PHOTO: Matt Braunger/Photo by Mindy Tucker
As Matt Braunger toured nationwide honing material for his new special Doug, he discovered a problem. The surprise twist at the end had unintended consequences. “It happened almost every weekend,” Matt said. “I would look online and people had shot video of my show, unbeknownst to me. They were like, ‘Watch this! You’ll never believe it!’ I would DM them and be like, ‘Hey, can you take this down,’ and they’d go, ‘Oh, sorry.’ Everybody that put it up took it down. I really appreciate that.”
It is testament to Matt’s relationship with his fans that everyone took down that spoiler. In fact, fans who meet Matt in person often remark on his warmth and kindness. But it was a very different meeting that inspired Matt to name this special Doug after one of the worst people he’d ever met.
Originally, Matt planned to film a special in early 2020. Then Covid hit. The taping was canceled. Soon after, Matt and his wife Kara became parents to daughter Rose. He threw out half the material he’d planned. Then as the pandemic raged, the family embarked on an epic cross-country adventure in Matt’s electric car. Their travels brought “assumption-shattering experiences.” Doug also covers that trip and its many surprises.
Matt was born in Chicago and grew up in Portland, Oregon. After college, he returned to Chicago where he discovered his talent for comedy. Doug includes some delightful revelations about those years. Matt also talks about his transition to fatherhood and how he feels about his wife. In a few bits, Matt even effectively speaks from the female gaze, dissecting certain male behaviors. Then there’s Doug, whose identity Matt reveals at the end in an unforgettable finale.
Matt’s comedy has been streamed over 100 million times on Pandora. He is a familiar presence on television, with appearances on MadTV, Black-ish, Chelsea Lately, Up All Night, iCarly, Fuller House, Upload, a Super Bowl commercial, just about every late night show and as Doctor Aloysius Samberly in Agent Carter, making him an official citizen of the Marvel Universe.
When I spoke with Matt, he was home with Rose while his wife traveled for two weeks. He kindly took time out to speak with me. When I brought up Doug’s magical twist ending, he didn’t want to spoil the surprise. “Other than that,” he said, “we can talk about anything.” So we did.
LAUNCHING AN IMPRESSIVE CAREER
Teme: How did you get started in comedy?
Matt: I went to college and studied acting in New York. I planned on staying. But my friends who moved to New York City after college were living in boxes. I was like, “I don’t want that.” So I moved to Chicago, not knowing what it was like to live there at all, but in the end it was the best thing for me because I got into improv and standup. I like to say that Portland, Oregon made me a person. Chicago made me a comedian.
Teme: How did you go from acting to improv?
Matt: I was waiting tables and a couple people I was working with were heavily into improv. I didn’t know anything about it. They said, “You should just start taking classes!” I was having trouble breaking into traditional theater and I thought, “Why not?”
After a couple years of improv, I started doing open mics and it clicked much more. You have much more access to performing, whereas improv is with a group and that’s it. It’s like being a band versus a solo artist.
A RARE LAUGH FROM DEL CLOSE
Teme: I read that you studied with Del Close. What was that like?
Matt: I studied with him just months before he died. I got kicked off my improv team. I studied levels one through five. Level five was with Del, and then a couple months later, they added level six. I was like, “Well, I don’t have time or money for that,” and then my coach called me and said, “You’re off the team, but if you take level six, they’ll let you back on.” By then, I was heavily into standup and I was like, I’m fine. I’ll just go this other road. I got back into doing some improv with UCB when I came to L.A., but it’s never really been my wheelhouse.
Teme: Do you have a favorite Del Close story?
Matt: My parents’ generation knows exactly where they were when they heard that Kennedy was killed. Everyone who studied under Del knows exactly what time it was when they made Del laugh because he never would laugh. He was very, very reticent to give open support. But I remember I had a monologue to start a scene. When I was a kid, I was into ancient mythologies. I would play with action figures, so that would raise the stakes exponentially. If Flint from GI Joe didn’t make it to the top of “Mount MyParentsCouch,” he would not only lose his life, he would lose his soul. That’s how I started a scene and I remember Del breaking up.
