The Kult of Kristen

Kristen Schaal is a comedian with a difference. Emma Lennox investigates the chaos she is creating in the alternative scene.

Feature by Emma Ainley-Walker | 28 Jul 2008

Kristen Schaal is a horse. She is also an actress (Flight of the Conchords), a writer (South Park series 11) and a comedian (The Daily Show), but what she has proved, beyond her industry awards and TV appearances, is that she can and will dance like a horse. Watching the baby faced, curly haired stand up bounding around the stage with her endless energy is one of the joys of New York’s alternative comedy scene, where Schaal and performance partner Kurt Braunohler established their popular variety show, Hot Tub. Now the pair are bringing their wickedly bizarre humour to unsuspecting audiences in Double Down Hearts; a show, at the very least, likely to be described as ‘different’.

In the context of what is now ‘the largest comedy festival in the world’, alternative comedy is as radical to Edinburgh as tartan shortbread. So when alternative isn’t alternative any longer, does that necessarily make it mainstream?

Schaal’s performances offer an ulterior edge to bring back the cult of comedy and redefine a word meant to encompass everything from political satire to observational humour. The new alternative (although ‘new’ perhaps isn’t quite the right word either) has an international flavour and an inclination toward the whimsical and absurd. Current examples include Reggie Watts, whose beat boxing sound effects don’t even require speech, never mind punchlines, and Tony Law, who won’t be appearing at this year’s Fringe due to miscalculations of his time travelling dog, Cartridge Davison. This is a comedy world inhabited by the Mighty Boosh’s spirit of jazz, Flight of the Conchords’ killer robots and Demetri Martin’s psychotherapist Dr Earnest Parrot; they come from a free and childlike imagination, but like to play in the dark, twisting our minds with their taboo corkscrews.

In 2005 Schaal won the Andy Kaufman Award (previously won by Watts) which was set up to encourage originality and rule breaking, inspired by the American innovator. It’s not the first nor only one of its kind: Schaal also picked up Best Alternative comedian at the Aspen Comedy Festival in 2006. Through these contests and showcases the North American industry defines the genres of stand up, particularly at festivals Montreal and Aspen, where HBO (the producers of Flight of the Conchords) like to talent scout. In the second largest arts festival, Melbourne, there is no such categorising, but their big award, the Barry, is named after Barry Humphries: the man behind the woman, Dame Edna Everage, who launched the festival alongside Peter Cook in 1987. The subversive and surreal is already embedded into the make up of the festival which has awarded top prize to free spirits Maria Bamford, Ross Noble, The Mighty Boosh and joint winner this year (can you guess?) Kristen Schaal.

With her pretty dresses and high pitched, cutesy voice, Schaal’s idiosyncrasies embody the leftfield scene and its emphasis on improvisation, character creations and lunacy. Surprisingly this is an acquired taste not favoured by the UK industry, which prefers the old school style of social irritant with a mic set up. Double Down Hearts, and others shows like Simon Munnery’s AGM 08, offer an inventive and lyrical option growing in popularity in the rest of the world in underground clubs, online, and on cable channels.

Alternative or not, there's really only one reason Kristen Schaal is dancing like a horse: because it’s funny. “Look at her dance like a, look at her go like a, look at her dance like a horse!”


Kristen Schaal and Kurt Braunohler: Double Down Hearts, Assembly Rooms, 21:10, 11 Aug- 23 Aug