Matt Braunger has had the deep respect of his LA and Chicago comedy scene contemporaries for years. But thankfully, with a powerful, albeit brief stint on MadTV, a new album on Comedy Central Records and a robust tour schedule, the Oregon native has become a national hit.
Go ahead, try not to laugh at Matt Braunger. We dare you. Watch his rubber face bend around the room and back again, listen to his fully-invested bits fly out with such gusto they leave sweat on his brow, feel his anger rise as he posits that Billy Joel’s famous “Piano Man” is actually a self-involved asshole. (“Man, what are you doing here?” is the money shot line.)
Braunger, who studied theater in New York and improv in Chicago, has established himself as one of the most versatile comedians on the market. He was voted best of the fest at last year’s Aspen Rooftop Comedy and this weekend is scheduled to perform at Bumbershoot in Seattle along with Reggie Watts and Todd Barry. His new digital album, Soak Up The Night, released by Comedy Central Records, is a carnival ride of absurdity, the kind of finely crafted comedic blueprint that only a true disciple of the art could pull off. Here, he chats with Punchline Magazine about paying his dues, his short-lived run on MadTV and what he could really use a federal stimulus package for.
What’s a perk of the comedian lifestyle that people don’t know about?
Our lives as comedians are so different. The other weekend I had someone yell one of my bits at me from across an IKEA. I’ve been illegally filming an Internet show called IKEA Heights with my friend David Seger in an IKEA. It’s a soap opera where I play a homicide detective. We use the beds and desks at IKEA as the set, like that’s where we live. The best part is when people in the back look at us like we’re crazy while I’m yelling in the phone about how we can’t let the killer loose.
So yeah, someone was yelling one of my bits across the IKEA at me, then they ran over and shook my hand. It was a couple I’d never met in my life. I was like, ‘Hey, thanks, I appreciate it, but we’re actually doing something they’re not supposed to know about, so I just blew any shot at being inconspicuous.’ I don’t know if that’s a perk. I don’t get any of the, ‘Oh here, you should sleep with my cousin’ perks, and I don’t get any freebies from the IKEA people.
Have you ever shot in a location like that before?
The second thing I shot for MadTV was a thing where I was a reporter who didn’t think he was reporting that day and had a couple drinks at lunch, then got called to do a man on the street interview. So people thought I was a reporter who was actually really fucked up trying to hold it in. I was saying inappropriate stuff and pushing the mic into people’s mouths and audibly hearing it hit their lips. I normally hate doing prank stuff. I don’t mind if I look stupid but I hate making other people feel self-conscious. But when we were pulling guys aside to have them sign the release form and they were saying, ‘He’s messed up, man. Get him some water and drive him home, he’s really trashed,’ I was like, ‘Good, my acting training has paid off.’
You mention on your album starting out in dive bars. What was your most hellish gig?
I did about an hour in a bar in the woods of Oregon for nine tree farmers and loggers. I remember walking in and going, ‘This is death.’ But it actually was fine. I gave them a signed headshot and they hung it on the wall. It may still be in the bar. I brought my dad along and he got a big kick out of it. My parents have been incredibly supportive.
What’s the smallest crowd you ever had?
Three. It’d be very depressing in Chicago; you’d literally have an empty room. In a lot of bars, there’s a bar in front and a stage in back behind a curtain, and when nobody’s there the comics come out and go, ‘Hey, the show’s starting.’ And the response would be, ‘Go F yourself.’ When no one’s there, you’ve just got to call it. But there’s always still that comic that’s like, ‘Let’s just start.’ For who? For each other? We can do that in someone’s living room. But there are guys who never want to call it. ‘Hey, I took two trains to get here. I’m going to do comedy for you guys.’ No, you’re not going to do that. We’re leaving.
What’s the first comedy you remember listening to?
