Pretty Smart Guy: Matt Braunger on Stand-up and Big Dumb Animal

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If you watch television there’s a good chance you’ll recognize Matt Braunger. The guy pops up everywhere. He was on Chelsea Lately all the time, played the obnoxiously upbeat neighbor on that Will Arnett / Christina Applegate sitcom Up All Night that got retooled to death, and he apparently lives at the @Midnight studio because he’s on there like every single week. (He and Kurt Braunohler probably crash in Chris Hardwick’s dressing room.) His first love is stand-up, though, and his latest hour-long special Big Dumb Animal airs on Comedy Central tonight. Recently Braunger spoke to Paste about his career and the current comedy landscape, drawing parallels between the rise of storytelling in stand-up and the golden age of rap.

Paste: So Big Dumb Animal airs tonight. What can we expect?

Matt Braunger: This is the first time I really looked at an hour as a thematic thing. Like my last special I was really happy with and proud of, but it was kind of just, ‘here is something funny, and here’s something else funny that’s unrelated to that thing,’ and it was all over the place. I love stuff that’s all over the place too, but with this—I really got this great note last year from a friend. I was at kind of a low point, just in my personal life, you kind of always get low here and there, you know, you stare into the abyss, you know we’ve all been there. But the person was just like, ‘I think you’re really funny, but sometimes I see your act and I don’t get who you are. Like, I know who you are, but if a stranger saw your act they’d be like…who is that guy? I wish he would say more stuff about life.’ And I was like ‘oh, that’s a great note’ so I started just digging up old stories that I found funny but I never talked about, or like I started going to therapy at the time. So, it’s not like it’s a concept album, or a one man show, even worse. Everything is kind of coming from a real place. There’s a reason I’m saying it. It’s funnier than anything I’ve ever done, and for me that’s number one, you know.

Paste: Did you not think your life was good material earlier, or were you just uncomfortable being that honest on stage?

Braunger: I mean I didn’t think about it that way. I would just come up with observational humor, which is fine, but I like a good mix of stories and observational humor, and silliness. Like I don’t want to leave silly bullshit behind, I love that stuff too. It wasn’t a conscious thing. I think as your life goes on, you get more self-aware, and just more aware in general, and sometimes you know people need to get told stuff. You have this mental idea of how we are, and it’s usually right on track, but a lot of times its way off. So it’s just an interesting thing to get an outside perspective, and then kind of write comedy from my POV.

Paste: Talking about conceptions of who we are, most people don’t get to watch themselves on TV a lot. Does that help you when it comes to therapy or sort of trying to get to know yourself?

Braunger: No, you know the biggest…they say if you’re neurotic you blame yourself for everything, and if you have personality disorder you blame everybody else. I remember when I first came to LA and I was doing comedy but I had a day job and I was doing commercials and stuff, and a commercial came on while I was at home that I was in, and my first thought was ‘Oh, I know that asshole,’ and then it was like ‘Oh God that’s me.’ Like that’s an honest thing. It was an illuminating thing that made me laugh to no end. But like watching my comedy and stuff…editing the special was hell, because it’s awful to just watch yourself talk, and then choose the right angle or the right cut, or whatever.

Paste: You mentioned it’s a little more personal than some of your other material. It seems like the storytelling mode, which has always been a part of comedy, is more prevalent lately then it used to be. You have a lot of guys kind of just telling stories. Is that a sort of territory that you’ve moved into?

Braunger: It’s always something I’ve been into. It was kind of people’s favorite stuff of mine. I have a friend was like, ‘You should look up what your most popular, or your most downloaded joke is—you might be surprised,’ and I thought it was like the Clown Pub Crawl off the first album, or Owls off the second album, but it was Two Man Ghost Party off that album which was a true story about a friend and I, in our early twenties drunk at his moms house holding weapons exploring the house looking for a ghost that we thought was real. And it’s a funny story, but it’s also really scary, and it’s one of those things where people dig that kind of thing, you know. I think, I know that kind of Mike Birbiglia’s wheelhouse now, and I know that Kyle Kinane moved into story telling too. It’s almost like a natural progression. It’s like in early eighties to mid to late nineties, when rappers just like had to start getting better at rapping. Like everybody got amazing. Like the ones that weren’t the greats, it was like, well, better step it up! You know like, Too $hort started writing better rhymes. I think everybody loves a good story. And to me, comedians are kind of the best at it. It’s funny, I’ll watch like a storytelling show, there will be a comedian doing it, and the comedian will be trying to do bits, and people are like “Hey, cut it out. It’s okay, you’ll be funny, just tell the fucking story”.

