Kristen Schaal on Taking Parenthood Seriously, Alternative Comedy’s Legacy and Never Wanting to Say Goodbye to ‘Bob’s Burgers’
Kristen Schaal was four and living in rural, small-town Colorado when her life changed. “I got to see Wizard of Oz at the library — that was my first movie,” she says over Zoom. “We never had cable TV growing up, never had a VCR — we would rent the VCR.” Seeing Dorothy travel down the Yellow Brick Road stirred something in a young Schaal. “She was on an adventure — she was on an adventure by herself, and that was okay. She had her dog and she made friends, but she definitely was alone just discovering that.”
Spend any time with the 45-year-old actor, writer and comedian, and it’s clear that she loves collaborating and being part of a team. But she’s also proudly marched to her own drum, trusting her idiosyncratic sense of humor while delivering hilarious performances that are unafraid to be bizarre, even off-putting. In her stand-up days, Schaal went for laughs, but she also liked toying with the format — and she definitely wasn’t interested in being one of those comics who spoke directly about her personal life. She preferred crafting personae and strange characters. Much like Dorothy, she escapes the mundane to arrive at a place far more magical and unexpected. Who wouldn’t want to go on the journey with her?
On the small screen, you saw her as Hazel, the dangerously unstable page on 30 Rock. She was Mel, the stalker-ish fan in Flight of the Conchords. She’s been a delightful addition to What We Do in the Shadows. She played Carol, one of the survivors on The Last Man on Earth. She was the Senior Women’s Issues Correspondent on The Daily Show. And then there’s the myriad voice work she does. Schaal received an Emmy nomination for BoJack Horseman, where she portrayed Sarah Lynn, a tragic former pop star destroyed by fame and addiction. She’s the triceratops Trixie in the recent Toy Story films. But Schaal is perhaps best known for Louise, the strong-willed, sweet-hearted youngest daughter on Bob’s Burgers, which recently completed its 13th season.
Acting has been important to Schaal since she was a kid, performing at church when she wasn’t busy living inside her imagination. And considering how many young characters she voices now — she also played the boisterous Mabel on the Disney Channel series Gravity Falls — it’s safe to say she still very much has a connection to that girl who was transported by The Wizard of Oz.
When I spoke to Schaal last week, she was at home, and even though she likes creating a distance between her real life and her on-stage self, she was in a reflective, candid mood. “I’m in my sound booth in my garage right now,” she tells me, “which is probably why I’m just spilling it all out. In a booth, you feel really comfortable to go wherever.” In her voice work, that freedom allows for the unbridled performances she gives, and during our conversation, she was similarly unguarded, opening up about being a rule-follower, working blue (much to the dismay of her religious parents) and being nostalgic for her salad days in New York trying to make as a comic. Also, if anyone from Wheel of Fortune is reading, she’s interested in the hosting gig now that Pat Sajak is retiring.
It’s mid-June: If there wasn’t a writers’ strike going on right now, what would you be doing?
I guess recording Bob’s Burgers? But June’s always been pretty chill for me. I’m really grateful: I feel for anybody in the middle of a show right now that they have to make the tough choice of what to do when the rules are a little bit gray for certain unions. I think I (know) what I would do, but I’m also such a team player that it’s really tough. (I’m) a team player for everybody — I want to make everybody happy.
My parents, just this morning, were like, “How’s the strike?” I’m just proud to live in a country — and be in an industry — where we have these unions to get more benefits from the work we do. That is not the case in a lot of different places. So, kudos, America!
When you talk to your parents, do they understand what the strike is about?
They totally get it. In fact, this morning when it came up, my mom said something so nice: “I can always remember you fighting really hard to get what you want.” Not necessarily for good causes… (Laughs)
In high school and college, I’d always just do whatever I could to get the best of whatever it was. I was going to (the University of Colorado Boulder), and it was great, but a mentor had suggested going to Northwestern because they put on a lot of shows and the students are really involved in plays, which was right up my alley. But I didn’t get in, so I was going to CU, and then I decided to get my grades up as high as I could — do as many different activities as I could, (put together a) killer admission packet — and I did get in.
