Matt Braunger got his big break on MADtv, and became a minor Internet comedy celebrity for starring in the absurd web series IKEA Heights. He has a strong sense for measured storytelling and feeding off the energy of a live audience. He’s especially good at making “Oh, that was no good!” faces. (His look of utter self-bafflement after nervously asking a woman “Where do you live?” within seconds of meeting her is especially memorable.)
Braunger’s a respected stand-up comedian, but it’s hard to shake the sense that it’s not where his heart truly lies. Which is not a complaint, necessarily. It’s just that there are many parts of his new special, Shovel Fighter, where it seems he never really quit making sketch comedy after MADtv was cancelled. He just brought the sensibility to a different medium.
Shovel Fighter basically breaks down along two lines: Braunger shares sad-funny moments from his life, often framing the story so his tales of epic hangovers and working in soul-sucking day jobs are as pathetic as possible. Though well-told and lined with memorable details (like him accidentally saying “Lonely Man Dinners” instead of “Hungry Man Dinners),” these parts mainly seem like connective tissues between his more out-there moments. Because what Braunger truly excels at is creating short, self-contained vignettes that are rich in visual detail and filled with “Wait, what?” moments that are sometimes Funny funny and sometimes Why is he talking about being forced to murder his best friend with a shovel? funny.
Braunger often gives the impression he’s a frustrated short-film director, or an expert sketch comedian without a sketch show. He thinks and writes like a sketch writer, each interaction with a different character he plays ratcheting things up just a bit more until things are so weird you forget the original premise. There’s a strong influence of the Saturday Night Live sketches and movies Will Ferrell made with Adam McKay, wherein seemingly normal situations only exist so they can spiral out of control as fast as possible. A bit where Braunger yells “You do not speak!” at someone for daring to talk during the imaginary hangover-only section of an airline is so Ferrellian in its cadence that it almost seems like an intentional hat tip.
Given the option, it’s easy to imagine that Braunger would like to make weird little four-minutes movies. Instead he’s working with the tools he possesses at the moment: his voices, his microphone and his body. His gingerly skipping, awkward dancing and feigned barfing help create a sense of action and multiple characters. Of course most of the best stand-up comedians are storytellers, but there’s a sense of scope that sets Braunger apart. His stories feature multiple characters, action, plot development and compelling visuals…and are often so packed with strange ideas that they barely fit onstage. It won’t be a great shock if his participation in an all-clown pub crawl or recounting how the original Bob’s Big Boy was a poor child who cleaned floors in exchange for a sack of hamburgers become fodder for animated YouTube hits.
Sometimes these stories serve to amplify society’s quizzical codes of conduct, such as an extended tale about how men have no real-world etiquette but deeply ingrained strip-club etiquette. Women have the reverse, and therefore male strippers have it much worse than female strippers. This leads to one of the more memorable getting-hit-in-the-balls jokes in recent memory, though it seems like the bit was originally rooted in a riff on arbitrary gender binaries and male discomfort with female sexuality. That is, before Braunger keeps pushing the idea far beyond reason, eventually landing on something satirizing what men think women find desirable, but mainly seems to exist so he can say the phrase “Let me wash your car with my ropy penis.” (It should be noted that Braunger comes off as a genuine feminist, eager to mock those who believe in strict gender norms. Or maybe he just really likes to cook for himself and finds Fleshlights disgusting for non-political reasons.)
Braunger can craft a story illustrating the complexities and incongruities of daily life via his characters’ unexpected actions. But sometimes he creates stories just for the sake of being strange and to straight bug out the audience, such as when a riff on a crappy job segues into a story about a warlord forcing him to participate in medieval shovel battles. Braunger provides no indication that he’s moving from something that really happened to a weird flight of imagination, and the humor comes not so much from any particularly funny parts than from the way he keeps a straight face without acknowledging the transition.
His knack for slamming his sketch-minded oddness into straightforward comedy storytelling produces a jarring effect that is all his own. Braunger’s a child of both stand-up and sketch comedy, beholden to nothing but his own strangeness.