Schaal enjoys a good failure

Apocalypse Schaal.

Is there any other way to think of the Comedy Central special that comedian Kristen Schaal delivered last spring? It appeared on April Fool's Day at midnight, a dead giveaway of its intentions (and probably the lamest thing about it). It was a sustained bit of performance-art-meets-stand-up, as playfully unnerving as anything since Andy Kaufman. Before it aired, Schaal — probably best known as the stalker-fan Mel on HBO's "Flight of the Conchords" and the NBC page Hazel on "30 Rock," — tweeted repeatedly that no one should watch her embarrassing special.

What happened was: Schaal, who has the look and voice of a particularly cheerful serial killer, told a few jokes, did a few bits, then became flustered over her inability to say "airplane"; she looked pained and left the stage; Kurt Braunohler, her comedy partner (not identified as such), came out and apologized; Schaal returned, only to be heckled by a young girl, who got onstage and did a few minutes of confident material; so Schaal, now very flustered, walked off again, declaring her career over; then finally, rallying, returned and danced while Braunohler shouted repeatedly: "Kristen Schaal is a horse!"

The audience left.

As planned, presumably.

How does a stand-up comedian follow a performance so potentially alienating? We asked the Northwestern University graduate, who is appearing Saturday at the Oddball Comedy & Curiosity Festival at First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre, alongside Dave Chappelle, the Conchords, Al Madrigal, Demetri Martin and Chicago's Hannibal Buress. The following is an edited version of a longer chat.

Q: Your special had a bit of scorched earth to it — I know it's a joke, but did it change the way people regarded you? Have you done a lot of stand-up during the past summer?

A: It didn't really change anything. Everything feels so saturated now, I'm not sure enough people were even paying attention. Basically, I wanted to bomb on national TV, and I did it! It was different, but I don't know if anyone had a strong reaction, to be honest. I'm not sure it was on a lot of people's radar. I wanted people to fall for it for two minutes. I wanted everyone to fall for it, but then I thought it would be clear how orchestrated it was once a little girl climbed onstage, right? I wanted whoever turned on that special, even in the middle, to look around the room and ask, "Wait, what's happening?" I wanted to turn one of those (comedy specials) on its head and for people to live in that space for a little bit until they realize that it's all been planned out.

Q: That song, "Kristen Schaal is a horse," over and over, it does get stuck in your head.

A: It's what my heart beats to.

Q: What program were you in at Northwestern?

A: Performance studies. I wanted to be an actor, but when I transferred (in sophomore year, after a freshman year in her home state, at University of Colorado) the theater program was full. But I could eat lunch with the theater kids. It was good enough. Mary Zimmerman was one of my teachers. But transfer students were second-class citizens, and there were a lot of restrictions, so I sat in on (longtime acting professor) Mary Poole's acting class every day for a trimester, until she felt sorry for me and let me in the class. Which is what I wanted. Then I took improv at Second City and Improv Olympic and began acting. At Second City, I was never onstage, just in the classes, but ("30 Rock" co-star) Jack McBrayer coached a few times.

Q: Did being in performance studies influence your direction toward conceptual comedy?

A: I think it did, absolutely. After three years of adapting short stories to perform into weird things, it heavily influenced me.

Q: The last time I saw you, you were onstage in Rogers Park, wearing a whoopee cushion.

A: Sounds right. I was a character who was big in his time but was not funny now. I found it interesting, because hardly any jokes stand the test of time. Every joke has a shelf life, even ones not based in pop culture.

cborrelli@tribune.com

Twitter @borrelli

When: 5 p.m. Saturday

Where: First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre, 19100 S. Ridgeland Ave., Tinley Park

Tickets: $14-$112.25; 800-745-3000 or oddballfest.com

CHICAGO

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