Talking with Kurt Braunohler About ‘Bunk,’ Complimenting Nazis, and Creepy Game Show Hosts
What happens when you take a game show, get rid of all the rules, and bring in a bunch of funny comedians, disturbing challenges (Shame That Puppy, Break the News to a 5-Year-Old), dancing chickens and rabbis, and the impressively tall improviser/comedian Kurt Braunohler as host? Since only two episodes of Bunk have aired on IFC, only time will tell what this bizarre parody game show world will do for the channel’s burgeoning comedy lineup, but in the meantime, I got a chance to talk with Braunohler — who’s already known as an improv teacher and performer, standup comedian, writer, animal expert, and the “Kurt” part of weekly comedy show Hot Tub with Kurt and Kristen — about the creation of Bunk, what it’s like to transition from hosting live to taped comedy shows, and his newest guerilla comedy project, coming soon to a pharmacy near you.
So how do you define Bunk?
It’s a comedy game show where each week three comedians compete, and all of the challenges don’t really make sense or have answers. They’re just kind of a jumping off point for us to screw around and be funny.
You’ve mentioned in other interviews that you and Ethan T. Berlin — who created Bunk with Eric Bryant — wrote for another show that wasn’t the best experience for you two. Can you tell me more about that, and how it led to the creation of Bunk?
It was actually for a pilot we were writing for another network, and we were just in this really tiny tiny office barely wide enough for us to sit down, and we were there for just a few weeks writing ideas. It was just frustrating — it was the normal writer’s feeling you get where you throw so many ideas at them, and the ones that get picked are sometimes not the ones you think are the funniest. And the reason I think that Bunk came about was that a lot of times, the reason the funniest ideas didn’t get picked was that they weren’t legal — because of the legality of actual game shows. If it’s a real game show, there are a lot of specific rules about what you can and can’t do, so if you get rid of the “actual game show” element but keep it a game show, you can do whatever you want.
What kind of rules do “actual game shows” have to follow?
The main problem is that they have to be on some level verifiable, and you have to have a lawyer on board to verify what’s verifiable and what’s not verifiable. The legality of game shows is just very boring, really. What was interesting was when we were workshopping Bunk, we found out that any question that could be verifiable wasn’t funny anyway. So that totally worked for us. All of the questions don’t have answers — we just want to use questions that make us laugh.
How did workshopping Bunk go? How long did you perform it as a live show before taping it?
We worked it as a live show a lot. We’ve done so many workshops for this show… [laughs] …like, innumerable. Which was kind of a cool thing, because we were applying almost a standup affect to the show. Because a standup will always try out all of his material first, and then when he goes on air with his jokes, he knows they work. And that’s what we did with all of the challenges — we’d just go up with different comedians and run them in front of a live audience to see which challenges had the most potential for success and which ones didn’t work.
So far, what have you learned are the secrets to being an awesome game show host? And do you look up to any for inspiration?
I’d say what I’ve learned so far is that it’s a much easier job if you’re drunk. And I’d say Richard Dawson, the old host of Family Feud, is probably the guy I look up to the most, just because he’d molest all the female contestants in a super creepy way.
Creepiness is a needed quality in a good game show host, I think.
It’s part of the skill set. And there’s such a level of creepiness to the whole thing, because you’re an adult, and your job is to run a game. You’re running games for adults. That’s weird already. And people are really excited to play your game.
What are some of your favorite challenges on Bunk?
I think one of my favorites is one that actually got cut, we didn’t even shoot it…which was Compliment That Nazi. We’d just show photos of Nazis and each contestant would have to give them a genuine compliment.
Was that ever worked onstage, or was it just an idea?
Yeah, that was actually in our first pilot.
If you could air any challenge without worrying about whether or not it’ll get cut, what would it be?
[laughs] The thing about that too is that IFC was really great about giving us a lot of control! And so we went pretty far with the show, which is really exciting to be able to do. But yeah, I would definitely air Compliment That Nazi.
How much of Bunk is improvised versus scripted?
It’s all improvised, 100%. The people who are competing know the name of the challenge but they don’t know what they’re going to be doing as far as the images or items and stuff like that.
What’s it like to improvise in a show taping structure where you sometimes have to shoot more than one take?
During our tapings, there was a very limited number of times where we reshot challenges, and we only reshot challenges if there was like a corporate logo or something being used and we were worried about legally being able to use it. But for the most part, almost every single episode we did was just the first take, which I really like. The exciting thing of the show I think is just having the person open their mouth and whatever’s right there comes out and then we get to play with it. Like they just birthed this horrible baby and now we have to bring it to life together.
