In Conversation with Matt Braunger and Shane Torres

“No one gives a shit about comedy, in the grand scheme of things.”

Even if you don’t recognize his name, you might recognize comedian Matt Braunger’s face: He’s been on TV a bunch over the years, and he just released his third comedy album, Finally Live in Portland, via Comedy Dynamics—which means you can find it on many of your favorite streaming and download services. Shane Torres broke out a couple of years back with his bit about Guy Fieri—who is not, it turns out, an asshole. We asked them to chat about whatever came to mind, and they chatted about comedy. Both comics are on the road all the time; Torres’ dates are here, and Braunger’s are here.
—Josh Modell, Executive Editor, Talkhouse

Shane Torres: I’ve always been jealous of comics who can stay in the pocket and be comfortable with not getting laughs—like, intentionally.

Matt Braunger: That’s not me.

Shane: Rory Scovel is very good at that. Rory will drag people down a fucking hole.

Matt: He’s more of a performance artist now, let’s be honest. He’s abandoned comedy. [Laughs.] Well, every time I see you, people are excited to see you—like, the minute you start talking. You have an affability about you.

Shane: I’m not threatening.

Matt: That’s me too. Jay Larson brought me up at the Comedy Store, and he goes, “Matt Braunger, hate to see him in a dark alley.” Gives it a pause, and he goes: “He’s not threatening.” And I’m enormous, but that’s been me my whole life.  I was just talking about how no one gives a shit about comedy, in the grand scheme of things. Everyone likes to laugh, but generally speaking people are like, “Hey you want to go see some comedy?” [It’s] like, “Ugh, no!”

Shane: They like the jewels. People care what Amy [Schumer] does, because Schumer is so famous, so that’s what they know, right? Or they care about the Comedy Cellar, because it’s a famous place, and that’s why they come. There’s two things: There’s massive, successful, rich star stuff, and then indie darlings that Vulture or some place like [Talkhouse] would write or talk about, because it’s taste-making shit.

Matt: It’s a lot like comic books in the ‘80s where it’s like, if you love them, you’re a fuckin’ nerd. You know what I mean? Like, there’s hardcore comedy nerds—

Shane: Who actually know things.

Matt: And God bless ‘em, because those are the people that go to my show and yours.

Shane: Yeah, same half-dozen folks showing up.

Matt: And you’re right, there’s a general populace who, once someone’s famous and they find out about them, will watch some of their set.

Shane: Yeah, and you need those people. I’m not shitting on anyone for having success, or people knowing about people who have all the success in the world. But you would go buy a ticket for a bigger band to see an opening band, so maybe do that [with comedy]. I was just with Bert Kreischer in Boston last week, and these fucking people come in, and some of them are like, “You were really funny, but usually opening acts are…” And they say shit that’s kind of rude without them knowing—which is just Boston’s moniker.

Matt: Not as bad as Philly. Philly will tell you you suck to your face. No bones about it.

Shane: It’s not like a bless-your-heart, Western/Southern kind of thing.

Matt: “Yeah man, I thought you were going to be straight up garbage. I told my friend, ‘Fuck this guy, let’s get a beer.’ And my friend stopped me, and you were OK.” “I didn’t feel like you were stealing time from my life, man. Good job.” There was a time when I started out where a lot of comedians would not bring really funny openers on the road, so they could kind of come on stage like a savior. The openers weren’t bad, they were just green. No one does that anymore. I don’t know anyone who brings someone who’s kind of subpar.

Shane: As much as we say no one cares about comedy in some regard, I do think that people’s knowledge base is broader now because of podcasts and, you know, one million specials. You see more, so you don’t have to go to the training room of a comedy club all the time like you should. So I think younger people get better faster. I would open for [Bert] on occasion when he wasn’t selling out clubs yet. Then he started to get a little busier, then I opened for him on his special, and I was like, “When’d you sell out fucking—” he sold out, like, six shows at the Trocadero to do his special.

