So not only does this gig of mine here at Serial Optimist Website & Artisanal Bakery get me a pass into such E-ticket rides as the forthcoming RIOT LA Comedy Fest, it also gives me a chance to talk to some of today’s best comedians, and I get to approach them as a distinguished member of the media and not just some goof who nerds out all over them (Hopefully, I won’t slip up and mention all of this in an intro or something. Fingers crossed). One such conversation took place just last week, when I got to talk to Matt Braunger about his participation, past and present in RIOT LA, as well as working with animals, recording a new special and why comics only get lavalier mics on Letterman these days.
Serial Optimist: I wanted to ask you, to start off with, what is it you’re looking the most forward to at RIOT LA this year?
Matt Braunger: Sadly, I’m only getting to do one show, because it’s at the same time I have a contractually booked weekend in—oh, where am I?—Tacoma. But I really just loved that it was a grass-roots, Los Angeles comedy festival by people who live there that are active in the comedy scene. There was a comedy festival in L.A., and I can’t even think what it was called, but basically if you looked at what it was called, you’d say, “Oh, this is the comedy festival of L.A.” But it was this person who owns a theater, and she would basically be like, “Oh, be in this festival,” and then people would get here and it’s all out of her theater and it was all just to promote her theater. And this was maybe two or three years after I moved to L.A., so I was doing this little sketch show with people, and we did the sketch show for her to be in the festival. And she was like, “Well, I don’t see a place for you in the festival, but you can do your show at my theater if you wanna rent it.” We were like, “What?” It was like a stupid scam. Not to harp on that festival, but just to use that as an example of what I don’t want a festival to be.
RIOT was a lot of fun last year and it brought out a lot of people in L.A., because I think a lot of people think of L.A. comics as just a bunch of people that are, y’know, for want of a better term, trying to get a sitcom. But there are a lot of people doing really smart, original, funny comedy that are in Los Angeles.
SO: Yeah, that’s the stereotype that it’s more of a show business town than a comedy town, but I don’t think that’s entirely accurate at all.
Matt: No, there’s the kind of underbelly of every city, the underground type of shows and things. I mean really: Funny comedy is funny comedy, it’s just gonna be good wherever it is. A lot of people move to L.A. to take the next step to make a career out of it. But it doesn’t mean they’re not funny.
SO: You are no stranger to setting up a comedy festival, since you helped begin the Bridgetown Comedy Festival in Portland. Did you find RIOT to be similar or…?
Matt: Oh yeah, it’s a lot of the same people, and I think the difference is a lot of the people in RIOT already live there in L.A. Whereas in Portland, a good chunk of the comedians we have live in Portland, but not all of them, or perhaps even most. But it’s the same type of comic sensibilities, I would say, trying to put together interesting shows, trying to deviate from the norm to a degree. Rather than the kind of stuff people see in your typical, generally speaking, comedy clubs—not that I have anything against comedy clubs, they pay my rent. There are people that tour that have done the same hour for ten years, fifteen years, only about really broad-minded stuff that you’d find a typical TV comedy. What I call “fat husband/hot wife” humor, y’know? There’s definitely place for that. But RIOT’s a little more—I dunno, I hate to use the term “youth-oriented”—but maybe a little more youth-oriented, just like Bridgetown is.
SO: So even though these festivals are more concerned with comedy as an art form, these sorts of festivals can still be, like, a career-forward sort of event, right?
Matt: Oh yeah, absolutely. Especially because it is in Los Angeles, where all the industry is anyway. So you’re gonna have some people come who are like, “Oh, I don’t have to fly to Montréal for this? I can come and then sleep in my own bed tonight? Cool.” So it’s kind of a no-brainer in terms of putting together a grass-roots festival, trying to get people out that will help the more unknown comedians help build a foundation for a career.
SO: It does seem like such a no-brainer, so why do you think it took so long to get a festival like this?
Matt: I think it’s because—y’know, I don’t mean this in any negative sense—it’s not really a necessary festival. No festival really is, like, “This has to happen!” I feel like Bridgetown was a little more that way because Portland is such an artsy-fartsy town, like, “Why don’t we have a comedy festival?” L.A., you can see comedy any night of the week, there’s a lot of comedy clubs and things like that. But to kind of congregate all these people, in my mind, it’s a no-brainer because so many of them are already there anyway. So let’s just concentrate it and make it this blowout weekend. People wanna just binge on comedy and see as much as they can and make it much more of a community and much more of an event. It’s just smart. It’s like an obvious idea that no one thought of or didn’t act on. Except for that one person with the theater that I mentioned.
