Dear United Kingdom,
Listen, we need to talk. We’ve established a pretty amicable relationship when it comes to sharing comedians. You’ve let us borrow some of your best and brightest, like Ricky Gervais and John Cleese. And in exchange, we’ve had no problem with our comics crossing the pond for the occasional London gig. But you’re starting to get greedy. First it was David Cross, who admittedly wasn’t treated very well here in the U.S. (The Arrested Development scabs still haven’t healed for some of us.) We appreciate you letting him make his own comedy series, The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret, and from the snippets we’ve seen on the Web, it looks awesome. But airing it exclusively in the U.K.? That’s just selfish.
And then there’s Kristen Schaal, the latest American comic you’ve seduced with your British wiles.
You took a Funny or Die Web series called Penelope Princess of Pets, starring and co-created by Ms. Schaal, and turned it into an actual TV show. Thank you for doing what no American network had the balls to try. But once again, it’s only airing in the U.K., and those of us who don’t begin every sentence with “He’lo guv’nor” have only gotten a brief peek, thanks to one lousy, cock-teasing trailer. We tried, oh how we tried, to watch it on the Channel 4 Web site, but we’ve been repeatedly and sadistically denied. Is there any crueler rejection than “not currently available in your area?”
O.K., fine, we’ll admit it’s kinda our fault. We could’ve given her a show and kept her on our shores. You snooze you lose. But did you hear about Schaal’s new book? It’s called The Sexy Book of Sexy Sex, and it’s a collaboration between her and her Daily Show writer boyfriend Rich Blomquist, and though it’s being published here, you’ll definitely be able to buy a copy on your home turf. She’s also the voice of Alice in Wonderland in Shrek Forever After (opening next weekend, May 21), and Trixie the Triceratops in Toy Story 3 (June 18), and I’ll bet you a lorry filled with blood pudding that those movies won’t be restricted to the U.S. of A. Do you want Russell Brand back? Send us the pilot episode of Penelope Princess of Pets (on a proper DVD, none of that region 2 bullshit), and you can have Russell and his leather pants.
I called Schaal in Shreveport, Louisiana, where she’s shooting a new movie with Jennifer Garner called Butter, and she’s just as mad about the situation as we are. She also thinks it’s kinda weird that you pay her with “cheques”, which we both suspect is misspelled on purpose to make Americans working abroad feel homesick. Just think about sharing, that’s all we’re asking.
Eric Spitznagel: The pilot for Penelope Princess of Pets aired in the U.K. in late April. Were the ratings as amazing as you hoped?
Kristen Schaal: That’s a good question. I’m not sure. They said they were going to send me the numbers, but I haven’t gotten them yet. I’m going to say it did spectacularly, but that could be a complete lie.
Let’s go with spectacular and assume they’re picking you up for a full series. Are all the episodes written and ready to be shot?
[Penelope co-creator] Kurt [Braunohler] and I didn’t put too much energy into it, because it would just break our hearts even more if it didn’t get picked up. But we’ve worked out the whole mythology for the show. It’s kind of like Lord of the Rings. There’s a journey and epic battles. We established a lot in the first episode. We told Julian Barratt, who plays an evil Member of Parliament, “Listen, you’re actually half cat.” (Laughs.) It isn’t something that’ll be revealed until much later in the series, but we’ve got little hints here and there. I tempt him into eating salmon, and he almost does it even though he knows it’s poison. And at some point, I’d love to have him shaving and there are whiskers all over the sink. Little subtle things like that.
The animals in Penelope are either extremely violent or horny, and sometimes both. In the Web series, there are several bloody assassinations and lots of interspecies fucking.
Well, you know the animal kingdom is pretty much basically violence and sex.
But bears don’t usually get stabbed by unicorns, and definitely not while dancing to a New Pornographers song.
I suppose not. We had a turtle suicide bomber in the Web series, and there was a line like, “Turtles are amphibians, lady. They work for the whales.” And somebody made a comment on the site reminding us that turtles are actually reptiles and not amphibians.
That’s bizarrely nit-picky. So he had no problem with a turtle being a terrorist….?
Just that we called him an amphibian. Well, we learned our lesson.
I didn’t realize that turtles work for whales. Are whales some kind of diabolical masterminds?
