roustabout, have you ridden a jet ski since?

No. [Laughs.] I’d like to, though. I would totally like to. I really fell in love with jet skiing, honestly. I dig it.

Why Portland? I don’t recall anyone filming a comedy special there recently.

I really love Portland. My record label Kill Rock Stars, where I released my first album, is in Portland. I’ve always had just a great time performing in Portland. And when I found out Comedy Central have never actually taped a special there, we were both kind of excited to do it.

How many shows did you record to put Trust Me together?

It was just one night and we did two shows. They both turned out really well but I think we took mostly from the second show, which I think is pretty typical. You know everything is in the can already, and you have something that works, so you can have more fun with it.

The version I saw was just over 50 minutes in length, but it looks like Comedy Central is putting out several iterations.

The runtime was like 60 minutes, and the online version you’ll be able to stream and download will be all of that. That comes out the day after the special airs. There’s really three versions: the one airing Friday night, which I think is 51 minutes, and then there’s another for subsequent airings that’s shorter. That one is 42 minutes, whereas the 51-minute version is a limited commercial interruption airing. Then the download to own is an hour long.

Your story about hearing, but not realizing you’d heard, a shooting at an Australian strip club reminded me of Jim Jefferies‘ famous bit about gun control. How long ago did that happen to you?

That’s a great bit. My brother’s a diplomat and he was stationed in Australia at the time. That must have been a long time ago. I’m assuming somewhere around, oh man… Hold on. Must have been like 12 or 13 years ago. It’s insane. That night, I left there not knowing anything and got on a plane. And then my brother called me after I landed and told me what had happened. I literally walked out of the strip club, got in a cab, went to the airport and left. I had no idea. I honestly didn’t think it was anything.

Have you returned to Australia since then?

Oh yeah, but I’ve never been back to Sydney. That was in Sydney. Every other time I was back, I was in Melbourne.

Honestly, I wasn’t expecting your sobering material on Eric Garner and white privilege toward the end. It’s really good, and you successfully focus on making the audience laugh while still discussing some pretty weighty subjects.

Good. I think that’s good because the idea of being… The reason I wanted to talk about what a lot of people call “white privilege,” is that when you’re a comedian, you really are focused on learning how to be funny. Learning how to tell jokes appropriately. And once you get to a point where you can tell jokes and make people laugh, there’s another level where you can use this platform for a purpose. I wrote all that stuff when the Eric Garner murder happened, and I wanted to talk about that stuff.

Considering Trust Me‘s first half, it was surprising to hear. Obviously in a good way.

I understand what you’re saying in that it’s surprising, because I think some of my jokes are considered “silly.” I don’t think they’re silly, per se, because I try to fight against that idea of being labeled as such. I think it’s more I’m obsessed with absurdity, and I think this dichotomy we have in society between how white people are treated and how everyone else is treated is one of the most absurd things ever. So I also have to be addressing that absurdity, that deeper level, if I’m also addressing these smaller, surface-level absurdities.

Though discussing gun violence and racism in Portland feels like preaching to the choir. Were there any shows where those subjects proved too much for the audience?

Doing this show in Texas, that part of the show gets tense. I’ve definitely done it in towns where that section gets tense and sometimes it sinks the rest of the show. I think that is, honestly, probably why it’s couched towards the end of the show. I was touring it so much. It’s difficult. You’re trying to balance saying something that you care about when, as a working comedian, you’ve been hired as an entertainer. I work clubs, rock venues and stuff like that — places where people are there just to be mean. In those instances I have license to do whatever I want, but when I’m working a club the majority of the people who come out are not there to see me. They’re just there to see comedy. So I’m sneaking this stuff in, and hopefully they buy into the fact it’s been funny so far so that if they don’t hold the same opinions as me, maybe I can get something in under the radar.

Any particularly tense shows stand out in your mind?

There was a show in Dallas that didn’t work very well. There was also a show in Buffalo that had a rough time with it. It would go back and forth. There’s also an element that, because it’s not what I talk about all the time — I’m not the kind of comedian who goes on stage and says we’re going to talk about injustice the whole time — I was learning how to do it. So a lot of the times it sunk the show, it was more my fault since I wasn’t super comfortable with my delivery. I would never blame an audience. I’ll always blame myself.

I’ve heard nothing but good things about Michael Showalter’s The Big Sick out of Sundance. What was that experience like?

It was great. Working on The Big Sick was so awesome. I was also the onset writer for it, so I was there every day of filming. It was really cool to not only act, but to pitch jokes to Holly Hunter. That was really my favorite. I would just make up Southern expressions that don’t exist and give them to her to say and she would say them on camera. It was very, very fulfilling. I loved being a part of that. I can’t wait for people to see it.

Kurt Braunohler: Trust Me premieres Friday, March 3 at midnight on Comedy Central.