Comedian Matt Braunger on pilot season, his new album 'Big Dumb Animal,' and the science of titles
Matt Braunger just released his latest stand-up album Big Dumb Animal, which shares its title with his latest Comedy Central special. Braunger has been consistently honing his comic voice for years, and his previous album/special combo Shovel Fighter was one of the best of 2012, but Big Dumb Animal is a huge leap forward. “I’ve spent years talking about how much I love Richard Pryor, just like every other living comedian, and the thing a lot of us don’t take from him is how honest he was,” says Braunger, who also hosts a podcast called Ding Donger With Matt Braunger. “You really love it when you see a comedian talk about something, no matter how dark or filthy, just as long as it feels real—and is funny.”
The Los Angeles-based Braunger chatted about the weirdness of pilot season and his memories of Mad TV.
Entertainment Weekly: Big Dumb Animal is a perfect title and a fantastically funny phrase. Where did it come from?
Matt Braunger: It goes back to a time I was waiting tables, and this guy I worked with who was a jock type. He was like a funny a–hole. A good guy, but always had to bust everybody’s chops. He came in one morning, and he said, “Look at you, you big dumb animal.” And it made me laugh. Like, what a horrible thing to say, but my God, that’s funny. My approach to titled is, “Does this make you laugh when I say it?” My podcast is called Ding Donger With Matt Braunger, and any time I said that people are like, “Oh, I get it.” I love ridiculousness that kind of throws you off a little bit.
Was your approach to Big Dumb Animal different than it was on Shovel Fighter?
It definitely was a conscious effort do dig more—just to expose things warts and all. A friend gave me a really good note last year when he told me, “You know, you’re so funny, but I feel like people see you do comedy and they don’t get who you are.” That really hit home. A lot of times someone will say, “I’m my own worst critic,” and we all are to some extent, but we also can shut ourselves down when we shouldn’t be shut down. We’re all kind of neurotic—comedians, that is. Sometimes we throw ideas out when we should be following them.
There’s a big on Big Dumb Animal about you as a 39-year-old wanting the approval of younger guys—you buy a ridiculous watch because some dude says it looks cool. That really sounds like the type of confession that you only come up with if you’re truly honest with yourself.
Totally. You just want to be down. You always want to be included and you never be left out. The wrong way to do that is to do the typical male thing of buying a car and cheating on your wife when you turn 50. But I think as long as you keep that in mind and embrace your lameness, you can also embrace what’s cool about you. It’s fine to have those feelings, I just found myself acting upon them. I still have that watch, though I still have no idea why I bought it.
How has Ding Donger With Matt Braunger changed the way your stand-up work?
It lets me develop stuff, and I try to make it count. I feel like the first couple of episodes I did I really just felt like I was talking just to talk. I flashed back to being in college when I had a radio show for a while that only played in the cafeteria, and I found out that for a month the cafeteria workers had turned it off. So I spent a month just talking to myself in a room. For a while, I kind of thought I was writing a letter and throwing it down a well, but it turns out a good number of people listen to it and enjoy it. Since then I’ve prepared more and tried to be as honest as I can and tried to find the funny in that. I think it’s helped me develop jokes, but also just have a thing I have to do every week that isn’t stand-up. It’s just a different outlet.
Because podcasts are so personal and often intimate, a lot of comics have told me that their fan interactions have gotten weirder and more intense. Has that happened to you?
The craziest was I did Bumbershoot this past September. I finished my set in this theater, and I walked off stage, and I was thanking the stage manager and the grips, and as I’m saying, “Thanks for having me,” their eyes just go wide. I turn around, and there’s a man there. This man had jumped on stage and had followed me backstage, and they’re all wondering what’s happening. Is he going to stab me? What’s going on? So I turn around and I say hi, and he said, “Hey I’m sorry, I just wanted to talk to you, I couldn’t find you on Grindr.” And I was like, “What? I did jokes about having a girlfriend. I’m not on Grindr.” So he says, “Oh, I just think you’re so funny,” and I shook his hand, and they were already going over to grab him, they were pulling him away as I was talking to him. He goes, “How do I get ahold of you?” And I just said, “I don’t know, Twitter?” But in my mind, I’m like, “You don’t, man! What are you talking about? That’s not how this works!” It was the weirdest thing to be chased back stage just so he could say, “I couldn’t find you on Grindr.” I’m working on it for a joke, I can’t quite find what the hook is, but there’s something in there. Like, “Why can’t I find any of my friends on Grindr?”
You spent a season on Mad TV. What stands out the most about that experience?
I was only on Mad TV for half a season. I was hired in the final season because Michael McDonald had left, and that made room for a tall white guy. That’s one thing I will say for that show: it was incredibly diverse. I was only one of two white males in the whole cast. Show me another sketch show outside of In Living Color where that was the case. The best thing about that show was this: You ever joke around with your friends and get going on a riff that you really enjoy? Imagine if a producer was walking down the hall and said, “Hey, write that. Go do it now. Put it on TV.” I couldn’t believe it. I quit my day job probably four or five months before and had been working the road, and I got catapulted into this amazing environment of writers from UCB and Groundlings and a ton of other shows. It was amazing to collaborate with them. I’d get pulled into offices and they’d go, “Can you sing at all?” I’d say, “Yeah, a little, I did choir in high school.” And they’d go, “OK, I’m going to make you the oldest Jonas brother that none of them liked.” It was pure play, which is I think that’s why we all got into this game.
We’re in the midst of pilot season right now, and you’ve been going on auditions. Are they as nightmarish as some make them out to be?
Yes and no. We put so much pressure on it, and the thing is, I don’t even know what percentage of these pilots will get picked up, and then what percentage of those become anything. If you take it too seriously, it will drive you insane, because it doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. I’ve had this happen, and I’ve known many other people who have had this happen, where you get to the point where you’re the only one they want for the job, and you’ve gone in six or seven times, and one higher-up will just wander downstairs and go, “Wait, what if he was 24 and super hot instead?” Then he wanders back upstairs and you’re done. It’s just that simple. It’ll drive you crazy if you let it, though sometimes it’ll still just drive you crazy.
What’s your worst bombing story?
I started a show in Chicago in a bar like a lot of comics do, just to get stage time when no one else will have you. I remember the first night I crushed, because all these friends of mine were in the audience, and they had all the friends they brought, and everyone was drunk and it was great. A week or two later, I was in front of a room full of strangers and I tried something out that I thought would be hilarious, and it was a dumb idea, and I just ate my d— on stage. Pure silence. You could hear a pin drop. I remember introducing the first comedian and falling sideways onto a couch and just laying there. It’s such a kick to your ego. I had the misfortune of doing well the first few times I did stand-up, and I thought, “This is easy! I was born to do this!” But that story makes me shudder, because it’s so brutal.