I don’t want to give away too much, but yeah, whales are evil and they’re going to destroy the world. (Laughs.) I think the stakes need to be that high before people will tune in.
You grew up on a farm in Colorado. Is that where you learned everything you know about animals?
Pretty much, yeah. Animals in general have sparked a weird depression in me, because as much as I tried, I couldn’t layer a personality over them. You know what I mean? I would stare at the cows and I would sing to the cows and they would always just look at me blankly. On the farm, I didn’t have any other friends around, so the cows were sorta my friends. And they were terrible friends. They’d let me down every time.
But didn’t you once say that animals are “inherently funny”? If they’re so depressing to be around, how can they also be funny?
I probably shouldn’t say this about all animals, but at least the farm animals that I’ve hung out with, and even when I go to the zoo usually, they’re like a blank slate. I guess that’s why I like them. They’re puppets, and you can imagine them being anything you want. You can create a character out of them that’s more fun than creating a character out of a human sometimes. I like to have that complete control. (Laughs.) I guess that’s why I think they’re funny. I don’t think they’re funny in real life, but they’re hilarious in my imagination.
Did you really sing for the cows on your family farm?
Yeah, I did. They’d come in for the evening and my dad would put the bales of hay out for them to eat, and I’d have a captive audience. They were hungry, so I had their complete attention. I’d sing to them and tell jokes and do little skits. But apparently the hay was more entertaining than me. I got upstaged by some straw!
That’s got to be a blow to your ego. After bombing with cows, how do you end up in show business anyway?
I was talking about this with my boyfriend when he came home to visit and I showed him the barn. I think it’s great training for any comedian to start on cows. Because with cows, you expect them to be bored and just stare at you blankly. And that’s exactly what you’ll get at a comedy club. If you can toughen up with a cow audience, then you’ll never be worried with a human audience.
W.C. Fields once said that you should never work with children or animals. Is that why all the animals in Penelope are just puppets?
(Laughs.) Yeah, probably. The minute there’s a real dog on screen, no one’s going to look at anything else but the dog. Because you don’t know what he’ll do. With puppets, I know what they’ll do and then the audience doesn’t know what I’ll do! That’s how I like to keep it.
Because you’re working for British television now, are you obligated to be like Madonna and start speaking with a British accent?
I totally sympathize with her, because it’s something you can’t avoid when you’re over there. It’s not just their accent, it’s their cadence that’s really addictive. The end of every sentence kinda lilts up, like their voice is raising an octave. The more you hear them talk like that, over and over again, the more you feel like that’s the only way to communicate. You just end up upping the last words on all your sentences. Kurt and I tried to fight it. We were like, “We’re not going to be those people!” But it still happens. Everybody says that celebrities who talk with British accents are posers, but I think it’s a real affliction.
I think I already know the answer to this, but did you make Penelope for a U.K. network because they made the best offer or because they were the only ones willing to finance it?
It definitely wasn’t about money. In the U.K., there’s absolutely no money for television. So you can do pretty much whatever you want. They’re not losing money on any of the shows, so they’ll give you a lot of creative freedom. In the United States, there are millions and millions of dollars at stake, so they need a sure formula.
Did you at least try pitching it to an American network?
We tried over and over again, and every time they were just like, “What else you got?” They’re just scared. They want to make their hits over and over again, so they won’t take a risk with fresh material.
It’s probably difficult to sell a show with lines in the script like “That was the best goat fuck I’ve ever had.”
You’re right, that probably freaked them out. I really sympathize with network executives. If they take a risk on something and it hits big, they’re a genius. But if they take a risk and it bombs, they’re just an idiot and they’re out of a job. At the same time, I think the idiots should be in charge.
Didn’t you and Kurt also pitch a show about a female robot?
Yeah, yeah. The fact that we got to pitch it to a network at all blows my mind. Basically, Kurt plays a genius scientist who invents a female robot that can destroy the world. Here we go again with the end of the world! We’re like a broken record.
What is it with you and the apocalypse?
We just really enjoy the fact that the world can go away. Anyway, he builds this female robot, which I would play, and it’s an atom bomb in a robot woman’s body. But when he’s finished, he’s like, “Hold on, this is a bad idea.” So he programs me to fall in love instead, and then he leaves Australia.
