On The Couch with Matt Braunger

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Matt Braunger

The patient has a goofy, friendly demeanor, like your cool uncle, or maybe your newborn golden retriever. Always careful to mention those who have helped him along his career and constantly stopping to appreciate his friends, his hometown, his parents—it’s curious that the subject needs therapy at all. Then it begins to hit me; for all of the success he’s achieved, the patient still has a hint of humbling anxiety, always clarifying that he’s still got a ways to go in improving his standup, or that he shouldn’t speak authoritatively about comedy. However, it is clear that the subject has no reason to be so insecure. He has a biting wit, an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the Los Angeles comedy scene, and an impressive background in sketch and improv. If anything, Matt Braunger sounds—after putting together his one-hour special for Comedy Central—like he needs a good pat on the back.

When and how did you start doing stand up comedy?

You just try it, and then you stick it out through all the years of indifference and asking yourself why you do it. I got lucky because I just did it with a bunch of guys living in Chicago with no real idea what it would even mean to be successful. It was just a fun thing that we all did. Different people get into it differently. I think right now, maybe because I live in Los Angeles and I spend time in New York and Chicago, it seems like way, way, way more people are doing it [compared to] what I’ve heard the eighties were like. Especially because now everyone can connect online, and there are a lot more comedy communities. It’s a lot easier to get a scene going, to get into it and get started.

You’ve performed standup in Chicago and Los Angeles and you co-founded a comedy festival in Portland. Which city has the best scene?

It’s hard to say. It depends on what your definition of “best” would be. If you want to get onstage a lot, New York will always be the best just because there’s the most open mic opportunities. I recently heard someone refer to the LA comedy scene recently. And I was like, “Well I only see you over at these random rooms over on the east side,” where I live. I’d never seen this person at The Comedy Store, I’ve never seen this person at The Improv. It’s just kind of hard to say there’s an LA scene. The walls have kind of come down between what’s mainstream and what’s alternative. Just because I know this scene the best, I would just pick whatever LA’s scene is. But I don’t know, I’ve heard great things about the scene in Chicago, I know the scene in Portland has gotten huge in the past five or six years. I’d say, short answer, there’s good and bad to all of them.

How has your comedic style changed since you first started doing standup?

When we were in Chicago, we probably did seventy or eighty percent of our sets drunk, so you can’t keep going like that forever. But, as a result, we tried new things all the time. We weren’t hung up on trying to hone our bits. I moved to LA, and I remember that the first couple of months I lived here, I felt a little intimidated, because I had a couple of bits at best. Then I started thinking about how you never know who’s in the crowd. But that’s such BS—it’s just about getting up there and doing the best you can, so thankfully I got over that. But then I spent a couple years doing it, and I have a very loud voice anyway. I would yell a lot, too, to punch jokes harder, and it was fun, but I remember kind of going, “Oh, I am pretty yell-y.” It wasn’t a conscious thing of, “Oh, stop yelling.” Because I still yell, I can’t help it. But I think I mellowed that out a little bit more. The most recent change for me is that I try to write more “warts and all” stuff about my actual life, and stories, and that kind of thing.

We probably did seventy or eighty percent of our sets drunk.

You’ve worked in sketch and improv comedy, as well as stand up. Of the three, which form of comedy do you like the most?

Well, they’re all pretty different. Improv and sketch have the most to do with each other because they’re both multiple people. At gunpoint, I’d probably have to say standup because I do standup the most, and I haven’t done improv with a team in years. And sketch I’ve kind of sat in on things and written with other people here and there, but not a lot. The thing with improv is, the best improv is the best thing in the world and the worst improv is the worst thing in the world. But you could also say the same thing about standup really easily. The thing about sketch is that it’s often indefinable. Someone can just write something down and put a couple of people together, but it’s like, “Was that sketch comedy? Because it wasn’t that funny.” It depends. I think it’s something people think they can just do a lot of the times, when it takes more practice than some folks might think.” But again, the only one of those three I feel like I have any kind of authority on would be standup, at this point.

Have you ever bombed on stage?

Oh, of course. Dozens of times. It’s one of those things when you get to a point where you roll with it, and you get a laugh out of the audience somehow. But when you’re starting out, I think it’s imperative to eat it over and over. At least on some level. The first set I ever did, I killed, but a lot of my friends were in the audience. And that’s the worst thing that can happen because you develop a lot of false confidence, so when you do fall on your face, it just hurts that much more. I think a lot of comics don’t let themselves bomb enough, they just do the same bits over and over because they’re afraid of exploring. Generally speaking, the audience wants you to do well. There’s going to be the occasional shitbag in the audience who wants to see someone feel like crap, but generally, people want to have a good time, so just relax, be yourself, and take some chances. Talk about something that’s funny to you.