Matt: Because he’s kind of that perfect, drunk, fat white guy brand. Nothing against him, but he’s getting that crowd. He takes his shirt off and everything. I was at his house doing his podcast, and his wife is awesome and he has two great daughters. And while we were there they ran right past his little podcast garage with an axe, running into this chicken coop and I was like, “What the—?” And he’s like “Hey! Hey! Where are you going with that axe?” And I was like, “Oh your whole family’s crazy.” No they’re not. They were just literally walking that over and putting it away or something. They’re very responsible. But I always wonder, just side note, if there are people who watch him that are just getting trashed and not calling their kids.

Shane: Oh, there’s gotta be. You think your fans are to some degree like you. You attract an audience with your perspective, right? I would assume there is the left or right of center version of you, if you were the middle. There’s gonna be both of those kind of people there, they just happen to wear the same fucking t-shirt, or whatever.

Matt: But that’s the thing, it’s almost like how people own bands in their minds, and when everyone discovers a band they’re like, “Boo, they were so cool before they went on that show.”

Shane: Is that still a fucking thing?

Matt: I think there are people who kind of get mad when comedians get big, because maybe they’ll see someone in the audience and be like, “Oh, fuck these frat boy bros.”

Shane: I’ll fuckin sell right out if I get to that point. Honest to god. If I get to a point where people are like “Shane Torres is pretty cool,” I will cash right the fuck in.

Matt: Are you affiliated or are you an official proud boy?

Shane: [Laughs.] They’re the ones that don’t beat off, right?

Matt: Is that it? Their whole thing, from what I understand, is men are put upon by women and we have to go back to the old days. Admitted chauvinists.

Shane: I think there’s a group like them—or them—that their thing is you don’t self pleasure, because it weakens you.

Matt: Right, your “essence.” That’s something that they tell fighters not to do. Like, you don’t let a racehorse pee. Why does it all have to do with your penis? Why is it all penis based?

Shane: The special. Tell me about the special.

Matt: Oh, OK! It’s called Finally Live in Portland. I shot it at that last Bridgetown [Comedy Festival] at The Paris, the former porn theater. That was probably a punk rock theater when you were there, right?

Shane: Yeah. I got there two years before the turn really started to happen. I was there for 10 years, 14 years ago. So I got there just before things got crazy.

Matt: So I just shot it there because I had all these jokes burning a hole in my pocket that I was not yet getting sick of. I think that’s the barometer for me, when you have to make an album or a special, or else I’ll stop doing those jokes because the audience can tell you’re tired of them.

Shane: How do you time that? Because I’m coming into a point where I have to do my next one. I feel like the chicken’s undercooked right now, but it’s potentially good. Secondly, is that a thing for you that you always want it to be better than the last thing? Or different? I’m having an issue with that.

Matt: I think that happens anyway, as long as you don’t rush it. There are people who I feel like have rushed into hours. But it’s never too soon if you like the material and it’s connecting. Also, all the network schedules were filled up until God knows when, so I was like, I’m just gonna shoot this myself. I shot it myself, and I went with Comedy Dynamics, which is basically the same thing [Jim] Gaffigan did, and David Cross is doing now, where it’s on Amazon Prime and Google Play, and a hundred others.  

Shane: So just not Netflix?

Matt: Not Netflix or Comedy Central or Showtime. The big three.

Shane: Look, I want a Netflix special as bad as the next guy, but I do think, [with] the sea of specials they’ve released, it’s kind of hard to stand out unless you’re already famous. It’s an interesting time, because Comedy Central was dominating for 15, 20 years, aside from HBO. And then Netflix got in the game, and now they’re kind of in front, I would say. I think they’ve taken it so far that maybe people are having a hard time standing out. So maybe the next move is where you’re going with it, to be on multiple platforms.

Matt: Could be. I do like what Netflix has done with shorter specials.

Shane: I love that. That stuff’s the best.