Wait, Australia? That’s where they’re building the atom bomb robots?
I think Australia is the obvious choice. Because they’re not on the world stage, I always think they must feel like the ugly stepchild. If there’s ever going to be a political uprising, first it’ll be China and then Australia. So that’s the plot. I’m a lady robot in love with my creator, and I chase him all over the world. You know what? I’m glad it didn’t get made. Because there are all sorts of problems with it. When we pitched it, the network lady was like, “Do the scientist and the robot get together?” And I was like, well, she probably has a metal vagina, so I can’t imagine they could.
The one flaw in an otherwise airtight sitcom premise.
I’m still learning that there are some hard fast rules in TV. You can’t have a romance unless the two lead characters can actually get together.
Sitcom rule No. 1: All characters must have working genitals.
And everybody needs to live together in an apartment. No metal vaginas and everybody cohabits. I know the formula inside and out. God, why am I not rich?
You and boyfriend Rich Blomquist wrote a book called The Sexy Book of Sexy Sex. How is sexy sex different from regular sex?
Well, it’s more sexier, obviously. We decided to explore every aspect of sex that we could think of. It’s actually the biggest task I’ve ever taken on. Sex is so vast, and it has so many parts and layers, and you can’t really encompass all of it, can you? You never will. We tried to get into the fetishes and the different sexualities and toys and diseases, all of it. I think we only just scratched the surface. And it’s not even a real surface. It’s like our twisted version of the surface.
How graphic did you get?
Pretty graphic. We’ve got stuff in there like, instead of the Vagina Monologues, there’s the Taintologues.
Monologues about taints?
Yeah, yeah. The taint has been very underrepresented. And what else? We just got the galleys from the publisher the other day. I wrote something about a woman from 1897 who had the first female orgasm. Oh, and we’ve got a new and improved formula for coming up with your porn star name. You know how it’s your first pet along with the street you grew up on? With our formula, it’s your favorite alcoholic beverage plus your biggest insecurity.
None of that sounds too outrageous or filthy. You could probably sell your book at Wal-Mart.
Well, we’ve also got things in there about fisting.
Aaaaand you just lost Wal-Mart.
And how awesome! We should advertise that, right? That was the biggest challenge in writing this book. I wanted to take things really graphic. This is supposed to be a textbook about sex, so I didn’t want to back off from the gross details. But Rich wanted to make sure that everything graphic was justified as a joke in some way. It couldn’t just be graphic for the sake of being graphic. If it was graphic and not funny, we’d take it out. I think it’s all really great, but I’m nervous that some people will have a knee-jerk reaction to it. That’s the risk you take, I guess.
I seriously doubt that anybody who loves you on The Daily Show or Flight of the Conchords is going to be offended by a few fisting jokes.
Yeah, probably not. The thing I’m really worried about is the kids. I’m nervous that kids are going to find it and read it. I’ve been feeling protective of kids all of a sudden because I’ve been doing press for Toy Story 3 and I’m around kids all the time. I didn’t know any kids when I was writing it, but now that I’m with kids every day, I’m like, “Oh no!” I just hope this book stays far, far away from them.
As long as your publisher doesn’t market it as “From the Woman You Loved in Toy Story 3!”
Exactly! I’ll talk to them and make sure that isn’t the plan.
It’s got to be weird writing a sex book with somebody you’re dating.
And we didn’t break up! I mean, wow, right? That’s amazing.
Was it ever awkward? You’re writing about sex with somebody you’re having sex with, and there’s always some truth in comedy. Maybe you learn something you didn’t realize before, like he has a fascination with taints.
That was Rich’s idea. But then I wrote it, so I guess we share a fascination. Rich surprises me every day. Writers are just as smart and quick as performers, but they don’t need the praise. He just quietly writes these amazing jokes for Jon Stewart and nobody ever says, “That joke you just laughed at? It was written by Rich.” He’s really quiet and shy, and then all of a sudden he’ll drop the funniest line you’ve ever heard in a conversation. He’s that guy.
But he never came up with a sex joke for the book that made you think, “Whoa, you’re not into that, are you?”
Oh, we’re into all of it.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in VanityFair.com