News Column

funny or die trying [Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (PA)]

August 28, 2013

YellowBrix

Somehow, some way, in the past 10 years or so, stand-up comedy went and got big. Really big.

How did this happen?

Maybe it started with power-lifting, protein shakes, the works. Maybe it was A-Rod's "gym."

Maybe it just sat on the couch, Cheetos-loading and binge- watching "Breaking Bad." Another tried-and-true method of getting big.

Or, maybe there was suddenly lots of airtime to fill -- on Comedy Central, HBO, the networks and elsewhere -- as well as the limitless capacity of the Internet. Maybe a new generation of oddballs, visionaries and unconventional laugh-seekers began to realize that they now had the room, the space and the time for whatever weirdness they could come up with.

"The Chappelle Show" (2003-2006) and "Flight of the Conchords" (2007-2009) were part of this new wave of comedy, blurring the lines between stand-up, sketch comedy, satire, musical comedy, and "What just happened?" They were far from alone, but they pushed comedy to artistic, critical and commercial peaks, providing a shared set of laughs for an entire generation.

Then Dave Chappelle walked away from television, leaving untold riches and acclaim on the table. He doesn't do interviews, doesn't have a website and quit Twitter after a handful of tweets.

In the years since, he's emerged only for the occasional stand- up gig, his first love.

Flight of the Conchords was supposedly finished, as well.

Now, they're co-headlining the Oddball Comedy & Curiosity Festival, coming Aug. 30 to First Niagara Pavilion, with a brigade of the world's best comedians in support: Al Madrigal, Demetri Martin, Hannibal Buress, Kristen Schaal, and hosts Brody Stevens and Jeff Ross. In addition to the main stage, there will be a smaller stage showcasing local comics. Altogether, it's perhaps the biggest assemblage of comic talent this town (well, Burgettstown) has ever seen.

Kristen Schaal -- whose comedy career seems to be hitting a peak right now -- credits "Flight of the Conchords" with giving her her big break.

"That was the show that sort of blew off the doors for me and allowed me to make a living as a performer," Schaal says. "It's just one of the most special shows I've ever been a part of, and I feel really blessed to have been on it."

The show must have been tough to pitch -- two musicians (Jermaine Clement and Bret McKenzie) from New Zealand seek their fame and fortune in New York City. But its leads' deadpan charisma, their amazing ability to parody any musical style, and a supporting cast of bizarre, grotesque characters, made "Flight of the Conchords" into something great.

Schaal played the eponymous duo's biggest and only fan, Mel, frequently crossing the line into "creepy, obsessed stalker" territory. She was so effective, that she ended up cast in a similarly deranged role on "30 Rock."

She's a little concerned with getting typecast, but not too much.

"You get known for one thing, and people are like, 'Well, you can do that,e_SSRq" Schaal says. "Well, (I'm) happy for the work. I just want to know that I can do other things."

So far, other things have included a distinctively weird stint as a correspondent on "The Daily Show" to the voice of Louise, a cunning 9-year-old with rage issues, on "Bob's Burgers."

"I never want to be the romantic lead. So boring," Schaal says. "I'd love to be like some sort of superhero. CIA undercover agent. Somebody who saves the world. That will never happen."

Schaal had a web series with her friend Kurt Braunohler about a girl who could talk to animals -- "Penelope: Princess of Pets."

Schaal also had one of the strangest, most-talked-about stand-up comedy specials in recent memory. The hourlong Comedy Central special offered her typically warped take on everything from restaurant reviews, to what happens when you combine pasta and antipasto.

Then, it got really weird. She seemed to stumble over the word "airplane" and started to lose her cool. It quickly dissolved into a total meltdown, including a backstage tantrum, smashed furniture, a little girl heckling her, then getting up onstage, and something about a horse. It wasn't really clear if this was truly a disaster in the making, or some kind of Andy Kaufman-like put-on.

"I wanted to sort of write a love letter to stand-up, and I've always wanted to stage a live meltdown on TV. And I did it!" Schaal says. "Some people thought it was awesome, other people wished they hadn't seen it. In any case, I'm proud of it."

She has a completely new set for the tour, so don't expect the meltdown to be repeated.

Apart from her sense of humor and firm grasp of the absurd, Schaal has something else that sets her apart - that voice. It's a very odd voice.

"When I became a woman in college, that's when people noticed that my voice did not become a woman, at all," she says. "I can't hear it. In my head, I don't sound the way I do on the outside. I was always surprised when someone made note of it. But I like it, in a way."

Being weird isn't always a choice, Schaal observes.

"Yeah, I guess I'm definitely an oddball -- I was born that way," she says. "I think the Oddball Festival is less about the lineup, and more about the audience members who happen to be attracted to this sort of show. They're the oddballs."

Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at mmachosky@tribweb.com or 412-320-7901.

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