Discerning fans of comedy already know who Kristen Schaal is. They've seen her be hilariously creepy in Flight of the Conchords. They've witnessed her control of cutting satire as a Daily Show correspondent. For the last few seasons of 30 Rock she kept Kenneth Parcell's heart in a state of constant confusion. She's even left her mark in the animated world with Bob's Burgers. When she isn't busy stealing the scene in whatever project she's involved with, she finds time to be a fixture on the alternative comedy scene bringing her blend of oddness and absurdity to the masses. For a comedienne who has done so much (and all of it so well), it's kind of surprising to note that Live at the Fillmore marks her first hour-long special for Comedy Central.
I know I've already called Schaal's style of comedy odd and absurd but it bears repeatingâ€¦many, many times. For the uninitiated, I suspect this hour of comedy may be a little tough to process simply because Schaal reaches deep into her weird bag of tricks and throws everything at the wall without a second glance to see how much of it sticks. This truly is comedy without a safety net. When Schaal's material connects, she soars higher than one thinks imaginable but when it gets too quirky (usually by design), she comes perilously close to leaving her audience out in the cold. I guess what I'm trying to say is Live at the Fillmore may not provide you with a solid hour of belly laughs but it will keep your eyeballs glued to the screen as Schaal proceeds from one death-defying feat of comedy to the nextâ€¦and that's nothing to scoff at.
Now that I've managed to turn away anyone who was simply cruising for an easy laugh, I guess I'm talking to the die-hards and the comedically adventurous. The lot of you have nothing to worry about. Schaal is in complete control of her material and with a little help from writing partner Kurt Braunohler puts on exactly the sort of show you would expect her to. She is too good an actress to simply go out on stage and tell jokes so it's no surprise that the show turns into a performance piece with discrete segments that incrementally pile on the madness until the batshit crazy finale that threatens to collapse under all that weight.
The sheer variety of what Schaal presents on stage is staggering. She pantomimes a style of oral sex that can only be called reptilian. Then, she enacts an erotic play featuring a pot, a lid and a wooden spoon that manages to include screaming orgasms and suicide by defenestration. Elsewhere, she challenges the cultural relevance of the Vagina Monologues by presenting a compelling alternative centered around her Taint (the Taintalogues if it weren't obvious). These and many more bits fly by with Schaal's bravura performance as the only unifying factor.
Earlier I mentioned the intentional quirkiness of Schaal's act creating potential stumbling blocks for audiences. This warrants an explanation on my part. While the first half of the show races from strength to strength, the second half is where the truly challenging material lies. The transition is marked by Schaal having a faux breakdown on stage when her confidence is shaken by a joke that doesn't go over too well (never mind that it lands exactly as she planned). From this point on, the oddness that was in service of Schaal's material starts moving front and center in a bid to dominate the proceedings.
Schaal goes from allowing herself to be shown up on stage by a young audience member (strange but funny) to aiming an entire segment at a few crickets sitting in her audience (she literally tells jokes to cricketsâ€¦strange and a lot less funny). This is followed by her storming off and having a meltdown in the dressing room. By the time Braunohler coaxes her back on stage for the finale (not really funny at all but I dare you to look away), we can tell that the rulebook (if there ever was one) got tossed out of the window a long time ago. While this sort of thing is clearly Schaal's bread and butter, there comes a point of diminishing returns where certain gags feel like inside jokes that only exist to alienate the audience. Thankfully, in my estimation, this point comes fairly late in the show almost as if it were Schaal's natural way of winding things down.
Schaal isn't the first to practice the comedy of awkwardness (Kaufman is an obvious touchstone) and she certainly won't be the last. She is however one of the best that I've seen. Her material is always creative and unusual. Her style of delivery is unique and fully formed. Even if certain bits in her special don't connect with you (I confess the finale baffled me), it's always a pleasure to watch an artist working their medium in a way no one else can.
The image is presented in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement. With the blue and purple backdrop and Schaal's vivid red and pink dress, the show's saturated color palette is conveyed quite nicely without any major issues. Clarity is excellent with close-ups that are sharp and detailed. A few of the long shots (especially backgrounds) are a bit soft but the effect is fleeting and unlikely to distract anyone.
The audio mix is presented in English 2.0 Dolby Digital Stereo with optional English SDH subtitles. For stand-up acts, I usually only worry about the clarity of dialogue. This is not a concern here as Schaal comes through loud and clear at all times. The audience can be heard at times but they are mixed in at an appropriate level, never drowning out the main attraction.
The release is packed with extras that should please anyone who has been looking for a way to own some of Schaal's shorter sets. Comedy Central Presents: Kristen Schaal (21:06) gives us one of her earlier televised half-hour specials. This set finds Schaal up to her usual tricks and in many ways distills the essence of the main feature. She has sex dreams about George Washington, has strained phone calls with a feathered friend, gets put down by an audience member and reads from the diary of a suicidal caterpillarâ€¦you know, just your standard comedy fare.
Kristen's Performance on John Oliver's NY Stand-Up Show (17:04) represents a bit of crossover work with her Daily Show compatriot. In her bid to do a family friendly show, she talks about her hypothetical baby, unveils her sexy librarian character, drags her mom and dad out for an embarrassing story before closing out the act with her one woman show Inside the Mattress which she performs dressed up as, you guessed it, a mattress.
Speaking of the Daily Show, we even get a trio of Appearances on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart dedicated to Cougars (4:53), Rape Victim Abortion Funding (5:17) and The Married vs. Single Woman Vote (6:38). All three bits carry her trademark style and feature some priceless interaction with an increasingly flustered Jon Stewart.
When it comes to Kristen Schaal's comedy, indifference is not an option. You either love it or hate it. Live at the Fillmore presents Schaal in all of her strange and quirky glory. She has command over her tone from the start and makes no concessions to the audience even if it means losing them along the way. Not every bit in the special is a gut-buster but at no point does it turn boring or routine. It is compulsively watchable and frequently hilarious. Adding a lot of value to this release is the slate of extras which provide viewers with a couple of Schaal's shorter sets. If you aren't familiar with Schaal I would strongly suggest renting this one first. If you already know her and love what she does, then this one comes Highly Recommended.