Kurt Braunohler is used to doing ridiculous things because he does them all the time. He’s a comedian who works the road, hosted BUNK (an improv showcase set up as a faux gameshow) on IFC and has recently been seen sitting at Chelsea Lately’s roundtable and commenting on current events. Like you would assume, as a professional comedian Braunohler concerns himself with telling jokes and making people laugh. His motivation, however, comes from a less predictable place. It functions as part of a specific and articulated plan to improve the world through the power of absurdity and on January 23rd he took his mission to a whole new level. He started a Kickstarter to raise enough money to rent skywriter planes and write jokes in the sky with clouds.
There’s got to be something that we can learn from this.
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Part One: The Importance of Absurdity
In the very first episode Scott Moran’s documentary series Modern Comedian Kurt Braunohler opens the show by dropping some truth, sadness and hope. “Life sucks so much. Life sucks, it’s like this eternal wheel of suffering. But if there’s a way for us to -all of us- insert stupid, absurd moments into strangers’ lives you can make the world a better place.” Alright, so the world needs stupidity. It needs weirdness. Rooting moments of strangeness and absurdity into the lives of others has the potential to make the world a better place. Okay, but why?
“Unexpected absurdity redefines a moment in space and time,” Braunohler says. “We go to the same job every day, we live in the same house, brush our teeth the same way, drive the same car on the same route, every day. If a moment of strangeness happens, it takes us out of our everyday routine, and allows a little bit of perspective on our own lives.” Back to that episode of Modern Comedian, “I love this idea of being able to take ourselves out of this shitty life just with one absurd or stupid thing.”
Moments that break our patterns and tear us away from the narrow parameters of our lives not only add a splash of exoticism to our day but also have the capacity to broaden our understanding of the places in which we live. Dousing a space in time with strangeness gives us a look into places that we might never visit on our own and forces us to be present in that moment, take stock of where we are and acknowledge that there is more to the places where we spend out days than the sum of our customs.
“It hints at a world, just below the surface of our world, that is kinda magical and cool. I love that.”
Part Two: The Means of Absurdity
Giving people those hints has been something that Braunohler has been doing for some time and in a variety of ways. It all started when he moved to New York City. He told Moran, “New York City is that kind of place that has the feeling that there’s a lot of secrets waiting for you to discover.” He decided that this was a city that needed to be experienced in new and different ways and so he partnered with a friend and created a riot comedy group called Changuin and Chunk. Changuin was half-chicken, half-penguin and Chunk was half-chicken, half-skunk. They would go around town in these enormous and ridiculous costumes, suddenly appearing to fight awkwardly, banging into each other, stopping traffic and creating a scene before disappearing just as quickly. The goal was to redefine space. To take a path or area that had been defined in a multitude of ways by a multitude of people as being “walk to work space” or “get a coffee space” and then reshape it into something entirely different and new in the hope of shocking those people into a new perspective, even if only for a moment.
In the time since, the games of playful recontextualization have only continued.
Some of his tactics have been very public like hosting every single episode of BUNK barefoot because he liked the idea of a confident homeless man just walking onto the set and beginning to host a show. Other means have been quieter like altering the Wikipedia pages of animals with made-up facts or going into a Barnes & Noble and signing books with fake signatures before putting them back on the shelf. He signed a copy of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by the late Steig Larsson, “Thanks for buying my book! Sorry about all the rape!” This is probably the best thing to ever happen between the covers of any book written by Steig Larsson.
Up until recently, the most active front in Braunohler’s war on ordinariness has been something called The Greeting Card Project. “I’ve been going into pharmacies and buying a bunch of greeting cards, taking them home and altering them, and then putting them back on the shelf.” These cards have been presented on his blog (kurtbraunohler.tumblr.com) and as a part of Hot Tub, the weekly live variety show that he co-hosts with Kristen Schaal in Los Angeles, and they are better seen than described:
His most recent project is by far his most ambitious. It’s called Kurt Braunohler’s Cloud Project. The idea is to raise enough money to rent skywriters and tell jokes in the sky. On the Kickstarter page that he’s created to fund the project he says, “I know this is crazy. I know this is stupid and weird but imagine how awesome it would be to look up into the sky and you have no idea that this thing exists and all of a sudden see something like that in the sky. I think it’s worth it.”
Braunohler holds no misconception that these actions are going to change the world in any sort of permanent way because that’s not the intention. The intention is to break routine. The goal is to take one area and one moment and within the strict confines of just that space, turn the world upside down and show the people lucky enough to be there that there doesn’t have to be a “rightside” up.
Part Three: Participating in Bedlam
The world is better when its pieces and parts can spontaneously break out into fits of strangeness and absurdity but how can we, the people who make up these places, take part? To start, keep it simple and don’t get analytical about it. “Well, I am always careful to specify that I insert absurdity or stupidity. Some people might see it as absurd, some people might see it as stupid. Both are fine with me. The goal is that it is unexpected.” From this point on it becomes a game that we can all play so long as we actually do something, do anything unusual that might pluck the people around us from their daily path.
Some examples. In Portland I saw a bearded man-mountain wearing a crushed velvet dress absolutely devastate the Kareoke bar around him with his killer rendition of Metallica’s Seek and Destroy; in Winnipeg, a naked dude climb and perch onto the cab of a crane; at the Cypress Hills, some guy wearing just underpants, purple sunglasses and a towel around his head prowling through the nighttime forest doing his best impression of Big Foot. Every one of these experiences was weird and their weirdness forced me to be present, shaking me out of whatever boring patterns I had fallen into and making my life a little bit better.
As for you, Braunohler says that it’s time to get in on the game. “Do something absurd in your hometown today! Even do what I’m doing! I don’t own this shit!” And he’s right. He doesn’t.
Theodore Wiebe is a writer living in Calgary. You can follow more of his important nonsense on Twitter (@TheodoreWiebe) or Tumblr (writingafterdark.tumblr.com).
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