About two-thirds of the way through Trust Me, Kurt Braunohler’s first stand-up special, the 41-year-old comic does something unusual for him: he pivots into some social commentary.
To drive home his point about how good he has it being a straight white male in America, he uses the glaring hypocrisy of how Dylann Roof was given a bulletproof vest to wear after being arrested for killing nine black parishioners in a South Carolina church, while Eric Garner was choked to death as he was arrested for selling loose cigarettes on a Staten Island street corner. And all this right before encouraging his fellow tall white guys to say and do stupid harmless things like telling people that cats invented parkour to help undermine the authority granted to all tall white guys.
It wouldn’t be quite so noticeable if it wasn’t so unusual for Braunohler, whose best known bits prior to Trust Me include his childhood penchant for masturbating using McDonald’s fruit pies and encouraging people to yell, “Nothing but net!” after they fart.
“I am, in my personal life, very political,” Braunohler says, speaking from his home in L.A. “I always have been even from a young age, but in my stand-up, I never was. It was always because I was obsessed with jokes. This was an attempt to be a little more vulnerable on stage and talk about stuff that I actually care about. I’m actually trying to say something aside from making you laugh.”
Trust Me, then, is a marker of a comedian in transition, a signpost that he is gearing up to take his talents to an entirely new level that, yes, involves making jokes, but also being more truthful and revealing about himself. And it couldn’t come at a better time. Not only because Braunohler is about to become a dad for the first time, but also because he’s about to jump to an entirely new level this year.
Next month will see the release of Wedlock, a new audio series produced by Audible where Braunohler and his wife Lauren Cook explore the various wrinkles of married life through interviews (including a chat with a man who stayed in his 20+ year marriage after his wife decided to become a man) and adventures like spending a day in a nudist camp. A few months later The Big Sick, the Judd Apatow-produced comedy starring Kumail Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan that was the talk of Sundance this year, will be in theaters. Braunohler found himself on both sides of the camera, scoring a major role in the film and working as the on-set writer, pitching jokes to the cast during the production.
It’s not as if he’s been languishing in the shadows before now, though. The New Jersey native has been building a firm foundation for his career to stand on since the late ‘90s where he was a fixture of the thriving improv scene in the Big Apple. His work in the years since has been a mixed media affair, including video, his long-running variety show Hot Tub that he co-hosts with Bob’s Burgers/The Last Man on Earth star Kristen Schaal, and stand-up.
Nearly all of it, even his short stint as the host of the improvised game show Bunk that ran for one season on Sundance, mixed high concept ideas with smart and sometimes lowbrow humor. Like one of the best bits from his first comedy album How Do I Land? where he dramatically eats “the saddest snack” (a hard-boiled egg bought at a gas station) and reads tweets from his account that didn’t get any likes. Or his absurdist idea to raise money for Heifer International by jet-skiing the length of the Mississippi River, a journey that he captured in his Comedy Central series Roustabout.
He clearly hasn’t given up completely on that kind of humor yet. The end of Trust Me is a tour-de-force joke about beavers that culminates in the kind of big ending that [spoiler alert] includes dancers in costumes and streamers. What Braunohler wants to do though is keep pushing himself and the format of a stage show. One element of the taping for this comedy special that didn’t make the final cut involved an off-stage camera that he would address directly, providing a commentary track for his stand-up.
While he still hasn’t given up on using that idea, his concentration now is on continuing to push his stand-up into more personal territory. He’s already working on his next hour of material that he says will, in part, discuss the death of his mother and, the day after the funeral, learning that his wife was pregnant.
“This will be the first time that I’m working from the idea of what it’s going to be about as opposed to writing a bunch of jokes and pushing them together and finding a way for them to fit,” Braunohler says. “Ideally, I want every section or joke to have a purpose in addition to being funny. The purpose is for you to laugh but if you walk away with something that’s not just a joke, it feels like more of a full meal that way.”
Trust Me premieres on Comedy Central tonight at midnight.
Robert Ham is an arts and culture journalist based in Portland, OR. Read more of his work here and follow him on Twitter.