Paste: You just mentioned Kyle Kinane. I interviewed him before his last Comedy Central special aired, and he mentioned how the comedy market’s so flooded right now, like he’s nervous the bubble’s gonna pop like any day now. Do you think there is too much comedy out there right?

Braunger: I wouldn’t say too much. I know a lot less people are afraid to do it than when I started. I think it’s just because people are putting up comedy shows everywhere and anywhere. I had to pick good or bad, I would say it’s good. The cream is always going to rise. The people who want the good stuff are always going to find the good stuff. It’s like what you call foodies, find the place that make the best tortillas, and we’re gonna find the best comedy coming from wherever.

People who are dedicated are the people who will stick it out. You know, Kyle and I have been doing this for like 15 years, and I was talking to a guy who has been in the game for a long time, kind of a big deal promoter that I’m friends with. We don’t really work together because I’m not Kevin Hart, but he was saying, ‘You’ve been doing this what, 15 years? You’re still kind of a baby then.’ And that made me laugh, because when I was starting out there were these people who were like ‘Yeah, I moved to New York for like 6 months and nothing happened.’ And it’s like, well, of course, dude, you have to give your life to this, really. Just like you should give your life to anything you love. Let’s make that a hallmark card.

I understand his concerns and his fears but, I’m not worried about Kyle at all. I might worry about myself here and there because I’m neurotic, but yeah, I don’t see it becoming that much of a problem. I mean it’s also because I’m a straight white male. There are a billion of me, you know? There’s so many straight white male comedians, and I’m still here. I’m not necessarily that worried. I’ve already had to kind of go uphill because there isn’t that much that makes—you’ve gotta find that thing, find your hook, find that thing that makes you stand out, and just because, not that it’s a burden, not like ‘no one’s ever had it harder than a straight white male,’ but like you know, in terms of comedy and what not, there’s just too many of us. All you can do is hustle, I guess.

Paste: Speaking of hustling, you’ve done a ton of stuff. I see you on sitcoms and commercials and @Midnight all the time. When people recognize you, what do they tend to recognize you for?

Braunger: It varies. I feel like I’m the kind of recognizability level that’s like you don’t know if you saw me on something, or we went to high school together. That’s my thing right now. Lately it’s been @Midnight, for a while it was Chelsea Lately, definitely my last special, and oh, probably number one sometimes is a show called Up All Night, on NBC with Will Arnett and Christina Applegate, where I was basically asshole Ned Flanders. That was a big one because it was a pretty popular show for people with young kids that still want to party, which I think is a lot of us.

Paste: What do you like doing best, like when it comes to all the different forms of comedy?

Braunger: If I had to pick one I’d have to go with stand-up, but you can’t beat it when you get to have a playmate, you know, have someone that you have scene with, and you get to try the lines different ways. If you’re lucky you get to improvise a little, but I also really love writing too. I mean, I’ve got this digital project that at Comedy Central right now, they just announced it. It’s me and Kevin Avery, we just wrote a thing about the year 2042, the year that white ceases to be like the majority in America, and basically this guy named Dan, who’s kind of like Wal-Mart meets Facebook, who now like owns all of America, he teleports all white people into Canada, and renames it the new United States. But he leaves a white person behind every 25 miles as a publicity thing, like, ‘We’re not leaving you behind, here’s an emissary’. And so overnight this guy is the one white guy in all of Los Angeles. That just got announced so I can finally talk about it now, but I wrote that with Kevin Avery who writes on Last Week Tonight and wrote on Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, and it’s just been the most fun collaboration ever, just working in this weird world that I came up with, and making it into a really funny show. Just so psyched as shit for that.

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