Matt: For short attention spans. It’s rare that I can sit there and watch someone’s whole special. I’ll watch it in increments.

Shane: You gotta take them in bites.

Matt: Exactly. And so we’re always going to be changing the rules. The bottom line is, people listen to comedy far more than they watch it. And so when people are like, “Well what’s the point of making an album instead of a special?” There’s every point.

Shane: It’s best to do both. More people are absorbing it through streaming non-video. Unless you’re splashed on the front of a streaming service or people already know about it, It’s hard. Big Dumb Animal [Matt’s second special] was on Netflix.

Matt: It was on Comedy Central and then Netflix, because that was back when they still were buying. Everybody wants to make their own now. I think the last one they bought was Jo Koy’s last one. On the one hand, would it have been better to be set up on one of those places? I don’t know. But I’m excited to try this.

Shane: I know. We always think about how to creatively be better in making our art—

Matt: It’s low art. It’s like pro wrestling. I think Netflix is the gold standard, but Netflix is also a different company than any company. Like, it is an algorithm.

Shane: Netflix is just a glowing orb in the middle of the California desert.

Matt: Have you been in that building?

Shane: No! They don’t talk to me.

Matt: It’s crazy in there. Every office has glass, you can see everything on like every level, and they have rooms dedicated to comedians that have had big specials—there’s the Ali Wong room. They’re obviously comedy fans, but I don’t know if they’re having fun like other executives might, because they’re always chasing this level of streams and hits. That’s why when people say, “Who is this random Indonesian comedian who they’re giving a special to?”—they’re probably trying to break into Indonesia. It’s got nothing to do with you being better or worse than him or her.

Shane: They’re thinking globally.

Matt: All the time. The way they’re seeing things is bananas.

Shane: What do you think of art comedy, like HBO? I think they pride themselves on doing things the Times would write about—things that look good in black and white print. Where do you think their place is? Do you think it will stay where it is? Because I feel like with Netflix releasing such volume, they get a brilliant set. Do you think they’ll keep doing things that are a little more out of the box, or do you think they’ll try to go back to getting bigger names? Do you think networks will kind of stick to their avenues?

Matt: I think we’re coming into a time where things are constantly changing at a rate where we can probably keep up with it, but nothing’s ever gonna be the way it was in terms of something coming out. You know, like Beyonce just dropping an album without telling anyone, and it just blowing up so big and then everyone going, “You can do that?”

Shane: “Why not?” is a good question to ask before you do it.

Matt: Exactly. Because we have, what, roughly 10 years of inhabitability on this earth?

Shane: Oh man, that shit freaks me out so much. I can’t even joke about it.

Matt: I do think it’s a fascinating idea if whoever is elected president next declares a state of emergency based on climate change. Because Republicans are like, “Well, what’s to stop them from doing that?” It’s like, “That’s a really good idea, man.” They’re like, “Hold on, I thought that would freak you out?” No I think we need to do that, man.

Shane: Yeah. That’s one of those things that people look at you like you’re crazy for.

Matt: Not that I don’t always quote Seal, but we’re never gonna survive til we get a little.

Oh, but before I went off on a rail of horrible depression, I think people are just going to keep doing new things. But anytime someone tries to mix it up in terms of, “I’m going to cut to sketches during my special,” it’s like, “No.”

Shane: If it’s done well, I can handle it. I always like the ideas more than I like the execution. Why not be interesting and make artistic things with your stand up comedy special, right? But I’ve yet to see it done or hear people talk about it as the reference point for a great special. Whereas you can talk about Live in Concert or Raw or even Shameless—any of these specials that you’re like, “These are brilliant stand up specials, they have a point of view, and here is why.”

Matt: The best thing to me about stand up comedy is, what he or she or they are saying, in your mind you’re seeing images. You’re seeing visuals. I feel like people like to have their imaginations stimulated. So when you cut to actors that are acting the story out, or animated drawings, it takes me out of it.