But then I got (to Northwestern) and there was no room in theater, but there was one spot open in performance studies. I didn’t know what the difference was, so I said, “Sure,” and when I got there, they said, “Well, since you’re a performance studies student, you can’t take acting classes.” So I staged a guerilla performance in the dean’s office about why I should be allowed to take acting classes, and she responded that that was the most performance studies thing she’d ever seen: “Have a good day.” (Laughs)
So I asked one teacher who I knew had a soft spot (for me), Mary Poole, if I could just audit her class since, as a performance studies major, I wasn’t allowed to be in it. She agreed, and I audited the class every day for three or four months — she finally melted down and let me in the class.
If that story about your passionate impromptu performance had had a happy ending, I could see how it would empower you to keep putting yourself out there. But you clearly learned to keep going regardless.
What I learned over and over whenever there was a hurdle was that I really wanted to be an actor. I really wanted to do this theater stuff, do comedy stuff. I would just relearn how bad I wanted it the harder it was to get it. It was like, “Well, you can’t have it” — and then, instead of being like, “Okay, I’ll do something different,” I was just like, “Okay, what can I do to get it in a different way?”
Did it surprise you that you had that quality inside you?
Yeah, because I’m really afraid of authority. I will follow the rules. I’m not a rebel in most cases, but this was just one of those things where (it was) just deep down inside me — I just knew that I needed to do it. Luckily, my parents, there’s two kids and I’m the youngest one so I was just able to fly under the radar, were like, “Okay.”
One thing that I’ve always known is that I had to do this, and I definitely feel lucky to have had that drive so early on. There’s so many talented people that have had to figure it out, and I look at them and I think that would be scarier than knowing how bad you want to do something and not being allowed to.
You did that great bit on John Oliver’s old New York stand-up showcase where you tell the audience how you were born. You actually brought your parents out on stage, but they wouldn’t talk. I’m assuming that was part of the bit — they didn’t just freeze up.
I think they weren’t supposed to say anything — they called themselves “professional props.” (Laughs) They were very proud — they had fun. My mom really enjoyed getting her makeup done, because that’s such an extravagant treat — we forget that to have someone put makeup on you is actually really lovely. They had a good time.
I was happy that they did that, because my earlier stuff especially was so blue, and I was raised super-Christian — I was always a little bit ashamed of my comedy around them. I wasn’t going to stop... (Laughs) So having them be involved in that piece felt good.
It’s tough growing up with parents who look down on that sort of humor. Maybe you were rebelling by working blue.
Well, the laughs were just undeniable. Every time I went blue, I got a big laugh, so I was like, “Well, that beats the shame!” I’d always try to explore away from that, but then if I did go back to it and it worked, it works. You got to put it in.
I think about the early days of your career: You were very much lumped into the “alternative comedy” category. Did it feel like you were doing something “alternative”?
I remember when I moved to New York and I wanted to do stand-up comedy, I was so scared. I’d never really been there before, and I was trying to make it work, trying to get a job, trying to find a place to live. Good luck trying to find a place to live when you can’t get employed.
I remember it was on Monday nights, there was this room called Eating It at the Luna Lounge. It was so long ago — it would be like, early 2000s, with Marc Maron hosting and occasionally Janeane Garofalo. I walked in there and I sat down and I watched the show, and I was like, “This is where I should be.” (Chokes up) I’m getting emotional, but it felt like I was home in a home that was so tough to be in. I was like, “Oh, okay, I get it now.” I went to that room every Monday for, like, two years without performing — just watching. It was $7, and you could get a drink ticket. It was amazing. Some of it was stand-up, and some of it wasn’t. That’s what was so incredible to me: It could be anything.
