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Entertainment & Arts

Kurt Braunohler’s kind of comedy hits streets, heights

Kurt Braunohler’s kind of comedy hits streets, heights
Comedian Kurt Braunohler performs on April 8, 2013.
(Rick Loomis, Los Angeles Times)

Comedian Kurt Braunohler has promised, within a matter of minutes, to rearrange the downtown Los Angeles sky.

It’s 2:23 p.m. and half a dozen people on a recent Saturday crane their necks and squint into the sun as they wait outside a Hill Street high-rise to be let up to the roof.

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“Don’t bother, man, it’s at capacity in there,” says a petite woman, her face obscured by enormous Jackie O sunglasses and a painter’s cap.

herapist, has a weekly average of about 1.2 million viewers.

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Sure enough, a bouncer holds back the crowd at the wood-paneled entrance to the restaurant Perch on the building’s 15th floor. Many at the door check their Twitter feeds for updates on the big event. It’s now 2:26. Four minutes to go.

Suddenly Kristen Schaal, “The Daily Show” correspondent and Braunohler’s comedy partner, is there. Stepping over the velvet rope, she grabs this reporter’s wrist and nods to the bouncer.

“Come on,” she says, running up the last flight of stairs, her auburn curls bouncing as she takes the steps two at a time.

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At 2:29 p.m, we arrive on the rooftop and find Braunohler holding court, beer in hand, as if this were his backyard barbecue.

It’s a who’s who of the alternative comedy scene. “Portlandia’s” Kumail Nanjiani, Upright Citizens Brigade regular Jon Daly, “Up All Night’s” Matt Braunger and Pete Holmes, who will fill the late-night TBS slot after “Conan” this fall, are in attendance.

Others on the roof are fans of the variety show “Hot Tub With Kurt and Kristen,” which Braunohler and Schaal brought to Los Angeles in January when they moved here from New York.

At 2:30 p.m., a small plane appears above, spitting out a puffy white trail.

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Braunohler grins. “Ha!” he says. “Here we go…"

Several point their iPhones at the blue sky, swaying them in the air as if they were holding glowing Bic lighters at an ‘80s Van Halen concert.

When the plane makes a sharp turn and leaves behind a fuzzy “H,” the crowd hoots and hollers.

Braunohler raised more than $6,000 on Kickstarter to hire a skywriter to leave a single-sentence joke across the downtown L.A. sky. He calls it his Cloud Project. It’s meant for random, passing foot traffic or people driving by.

With his blond hair, loose khakis and untucked oxford, Braunohler, 37, has the air of a fun-loving boarding school prankster. More letters emerge from the plane. Braunohler, 6-foot-4 and towering over most everyone, grips his beer to his chest and bellows with laughter at the crooked lettering.

At last, the joke is revealed: “How do I land?”

Braunohler raises his drink high: “To the worst skywriter in the world!”

Braunohler is not exactly an unknown comic in need of stunts to lift himself out of obscurity. Though not a household name, he’s a prolific stand-up comedian who tours nationwide, has been a regular guest on E!'s “Chelsea Lately” and hosted the IFC parody game show “Bunk.” “Hot Tub” ran for seven years in New York and has quickly become one of L.A.'s most popular live comedy events. He’s writing a pilot for HBO based on a breakup story he told on “This American Life.” And this summer, the indie record label Kill Rock Stars will release his debut comedy album, which bears the same title as the joke now lingering in the sky.

Braunohler’s DIY pranks are meant to shake people out of their everyday inertia.

“It’s about inserting stupidity or absurdity into people’s lives,” he says on another day over coffee.

For his Greeting Card Project, which he started in New York and continues in L.A., Braunohler buys armloads of birthday and anniversary cards and replaces the printed messages with his own anonymous one-liners. Then he sneaks the cards back onto store shelves.

Open a birthday card that asks “What is a son?” over a picture of a flowing river and you’ll find Braunohler’s scribbled words: “Seriously, I don’t know. Sorry I wasn’t around.”

The pranks, he says, are “particular to the way I think about comedy. I want to continually find ways to bring my ideas off the stage and into the real world, into the streets. I think I can make the world a better place, if only for a little while.’”

Schaal clearly shares his love of absurd horseplay. Her first one-hour Comedy Central special, which aired on April Fool’s Day and either went terribly awry or was a brilliant farce that drew comparisons to the deceptions of Andy Kaufman, featured a wild-eyed backstage argument with Braunohler. Neither will say whether the scene was scripted. “No comment” is all Schaal will say.

“Kristen went out there to get a reaction from people — and she did, negative and positive,” Braunohler says. “I was in her half-hour special as well; it’s kind of a tradition of ours. When I get a special, I’m gonna have her carry me out on stage!”

Braunohler’s own pranking grew out of the riot performance art he put on in New York during his 20s. He and a friend would stage roaming, interactive stunts they called “Chengwin and Chunk.” Dressed in 9-foot-high chicken-penguin and chicken-skunk costumes, they’d have loud public battles, drawing crowds and shutting down traffic at major intersections.