TALENT IN MOTION
Teme: You’re ingenious with storytelling and delivery and also with your physicality which works so well with your material. You remind me of a young Carl Reiner in Your Show of Shows. Is physical comedy something you’ve always done naturally?
Matt: It was something I grew up doing. I always like people who use physical comedy well. A lot of friends I grew up with, we would very much do physical descriptors of things that we’d seen, or we’d say, “Hey, what if this happened?” A lot of it was very dark like, “What if I fell down the stairs and I broke my neck, but I’m still walking but my head’s the wrong way?” I think it was just, honestly, childhood, growing up in Portland with all these weirdos.
A FAMOUS FRIENDSHIP IS BORN
Teme: How did you and Kyle Kinane meet and hit it off?
Matt: It was at a show that our friend Mick Betancourt ran in Lakeview [in Chicago]. Mick was the first person who ever said to me, “Hey, you could probably end up doing this for a living.” I remember saying, “That’s crazy. Nobody does standup for a living,” which of course is untrue and I knew it was untrue back then, but it just seemed like such a crazy northern star. It seemed impossible.
Kyle and I started about the same year. I think it was ’99. Kyle was in the show. Matt Andrews, who sadly has passed, was in the show. John Roy, who I’m still friends with, he’s still incredible, was in the show. It was a thing where you felt this massive pressure, but I was still really having fun with it.
Everyone only got five minutes. Mick for some reason put me last and he said, “Just go as long as you want,” so I think I did fifteen. Kyle was at the back of the room going, “Who’s this a-hole and why is he doing so much time?” And then he was like, “Oh, okay.” I guess he liked my act and we started talking that night and we hit it off. He drove this enormous Grand Marquis from the early 80’s or late 70’s. We would drive it through the snow to different shows together. Kyle never lived in Chicago. He was out in Addison so he would drive all the way into the city, pick me up, and then go to these shows and then I’d want to hit all the bars and he’s like, “I have to drive back to the suburbs!”
Teme: Did you leave Chicago at the same time?
Matt: No, I went to Portland and ended up staying there for a couple months before I went to L.A. Kyle joined me once I was in L.A. He found an apartment, so we moved in together.
Teme: I’ve heard some stories about that! Kyle bought an interesting mannequin thing from a guy in a van, if I remember from his album Trampoline In a Ditch.
Matt: Yeah. “Terrifying Randy.” He’s one of those “people” you put in your car to not look alone when you’re driving. He had giant eyes and this huge smile and shock of black hair. Maybe he had clothes on at one point, but when we had him, he just had these short shorts and he was inexplicably ripped with a six pack and pecs.
Kyle threw him in the living room and he lived on one of our chairs. Every couple of nights I would come out of my room to get a glass of water. I would see that hair in the moonlight and would just be like, “AHHH!” You’re half awake and you see someone sitting in your living room which is so much scarier than someone standing there-like he was waiting for you. I don’t know what happened to him, but I still have a picture of the three of us during those days.
Teme: Of course I want to ask you about your wonderful special Doug. You mention that you were about to shoot when the pandemic hit. What was that time like?
Matt: I was in Ann Arbor doing a great club that’s been there for forever. I had one show Friday and two shows Saturday. There was one person in Ann Arbor that had [Covid]. I remember I could see the hospital from my hotel room and it was like, “Patient Zero. He’s right there.”
By Saturday, news was everywhere and I’m on the phone with my agent, and he was like, “They’re talking about shutting down LAX,” and I’m like, “How am I going to get home?” I got a hold of my wife. She’s very pragmatic. She said, “Well, you could fly to Vegas, then rent a car and drive,” and I was like, “Wait. Wow. Okay. I’m ready to go.” I remember Roger, who owns the club and is a great dude, God bless him – I texted him. I was like, “Are we still having shows?,” and he texted back, “Yeah, they’re selling great!” I said to my wife, “What should I do?” And she’s like, “Look, just do those two shows and come the hell home.”
