Kristen Schaal first came to national attention as the hilariously determined superfan in HBO's "Flight of the Conchords." In a show whose main characters were understated and dry, she was a daffy, helium-voiced counterpoint, stealing scenes with little more than a bulge of her cartoonishly large eyes or a flash of her smile.
She looks plucked from the silent screen era, with her perky flapper hair and full cheeks. But Schaal is a decidedly modern, multifaceted performer -- a female comedian who talks about gender politics on "The Daily Show" and has co-written a just-released satire of sex manuals with her boyfriend Rich Blomquist (a "Daily Show" writer) called "The Sexy Book of Sexy Sex." She appears in her author's photo wearing a robe open far enough to reveal chest hair that would make Tom Selleck weep with envy.
Since "Conchords" went off the air, Schaal has had blink-and-miss-them parts in "Dinner for Schmucks," "Going the Distance" and "Valentine's Day" (she also did voice work in "Toy Story 3" and "Shrek Forever After"). But it's a mark of her comedic talents and unconventional appeal that even these cameos have made a remarkable impression, landing her appearances on "The David Letterman Show" and transforming her into a beloved cult figure.
We spoke recently in New York City, where Schaal lives, about her mixed feelings on porn, her brief stint on "Mad Men," and what she thinks about being "too ugly for television."
Sex is a great topic for a comedy book because sex itself is so absurd. How did you first find out about sex?
I was on the school bus and somebody said, "They're humping!" and I was like, "What does that mean?" I don't even remember what they told me; I just remember there was something else that a man and a woman could do other than hugging.
Years later, I found a porno in my brother's room called "Hot Nights on the Beach." It was a woman and two men having a threesome, and it was full throttle. I couldn't believe it. Another video came on afterward, and it was a woman getting it with a broomstick and loving it.
Wow. Your sexual education went dark quick.
I found some positives in it. The woman had an orgasm, theoretically at least, and I remember thinking that was cool. But porn really puts women in a disgusting light. It spends way more time showing a woman giving a blow job than her getting cunnilingus. I mean, porn turns me on. How could it not? But it's too bad it has to be the same degrading formula. Would it kill you to eat some box? Come on. You know what is a surprise turn-on? Gay porn.
Like two men?
Or three. There's a different dynamic that I find very sexy.
It's nice to see sex satire written in part by a woman. Men can be hilarious about sex, but there's a particular absurdity to the female experience. You have a funny part about waxing called "pubescaping."
Speaking of porn, women think they need to have the runway patch because of porn. That's what is role-modeled for their vaginas, and it's really disturbing. And that's the swimwear and underwear you can buy. I remember trying to find a swimsuit after I hit puberty, and I thought something was completely wrong with me. I thought I was this dirty, hairy girl. And finally my mom was like, "You can shave there." I was like, "Gah, thanks for the tip." Why can't they make swimsuits that actually cover a woman's body hair? Why do they have to be all Lady Gaga'ed out?
Speaking of posing in underwear, I wanted to talk to you about the book cover. This underwear has a certain Sears catalog 1978 quality.
You don't have to shave your bush to get into that underwear and look sexy.
Indeed. So tell me about that decision to pose in underwear on the book.
I had a different idea for the costume. I wanted to look like full-on "Birth of Venus." I had a blond wig and a nude body stocking that was kind of Marilyn Manson. But [Chronicle Books] bought this stuff, and I actually protested a little. I was like, tube socks? That's so American Apparel.
How do you feel about it now?
I feel good about it. I mean, come on. I'm a hot dish. [laughs] What I like about it is that I have a normal body there. It looks like what I think a normal woman's body looks like.
You wore a Wonder Woman outfit on "The Daily Show." Have you always been comfortable with your body?
Yeah, I don't mind getting to a skimpy place for the sake of a joke, or feeling a bit vulnerable body-wise.
I loved your recent "Daily Show" bit on "mama grizzlies," by the way. One of the interesting things about your appearance on that show is that you have this recognizable, goofy comic persona, and a lot of the actors on that show have a dry delivery, more like a fake anchorperson. Is that tricky for you?
It is. Being a correspondent on "The Daily Show" is some combination of doing a character and doing stand-up. It's a juggling act to find a balance between being you and playing a role.
I was a little surprised that there was no mention of me. I know I'm on the show sporadically, but every time I'm on it, I'm talking about women's issues. It's a conversation we need to have: Why aren't there more women in comedy? But that article was borne from a sexist conception that Olivia Munn was cast for the wrong reasons before she was even able to prove herself on the show.
