Kristen Schaal has a golden larynx. Hearing her speak, whether in performance or on a recent phone call, is like tuning in to the pure dulcet tones of the funny. But ask Hollywood directors who have hired her to please describe the magic behind those pipes, and any pithy description only scratches the surface.
Raphael Bob-Waksberg, the creator of “BoJack Horseman,” delights at “the deranged sweetness of her delivery.”
Josh Cooley, who directed her in “Toy Story 4,” says she possesses a “unique quality to her voice to begin with that — when mixed with her impeccable comic timing and ability to make any line hilarious — makes her a powerhouse performer.”
And Loren Bouchard, creator of “Bob’s Burgers” and director of the new “Bob’s Burgers Movie” (opening Friday), says of Schaal: “She’s figured out how her natural persona can also be a voice that she lends to her characters. Once you have that, there’s no stopping you.”
The Emmy-nominated actress aims to elude being pigeonholed, yet she’s well-aware that some casting directors now refer to a “Kristen Schaal type,” saying on Marc Maron’s podcast several years ago that their elevator-quick description of her as performer might well be: “She’s manic and a little crazy, coming out of that sweet face and voice.”
Whatever the alchemy within her artistry, there’s no doubting that Schaal has carved out an animation niche within her larger résumé: She is the queen of voicing the askew.
You have probably heard Kristen Schaal even if you did not realize you were hearing Kristen Schaal.
She was a rising New York comic about 15 years ago when she was cast as Mel, the sweet-talking stalker who befriends the title band on HBO’s “Flight of the Conchords.” That exposure — playing that type — opened the casting doors wide. Her winning live-action gigs to follow included “30 Rock” and “The Last Man on Earth” and she served as “senior women’s correspondent” on “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.” She also has re-teamed with the circle of Kiwi comedic performers who brought you “Conchords,” for such series as “What We Do in the Shadows” and this spring’s popular HBO Max pirate comedy “Our Flag Means Death.”
Yet it is acting for animation that isolates the wonders of Schaal’s voice — an instrument that lilts and rises and motors with a warm kinetic tickle.
Speaking from the Los Angeles area last week while en route to “Bob’s Burger Movie” promotional events, Schaal says she has relished her roles on such hit animated series as “Gravity Falls” (voicing young Mabel Pines), “BoJack Horseman” (Sarah Lynn), and “Adventure Time” (Jake Jr.), as well as the recent “Toy Story” films (Trixie). And she adores voicing Louise Belcher, the spirited tween who favors a pink bunny-eared hat, on “Bob’s Burgers,” Fox’s family cartoon comedy that has provided her with steady work and critical acclaim for 12 seasons and counting.
“I’m the happiest I’ve ever been in my life — career-wise, this is more than a dream come true for me, 100 times over,” says Schaal, 42. “I get to be working on shows that I find are really special.”
Often what she finds special is the opportunity to play offbeat humor, expertly uncorking a quirky delivery that sometimes is as sunny and slightly daffy as that of Gracie Allen, whose work Schaal has studied. “If I get cast on a show,” she says, “I just know that it’s going to be a little bit of a weird show and I just get excited.”
Schaal is fond of playing intelligent characters who can be overzealous, scheming or slightly unhinged — even when they’re children. “She is a whipsmart firecracker,” Schaal says of Louise, who is also still vulnerable and sometimes uncertain. “She’s still having some emotions that are a bit new to her.”
Louise is one of three children in the Belcher family, whose parents — droning, oft-beleaguered Bob and resiliently positive Linda — run a seaside greasy spoon. Louise, the youngest, is a study in heated responses, sly manipulations and 9-year-old narcissism.
Bouchard, who directed “The Bob’s Burgers Movie” alongside Bernard Derriman, thinks Schaal brings a “bubbly, youthful silliness” to Louise but also knows how to intermix innocence and knowingness: “It’s like somehow a little girl and a wise woman at the exact same time.”
Schaal also has a gift for playing humor as serious. “My main thing is that I’m not in a comedy — there’s nothing funny about any of the character situations,” Schaal says. “If you’re playing comedy correctly, you’re not playing for the laugh — you’re playing the truth of it.”
Schaal takes this approach to the point of feeling protective if her character is maligned in a scene: “I get really upset when someone says something mean about them — even if they deserve it.”
The East Village was a long way from Longmont.
Schaal was raised on a ranch in that Colorado community outside Boulder, born to a solid Lutheran family whose father built town structures. The first time she remembers being publicly funny was as a high school freshman, when she quite seriously read a poem in front of her forensic debate classmates. The whole room began laughing.
“In that moment,” she recalls, “I realized that I had a tool to make people laugh: being serious.”
She attended the University of Colorado and then Northwestern, where she studied acting. A speech teacher once told her she had an “atrocious lisp.” She leaned into that.
Schaal next headed to New York and gradually worked her way into the comedy scene at now-defunct clubs like the Lower East Side’s Luna Lounge, which hosted the weekly “Eating It” alt-comedy show, and the underground venue Rififi, where Bouchard caught the comedy of Schaal and her future “Bob’s Burgers” castmate, Eugene Mirman.
Schaal liked creating alternative conceptual comedy and performance art at the time, even winning the Andy Kaufman Award at the New York Comedy Festival, while also performing improv and co-hosting a variety show.
Today, though, she doesn’t miss being a live comic for a daily living.
“Stand-up is a beast,” she says. She likes the first several times a new bit lands — comedian and audience sharing that live surprise that a joke worked — but upon repeat, the magic to her becomes mere crowd “manipulation.”
“One thing that I’ve always treasured about doing TV and animation,” Schaal says, “is that you get be in the joke when it’s new — and it’s fresh forever.”
Schaal is a star vocal artist most everywhere but her own home.
She likes to do voices for her 4-year-old daughter, Ruby, while playing in their Los Angeles-area abode. But it is her husband, producer and former “Daily Show” staff writer Rich Blomquist, who is drafted by their child for many of the lead roles.
“He’s got a great range,” Schaal says, noting that her husband is reluctant to act even in her stand-up shows. “He’s in demand by her to play just a myriad of characters,” from a freshly made-up, lava-eating baddie named Samuel to many of the train characters from “Thomas & Friends.”
Even before becoming a parent, Schaal valued the inspiration of family. For “Bob’s Burgers,” when she began voicing Louise, she grounded the character by studying her then-9-year-old nephew. “I already have a childlike sensibility,” she says, but she valued real-life observation “to just make sure that’s that that’s the foundation — she’s still a kid.”
As a voice artist, Schaal is valued for both her gifts and her creative camaraderie.
“If you’re so lucky to take an actress like her and strap that voice to a character, you have an absolutely enormous engine that’s pulling everything,” Bouchard says. “It’s going to drive jokes. You’re going to write to that voice. It’s going to drive the picture. You’re going to animate to what you’re hearing in her performance.”
Bob-Waksberg says her delivery is “always a half-pivot away from either heartbreakingly adorable or the most insane thing you’ve ever heard in your life. Her voice is like a ray of sunshine — which can be enriching and life-sustaining on some days, and on others blinding, intense, and devastating.”
Plus, he notes, “I think people keep hiring her because, on a personal level, she is a delight to be around.”
That authenticity fuels her vocal artistry. “Kristen’s personality pours through her performances, creating not just funny reads, but real character that comes from an honest place,” says Cooley, the Pixar director. “That’s a talent that not many actors can portray with only their voice.”