“We were obsessed with the city and how it utilized public space,” Braunohler says. “We wanted to redefine it. And we wanted to do something cool that would add to the culture of the city. Then we’d just disappear. No paper trail, no name recognition.”

Growing up in Neptune, N.J., Braunohler didn’t plan to pursue comedy. Punk rock was his singular passion. But in 1998, after graduating from Johns Hopkins University and moving to Manhattan, he signed up for an entry-level improv class just for fun. The very first skit Braunohler performed in class — about maniacally baking bread far too large for human consumption — changed everything.

“I walked off the stage and said, ‘I wanna do this for the rest of my life.’ I’d never felt that way before.”

Braunohler worked the improv circuit for more than eight years — with the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre and then with his own troupe, Neutrino, formed at UCB. He had a day job in an IT department and toured whenever he could. He met Schaal in 2005 at the Peoples Improv Theater, backstage after a show.

Their vaudeville-style variety show “Hot Tub” in New York mixed punk music, Cirque du Soleil clowns and expert jugglers among other acts, with high-profile comics. In L.A., Sarah Silverman, Zach Galifianakis, Tig Notaro and Aziz Ansari have made appearances, along with Canadian indie rock band Islands and musicians Ted Leo and Aimee Mann.

One recent Monday night, there’s a line out the door at Los Feliz’s the Virgil, a dark hipster haunt featuring classic cocktails as well as the “Hot Tub’s” weekly stage. The show won’t start for at least an hour, but most of the booths are already taken and the bar is nearly half-full with skinny jeans in more varied colors than a Gap ad.

When the show starts, Schaal weaves her way through the gridlocked foot traffic in the hall clogged with spectators straining to watch comedian Brody Stevens heckle the crowd. “Excuse me, oh, hi! Excuse...” says Schaal, in her distinct girly cadence. So crowded is this spot that the person inside one of the restrooms cannot fully open the door to get out. There’s a “thump-thump” from inside, which is soon drowned out by a wave of laughter. “Oh, my...” says Schaal, slipping by.

On stage, Braunohler and Schaal have easy chemistry — he’s the quick-cracking straight man to her loopy nerd.

Moving “Hot Tub” to L.A., Braunohler says, was a practical decision.

“There’s more work for comics out here,” he says. “The entire New York comedy scene has moved to L.A. — it’s bled the New York comedy scene dry.”

Schaal moved out first in August. “All the meetings with executives are here,” she says. Braunohler followed in October.

Adjusting to life as an Angeleno, however, hasn’t been easy for Braunohler, a lifelong East Coaster. There’s the driving, which he finds cumbersome, and the lack of serendipitous moments he’d have on the streets while walking. And then there are colonics.

“It’s amazing how much people talk about colonics here. That’s not a thing anywhere else in the country,” he says, laughing. “But I totally did a juice cleanse, I did a colonic — I’m getting into L.A. living!”

Not surprisingly, Braunohler’s forthcoming album is all about injecting absurdity into people’s lives. The hour of material was influenced by Steve Martin’s love of the whimsical and was recorded at the Portland, Ore., rock venue Mississippi Studios rather than at a comedy club.

“I don’t like drinks and food being put down on tables during a recording of a performance,” he says.

Braunohler says he grew up listening to Kill Rock Stars records — they produced several of Elliott Smith’s albums, and Braunohler is a huge fan. He connected with the label on Twitter. They re-tweeted one of his jokes, he wrote back and the dialogue continued from there.

As it turned out, Kill Rock Stars had been wanting to produce a comedy album for more than a year — they were just looking for the right comedian.

“I told Kurt, when we first talked, ‘Comedy is the new punk rock,’” says Portia Sabin, president of Kill Rock Stars. “He’s poking the culture.”

Certainly his outrageous public stunts carry something of a punk ethos.

“You’re revealing a truth about how the world works in some way,” Braunohler says. “These unexpected moments are incredibly valuable, kind of reminding you that there’s a little magic left in the world.”

Back on the roof of the downtown high-rise, the skywriting viewing party is going strong.

“Congrats, man, you did it!” says a thick-bearded redhead in plaid shorts, slapping Braunohler on the shoulder.

“He nailed it,” Schaal says. “He captured people’s imaginations and brought strangers together on a roof. He’s a master at blending art and comedy.”

Schaal stands at Braunohler’s side, peering upward, shielding her eyes with her hand as the joke in the sky begins to fade. Braunohler’s girlfriend, Lauren Cook, an actress who moved with him from New York, stands on his other side. She loops her arm through his and pecks his cheek softly. Then they tilt their heads backward in tandem as the “How” begins to lose its shape.

Within minutes, the wind has erased most of Braunohler’s joke, now a loose puddle of cloud puffs. Only the question mark at the end of the punch line remains.

“That was the coolest part,” Braunohler says later. “This question mark just hanging over the Los Angeles sky. Talk about absurd.”

deborah.vankin@latimes.com

Twitter.com/@debvankin

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