So if the discussion about women and comedy is one we need to have, what should we be talking about?
That's a really difficult question to answer, because it's this massive topic.
Can I ask it more narrowly then? When has it been hard for you to be a woman in comedy?
It's not hard to be a woman in comedy as long as you're also a writer. You have to create your opportunity. That's what men have been doing. Granted, a lot of men hold the keys to getting your stuff on the air. But the more women sit down and write something in a woman's voice for a woman, they more you'll see women in comedy, because gender doesn't define sense of humor. Imagination and intelligence and perspective do.
Sometimes I try to sell shows with a female lead to networks and that isn't something that's been a proven formula for them, so they reject it. I do feel like men get the funniest roles in movies. I could sit there and be like, "This sucks, I could do that!" Well, why don't I write a movie where a woman is playing a really funny role? The minute someone writes something like that and it's successful, more people will copy that, and it'll be the norm. Don't just complain. I mean, don't get me wrong: It is hard, and we can commiserate, and I've had plenty of drunk nights talking about how unfair it is. And then you wake up the next morning and you sit in front of your computer and you write a script. Otherwise, we'll just all go watch another Judd Apatow movie. He's doing it. He's shown us that goofy men dating gorgeous women who have meltdowns is funny. But there are a lot of ways to be funny.
When did you realize that you were funny?
In high school, I was doing a skit for forensics and people started laughing, more than I was prepared to deal with. It was a surprise.
Forensics sounds like you're talking about "CSI." But that's just a name for high school speech class, right?
Yeah, there was this thing called humorous interpretation. You had eight minutes. The rules were weird: You couldn't move one foot, you had to hold a script, even though you had performed it a hundred times and you obviously had it memorized. It was the best training ground for being an actress and a comedian, because you're judged and you get this competitive hunger to be the best and keep going and you have to get in front of people over and over.
You appeared on the "Mad Men" pilot as a telephone operator, sitting next to the woman who ended up in the Progressive insurance ads, but couldn't continue on when the filming moved to Los Angeles. Do you ever watch it now and think: Ooh, this would be a great moment for that plucky operator to come in?
No, it's the show on TV I'd most love to be back on, but I love watching it as a spectator and not knowing what's going to happen. It seemed like when they were casting that pilot, the show was really an unknown. Everyone knew Matthew Weiner was talented, but AMC had never done episodic drama, and I wonder if, because it was such an unknown, they were able to cast more unique actors -- and all of a sudden you could discover Jon Hamm and you could discover Christina Hendricks because bigger agents weren't pushing their bigger clients for the show.
And it works to have a handsome blank slate as Don Draper, because Don Draper is a handsome blank slate.
Yeah, it would be weird to see Paul Rudd as Don Draper.
Your voice is pretty distinctively comic, and it's probably the most recognizable thing about you. Have you ever tried to change it to sound less different?
No, no, I didn't know it was different. It wasn't until I transferred to Northwestern in my sophomore year that everybody was like, "Aaah, your voice!" And I was like, "What?" Not long ago I tried to disguise myself for Halloween, so I could get drunk and wouldn't care if I ran into a "Flight of the Conchords" fan, but as soon as I started talking, people were like, "Hey, it's you!" There's no escape.
I'm surprised you didn't go through this phase of, like, "I have to sound like everyone else."
I think I've always had a disconnect from what I'm supposed to be like. That's why you can be a stand-up comedian, because nobody's supposed to get onstage and say those things. But I thought a lot more than my voice would hold me back. I thought the way I looked would be the first slam in my face.
It's such a weird mark of Hollywood that you stand out as much as you do. And I wonder what it's like to be the person who's always cast as, well, the dorky girl?
Sure, I don't mind it. Clearly that's my forte. I think those characters can be ... no, that's a lie. I was going to say I think those parts can be interesting, but then I realized that was wrong. [laughs] "And then what happened, best friends?"
It's still exciting for me, though. I like that I stick out. I was watching "Valentine's Day" on the plane recently. I have a tiny part in that movie. I was watching all the women -- Jessica Biel, and Emma Roberts, and Jennifer Garner and Julia Roberts. They are gorgeous women, and I don't want to take anything away from them, but they all do have a very classical look, with a very thin nose. I'm watching this parade of these faces and then, boom, it was my face, and I was taken aback. I was like, "Oh, my nose is so big!" I have never in my life thought I had a big nose, but, well, there it was.
The first time I was on TV, on "Flight of the Conchords," someone put up a YouTube clip and said, "You're too ugly to be on TV." And I was like, "That is exactly why it's a good thing that I'm on TV."