Kristen Schaal made a name for herself as the hopelessly devoted pseudo-stalker Mel on the cult phenom Flight of the Conchords, she voiced Trixie the dinosaur in Toy Story 3 and even graced the Late Night stage to charm the (Worldwide) pants off David Letterman. But to sit down and chat with her you’d think she was just your hometown pal. (Your hilarious pal who should be doing comedy for a living.) Kristen, a Colorado native like myself, and I sat down at Enid’s in Brooklyn where we dined on Huevos Rancheros and Blood Marys and talked all things Kristen and the impossible standards Hollywood sets up for women.
Kristen! Thanks for coming to Brooklyn for a lunch chat!
This is a treat for me! I eat lunch at my desk every day.
What are you working on right now?
Stand-up, sketches and then I’m trying to do a new TV show idea. I actually wrote a pilot with Rich (Blomquist, Kristen’s beau) for Fox that got completely rejected. It was a comedy western half-hour.
Fun! But, boo…how far did it get?
I pitched it, they bought it and then they bought the script. The next phase would have been them picking it up to go to pilot. They did not. Not only that, I don’t even think the head of Fox got to read it. I think they were embarrassed that they bought a comedy western because we didn’t get any notes to do any drastic changes.
That’s a real shame. Hollywood just makes the same, safe choices over and over.
Yeah, the casting process is a bit of a mind fuck. I think the comedy western was a good idea and I stand by it. But that being said people write scripts all the time that don’t get picked up and there’s no reason that the first script I wrote should be picked up, you know?
Right. Do you want to one day be in the position to produce your own projects?
Yeah, wouldn’t that be great? That’s the dream! I’m just so thankful that there’s a Tina Fey or a Sarah Silverman. I think about them a lot. Or a Roseanne Barr. They did it, they’re doing it. It’s a very high expectation, but I like to imagine that. I’d also just be happy acting in somebody’s awesome thing because then you can just focus on stand-up and not be freaked out about all the details.
How do you bounce back from disappointment?
That’s a great question! That’s hard… I think what I do is I try not to put a lot of weight in things that I don’t know are a sure thing. You know, I try hard to get them and then when I leave the audition I usually just completely let it go. But if I really, really want something I will just let myself have a cry and then I’m better. Because it’s just show business. But when I’m crying now, I’m not crying because I don’t think I’m good enough. I’m crying because I’m unemployed. [laughs]
Your parents still live in Colorado, do they visit you in NY?
They have. For some reason they always end up in Times Square and that’s what they think New York is.
Have they seen your live performances?
I think they saw one early on, early 2000-ish, at the Manhattan Theatre Source. Then nothing for a while and then they came to see me perform at Radio City. I sort of made a joke on stage, “Hey, my parents are in the audience. It took me performing at Radio City to get them out.” And it was true. [laughs]
So what do they think of your career?
I think they’re excited. They’re really low-key. It’s nice, they’re not like “showbiz” people. I’ll just tell them, “You guys should really turn the TV on tonight.” It’s nice when I go home. We don’t really talk about my showbiz life. It’s not like they’re not interested, but it’s really refreshing. It’s not the most important thing to them. Hanging out is the most important thing to them.
[At this point in the interview, a text comes through on my iPhone]
What is that? Facebook? Facebook sends you texts?! I’m not on Facebook, I didn’t know you could get texts!
I don’t know how to turn that off! Sorry.
That’s high tech, man!
You were on Facebook at one point, weren’t you?
No, it turned out the publicity section of HBO started a fake page, but it wasn’t even, like, Mel, it was Kristen Schaal and my picture. They just started plugging when the DVD sales were for the Flight of the Conchords, but everybody thought it was me including my nephew who was like, “I sent you my prom pictures weeks ago.” That’s when I was like, enough is enough and I had to work really hard to shut it down.
When do you think your anonymity started to disappear?
I think it was after Flight of the Conchords started airing. I just remember the time because I was in Edinburgh doing a show for a month and it didn’t air overseas. So all the sudden I’m over there and I’d go to the internet café and my MySpace page had, like, 100 friend requests. I knew it was airing, but I’d never been on a TV show like that before. Then it was becoming, like, a cult hit and I flew from Edinburgh to do the Bumbershoot Festival in Seattle. I remember walking through the airport and someone was like, “I just want to shake your hand!” I was like what is happening? I was walking through Bumbershoot and people were like, “Holy shit! It’s Mel!” I mean, the Bumbershoot Festival is a music festival mainly so I feel like that was their anthem show. But it’s not even really that bad. It’s not like I’ve completely lost my anonymity. I mean, no one here knows who I am.