So I did and I flew home. There weren’t a lot of people on the plane. Everybody looked very shook up. I got home and then that was it and I didn’t go anywhere for a long, long time, not until Rose was six weeks and we drove across the country. That weekend will always stick out in my brain. I’ll never forget the difference from Friday to Saturday, where it went from a topic of conversation to a national emergency overnight.
THAT STORY ABOUT THE CHICAGO BAR …
Teme: In Doug, you have a great story about a bar in Chicago. I don’t want to give it away – people will want to listen! But it’s wild. Is that story true?
Matt: Yes. The bar was called Coconut Joe’s. It was on Belmont just west of the club Berlin and right under the train tracks. I lived above Ravens on Clark Street my last four years in Chicago. I was pretty depressed the last couple months I lived in Chicago so I was in there almost every night. When I wasn’t in Ravens, when I was not subject to my worst angels, when I would just be asleep in my apartment, I was routinely woken up by cars roaring away or roaring in and people spilling out of a cab and screaming and going in that bar, where it almost felt like they were coming into my apartment building. Once, a couple came out of Ravens and were screaming at each other. My room of the apartment was on Clark and I remember going in my head, “Just get in the cab. Just get the hell out of here,” and then the screaming continued underneath me and up the stairs and I was like, “Oh God, they live here.” They lived in the apartment across from mine. That’s the scene you can only withstand when you’re in your twenties.
THREE THOUSAND THREE HUNDRED MILES AND A BABY
Teme: In Doug, you talk about your epic 3,300 mile road trip with your wife and six week-old daughter. How did you decide to make that trip? Were you and your wife both on board right away?
Matt: One thing I love about our relationship, my wife has ideas, very intelligent risks. My parents drove down [from Portland] in a RV when Rose was born. When we brought her home, we wanted to be by ourselves. They had tested negative and just went from the RV to the house and then they left. We thought, “Why don’t we take a trip to go visit them?” That was the plan, but then Oregon caught fire. Then we thought, “Okay, let’s just stay here [in L.A.].” But then California, like it does, got jealous of Oregon and caught fire too. We didn’t want to stay in L.A. because the air quality was so awful. So we got everything together and we left. It took us about a week and a half.
Teme: How did you pass the hours and the time – besides diaper changes in biker bars – another awesome, hilarious story on Doug?
Matt: At six week old, babies sleep so much that you’re pretty much golden. But I remember one night driving from Erie, Pennsylvania to Buffalo, New York. We were about half an hour away from Buffalo and Rose is just screaming her throat out and it was like, “Oh God, this is hell.”
We took my car, which is electric, and for the most part, we would take a route according to the charging stations. When we charged, that’s when we’d get out and stretch. We would get takeout and eat on a park bench. We were racing against the season. When when we got to Mansfield, Massachusetts where Kara’s from, we lived there for about a month and a half as honorary townies. We left as the frost was starting and drove south where it was warm. We were in New Orleans when they called it for Biden. It was a really fascinating journey.
Teme: Traveling that far with a six-week-old sounds really hard, but it also sounds lovely.
Matt: It was. The only drawback I remember was having to unload our lives into a different hotel every single night. We had a thing called a SNOO, which I don’t even know if you know what that is-
Matt: It’s a crib with a white noise thing that sounds like the inside of a womb. We bought ours from a friend. I’m not looking for a sponsorship here, but it saved our lives. It’s really heavy and I got used to walking into a hotel lobby saying, “Hey, we’re checking in. Where’s your luggage rack!?” That I don’t miss. But once we were loaded in, it was fun to be like, “Oh, what are we going to eat? I saw a Cracker Barrel from the window. I’ll call now.” We would get whatever food and turn on the TV and eat as a family. Every single night was like, “We made it!”
IN LOVE WITH A PIRATE
Teme: Another thing I love about Doug is the way you talk about your wife. It’s with awe, love and respect and it’s beautiful. Is she your sounding board for material and how does she feel about you calling her a “pirate”?