The best improv is the best thing in the world and the worst improv is the worst thing in the world.

You were raised in Portland, OR. Have you seen Portlandia? What do you think of it?

I’ve seen Portlandia; it’s hilarious. It’s pretty much dead on, in terms of a big swath of Portland culture and specifically Portland youth culture. I actually moderated the Portlandia panel at last year’s South By Southwest with Fred [Armisen] and Carrie [Brownstein]. It was one of those things where I never see Fred, and he asked, “Did they fly you in from Portland?” And I’m like, “I haven’t lived in Portland in over a decade, Fred.” I go back several times a year, but it’s a really fun show. The thing about Fred and Carrie is that they have a deep interest in exploring ideas and what’s funny, but they’re not the kind of people who sit around and crack jokes. Doing that panel was fun, but it’s also like, I was trying to bring them out of their shells and they were so comfortable in them. They’re made to skewer that kind of Portland subculture.

You talk in your new standup special about how Portland’s changed since you grew up there. You’re also currently one of the co-creators of the Bridgetown Comedy Festival held in Portland each year. Does this mean you’ve come around on the “new” Portland, or do you miss the Portland of your youth?

I have nostalgia for the Portland of my childhood, but it’s like, do I want that city to fall apart like Flint, Michigan? No. I’d rather it progress and go into cooler stuff. It’s just one of those things where it’s like, I go back and I’m like, “Whoa, what is happening now?” There’s always some new restaurant that’s mind-blowing, or whatever. I was just there this past weekend to celebrate my special coming out. We didn’t go to many restaurants or anything, but my girlfriend and I were leaving on Thursday, and we were like, “When are we going to come back? When’s the next weekend that we’re both free and we can just hang out and have a fun weekend?” It’s a little overwhelming, but I love going. I love the new Portland.

Speaking of Portland, how has your childhood impacted your career as a comedian?

I’m an only child of two teachers who basically took me to a lot of plays and art galleries, and were very progressive politically, and just told me to keep an open mind if I can, and appreciate the creativity going on around us. But also in a kind of utilitarian way, not very hippy-ish. As an only child I wasn’t starved for attention, I just wanted more. I just got greedier and greedier, and would do school plays and musicals and all that jazz, and went to college for theatre, which, Jesus Christ, talk about a waste of money. But, at the same time, I wasn’t going to do anything else. So it worked out.

Do you think you would perform your standup differently had you not been professionally trained as an actor?

That’s a good question. I don’t know. I know it taught me to be more outgoing on stage, for sure, and you tell stories and do characters and things. I’m sure it’s helped on some level. Good point, it wasn’t a waste. Thank you.

It’s frankly too late to turn back now.

What does your family think of your comedy? Are there any jokes they aren’t happy with, or that you wouldn’t share with them?

It’s funny, my parents always would say, “He never does jokes about me,” and I’ve started to recently. I never used to much, but when you start talking about yourself, you start talking about your family. And when I was home over the weekend they watched it on Friday. I do a bit about how my parents participate in really weird charities in my new special, and one of them was, my dad would go to an old folks home and load up a van with old women and drive them to go shopping. And my parents were like, “He didn’t rent a van!” Like that matters! That’s not integral to the story. If I said, “He brought his car and loaded it up,” it’d still be weird. It’d still be something no one’s ever done. But they were always so supportive, so if they asked me to stop saying he rented a van, I’d be like, “Okay, fine.” But I don’t think they really care.

How has comedy affected your mental health?

I’d say it helped it. It’s interesting, half the time I go to therapy, I don’t want to go, but it’s always worth it afterwards. And it’s the same thing with standup. Not that half the time I don’t want to do it, but there are those times when I’m like, “I don’t want to. I want to stay home, on the couch, eating pizza and watching TV. That’s all I want to do. I’m sick of it, I hate comedy now.” You have those moods. But anytime I go and do it, I always learn something. I always improve a little bit. Even if you don’t do great, you get a little insight. It’s always worth it. So the two things are real similar. If anything it’s probably helped, because you teach yourself to be a little more honest. On the negative side, I can see how maybe I haven’t developed as much as I should for my age. But at the same time, maybe if I hadn’t done standup, I would have gone through one or two loveless marriages by now. Would that have been good? Who knows. It’s frankly too late to turn back now. I can’t just become a fireman or something.