Kristen Schaal Live at the Fillmore: TV Review

Kristen Schaal

Actress, author, stand-up -- she's everywhere: "Modern Family," "Toy Story 3," "The Simpsons," "30 Rock," "Adventure Time" and "Mad Men."

A comedy special that couldn't go more wrong.

Her first comedy special was just as horrific as she warned, but it has to be seen to be believed. Or is the joke on us?

Kristen Schaal, perhaps best known to most people as the strange and extremely inappropriate Hazel on 30 Rock, took on San Francisco's Fillmore for a one-hour Comedy Central special -- her first and, she says, her last.  

Schaal, who also has been a Daily Show correspondent and voices the role of Louise on Bob's Burgers, spent a lot of time tweeting before the special aired to discourage people from viewing it, calling it "a nightmare" and telling her friend Kurt Braunohler for Vulture: "It definitely didn't go the way I wanted it to go. Because it went badly. I just can't even believe they're going to air it."

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But for the first 30 minutes, Schaal flies high, hitting the mark on everything, engaging her audience and successfully incorporating props (like a particularly amorous pot and spoon) as well as a well-executed mime routine as a magician's assistant. She ranted about taints "nestled like an island between two black holes" -- a favored subject -- but did so with an energy and pizzazz that lifted it from being simply vulgar to being genuinely funny. I couldn't imagine, at that point, what could go so wrong for her to insist so vehemently that people not watch. Was it all a joke?

That's the same question I asked myself just a little later, when after a lazy-eye joke fell completely flat, Schaal totally lost it. She said the joke had been her grandmother's and seemed genuinely upset at the poor response. Unable to get past the moment, she corpsed repeatedly on the pronunciation of the word "airplane," saying it over and over again to a chuckling audience who, like me at that point, thought it was part of the joke. It wasn't. Right?

And here the horror of secondhand embarrassment, usually felt far more keenly at an amateur stand-up performance than a sleek one-hour production on a comedy network, really set in. Schaal completely unraveled, and things only got worse as the audience went silent and sat in shock as she raced off the stage. Although she returned later to a willing, though skeptical crowd, she spoke seriously about how her surrealism is not "in" right now, while autobiographical stuff like Louie C.K. does is. A few half-hearted jokes got a decent response from the muted crowd, but when she was completely shown up by a sassy young girl who came onstage to do a sudden, fast-paced and hilarious monologue (which I presume was part of the act, but then again …), the show definitely was over.

Schaal then tried to regain the earlier fervor of her performance and the crowd's former energy with a rant about a horse, which fell totally flat. At this point, after she leaves the stage again, there is a short video that runs (presumably created after the special aired) to try and make light of her meltdown, but it just adds to the carnage. When she returns again, she tells the audience: "So, this comedy special didn't work. This probably is not going to air at all. Please don't upload this or tell anyone about it." Then she performs an infamous sketch with Braunohler that, if Comedy Central's editing is to be believed, made the crowd actually leave before the performance was over. Schaal closes the show with another video sketch lamenting about her dead career.

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Schaal's career is far from dead. This stand-up special certainly will live on in infamy, but her abilities as an actress and as a comedy writer are not in question. I was on the fence about Schaal before the show, but watching someone break down in front of you does engender some tender feelings. Or was it all a surrealist experiment to judge our reactions? In that case, I confess: I was duped. I'm not sure if this special necessarily was successful as performance art either, but the timing of her breakdown along with all of her negative press toward it does potentially smack of something staged. Regardless, people will be talking about it for a long time.

"This is probably the last time I'll do stand-up," Schaal says in the opening moments before she goes onstage, like a bad omen -- or a carefully planned foreshadowing. Still, if it is a joke, it's one that can only be done once. It was either a bizarre and elaborate April Fools gag or a meltdown for the ages. Your interpretation of that probably will determine your feelings about it. But like a lot of controversial or confusing art (if that's what it is), it's the reaction that's the thing.