Then I found Reverend Jen’s Collective Unconscious and Surf Reality, and I could try little playlets out. They’d be little weird character monologues — like a girl not realizing she was at a comedy club but a poetry jam. I had some pieces where a girl was showing her science project where she would perform voodoo on a more popular girl — all these weird things that I’d worked really hard on all week, and they were working. I finally got the courage to ask Jeff Singer (from Eating It) if I could give him a tape — after two years, I was ready.
I tried to do a stand-up club when Conan (O’Brien) was looking for acts — I did a very weird character that bombed, so I just stayed out of those clubs. (Laughs) People would say “alternative comedy”: That would be fine as long as it was getting laughs. That was the art form I was going for.
Labels like that are always weird, though, because they suggest you all were fighting against the comedy status-quo or something.
I totally know that narrative. Sometimes I wonder if that came from the traditional stand-up comics. There was a time where we were doing really well — everyone who was doing their alt-comedy was getting recognized. I certainly was and the people around me, (like) Eugene (Mirman), because it was different and it was fun. But then it was starting to get a little bit criticized. I would never criticize a stand-up comic because I adore it — I think it’s really, really hard to do. I just never wanted to tell jokes about myself. I think stand-up comedy as an art form is one of my favorites — it’s so honest, and it’s always been hard for me to be that honest. (Laughs)
That must have been the appeal of doing characters: I’m not me on stage. I’m this other person. I can channel my insecurities and fears into this character.
That’s the deal. But there’s also a deep insecurity that my perspective and my life is boring — and no one would want to hear about it.
But then I think about your great bit about women’s swimsuits. That’s personal, in a sense, but it’s also universal.
Definitely. That insecurity of not wanting to share, I think, hurt me. I could have had a lot more material if I could beat that. Maybe I can beat that. I was just telling Kurt Braunohler, my comedy partner, “I don’t know if I can do this anymore. No one wants to hear about a 45-year-old white lady’s story,” and he was like, “Do that! Put your big fear up there!” I’m like, “Oh god…”
So you’re not ready to take that advice.
Not quite ready. But the women’s stuff — women's fashion, swimsuits — that was something that was easy to point to. It still drives me crazy. It’s never going to change.
Watching your old stand-up clips on YouTube, I noticed comments where people said, “Not only is she funny, she’s got such great fashion sense.” I don’t want to call it “quirky,” because I find that adjective lazy, so how would you describe your fashion style?
I think about clothes a lot, obviously. (Laughs) For stand-up and for performing, my whole thing was that the stage (is) a sacred space — kind of like church — and that I wanted to dress up for it. That led to, “Well, what looks good on me?” And it was always dresses that were a bit conservative but also colorful — I was buying my dresses from a store called Trashy Diva in New Orleans, and they were these 1940s-style dresses that would fit great, and that was sort of my costume. I have never worn heels, so I’d always have to try to find comfortable flat shoes that also look nice. If I ever could, I would love to make a fashionable line of shoes that aren’t heels that women felt comfortable wearing out.
I know many women who would love for you to start that line. They hate the shoes they have to wear.
It’s an obstacle and it shouldn’t be, because it’s supposed to be your most important events — like your wedding or your job interview or a really nice time out — and then you have to be like, “Well, my feet are going to hurt,” and that’s so gross. I can’t believe it persists. Women will bring another pair of shoes with them because they know their feet will hurt.
But I love that people say that (about my fashion sense). That’s really sweet. I’ll remember that when I’m feeling dumpy. (Laughs)
A lot of comics draw from becoming parents. You’re a mom with a five-year-old: Have you been tempted to write about that experience?
I know it’s a goldmine. All my comedian friends, that’s the bulk of their material, and it’s so funny and so good, and I love listening to it. I might get there — well, I’ve been mostly doing acting (since I became a mom), which is what I wanted, so that’s taking away from doing stand-up in the way that I hope continues, because acting is so much fun. But it’s such a privilege: (The acting) could end, and luckily I can always find a stage.
