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She's a touch quirky

Kristen Schaal brings a demented energy to HBO's 'Flight of the Conchords,' and her career's taking off.

October 01, 2008|Mindy Farabee | Times Staff Writer

As Mel, the psychotically besotted fan on HBO's cult hit “Flight of the Conchords” -- the deadpan adventures of New Zealanders Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie, a musical duo taking New York not-so-much by storm -- actress Kristen Schaal has struck a sort of geeky gold. She's inspired YouTube montages and lately garnered print love from Bust magazine and McSweeney's The Believer. Yet thus far, hers has remained a simmering sort of celebrity.

"People seem to think they're the only ones who have seen the show," Schaal says. "One time I was out to dinner with one of my friends in New York, and when I got up to go to the bathroom, the guy at the table next to us leaned in and said, 'Do you know she's on an HBO show?' "

She may have reached the most eyeballs as Mel, the stalker with the wonderfully awkward bathroom encounters and gloriously dorky dance moves. But recently, Schaal also spent a month writing on "South Park" and, beginning this past spring, has logged three appearances as the "Daily Show's" new "senior women's issues commentator," where she's already stripped for feminism. She's scheduled to get another dig in tonight.

Next summer, she has small roles in three major studio flicks, starring the likes of Will Ferrell, Anjelica Huston and John C. Reilly. For the moment, she's biding her time working on a book of short stories for HarperCollins, whipping up a few movie scripts with her comedy partner Kurt Braunohler, and peddling her loopy brand of stand-up to live audiences now measured in the thousands, and for which she's already been lauded from Melbourne to Edinburgh.

Schaal's forte is her absurdist wit, which pays off in a delicious avalanche of surprises. Her character-driven stage shows turn on plot twists, such as her and Braunohler's rendition of a Colonial-era telephone conversation, during which Pocahontas and John Smith abruptly jump from small talk to phone sex. "I think it's really just finding something unexpected," she says. "Our favorite form of comedy is the unlikeliness of things. . . . What I want to keep doing is just have the audience not be able to predict it at all."

On this hot, smoggy afternoon, however, she's content to lounge barefoot in a lawn chair, decked out in a red and white candy-striper-esque dress and sipping a Power C-flavored VitaminWater, in her aunt and uncle's leafy backyard in the Burbank hills.

"I love, love Burbank," she enthuses. "I did not realize that Burbank was the butt of jokes until I did 'The Greg Proops Chat Show' [at the Largo club] last year, and I started talking about Burbank and everything I love about it, and the audience kept laughing louder and louder. They thought I was joking, but I was totally sincere."

Tough crowd

Schaal comes by such sincerity honestly. Currently a Brooklyn resident, she grew up on a farm in Colorado, where she joined the local 4-H and sang and danced for the family cattle.

"I'd perform for them while they ate their hay. They kind of have the same look of expectancy and dullness that an audience has, so it was perfect," Schaal says. "I could perform for anyone after that."

Schaal's first "Daily Show" bit, during which she tapes a video message to our first female president in 2300, came directly out of her stage act, as did her winning audition tape for HBO.

"We watched her for literally 15 seconds" before deciding to give her the job, says "Conchords" co-star/co-creator McKenzie. "She was just hilarious, and that's what we were looking for. She's a brilliant improviser." And also evidently a perverse little Method actor who likes to Mel it up between takes. "She kept Jemaine and me on our toes," McKenzie says.

Finally, Americans everywhere will get a chance to see what the Conchords saw when Schaal's recently taped Comedy Central half-hour special airs, possibly in early 2009. In the meantime, at least there's her Web series "Penelope: Princess of Pets," about talking animals, nefarious politicians and the end of the world. In it, Schaal sports a surly, avian lush for a sidekick -- come to think of it, press photos often find her posing with a feathered friend, and one of her most enduring stage bits involves an empty cage and a phone call from the missing pet. What gives?

"I love birds," she explains. "When I was in high school, my parents liked to go to Hawaii without us a lot. Once they brought back a cockatiel named Kiwi.

"Nothing depressed me more than looking at that bird every day, sitting in a cage in Colorado, watching us do our domestic things. I was just like, are you serious? This bird had a wonderful life in Hawaii, and now it's sitting in our kitchen. It just died one day, it just died on the bottom of the cage. I guess that bird was so sad it inspired my comedy."

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