“Oh my God!! Listen to this!” Kristen Schaal squeals in her appealingly cartoonish voice. She jumps off her bed, which is covered by the kind of faded, old-fashioned quilt you’d only have if you, like, grew up on a farm—which she did.
“This is how the Melbourne Comedy Festival is describing me: â€˜She’s dorky and she’s kooky, hilarious and geeky’…” she laughs. “It sounds like the Addams Family theme song.” She sings the line and laughs again, infectiously this time.
“Who uses that word â€˜kooky’ anyway? It doesn’t mean anything to me. It’s just like: You’re different.”
Which, of course, she is. She’s that rare and precious comedian: completely original and innovative, warm, smart, not at all creepy and surprisingly sexy. Most people recognize her as the bubbly, breathless stalker-fan Mel in HBO’s hit series Flight of the Conchords—the big-eyed girl with a backpack who always just happens to be passing by when the New Zealand rockers leave home. You may also have seen her in Mad Men (as an awkward switchboard operator) and she just landed a small role (as a freak with enormous teeth) in an upcoming Paul Weitz film starring John C. Reilly and Salma Hayek.
In the last few years, Schaal won Best Alternative Comic at HBO’s 2006 U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen and the 2006 Nightlife Award in New York for best female stand-up. Time Out New York‘s readers voted the weekly variety show “Hot Tub,” which Schaal hosts with Kurt Braunohler, Best Variety Show of 2005.
These accolades are no surprise to anyone who has seen the 29-year-old Colorado native perform. After majoring in Performance Studies at Northwestern, she launched her New York comedy career seven years ago with a character who “was doing standup but was really scared of standup and not sure she was in the right place… she would just be really quiet the whole time.” It’s a brilliant act that immediately, innocently unnerves the audience. It’s also reminiscent of Andy Kaufman, whom she definitely evokes, even though she’s “sooo Christian.” (“I’m really sorry about that,” she says. “I always wished I was Jewish. Except for around Christmas.”)
In 2006, Kaufman’s family awarded Schaal the 2nd annual Andy Kaufman Award—and still keeps in touch with her. “His dad’s really supportive of my career,” she says. “And it’s the best contest ever. It blows the doors off any other conventional bullshit… you’re awarded for being weird and, like, yourself.”
In the future, Schaal says, “I just want to be working on my own stuff or working with people I admire. And the good thing I’ve developed for myself as an actor is that I’m more of a comedian. Comedians are in control of their work, but actors have to wait around to see if they get a job.”
For example, before the next season of Conchords starts shooting this spring, Schaal and Braunohler are planning the second season of their popular Web series, “Penelope: Princess of Pets,” in which Schaal plays a 16-year-old who can talk to animals and must save the world in the next 3,759 hours by killing a senator. Her pet bird Ruby is a foul-mouthed drunk.
The best part is that Schaal can do all this in New York. “It used to be you had to go to L.A. to be on TV,” she explains. “Now, people are coming to New York because there are more independent comedians here. We’re not producing work to get on TV shows, so it’s more exciting.”
Plus, on her rare off-days, New York City is a perfect place for one of her favorite pastimes. “I like to drink,” she says.