Plenty of voices in comedy have a sniper-like approach to hyper-specific themes, but sometimes the best tool for the job is a big, dumb hammer. That’s where Matt Braunger comes in. Not that his comedy should be considered unfocused. But he clearly sees himself as a blunt weapon and also would probably self-describe as a tool. The autobiographical journey of someone who intentionally starts from a place of such intentional low status will never cease to delight me.
Braunger experiences the world in a constant state of second hand deja vu: no one can place whether they know him from high school or from seeing him on television. To be fair, he’s been in a single episode of dozens of TV shows. Also, maybe he was in high school with you? It’s impossible to tell, really. Maybe Matt Braunger has the vibe of someone we all went to high school with. You catch back up with him more than a decade later and there have been lows and highs and other lows and he’s just trying to fill you in on the whole journey over a couple of beers.
That’s how I first met him. I cornered him at a party in 2010 and complimented him on his new special and wouldn’t let him go because I was a creepy fan. And then, when he saw an opening, he stuck around to tell me stories and maybe refilled my drink for me? Even if you’ve never shared his space, the same energy comes off all his material. His newest special Finally Live In Portland sees him return to his hometown to regain his former glory and regale you with tragedy as only a drinking buddy could. Braunger recently talked to me about his special, Portland, and his career.
Paste: Why did it take so long to do a special in Portland?
Matt Braunger: The actual planning for the special came together real quick. I had this hour that was, so to speak, burning a hole in my pocket. It was the last year of the Bridgetown Festival and I figured I would shoot it in Portland and hire locals and produce it myself with my management. We found a nice two night opening and I hired a director. And I hired my childhood friend Brian to be the DP. We shot it and after that we had an editor who mostly does concert films edit it. He’s never done comedy before but it’s a very similar skillset. It’s just about timing.
Paste: Was it an active choice to film in a former pornographic theater or was every venue in Portland, at one time or another, a pornographic theater?
Braunger: Good question. It was one of those theaters where, growing up, I saw naughty titles on the marquee. Or the name of punk rock bands. I was scared of it as a kid. There were certain places that, on the playground, we would tell stories about. Like kids do. “I heard this one guy took a dump on stage and another guy ate it.” “No way.” “Yes, really. Doug’s older brother told me.”
Paste: You come out of the gate in this special attacking the alt-right. Being from Portland, how much of this have you had to experience in person? What’s the arc for that looked like to you? Did you see all of this coming?
Braunger: It would be easy to call it a microcosm. Anyone who has really lived in Portland isn’t that surprised by the alt-right. You’ll find a lot of extremist leanings up there but it’s in little pockets. It’s certainly not most people. But you’ll find white people who feel disenfranchised who have been wildly mislead by people that stand to benefit from doing so. I had sorta friends in high school who suddenly started espousing Nazi/Skinhead views and it’s all because of this guy named [Tom] Metzger. He had this compound where you could go and hangout and party. If you’ve seen American History X it was just like that. Guys were flashing KKK symbols in my yearbook. We didn’t see normalcy coming, except for the fact that we’ve known that’s what they’ve always been angling toward. That’s why I have the bit in my special that I don’t care what you say first, if the second thing you say is “I’m racist.” No. I’m done. When that guy stabbed people on the Light Rail that was awful. But these groups have a narrative that doesn’t fit into modern truth. It’s a shitty, devilish tool. People with mental illness latch onto that. This feels like a tangent because this isn’t the focus of my special. It’s just something I brought up on stage.
Paste: I don’t mean to deviate from the special but I felt like this was worth bringing up because… when I’m doing stand-up on the road, sometimes a person will express that they’re a fan of my comedy and then say something Mega-Racist and my first question is “Okay, what possible thing did I put out there that makes you feel like I align with your beliefs in any way. Because if I have, I need to remedy it immediately….”
Braunger: Wait. This is Brock right? Hi dude.
Paste: Hi! So this is a much bigger version of that for you, because for two decades now I think you’re inextricably linked to the city of Portland. So you must have an exaggerated version of that version of a comedy responsibility for your audience. In a city where such viewpoints can thrive, you must have fans that are much more threatening versions of this awful ideology that you would never consider yourself to be linked with.
