The Kasper Hauser Interview

Links to things I have written: on "So You Think You Can Dance" and the TV performance that changed my life.

Today I chat with the members of Kasper Hauser, a San Francisco-based comedy group consisting of Dan Klein, James Reichmuth, John Reichmuth, and Rob Baedeker. They perform and produce live shows, digital content, and books, which have included the hilarious SkyMaul, Weddings of the Times and Obama's Blackberry. The group's members have written for HBO digital and appeared on "All Things Considered, Comedy Central and "This American Life."

Do you recall which other names you came close to choosing for the group other than Kasper Hauser?
Here were some finalists:

Donkey Down!
Whither Go Bilbo
Gandalf Hitler
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Donkey
The African Bee Killers
Mostly Hobbits

We think the observant reader will see a theme.

Who are some of your other favorite feral children?
Overwhelmingly, we like the Karpfen Bear Girl, but we'd be lying if we said there weren't some fans of Clemens the Overdyke pig-child in the group.

Our least favorite? The Home Depot Gonad Slapper.

Do you have a schedule or routine for writing as a group?

We have a little office in San Francisco. It's a comedy office, so everything in there is funny: funny chairs, funny lightbulbs, clown shoes. We meet several times a week to open checks and fan mail and show each other our new cars. Before the success? 3-4 times a week for 3-4 hours. More if we had a book due or show coming up. For the books, we submit individual entries anonymously and then vote on them. We take the highest vote-getting pieces/scripts, then sit around a circular table and project the words from our computer screen on a wall and have comedy arguments that usually end in pillow fights.

Who are some other contemporary comedy groups whose work you enjoy?
To optimize pretentiousness, we will divide our list into UK and US comedy groups/shows:

From the UK: Count Arthur Strong (Steve Delaney), Peter Serafinowicz and Robert Popper (of "Look Around You"); Smack the Pony, Big Train, Mighty Boosh, anything with Chris Morris or Steve Coogan (Brasseye and Alan Partridge especially). James and John were always huge "Young Ones" fans.

In the US: The Third Floor (Portland), Meat, TROOP, Derrick, Hard 'n Phirm, The State, Tim and Eric.

What are some topics you've considered parodying either in print or performance but you couldn't quite carry off?
We've talked about parodying an entire grocery store: every item and all the packaging and copy on it would be parody. Even the food inside would be a joke.

Can you tell me a secret about Jesse Thorn, preferably scurrilous?
I guess you'd have to ask one of his ex-wives, or maybe one of the guys from that Butoh-Porn group he started in the 70's.

What's something that made you laugh lately?
James: The elevator shots of Galifianakis at the end of The Hangover.

Rob: A video of a monkey taking a bubble bath [ed: I cannot guarantee that that is the particular video: that is just a video I found of a monkey taking a bubble bath.]

John: The funniest thing I have seen in a long time was our amazing improviser friend Gerri Lawlor doing a strip show as a whacked-out stripper named Putay. At one, point, she puts on dish gloves and asks in a thick accent: "who wants a sloppy joe??!?"

Dan: My 8-year-old son doing an imitation of James.

Of all the books you've put together, which have been some of the biggest challenges, either conceptually or technically?
Each book has posed a unique set of challenges.

SkyMaul was a complete bitch to design (for our designer-friend Vince), but we had artistic license to include just about anything we wanted.

With Weddings of the Times, we had to find living, breathing people who would legally consent to being in a book in which they would be mercilessly made fun of. We also had to keep up the variety in a book that is page after page of the same format. That's one reason whey we included the color insert section, which are really parodies of magazine-style features and ads.

Obama's Blackberry
was written under extreme time pressure (one month?!), we also had to find our footing with a president who's comic persona is still inchoate and to stay away from hack premises like "Joe Biden is very long-winded."

How do you decide to perform your humor that's written, like SkyMaul or Weddings of the Times?
We actually started reading fake wedding announcements during shows, between sketches, years before pitching the concept as a book. In the case of SkyMaul, we found that it lent itself well to a narrative premise (that the CEO was stepping down and looking for a replacement). In all three books, we've been pleasantly surprised at how well the material from the books has done in front of live audiences, because it wasn't originally written for the stage.

Have you ever heard from representatives of the publications/shows you've parodied?
Yes. An executive from SkyMaul told a reporter that she thought the book was funny (But really, did she have a choice? Once they're confronted, they kind of have to play good sports). On the other hand, to contradict what we just said, Joe Biden's spokesman lectured us (via the Wall Street Journal) on what constitutes good parody.

Which of your books took the longest to write/put together?
SkyMaul probably took the longest to write and design, but Weddings was the longest process since it was timed for release during wedding season (so we were sitting around with a near-finished manuscript almost one year before the pub date, just eating Luna women's energy bars and looking at our watches/calendar). Obama's Blackberry was really quick: we wrote the book in about four weeks.

The following are questions for each one of you basted on a snippet, possibly outdated, of information that I received about your dayjobs. Dan, what are the best lessons for teaching comedy?
My best lesson for comedy is, "Don't try to be funny. Just do something. But if people laugh, do it again. And then stop doing it before they stop laughing."

Rob, what have been some of your favorite freelance assignments?
I was once sent to a luxury spa in Santa Barbara to try to pick up on single women on Valentine's Day. I failed at this assignment, and instead filed the story about how the resort filled me with existential dread.

Followup: are you related to the Baedeker field guide people?
The Baedeker travel guides? Yes, in a far-removed way. Unfortunately not in an "inheritance" kind of way.

James, are you ethically allowed to plumb your experiences as a psychiatrist for comedy?
My job profoundly affects what I bring to my comedy. But it's not an ethical issue: I would never incorporate specific scenarios, information or characters from my work life into the writing. But frankly, ethics is the easy part. It may not be unethical for a psychiatrist to wear a chipmunk costume onstage, but for his client sitting in the audience, I imagine it could be pretty interesting.

John, what's your favorite court-related TV show or movie?
I like to watch "The Wire" with a handgun in my lap. Nothing comes close.  But it's not really a court show.  I have watched "To Catch a Predator," just because I like to see inside the McMansions where they have the lemonade.

As a group, how would you handle it if, like with Lonely Island, Saturday Night Live offered you the chance to work with them but only part of you were allowed to appear on the show?
I would be OK with that if it were me. Otherwise, I'd be against it. *

*All four of us answered this way.

I read a quote from you that said sometimes when you write as a group you can get a little too far out there: what are some examples of stuff you've put onstage that fit this description?

Looking through the old notebook for possible names for the group, we found the lyrics to an a capella bluegrass song we did called "Peanut Butter's Poison" (with the chorus "Poison from the grave!"). Would that be a good example?

How does it feel to be the 234th (and 235th, 236th and 237th) person/s interviewed for
Mix of happy and sad. But depending on how you alphabetize us we may at least land on top of John Hodgman. So that's to look forward to.