Shane: One of the things I do like about them, though, is sometimes I see in my head a  [certain] way, and then they will do it a different way. That’s always a nice surprise. Most of the time it’s just not done the way I want to see it, but I always love the surprise. It’s the same surprise you get with a joke, with someone just doing standup. We look at it like craftsman, to some degree. Like, I’ll watch you do stand up and I’ll be like, “That needs to go here or here.” And then when you flip it, that’s always the best thing about humor.

Matt: I love when Neal Brennan is in the audience when at The Store, because I’ll get off stage and he’ll be like, “You should…” It’s his notes, he’s like a mechanic.

Shane: I think when you sit down and write with another comic, their perspective is what you get. Not the joke.

Matt: They put their twist of lime in your cocktail. That’s fun. I find I love jokes where you hear the set up, and you hear one guy say one thing and then you know it’s coming. The big laugh is coming, but you’re having a harder laugh now.

Shane: Sometimes it’s the bread crumbs that you get along the way. Shawn was telling me that some guy came up on the stage and his opening line was just, “Isn’t it weird that some dude in here has the biggest dick in the room?”

Matt: Dude, I used to collect hilarious openers, Bert had my favorite. There was this show Dublin’s in L.A. which is this fucking over-the-top bar that was always packed with Hollywood elite—like, Dane Cook played there all the time and he would just rule the roost when he was huge. And a bunch of people had gone before Burt went on, and they’re all these good looking people. And Bert came out on stage like, “I just took a shit so messy I had to wipe my legs. How are you guys?” And everyone like, “Ew,” but they’re laughing despite the “ew.”

Shane: Because it’s genuinely so funny.

Matt: Solomon Georgio: “I’m African and gay which means I can make AIDS from scratch.” To just come out and say that, you’re like, “Oh my god, that’s so brutal.” But it’s a perfect joke and a perfect opening line. He can say anything now.

Shane: If you are unwilling to bend—which I think you learn to do the further along you go in comedy—some people are like, “If they don’t like me, fuck em.” That’s how I do it in my head. But I still want to be liked.

Matt: Of course, but you got to plant your flag a little bit. You’re talking—no one else is talking, you’re definitely the leader. So you’ve got to show some leadership skill.

Shane: When did you learn that in comedy? Do you have a defining moment that sticks in your head?

Matt: Just doing shows in Chicago, especially The Lion’s Den, which is like our open mic. We’d all sign up on a Monday and we’d all go: Kyle [Kinane], C.J. Sullivan, Pete Holmes, Kumail [Nanjiani], Hannibal [Buress]. You only had five minutes, so we’d all try to do a new five. The only guy who would do the same jokes a lot would be John Roy, because he was smart enough to work on his craft. He was the first guy who played clubs. Years before any of us, he was driving and doing shit gigs, and that’s why John is just unstoppable. He’s one of the best. And we had this guy named Dwayne Kennedy who was like our Dolly Parton. He was the one you’re like, “There’s no one better than this.”

Shane: Sometimes they’re not the best comedian, but they are the funnest person to watch do comedy.

Matt: And he was the best! He would make jokes about slavery, and it just would naturally be so funny. He had a joke about how the old slave songs were used as communication. There were codes to let people know stuff, like the Underground Railroad is coming—“Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” So the slave masters are like, “They’re just singing a song,” but they’re literally telling everyone where to meet up, “We’re getting out of here.”

And [Kennedy] was like, “But you know there are a couple of slaves who weren’t really good songwriters.” I’m going to butcher the joke, but the slave master is like, “Hey Jacob, I heard you got a song there, why don’t you sing it for me?” And he’s like, “Alright man: Gonna get me shovel and kill slave master at 7:30. What time? 7:30.‘” Then Jacob was hanging from a tree, and the guy’s like, “Man, I told him just work in the field, but no—’I gotta be a songwriter.'” And you’re crying [laughing], but also, what a painful thing to talk about.