Braunger: I really hope and believe that the kind of crowds I bring in know that I’m a big ‘ole stinking lefty. But people do reach out online and say “You just don’t get it man!” Oregon was created originally as a white state. There will always be people that feel comfortable, not only just in the presence of other whites, but in the company of people who think just like them. Thankfully, it’s also a place that nurtures the arts. But this element will always be there. I remember being a kid and seeing skinheads and asking my mom, “I thought we were done with this?” So my mom said, “It never goes away. We just have to always fight against it.” That was so depressing as a kid. Why don’t people learn?
Paste: Are you worried about repercussions from The Gin Blossoms fandom for your joke about how that band represent maximum white privilege?
Braunger: I welcome it. I don’t have anything against the band, but I thought about the lyric “Tomorrow we can drive around this town / And let the cops chase us around ” and how no black person could ever say that. That’s a massive level of white privilege.
Paste: You and your wife have a journey that’s been documented across the course of your last few specials where she went from partner to ex to manager to fiancee? I’d love to hear about that but also I have to know: how do you do most of a stand-up special about an ex and have them say, “Yeah I wanna spend more time with this person. I love it when his job is sharing our dirty laundry.”
Braunger: Well, she hadn’t seen my special Big Dumb Animal but she has such a thick skin. She was like “Oh wow that whole thing is about me” and I tried to deny it but, you know, yes. Yes it is. And this new one has so much of her in it. I don’t work on material based on her but yes, she gives me so much just through our shared experiences. We dated while we were working together, which crosses lines you shouldn’t cross. I wasn’t the best person. I always had one foot out the door. And then we broke up and I was miserable for a year. We got together again, but we were no longer working together. That was the secret sauce. We got married a year ago. My latest hour has a lot of her too. People will ask “Hey, is that the same woman…” and I’m like “Yup. Same woman on both specials.”
Paste: As a fellow gigantic man, how many bits have you had to go through over the year about our secret brotherhood? And the glances we share across rooms?
Braunger: There’s a bit on the new special about not being able to navigate another gigantic man. I had Steve Agee on my podcast yesterday, and I feel like he and myself and Pete Holmes and yourself… we’re descended from a larger species before Neanderthals that existed and were more docile but got killed off by all the Neanderthals because we were too friendly and that is us. We’re not giant war-like men. We just want to get along with everyone. We were probably crackin’ jokes and then we just wound up full of spears. Everyone else looked at us and thought “Wow, they’re so big and we can cut so much meat off their dead carcasses.”
Paste: There’s a lot of nonsense going on in the world of improv right now, especially at UCB. You studied under Del Close in Chicago. I know that’s not really your jam anymore but do you have any perspective on what improv should be right now, or perhaps where the industry started going off the rails?
Braunger: Improvisers should be paid something. There’s more than the carrot and the stick of “We’re all family.” It’s hard to say who people are coming to see, etc. I don’t know what the answer is. When I did improv I was just so happy to be on stage. But we also had a guy show up once at iO Chicago and say he was a Big Producer and he had a list of people he wanted to see audition. And the people who weren’t on that list were despondent. In Chicago it was either you had an SNL audition or you had nothing. Everyone was so thirsty. I hope people have more perspective now.
Paste: Tell me about [the podcast] Advice from a Dipshit with Matt Braunger.
Braunger: Amanda, my producer, picks good calls for me. Anyone can call in. And Amanda picks calls that she thinks would be good for the show. The majority of the calls I don’t hear. The best calls are… probably my favorite was a trans woman named Sally who called and was frustrated about her town not recognizing who she was and she needed some sanity. The next time she called she was in a punk rock band and was active in politics and was just a firecracker of a person. She drove to a show I did and I got to meet her. That was my favorite. The worst calls are when someone calls for advice but when they tell their story they just leave gaping holes in the information. “I like this girl but I don’t know if she likes me. She says I’m weird. What should I do?” Ok, well did you do something? What were your actions? What was the history here? What do you like about her? Did you do something to scare this woman?
Paste: Is there any chance for your character from Agent Carter to be resurrected in the MCU?
Braunger: That was such a fun role because the writers had so much fun with me. It’s so fun to be the dipshit in a serious show. I’ll always have that. I’d love to come back on some level. I’m suited up and ready to go. I’ll gain the weight back that I had in 2015.
Matt Braunger’s Finally Live In Portland is out now on iTunes, Google Play, Amazon Prime, Microsoft, Steam, and Vimeo.
Brock Wilbur is a writer and comedian from Los Angeles who lives with his wife Vivian Kane and their cat, Cat. He is the co-author (with Nathan Rabin) of the forthcoming book Postal for the Boss Fight Books series.