But I feel a little protective over my daughter, Ruby. And I’ve found that, as a mom, I’m learning a lot about myself — just how I am reacting to her and being a parent and how patient I am. A lot of it is resenting her for having things I didn’t have — which might be really funny. But I feel like I spend more time reading self-help books about sleeping and raising (a child) than I can write jokes about. I guess I take it really seriously. (Laughs) I don’t know, I just want to do it right.
Kurt Braunohler and Megan Gailey and Chris Garcia have a new podcast about being parents, and they asked me to do it, and I was like, “I can’t say no to Kurt.” So I was like, “Okay, this is the last thing I would want to do.” I got there, and I was like, “I just don’t want to say anything derogatory about Ruby,” and then once I started talking, I realized that all the derogatory things are really about me. (Laughs) She’s a kid doing little kid things and I’m a parent messing it up, so that was kind of nice.
It’s a funny thing: When I was pregnant with her, I was like, “Wait until she finds out I’m Mabel! Wait until she finds out I’m Louise! She’s going to think I’m the coolest mom in the whole world!” You just don’t know anything. Now I’m like, “Oh, I’m glad that Gravity Falls is a nice cult hit that will never go away, but I’m glad she’s not at school and all her friends are like, ‘Your mom’s Mabel?!’”
You’ve said you don’t ever want Louise to get older on Bob’s Burgers. I wondered if that’s partly a reaction to not wanting your own daughter to grow up too fast.
It’s also just an artistic thing — like, I remember when For Better or For Worse (the kids) grew up and it was like, “Ugh, no.” The thing that’s so great about animation is that you can have the character living a life the same age for eternity. And I also just love Louise as a kid. I get to access the kid inside me every time I play her. I get to be nine years old — a very, very smart nine-year-old. It’s such a joy, and I think everyone has their childhood self Russian-dolled in them.
I just want to keep her the same — if you grow her up, that’s a different character. I’m a different Kristen from nine-year-old Kristen, so if you told me Louise had to grow up, then I’d almost be like, “Well, someone else needs to play her. Maybe we need to re-audition her.” (Laughs)
Actually, maybe it’s not your daughter you’re worried about. Maybe it’s that you don’t want to lose the nine-year-old in yourself.
I’m always sad to leave a thing that’s fun. When things end — like plays or college — all of it was very sad for me. And even recently — because my life has changed so much with age and having a child — I noticed I’ve been really mourning my 20-year-old New York comedy (self). Even though I was, most of the time, fighting hard and wondering how much money I was going to have (or) what I was going to eat, I missed her. (Laughs) Artistically, she was very free and did whatever she wanted — without the fear I have now, that I need to work through. (I’m) judging myself almost harder now than I did back then. So I miss her.
Why do you think you’re judging yourself harder now?
I think I’m just referring to writing new material, creating my own thing. Working on someone else’s thing, that’s fine because I trust them (and) the ensemble. It’s just about being more well-known, really. When I was starting out, no one knew who I was, and I could do whatever I wanted — people would talk about it, but they wouldn’t really know who I was, and it was so fun. Now I feel like the stakes are higher, and people know who I am and I have a different life now.
Early in your career, you said your voice held you back. Now, of course, it’s such an incredible asset in terms of your comedy and voice-acting. When did you finally feel like, “No, my voice is great and it’s going to help me stand out”?
That probably would’ve been when I finally booked Bob’s Burgers and Toy Story. That was after years of doing stand-up and stuff and getting more noticed, and then I got The Daily Show and Flight of the Conchords. But even then, I remember going to my commercial agent: “I have this voice. People say it’s weird. Do you want to use it?” And they’re like (shakes head). It took a long time — even with a curious voice like this — to break into voiceover. Only then did I realize how cool it was to just have a different-sounding voice, that it was part of the package. So it took a little while.