Matt Braunger For RIOT LA (2012)
SO: In the Kickstarter promo video from last year, you talked about having to work with a baboon at a moment’s notice. Can we get more of that story?
Matt: That, actually, I was paraphrasing. My last season on MADtv, we did a thing that was a fake series of eHarmony ads, and I was a creepy guy in Utah with nine wives looking for a tenth, and Crista Flanagan had to do a thing where she’s standing next to a baboon on a stool. And we had to clear the set so it wouldn’t get nervous, and then at one point, the baboon just decided to put its arm around her. Like, it didn’t attack her or anything, but it just put his arm right on her. And we all went, “Gah! Shit, oh God, it’s gonna kill her!” But it didn’t, it was a real chill baboon.
SO: So you have a new special forthcoming here in 2014, right?
Matt: Yeah, I’d goddamn better. It’s one of those things where, right now, you have a market with all these different platforms. So you wanna find the one that’s best for you, whether it’s a Comedy Central special or on your own, whether it’s Netflix or just released on line. I probably won’t release it online because, y’know, I’m just not an Aziz or a Louis C.K. where it will sell like hotcakes just off my name. But it’s interesting that that option is there. I did the whole new hour in New York as part of the New York Comedy Fest, and I had a lot of people come see it, so y’know? I guess as they say, right now we’re in talks. But y’know, if it doesn’t come out this year, I’ll be pretty pissed. [laughs] I’ll put something together because, y’know, it’s been a year and a half or maybe longer since my last special or last album came out. I think ideally, I wanna do it about every two years or maybe a year and a half, but it’s just one of those things where I’ve done thirty cities this year, twelve of them twice. Four countries. Y’know, I’ve had a lot of practice in 2013.
SO: What would be your ideal platform then, do you think?
Matt: Just whichever reaches the most people, I would say, and that is the smartest, but not at the expense of the former. I don’t think anyone ever really makes a lot of money off of specials, with the exception of very, very famous people. I think it’s more something for the fans. Most people don’t watch comedy specials, much less buy comedy albums. But it’s just something to put out there, one, to have tent poles to work off of, to have things to look forward to and back on. But also just for fans to have, y’know, for the people that really do like that kind of stuff.
SO: Do you have any other TV spots booked at all?
Matt: Well, I shot a couple episodes of The Michael J. Fox Show; I have a recurring role on there. There’s something that might or might not be offered to me, I’ll know that early in the New Year, but nothing I can mention. I guess the short answer is no right now, but there are irons in the fire.
Matt Braunger on Letterman (2009)
SO: So I know this is kind of old, but I just watched your Letterman appearance again, and I think you might be the first comic I’ve gotten to talk to who’s done Letterman, so that’s exciting for me.
Matt: [Laughs] You should talk to Tommy Johnagin, he’s done it like five times.
SO: Yeah, I’m actually hoping to get to talk to him soon as well. But I get to ask you first something I’ve been wondering for a while: How come the comedians don’t get a mic stand on Letterman anymore?
Matt: Well, with Conan and I think all the others, they give you that option. They’re like, “Do you want a mic stand, do you wanna come out holding a mic, do you want a lav?” And I think on Letterman, they just really want you to have a lav. If I remember correctly, I’m not sure. I’ve done two late night sets with a lav, maybe three, and one or two with a mic and a stand. If I remember correctly, they didn’t even offer. I’m sure Tommy Johnagin will be like, “That’s crazy, they gave us every option.” But I’m pretty sure I’m right.
SO: Does that ever throw you off at all, to not have a mic or a mic stand?
Matt: No, because you’re doing a routine you’ve done probably a thousand times, and it didn’t even cross my mind, it was actually fine.
SO: Yeah, and it clearly shows in your performance that it was fine, but there’s always a part of me that wonders…
Matt: Sure. Most comedians, they’re taping specials and a lot of them, they still want a mic with a cord always. Chris Rock always has a cord mic always. He’s playing, like, near stadiums, but I can dig that. I’ve played shows with a cordless mic and the mic keeps shorting out and it’s the worst thing in the world.
SO: And then you even got to sit down with Dave, and that, I mean, certainly doesn’t happen with every comic, right?
Matt: No, I think they had Tracy Morgan on before me, and he was going a little bananas, and I think they kind of said goodbye earlier than they needed to. But they did ask me early on, “Is there a funny story you can tell Dave, like, if we had time?” And I said. “How about this one?” and they said, “Okay, good.” So yeah, I don’t think it’s like necessarily the same as Carson, when he calls you over and it was like, “Oh, you’re made!” But it was nice. It was definitely nice.