Shane: Getting in front of the pain of it is how you get the joke across.

Matt: He was on Letterman three times and had a glass of wine in his hand every time. How do you out-cool that?

Shane: What’s your favorite feeling in comedy? Whether it’s the big laugh, or the moment before. My favorite thing is if it’s a bad room and I am the comic who turns the room and makes the show good. That’s my favorite feeling. Do you have a thing like that?

Matt: I love if I have a new joke and I don’t know if it’s gonna work, and it does really well.

Shane: That’s the fuckin’ blind-squirrel-finds-a-nut.

Matt: Absolutely. You write it down your notepad—Whoo, that one’s sticking around.

I love it when you’re in a club and you realize the crowd is good and not a bunch of drunks; when you realize you don’t have to put out fires, or kick people out. That’s such sweet relief. If I’m doing an hour, and I get on stage and some guy starts talking to me—Fuck, now I have to break your heart. Because there’s really no hecklers. There are people that are either thinking they’re helping you, or they want to talk to their friends.

Shane: The over-enthusiastic person. There are hecklers, but not like hecklers in the way of, “You fuckin’ suck!” If someone is like, “You fuckin’ suck,” or whatever, you’re just like, “You fuckin’ suck! Kiss my dick!” I lose it. They’re just bullies.

Matt: You invented the best line—you know what I’m going to say, right?

Shane: No.

Matt: Where the guy’s laughing, but he’s laughing mean and you’re like, “You laugh like a bully’s friend.” That is the best line. Because a bully’s friend is the worst person in the world. You’re not willing to do the dirty work, but you stand behind him like, “Yeah, kick his ass! I hate myself!”

Shane: The tires are about bald on that fucking joke. I like it because I keep finding variants to do that. I think it’s because people laugh a certain way. Like, the obnoxious laugh, or the cackle. I love the guy who’s laughing so hard he can’t breathe. It’s usually a fat guy, but when a woman is laughing like that, I don’t know why, but I feel like I’m having the greatest set of my life. I guess because my set is pretty much based in dick culture, so when a woman is laughing at me like that, I’m like, I’m connecting with people I haven’t connected with before!

Matt: I feel like we both go ahead and look at the world through other people’s eyes when we’re doing jokes.

Shane: I think you want to see why other people think certain things are funny. That’s a thing I came to later in comedy. Like, there are comics I don’t think are funny but I see people laugh at them all the time. I’m like, Why? Why is this funny? And it’s perspective. So having your perspective is the most important thing [in comedy], but understanding other people’s perspective is the second.

Matt: You can you make a joke about anything, I think, but it’s just gotta be really good.

Shane: That’s the line. You have to be good enough, and sometimes people are not good enough, but they have the perspective. And sometimes people have perspective and have the chops.

Matt: Here’s the thing: Dumb stuff is funny. Like, making fun of dumb stuff. Sexism is dumb, homophobia is dumb, racism is dumb. There’s a guy who got who got up at the Cubby Bear across the street from Wrigley Field—which The [Chicago] Reader described as, “the closest thing to hell you’ll find on earth after a Cubs game,” and it’s true, it’s just full of just wasted, red-faced white dudes. But on Tuesdays, there was a show there. This guy gets up there, and he was one of those guys who was maybe a precursor to the alt-right dudes. So he’s like a handsome hipster guy, but in his mind he’s just like, “Listen, man: Men used to exist. Not fuckin’ anymore, man. It’s OK to be gay?” So he’s also not funny, surprise surprise.

So he gets on stage and starts doing that old trope we’ve seen dozens of comedians do: “I don’t understand gay people. How can you look at a man’s ass and think, Oh yeah, I’d like to fuck that?” It’s been done a million times and it’s never been good.

Shane: Where’s the joke?

Matt: It’s just completely derogatory of an entire natural perspective. It’s asshole without the funny.