Whether on stage or in your on-screen work, you’re excellent at creating a space for discomfort. Have you always been somebody who likes to live in that comedic tension?
I think I always have. I’ve always been drawn to Andy Kaufman. Just how far can we push the envelope? What’s funny? Is this funny?
Getting invited to act on something is such a huge privilege — (I’m) going to do whatever they want — and if I get the job and I’m there and they want me to try something, I will just try it. I’ll do it all the way up — all the way until (I’m told) no. I will be unlikable. (Laughs) I will be annoying. In the comments, they’ll say, “She’s the most annoying person!” I’m like, “Well, when I die, I hope they say she was brave on set.” (Laughs)
When Hazel first came your way, how much did the 30 Rock team tell you about her?
I got nothing. I was sort of guessing. I hadn’t worked regularly on anything in a while. There was some downtime after Conchords, and then I started doing some gigs on The Daily Show. I met Sam Means, who is one of Tina Fey’s right-hand men. He’s amazing, and he was about to leave to go write on 30 Rock, so I just went to his office and I was like, “Pitch me for 30 Rock! That’s my favorite show! Please! I could play her cousin! Anything!” (Laughs) I didn’t have any good ideas, but I was like, “I’ll do anything.” And then I got this part.
They wrote a character named Hazel and they wanted me to play it, and that’s all I knew. I feel like they were also discovering her as the show went on. But she was a villain — she brought the show down at the end! Her lawsuit destroys (TGS) and therefore ends 30 Rock, which is (something) to hang my hat on.
At the time especially, Tina Fey was my hero. She’s so talented and so good, and she was also one of the very few women who was running a show, so I idolized her. Whenever she was around, I would just talk so loud because I was so nervous, even though she was very kind. I had a lot of nerves. But I found some old clips online the other day someone put together. I was watching it and I was like, “Nah, this is good. This show is good.” I remember the nerves, but I was starting to remember how fun it was. What a joy.
Some actors just can’t watch themselves in stuff they’ve done.
I need time and then I can enjoy it. If it’s really fresh, I’m just not going to enjoy it, first of all, because it’s a direct reflection of what my face looks like now. It’s all good, but I need a little distance from it.
My favorite thing about acting is being on set and doing the scenes — talking with everybody between scenes. Every time I got off the subway to go to Silvercup Studios (to film 30 Rock), I would just be like, “My dream.” Every time I would open this giant stage door in Chatsworth to the Last Man set, I’d be like, “Thank you, God.” Every time, I was, “I did it. I can’t believe I get to open this door and I know everybody’s name, and I did it.” I love working, so when you see the end result, it’s a little bit, “That’s not my experience.”
I’ve had some dry down times. I always just have to remind myself that there won’t always be a time where there is something for me, and that’s okay — it doesn’t mean that it's over. Well, I’m saying, “It’s over” in my mind. (Laughs) I think every actor thinks they’re done after they’re done (filming something).
You must have thought about the fact that, one day, Bob’s Burgers is going to end.
It’s something that occasionally has crossed my mind. It makes me really sad, because this is the longest family I’ve ever had besides my mom and dad, Bob and Linda have been my parents a really long time. I’m always, “(Co-creator) Loren (Bouchard), how are you feeling? You feeling good? Are you feeling burnt out? How’s it going over there?” I know that Seth MacFarlane and Matt Groening, there’s points where they’re like, “And the reins go to you…,” but I feel like all the writers on Bob’s Burgers still have a ton of stories to tell.
I really hope it doesn’t end. I will be sad. I will always be grateful, and then I will be very sad. I would be sad, sad, sad because I really love Louise and I love everybody on that show. And I will try to get on a new show as hard as I can. (Laughs)
It’s funny you mention Andy Kaufman: In your work, I noticed you share a quality with him in that you both use your eyes so expressively, combining innocence and panic simultaneously.