How would you compare hosting a live show as a duo with Kristen Schaal to hosting a taped show solo?
They’re two totally different skills. When I’m hosting with Kristen, our main job is to be listening to the other person so that we can improvise and respond to what they say and keep jumping off that point where the other person gets a laugh. And when I’m hosting on my own, my job is really to exude a sense of authority, but also the vulnerability and openness too so that I can kind of be… actually, you know what? Now that I say it, hosting Bunk is a lot like hosting with Kristen, because my job is literally to listen to their answers and be as open as possible to finding new ways of thinking about it and talking about it and making it funnier.
I’d never heard of Ethan T. Berlin before watching Bunk, so he was a nice discovery. Who is he?
I think Ethan is the hidden gem of the show, and it’s really cool because you watch the show and you’re like ‘This guy is really funny,’ and then you find out he helped create the show and you’re like ‘Ooooh, okay,’ you know? And he’s been a writer for a very, very long time in television — he helped write on Da Ali G Show, he’s written for a number of late night talk shows, and then he got into taking improv classes maybe four or five years ago. That’s how I originally met him actually — I was coaching one of his improv groups, and then soon after that, I got hired by this production company to be a writer on their game show, and Ethan was the other writer so we became friends there. I think he thought of Bunk through the experiences he had writing for the game show and also doing improv. And his character on the show is very much an extension of who he is and how he acts — he’s very dour — but he’s playing a character, and I love that character. It’s fun to play with too, because it’s such a balance to everyone else on the show because we generally chose people who are positive and high energy. And Ethan has such an Eeyore, kind of Ziggy perspective.
I know you’ve addressed the fact that Bunk‘s first season is a little short on the ladies, so I thought I’d propose that next season have only female contestants, with Ethan being the only exception.
I agree 100%. It’s so funny too because Eliza Skinner was in the first pilot and Kristen Schaal was in the second, so we always had a lady involved, and when we started shooting, every single lady we asked was in LA for pilot season. We asked so many. Except for Kristen, who was shooting a movie in Puerto Rico, so it was like every single person we wanted was in LA. But we did get Alison Rich, an improviser in New York who’s kind of new, as well as Alex Borstein from Family Guy and Nicole Parker from MADtv.
Do you hope to use Bunk as a venue for both new and established comedians?
I really like the fact that Bunk can support that, because there aren’t a lot of ways for people who are newer in comedy to get airtime, especially in New York City. I think it’s really important that Bunk is shot in New York, because there’s so few comedies shot out here. Whereas in LA, it’s like every comedy is shot out there, and we have 30 Rock and that’s pretty much it. Also, there’s the fact that we can expose new talent, like there’s this guy Michael Che who’s an up-and-coming standup who just killed it on the show. And when people see him, they’re going to be excited about seeing something new like that.
Looking forward to it! Okay, one last question, not Bunk-related: I’ve been following your new greeting card project. What gave you the idea to start that?
I’d been doing this thing years ago where I’d go into Barnes and Noble and go and take books and then sign them as if they were from the author, like with an inscription that was super stupid and essentially a joke, and I put them back on the shelf. I did that for a little while then kind of stopped and forgot about the project, and then I started rethinking it recently because of Scott Moran, who’s a comedian in New York doing this new web series that’s all about comedians and the things that comedians are obsessed about. And my thing was that I really wanted to find a way to be able to insert random absurdity into strangers’ lives. Like that’s the one way I think I can make the world better — I can’t do anything else, but if I can do something stupid for someone who’s not expecting something stupid, maybe I can snap them out of their miserable life for a second to take in the fact that life is just kind of a big joke on us. So I had written a whole bunch more inscriptions from authors in the books, and while I was doing that I figured I should do this greeting card thing. I went and bought a whole bunch of greeting cards, signed all of them, showed everybody at Hot Tub, and then the next day Scott came and videotaped me putting them back in the CVS where I bought them. Then we went to Barnes and Noble after that and I signed a whole bunch of books from the authors, and he videotaped that as well. That’ll be coming out as a video soon. And I’m just going to continue doing the greeting card project. I’m in Chicago right now, so I’m going to go tomorrow and buy a whole bunch of greeting cards. I want it to be a continuing running thing.
A lifelong project?
Yeah. I think so.
Bunk‘s second episode airs tonight at 10:30 on IFC right after Comedy Bang! Bang!
Megh Wright misses Harrisburg, lives in Brooklyn, and answers phones in Manhattan.