Making the Audience See Through Your Eyes with Matt Braunger
At 40, Matt Braunger has found the comedic balance of youth and wisdom. In his newest hour special, Big Dumb Animal, he jokes about trying to keep up with his younger friends’ partying habits and Jagerbombs, but it’s also his most personal work yet. Big Dumb Animal follows Matt’s debut album Soak Up the Night in 2009 and his first hour special Shovel Fighter in 2012. It premieres on Comedy Central Feb. 6, this Friday, at midnight. And don’t let the title fool you: despite his stature, Matt is full of insightful musings, both in his new special and in conversation.
When we talked, Matt shared his advice for young comedians plus his thoughts on panel shows and the vinyl shortage facing our nation.
Big Dumb Animal: how’d you come up with the title?
Because I am one. It was just kind of a thing of me looking at my life and looking at mistakes that I’ve made. I’m not necessarily a stupid person, but I’ve done a lot of stupid things — actions define us obviously. I’m making fun of where I’m at and it also passed the test of how I try to name stuff lately, is if it makes somebody laugh. Or if there’s a picture where I’m like, “Should I use this for the promo?” and they laugh I’ll go, “Okay great.” My last record was called Shovel Fighter and that was just based on one of my jokes. But it was something someone would look at it and go, “I don’t know what the hell that is.” It doesn’t say anything about who I am. It was a joke about what would be the worst possible job to work. Like when people talk about their old jobs they’re like, “I worked the worst job.” No, not really. Not compared to third world workers in a grape field. So I was just making fun of that. This is I just say it, and people laugh and I’m like, “Okay good.”
Seeing the album art for Shovel Fighter you have no idea how horrible it actually is.
Exactly. Totally. With this cover I shot with Robyn Von Swank and it’s me and a big taxidermied bear and a wolverine, and we’re all kind of huddling in this giant valley. It’s great. You get it: okay, that guy should be taxidermied in a museum of natural history as a giant idiot. It helps that I am enormous. I think that people do obviously notice that about you when you’re that way. You’re born to be clumsy and born to be kind of a galoot, bumping into things and stuff like that. A lot of it’s not necessarily my fault.
You taped at the Bell House in Brooklyn back in June. Why did you decide to film it there?
Nobody really knew that I was interested in doing another special but I had way more than an hour that I wanted to get out there. I contacted New Wave who did it for me and they had one spot left for the whole year in June, everything else was booked. I was like, okay, that’s kind of soon. This was maybe May. But I was like, “You know what, it’s one of those things, it’s just jokes, just do it.” But when they said it was at the Bell House in Brooklyn, I was like, “Yeah, awesome.” That’s my favorite place to do comedy of all time. I love it. It should be called the elegant lumberjack. It looks like where Dracula got married, with bone antlers and chandeliers and dark wood, it’s so great.
Do you feel pretty removed from it now or have you been in the editing process for a while?
Yeah, the editing process took a while. They had to clear a couple other specials before mine and stuff. I mean, I’m still connected to it. The only thing is I watch it and go oh man I could do all those jokes so much better now. I did do them great in the special, it’s just that hindsight’s 20/20 and comedians are neurotic. We are how we are. It’s funny, my therapist said to me: “Well, you’re a comedian so you’re neurotic.” He said it matter-of-fact, that’s what you are. Five years ago I might have been like, “Fuck you man,” but it’s so true.
It’s your second special after 2012’s Shovel Fighter. Was there anything you took away from that you knew you wanted to do the same or differently? Did it affect how you approached this one?
Oh yeah, absolutely. I really loved Shovel Fighter and think it’s funny but it’s incredibly disjointed. It doesn’t have any real coherent theme. It just goes from here’s something funny to here’s something funny to here’s something funny. Not that this new special is a concept album or something pretentious like that or a one-man show, even worse. But there’s a reason I tell the jokes I do, and there’s a bit of a progression. Near the end I get into a real dark part of my life that actually became hilarious. I originally was going to lead with that and a friend was like, “No no no, don’t lead with that super dark story.” The beginning and end, there’s much more of a coherent theme and you know why I’m telling the stories and jokes I am rather than just hey I thought of something funny.
Shovel Fighter had a lot of material about the difference between men and women or observational stuff and it sounds like this is more personal?
Yeah, there definitely is observational stuff but even observational stuff is from my own experience. I don’t make a lot of blanket statements. I have a bit, the darker one, about how my therapist couldn’t meet me the week of this really rough breakup so he and I met in a mall. I went in a food court and I saw him and just started crying. I have a side note about how men will almost injure themselves to not cry. Like we will make every muscle in our heads flex like, “Don’t cry. Be a man.” Whereas I feel like women are a little stronger and will just cry and be like, “Fuck you I’m crying.” I can tell that story because I had that observation because I was crying. It’s not [hokey voice] “We all know how men are… women.”
Over the summer I talked to a bunch of guys who had just done their half-hour specials, and compared to them you’ve been in comedy for a relatively long time. Where do you look for new ideas and how do you work on keeping material fresh or not repeating yourself?
You’ve got to look at your own perspective. “Does this sound like me?” is really all it is. Interestingly enough, a few of those people doing half hours, I was surprised they didn’t get full hours. I think Comedy Central made a decision to really vet who was doing half hours. I hate my half hour. I don’t think it’s terrible, but at the same time, it’s edited a little weird. It’s one of those things where if I was ten years younger I don’t know if I would get a half hour. I don’t know, maybe, probably. It’s awesome: I was really knocked out by how good they were for the most part.
But to answer your question, all you can do is keep going up as often as you can and don’t be afraid to fail. I think the minute you look at it as like “Oh, I’ve been doing it a while, I got this” then you’re kind of fucked up. I’m lucky that I kind of keep a childlike frame of mind. That doesn’t help me in a lot of other ways, I’m underdeveloped as a man, but as far as things being interesting and weird, you always have to somewhat delight in the process. I love it when a joke works. It’s not just some hack bullshit.