I’ve definitely seen it. I remember when I was doing the Andy Kaufman contest, I had this flier I had made and I’m doing big eyes. I tried to make a thank-you note for (Andy’s father) Stanley Kaufman, and I put our pictures like we were in a photo booth together. I was like, “We got some similar eyes going on.”
Wait, what’s this contest?
So Stanley Kaufman did a contest, and it was for comedians who shared (Andy’s) spirit doing weird things — (they) could compete for $5,000, which was, wow, so much money. I didn’t win it the first year, but I won it the second year.
Because of that contest, I became friends with his family and his brother and sister and his nephew. He got a star on the Walk of Fame, and they want me to speak. I was like, “Are you sure?” I’ll do it, but I know that Andy Kaufman has colleagues that adore him that know him — I never met him, I just know his family, who (are) so lovely. His brother was very sweet: He says that there’s a spirit in me that he’s always felt in his brother, and he thought I was the right one.
Oh my god, I need to write something for that.
Your performance as Sarah Lynn in BoJack Horseman was funny, but also a lot darker and more dramatic. Did you have any sense early on how bad it was going to get for that character?
I didn’t know she would have such a dark ending when I started playing her. I give a lot of credit to Raphael Bob-Waksberg: He was always right there with me playing the other characters when I was recording. I knew him from the New York comedy scene — and (BoJack Horseman producer and production designer) Lisa Hanawalt as well — and he gave me something from when he was a teenager that really meant the world to him. It was a collection of essays, and then I gave him a handwritten note that a teenager had passed me. It was a funny interaction, but it made me feel okay to be vulnerable with him.
The writing (on BoJack Horseman) is so good, so there wasn’t much to do. I like those chances to be a bit more dramatic with voiceover — I did it, too, with Delirium on The Sandman. There’s not a camera on you — it’s very private, it's easy to be a little more raw.
Are you able to watch Sarah Lynn? Especially at the end, it’s pretty bleak.
I can watch animation. I can hear my voice right away because it’s coming out of a different face. I prefer a collaboration and an ensemble — I want to be a cog in a really funny, fun wheel. (With) animation, someone else made the expressions, which I get to enjoy.
That show was incredible for lots of reasons, but I think it did such a good job exposing the darkness of fame and Hollywood. You’ve lived in L.A. and been in the business for a long time: Did that aspect of it resonate with what you’ve witnessed in the industry?
I think it’s bigger than that. BoJack is one of the clearest depictions of depression that I’ve ever seen in a TV show. And especially because it’s coming out of a horse, especially with animation, people can always project themselves more intimately onto a cartoon, which is why I think everyone reacted to Sarah Lynn more than I feel like if it was live-action.
It’s just a profound show. I don’t really associate it with Hollywood as much as just being sad and lost. It’s one of my favorite shows, so much so my husband and I started to write a show that was animated — it’s kind of on ice, maybe forever — but we were like, “It's like BoJack!”
That connection between depression and comedy is so interesting. By creating characters on stage, you never had to deal with the audience thinking, “Poor, Kristen, she’s going through a lot.”
Yeah, I always bucked that. I never wanted people to really know me. But I had a whole bit that I loved, about a caterpillar who commits suicide because they don’t realize that they can be a butterfly, too. (Laughs)
Comedy is very honest and very smart. And the funniest things are the most vulnerable things.
I never even thought of that! (Laughs) There was one person who tweeted, “She was so good on it,” because they aired (my episode) last night. And then one person said, “She’s the most annoying thing I’ve ever seen.” (Laughs) I think I might be a bit polarizing to the loyal legions of Fortune fans but, sure, I’ll tell my agent. Whenever a late-night-show host steps down, I’m always like, “I’m free.” They’re like, “Absolutely.” Radio silence.
Sajak parlayed game-show hosting into a late-night gig. You should think about it.
I’ll throw my hat in for Wheel of Fortune. That would be really fun. I’ll tell you who would love it: my mom and dad. They love that show. It’s not blue at all.