They all keep staring at you when your back is turned.
No they don’t! [laughs] It’s a really nice level. I can still try to at least knock on more doors, but I don’t feel uncomfortable. I’m not Fiona Apple or anything. [laughs]
I think Fiona Apple is dating Jonathan Ames. I think. I try to keep up on my Fiona gossip.
Dude… she kind of helped me get through high school. Very important stuff. So when you are writing stand-up or working on a show where do the ideas generally come from?
That’s the problem, I wish I knew because I’d go there all the time. I’m getting better at learning that if I think of something funny to just write it down because I know 100% that I won’t remember it later. I find I’m stimulated by people, like if we’re talking, having fun. I’ve already got at least five Fiona Apple jokes right now. [laughs] I feel like if I were working more on other things then I might do better with my own stuff. The other day I was working out (into microphone) I work out… and I was riding the bike real fast and watching Karate Kid with Will Smith’s kid… come on! That kid is great. I don’t care what they say about Will and Jada Pinkett-Smith thrusting their kids in the limelight. That is a gift to us, all right? I don’t care if their kids come out warped and shitty, I am enjoying them. Willow Smith’s “Whip My Hair”? Come on! And then I was talking to Kurt [Braunohler] later and I was like it would be so funny if I was forcing Kurt to do things over and over on stage and he’s like, “I don’t want to do this anymore!”
A year ago I had this idea, I want to be a stage mom and I want to rent somebody’s little kid—like, a 5-year-old—and put them on stage. We’re dressed alike and I just get SO jealous of the kid and really draw the line. Kind of abusive because I’m so envious of how cute they are. So that’s an idea I’ve had for forever and I don’t know if I will ever see it come alive. Because I don’t know any kids. And I’ve been asking around.
So how did you and Kurt start doing Hot Tub?
We met at The PIT. I actually took a class at the UCB when I moved to New York. I was like, listen, I’ve done everything; I was on a team at iO in Chicago, [I took levels] one through four, I did Second City, and they were like you need to take Level Two. I took Level Two and it’s always fun to re-learn those skills, but it’s not fun to re-learn those skills with people who are learning those skills for the first time. I didn’t want to pour more money into this so I was like [to the UCB], do you know when auditions are for a team? And basically I was discouraged from auditioning so I dropped out of that scene. Later someone was like The PIT—this new theatre—is having open mic jams on Wednesday nights at midnight so I went over and performed and after a few times they asked me to join the house team (Big Black Car) and I stayed on at The PIT because of that. I know UCB was a hotter place to hook people up, but I just couldn’t do it. At The PIT the shows are just so fun, they’re just stream of conscious. I’ve been on my team for like, six years.
So, I wanted to start an open mic night and I went to the director of The PIT, and simultaneously Kurt had the same idea. So they were like you two should work together. I didn’t know who he was, we just started writing stuff together. Kurt has a really great energy. I wish we could bottle it up, sell it, I’d be a millionaire!
How did Penelope Princess of Pets start?
After The New York Times article came out we had a meeting with a couple people to pitch movie ideas. [Kurt and I] just sort of came up with Penelope organically. Kurt was like, “Let’s do a show about a girl who can talk to animals,” and I was like, “Yeah, AND she has to kill a Senator.” Boom, boom, boom, and it was done. We never got to pitch it as a movie, but then Super Deluxe came around and we pitched Penelope and… badabing, badaboom! After [Super Deluxe] it was a 22-minute pilot in the UK that did not go anywhere. I don’t know, I was at Comic-Con this summer and I was like goddammit… Penelope is Comic-Con gold. I know it’s too weird, none of the TV stations wanted it. TV stations…?
Yeah… WKRP said no. [laughs] I feel like I’m not done with it yet. I’m slowly letting it die, but I don’t think I’ll ever completely let it go. I think it could maybe be a movie or maybe make some web shorts. It would be a great comic book. We built this whole mythology for it, we have the arc and everything ready to go, it’s just nobody wants to let us realize that dream. That’s why it’s great to produce your own stuff.
Have you worked behind the scenes on your own projects?