When I was four, I would sneak down the staircase late at night to watch Saturday Night Live. I remember seeing Eddie Murphy as Gumby and laughing but not understanding at all. As a kid, I pretty much wore out George Carlin’s Class Clown album. I was fascinated because we both grew up Catholic, but he was a hardscrabble New York Catholic and I was an extremely liberal, hippy-dippy Portland Catholic. It was such a difference, but I liked his humanity and how he could talk to an audience like he was talking to a friend on the street corner. I wasn’t allowed to listen to the seven words you’re not allowed to say on TV, but of course I did. I remember hiding it and listening real quietly. That was a secretive section of the record that you were never supposed to put the needle on.
When did you start to think of comedy as a lifestyle?
I was in Chicago waiting tables and bartending. I had been an actor for many years but got into improv and started doing open mics. A friend really liked me and put me up in his shows, and after a couple years said, ‘You know, you could really do this for living.’ I knew I wanted to be a performer. I kind of wanted to do both, which I’m more or less doing now. I figured if I could make money doing stand-up, I’d do that because I love it too. If you have a work ethic, you can make something of a living at it.
It’s been a real gradual thing. I don’t remember a moment where the light went on like, let’s go! When I quit my day job almost three years ago, that was a moment of like cutting the strings, but it was always there. I didn’t do Letterman and run out saying, ‘Fuck you!’
All things equal, where would be your ultimate place to live?
As long as I’m afloat and somewhat comfortable, I’m pretty happy where I’m at. I live in a modest apartment in Silver Lake in Los Angeles. If I had my druthers and could have accessibility to roadwork, I guess maybe I’d have a house in Portland. That’s my favorite city. But I really enjoy L.A. People think of L.A. as Beverly Hills or Sunset Strip, but those are not places I go near. I discover new things about the city every day, new places to hang out, the history. New York is the best place in the world to visit, same with Chicago, but right now I can’t imagine living there. Like anybody, I’d like to own my own home, but that’s like saying, ‘I’d like to grow my own angel wings and not have to drive.’
That probably won’t happen until Obama introduces a tax credit for angel wings.
Science might make it happen someday. We’re going to clone condors and breed them for wings to attach to us. But I’ll still be screwed because they won’t have big and tall wings. Big guys will have ugly bat wings that bump into people at the bar and they’ll be like, ‘Dude, get away from me, your wings are gross.’
Would you be up for working in the sketch side of things again?
I’d love to do it again. It’d have to be the right format and the right people. A lot of times people think that you could just throw funny people together. But if they don’t work well together or someone doesn’t contribute enough or just wants to be a star, it can be excruciating.
What’s the biggest thing you took from the MadTV experience?
I was only on it for maybe like five, six months and then it was cancelled, and people are always like, ‘I’m so sorry.’ But I’m always like, I’m just glad I was in there for a time. I never looked at it like, ‘This is it, just lay back from now on.’ You never take anything like that for granted. It was an incredible experience but at the same time it felt like a dream – a dream come true – but also just incredibly surreal. You’d be in front of a live audience or it’d come on TV and you’d go, ‘Look at that.’ It was like a fever dream where you’re accepting some reality that’s not reality. Like you’re half-awake and you’re like, ‘I’ve got to clean my dragon cage.’ But then you wake up and you’re like, ‘Wait, I don’t have a dragon cage. Dragons aren’t real!’ I feel like that’s how I’ll be in 50 years, like, ‘I liked that show, but I was never on it!’ And my grandkids will have to show it to me, and I’ll be like, ‘Well, look at that.’
It was great to always be joking around, to say, ‘Hey, that’s funny, you wanna write that with me?’ Some stupid joke you make while eating lunch could be on national television. Even with all the stress on a show like that, that’s the thing that keeps driving you. Your ideas can come to an amazing fruition. That’s what drives all of us, really. What you think is funny, what your friends think is funny, the world might think is funny.
For more info, check out mattbraunger.com. And click the graphic below to buy Matt’s album, Soak Up The Night.