Shane: It’s pseudo intellect. You’re trying to provide a perspective without seeming like you have judgment, but you most certainly do have judgment.

Matt: So I’m at the bar next to Kyle Kinane, and there’s ten rows behind us and this guy on stage. I hear that and go, “Fucking Christ,” and Kyle just turns and just yells: “Best comedian ever!” And the whole place blew up. They were all like, in unison, “Yeah, fuck this dude.” And he, for a second, thought that line killed. Like, “Yeah!… Huh?” You saw his perspective change. All of his swagger was shattered. It was the rare instance where I think heckling is OK.

Shane: It’s clearly in the service of a good thing. That’s not somebody who’s bombing, and that sucks—it’s somebody who sucks and that’s why they’re bombing.

Matt: But I think if someone could sell it right, they can say something totally offensive, and it’s possible I could laugh. You can always tell someone’s motivation.

Shane: I don’t know if you always can, but you should be aware of the motivation. There are people who are brilliant, and we give them leeway on very touchy material because we have a palette set by them already, in the sense that we know what they’re like. Well, they had to try that stuff at some point before they were famous.

I think you listen very, very carefully, and hopefully you laugh. But if you’re turned off by everything, then they’re probably saying something stupid that you don’t like. And sometimes, you’re just sensitive to it. Like, Patrice O’Neal said some of the craziest fucking things—

Matt: So much stuff I disagreed with on so many levels, but his arguments were so strong and funny. But that’s an example of being so good.

Shane: You have to have the ability. Like, that person can do that, but I, Shane Torres, am not doing that. And I should not.

Matt: I had a bit that I never really figured out how to crack. It was a sexist comedian who’d do jokes about sex, but he had no self-confidence. So he’d be like, “Ya know what I fuckin’ love? Like a big… [Gets quieter.] Like, a big pair of tits.”

Shane: [Laughs] Like, he’s very confident in the setup, but then the punch line…  

Matt: And he also probably doesn’t believe in what he’s saying very much. It was one of those ideas that just made me laugh, like something I would do with a friend. It’s like bits you have in the workplace. When I was a bartender or waiter, we all had bits for each other.

Shane: Running gags is the funniest fucking thing. I’m so bad at it, and I love it. Some of the best comedians in the world are very good at, like, finding a riff, and it’s not annoying. Which I think would be the kind of thing that would help you in a writers room. I think that’s a certain kind of brain that can do that. I’m always just going to overdo it. I come in like a fuckin’ shit from heaven—I just fall flat. I try real hard.

Matt: The best comedy, I think, is just something you thought was dumb, and you just did it.

(Photo Credit: right, Mindy Tucker)

Matt Braunger was raised in Portland, Oregon and exposed to a lot of art there, both high and low. After graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Arts from a small NYC college called Manhattanville, he moved to Chicago and chose to do the low kind (comedy). He studied under Del Close (the father of modern improv), was kicked off his improv team for refusing to take further classes, and clumsily pivoted to stand-up comedy (the lowest of the low). That was 20 years ago. Since then he’s performed on every Late Night show on television, has had two comedy specials on Comedy Central, and one on Netflix. His three comedy albums (Soak Up the Night, Shovel Fighter, and Big Dumb Animal) are among the most listened to on internet and streaming radio. In 2007 Matt co-founded one of the most beloved comedy festivals in the country, Portland’s Bridgetown Comedy Festival. On its tenth anniversary, he recorded his new comedy special, Finally Live in Portland, during the fest in a former porn theatre, The Paris. FLIP is out via Comedy Dynamics and on streaming services everywhere, including Amazon Prime, iTunes Store, and many more.

Braunger’s latest endeavor is a podcast called “Advice from a Dipshit with Matt Braunger,” available on Spotify, Stitcher, Apple and everywhere else. In each episode, Braunger hears messages left for him by people wanting advice, then doles it out from a well-meaning dipshit’s perspective.

Matt lives in Los Angeles now but goes back to Portland every chance he gets.