You know when we did Penelope Princess of Pets in the UK, that was my first time behind the scenes and my self esteem just went way up. It’s so empowering and it’s really good work. When you’re an actress you’re just at the whim of bullshit. You don’t have any control, at all.
Do you remember the first time you realized you were funny?
I think in high school I would do these little plays and I was like oh shit, people are really laughing. The first time I’ve really gotten a positive response out of anyone. [laughs] No, I’m just kidding. It was probably around then, but I don’t know, I wish I could tell you. I think my family has a sense of humor, but it was never something that was like … showcased. I was never the funny one or anything, it was like, “Kristen wants to be an actress … my god!”
What was it that made you want to become an actress?
I think it was just being in a different world and getting to pretend. It was not about making people feel … I could care less! I could care less! [laughs] Maybe this is cheesy but someone said that the book you loved most as a child could be a metaphor for your life. My favorite book was Cinderella. I think there was something about the fact that this girl who was a peasant and a servant who got to pretend to be somebody else for a couple of hours, wear a costume and dance around. I think that’s what I loved the most. [fakes crying] It’s so beautiful, what I just said!
So comedy just comes naturally to you.
Yeah, it’s just a point of view. I think it comes from being a little isolated. I have to say there is something really nice to being told your whole life that you’re not meeting the expectations of society. Being told that you’re not a hot chick. I have to say it really freed my soul. [laughs]
Is that where your confidence comes from?
Yeah. Society says, “This is the ideal person.” That is so not me, I’m not close in any way, there’s nothing I can do to achieve the ideal so I get to buck the trend and have fun over here.
It’s way better, anyway.
It is now that I’m working—it wasn’t then!
What was the best piece of career advice anyone gave you?
I got a lot! Things that stick in my head are Andy Kaufman’s dad saying just keep going up every night. Don’t stop performing. And David Cross… I was worried about something and he was like, “Who cares!” Jeff Garlin … I was worried about something and he was like, “Who cares!” [laughs] I think more people have told me, “Who cares.” I think it’s easy to feel like things weigh heavier than they do.
Your Sony Ericsson spots are really fantastic. It’s great to see advertisers showcase the funny in women instead of the same old routine. I hope there’s a lot more of that.
Me too! I was really psyched that they asked me to do it. I was like that’s really smart. I’m not the first thing that pops in your head to [help sell] a Playstation/phone, but it was a good fit.
Yay, funny girls! There’s just so much importance placed on image.
Well, that’s the problem. That’s women’s most important quality in society, what she looks like, and that is so depressing. I can say that now in 2011 and not feel like I’m whining. I think it’s really prevalent and I don’t think it’s going away. Probably not in my lifetime, but I would like for it to ease up a bit.
I would hope more woman being in positions of power would help that.
It does! It absolutely does! I swear to god, we get a woman president someday I really do feel like there’s going to be rampant sexism, but it’s going to be SO healing. I can’t believe I said that. [laughs] SO healing.
Speaking of women, who are you really enjoying watching right now?
I love everybody! I just did the Women In Comedy Festival in Boston with Morgan Murphy and Jen Kirkman. They’re kicking ass. I love Andrea Rosen. She cracks me up hard. Lisa Delarios is really funny. Sara Schaefer is really funny. Adira Amram! Come on, she’s one of my faaaaves.
You and she have very similar energies.
What do you hope to see from women in comedy in the future?
Balls … No! I just want to see more of them. I think that’s sort of been the constant drive, hasn’t it? At least in my period—ew, sorry, I don’t have those—I feel like whatever would describe my time in comedy is that there weren’t enough women. And it’s something that’s constantly talked about because it’s just true. I would like to see more women and it’s happening now and it’s not gonna stop!
What role, voice over, or otherwise, do you think closely mirrors who you are?
There are none. I am such an enigma. [laughs] I think I’m a little like Louise in Bob’s Burgers. I mean she’s nine and I wouldn’t say those things, but I have a lot of fun saying those things. Mel was a lot of fun to play, but I was always sad. It was like going to work and being rejected all the time.
Is there anything else you’d like to say, you gorgeous lady of comedy?
You’re like, “Just say, ‘I’m a really big fan of G.L.O.C. And I’d like to buy a share.’” G.L.O.C. is the next Facebook. [laughs] I swear to god, if I get a text from G.L.O.C. …