If you had to choose one thing about the special that you’re most excited about, what would it be?
Ooh boy… Not that I took it for granted doing an hour last time, but in my mind I kind of thought you just put all your fun stuff together, do an hour, and just leave. With this, I really worked on the order. With my first album and my second album I thought more about the name and the cover. I wanted to make it look like a rock album and have a rock album name, which was fun. The first album I’m kind of making fun of the whole comedian as rock star. It’s an absurd notion. The second one I was like, “Oh, I’ll make another rock album cover thing.” I didn’t think about the most important thing, which was “Are you doing the material you want to do? Does it make sense to who you are in your life right now?”
I always say to young comedians a big part of a comedian’s job is to make the audience see things through their eyes. It’s the same with great art. If I see a movie I want to see the director’s vision, I want to see what the actor made of the character. If I look at a painting, I want to see why its that painter’s painting. You don’t see the forest from the trees a lot of times. I’m most proud of this microcosm of who I am. I talk about how old I am, this awful experience I went through, struggles and what that meant to me, why I should never get drunk and then get high, why the age 39 is so much lamer to me than the age of 40. Little things that I’ve been thinking about, where I went okay, I’m going to tell this story because this is me.
That’s great advice.
Are there plans to make a physical copy of the album?
It’s going to be on vinyl. I think the vinyl will come out in a month or two. Here’s the irony: when I did my first album in 2009, you couldn’t find vinyl factories. There were only like four in the country. But now that vinyl’s so hot they’re all booked solid forever. We were like ok, “We need vinyl,” and they were like, “All the bands want vinyl, we’ll get it to you in February or whatever.” Isn’t that crazy?
You were a frequent panelist on Chelsea Lately for five years. Now that the show’s over, have you reflected back on it at all?
It was one of those things that I did and it was fun at first, but then I did it to be a better joke writer. I was always writing about stuff that I would never write about. I would have to look up who people we were talking about were. I don’t pay attention to all that jazz, it’s not my world really, but it’s good to get outside your comfort zone. That said, near the end I was fine with it being over. Not that I didn’t enjoy it anymore, but I was just ready to do something else. They’d always been good to me, so I didn’t want to be like, “I’m done.” I think she felt like it was time to go, and I was like, “Yep, I’m good.” Now I do a show called @midnight with almost the same regularity, and it’s so fun. We get to play with each other and it’s just kind of a free-for-all. That is the thing I learned from doing Chelsea Lately, that I can do panel shows and I know to dick around. I know to mess around and fill the space. I’m never going to step on someone else, that’s why I call it playing around because we’re all like children, doing an improv show and letting everyone have their say, but at the same time, if you think of something funny, you say it. It’s like keeping the ball in the air. I’ve been on panel shows just in development where they’ll bring me in sometimes and go, “What would you do with this show?” It’s fun.
That’s a cool way to think about panel shows, as writing practice.
Yeah, for sure. Especially when you’re on a panel show like Chelsea Lately where it’s like “What? Who is this guy? A reality show? What show is that?” I have a girlfriend; I know what all the reality shows are. I’m not one of those guys who’s like, “I’m so cool I don’t know what’s on Bravo.” No, I get it. I’ve seen all those shows, but at the same time it’s like this person is already a parody of themselves. How do we make fun of this person? That’s why I always try to say, give me a fact, rather than like, let me make fun of this person who has an obvious drug addiction or whatever. I don’t know this person. If there was a comic I personally knew who was constantly being busted for having a bag of coke in his pocket at the airport, I would rip him to shreds, absolutely. But we’re friends.
When we last talked to you in August 2013, you had just finished a screenplay and were also developing a show with J.D. Ryznar. Any updates on those? Do you have other projects you’re working on now?
We put the show out, J.D. and I, and it didn’t land, but I’d love to work with him again. We did an interim over the summer, a Bob Seger musical at The Satellite which was a lot of fun. It had Kyle Kinane in it at Mike Burns and Tim Heidecker. A completely made-up history of Bob Seger with all the songs. Then the screenplay’s still out there. It’s just about getting someone famous to back it up and get it cast. It’s a hard world out there, especially for a comedy.
Right now in the area of things that are happening, I’ve got a web series that I made at Comedy Central with Kevin Avery who writes for Last Week Tonight and wrote for Totally Biased. He’s a really funny Bay Area comedian. It’s basically a futuristic comedy starring me. I don’t want to give too much away because there’s going to be a press release soon. There’s that and I’m taking out two other projects to pitch. The digital series is a big thing right now and I’m also doing the podcast at Nerdist, Ding-Donger with Matt Braunger, which I’ve been doing for a while. How I got into podcasts was being a comic on the road and listening to them for company, as sad as that sounds. So I wanted this thing to be me hitchhiking along with you where I jump into your iPod or car or whatever you listen to podcasts on and I just talk for a half hour and then I jump out. It’s like a thing you pop off anytime you want to have a guy in the front seat with you just yammering and hopefully being funny. It’s a little like Bill Burr’s podcast or Greg Proop’s podcast where it’s standup-ish. I definitely write stuff for it every week.
Do you find some of that making its way into your act?
Oh for sure. It’s a good way to develop it. I learned that from Pete Holmes. When he was interviewing me we would riff and he would write stuff down. I was like, “This is great, you get ideas from this.” There’s a lot less pressure. If I was doing straight-up standup on this podcast it would be insufferable. So I’m just talking about the things that made me angry that week, or something that was fun but weird or what have you. So yes, to answer your question, it absolutely has helped me develop stuff.