Kurt Braunohler didn't spend much time living in Baltimore, but the city left an indelible mark.
As an English and philosophy double major at the Johns Hopkins University, Braunohler lived on Maryland Avenue, and, with his friends, started a punk organization and played basement shows with "a bunch of local bands, which I don't think anybody remembers anymore," he said with a laugh. Braunohler, who headlines Creative Alliance on Sunday, finds himself returning to that time as a source for new material.
"We were kind of fed up with, what we saw as 20-year-olds, as the laziness of the Washington, D.C., music scene, so we wanted to have a pro-Baltimore, anti-D.C. scene," he said. "We were kind of involved in the music scene back in the late '90s, and it's actually something I'm starting to write about right now. It's kind of a fascinating time."
"You love it and you hate it at the same time," Braunohler said of the city. "It's pure pride and joy to be living there, but then also a deep mistrust of it as well."
Braunohler is in the midst of writing a TV show about that local music scene and his time in college at what he called the FUDC house (short for "Fight United District Cones," among several other iterations); he likened the format to Netflix's "Master of None." In one semi-autobiographical scene Braunohler gave as an example, a character goes to Rise, a downtown Baltimore rave, to buy a sheet of acid ("Does anybody remember Rise?" Braunohler asked).
"I wasn't a kid who liked electronic music at all, and so I literally went down there dressed in army fatigues to all these kids dressed to the nines in blinky-bleepy lights and literally just walked around talking to strangers until I found someone who would sell me a sheet of acid. Literally just walking up to strangers like, 'Do you have a sheet of acid?' And then I sold acid for a little while. So the show will be a little bit about stuff like that," he said.
Braunohler, 40, didn't pick up comedy until he moved to New York in 1998 after graduating from Johns Hopkins and discovered the legendary improv group Upright Citizens Brigade. He has since moved to Los Angeles, but it was in New York that he first paired up with his comedy partner, Kristen Schaal ("30 Rock," "Bob's Burgers"), and began developing a streak for the weird. (He and Schaal together have hosted a weekly variety show called "Hot Tub" for 11 years.)
Braunohler's work carries an absurdist trademark — he's likely most known for raising money to hire a skywriter to script "How do I land?" across the sky over Los Angeles, he said (as well as for his stand-up). Early in his career, in what was once described as "street riot theater," Braunohler and a friend dressed up in hybrid bird costumes and staged spontaneous street battles.
Those "big, weird public stunts" make up only a part of Braunohler's comedic oeuvre — he hosts a podcast, works in TV, performs stand-up and has a comedy album, in addition to the weekly variety show. The multitasking isn't as much a result of industry pressure as it is Braunohler's urgency to execute his absurd ideas, he said.
"It's a little bit ADD. At least for me, and, I don't know how it is for other people, I get depressed if I'm not making something," he said. "It's kind of a technique for dealing with existence, to just make things so you can stave off that general awfulness of living."
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Though New York was where Braunohler got weird, the John Waters quote, "New York is full of normal people who think they're crazy; Baltimore is full of crazy people who think they're normal," rang true in Braunohler's experience -- New Yorkers overlooked Baltimore's fascinating quirks.
"Baltimore's like this special ... I don't want to say nugget, but that's the word that came to mind. It's so unique and specific. Nobody gets it," he said. "I just recently did this event with my wife where we tubed the L.A. River and we were asking for volunteers to help us pull this off, this very dumb event. Of course, the two people who responded were from Baltimore. I was like, 'That makes sense, you guys get it, you're interested in tubing industrial waterways.' I like people from Baltimore."
Braunohler is working on an hour-long stand-up special for Comedy Central this year; the opportunity to perform 60 minutes is coveted in the comedy world, and Braunohler regards it as a professional milestone. Much of that material also will appear in his Creative Alliance performance, he said.
"It's a big deal," Braunohler said. "I'm just hoping to be able to do something with it that's a little different than just your normal hour."