Matt: She thinks it’s funny. We’ve been through a lot. I’m probably not as reverent in real life as I might sound in the special, but I always found it B.S. that all these guys complain about being married. They’re like, “They won’t let me be me and do all my man stuff,” and I felt like, “Dude! This person saved your life!” We have to admit that. In these relationships, you save each other.
We have problems, too. We both have very strong personalities and we also have a history. She used to be my manager and that’s always going to be rough. We met working together. She is an incredible manager. Everybody she reps is a big name and I used to wrestle with this resentment because we had to break it off professionally to stay together. My managers are awesome, but I see what Kara has done with people and how she works with people and she will give me great advice. She is really good at what she does, but that is sometimes contentious. But in the end, I’m just proud of her. You have to do your own thing and have a partner that is a badass in their own respect. She built everything from the ground up. I won’t even go into the negative stuff, but it’s like we know what we know about each other and that’s it. But yeah, I love my wife. I think she’s great. I think that we both feel the same way about each other.
Teme: How did you decide to name the special Doug?
Matt: The special is about me in the part of my life I’m in right now, this period of transition and change. I liked the idea of just calling a special “Doug.” Also, it was like, “Well, let me just name it after the person in the very end story that I’ve been on the road doing for almost a year.”
I feel like people tend to err on the side of, “Let me call this comedy special something really catchy or brilliantly evocative of the material I do or something that sums me up completely.” And most of those titles I hate when I see them. It’s tough to name specials. When I say the name of the special in an interview and someone doesn’t know what it is, I’m like, “Yeah, it’s called Doug. It’s named after a terrible guy I met on vacation,” and they always laugh. That’s what I like, the feeling of, “Great, that landed.”
Teme: Have you heard from Doug since the special came out?
Matt: I hope to never hear from him. I remember getting along with him, but he was annoying and kind of an a-hole and would get super wasted and not in a fun way. I don’t think I mentioned this in the special, but at one point, he was following a Black guy down the beach insisting that this gentleman played for the NFL and he was like, “I know you. What team do you play for?” He was just a large man who happened to be Black. That’s indefensible. There were certain things he’d do that you’d just be like, “Ohh, Doug,” and other ones, you’d be like, “Oh my god. Doug, no!” I don’t ever want to hear from him. If he sends me a DM, I’ll probably just delete it. But who knows? Maybe he’ll be like, “Oh yeah, you made me realize I was an asshole.” I often wonder if I should never have called it his actual name. Thankfully, I didn’t use his last name because I don’t know it.
THEN AND NOW
Teme: How would you compare your comedy and life now to pre-fatherhood and pre-pandemic?
Matt: I’m in a better place now. I tend to look at things in a much more realistic way, but also, in a healthier way. I don’t know if that helps comedy. I have no clue. I often swing back and forth between, “Wow, I got this nailed,” and “God, I don’t know what I’m doing at all,” and that could often be on a daily basis.
UNITY IN LAUGHTER
Teme: You ended your previous special Finally Live in Portland on an optimistic note. Do you still feel as optimistic now? And if so, what are some concrete things you do to keep optimism going?
Matt: My therapist tells me, “You have to choose to be happy.” I wish he’d tell me how to do that. But I definitely agree. I don’t want to be this doe-eyed optimist, but when people say like, “We’ve never been more at odds with each other as a country,” I want to say that the bottom line is everybody wants the same thing and to be aware of who profits when we keep fighting.
It’s hard to wrestle with it, but I think we need to turn towards understanding that we all want the same thing. We all just want to provide for our kids. We all want to be left alone. We all want to be able to thrive. We all want access to clean air and water. Everyone wants that. In the end, we all want the same thing for all of us. If I can nail one thing to the wall as my thing, it would be that.
Doug is available on VOD on Amazon Prime, YouTube, Apple Music, iTunes and more. Connect through Matt’s Link Tree: 800pgr.lnk.to/MBDougIN.
More about Matt including touring dates: mattbraunger.com