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Kurt Braunohler's kind of comedy hits streets, heights

The stand-up comic's jokes and stunts can be whimsical or absurd, found written in the sky or in greeting cards in stores and these days also in the night spots of Los Angeles and on an upcoming comedy album.

April 14, 2013|By Deborah Vankin, Los Angeles Times
  • Comedian Kurt Braunohler performs on April 8, 2013.
Comedian Kurt Braunohler performs on April 8, 2013. (Rick Loomis, Los Angeles…)

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.

"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.

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.

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!"

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