All media courtesy of Kurt Braunohler
When I heard that comedian Kurt Braunohler was doing a cross-country jet ski trip for charity, I was not surprised. Kurt Braunohler is the closest thing we have to a real-life Willy Wonka, a whimsical eccentric who uses his resources to better the day of the average citizen in the most ridiculous way possible. Jet-skiing from Chicago to St. Louis might not suit the average guy, but was exactly something he would do – and he did it to raise enough money to donate 500 goats and 1,000 chickens to families in Africa. After he was done traversing down the Mississippi River by jet ski, I caught up with Kurt in LA to get a recap of the adventure.
VICE: How did the idea to journey down the Mississippi come to you?
Kurt Braunohler: Last year I did that thing where I raised money on a Kickstarter to write a joke in the sky. And I wanted to do something bigger, and the whole impetus of that idea was like, 'What’s a stupid moment to insert into stranger’s lives that could make the world a little bit of a better place?' So this idea was kind of like, what’s bigger than that – and can also make the world better in a real way? At first, I wanted to jet-ski from LA to New York, and then people were like, “No, that’s impossible.” Apparently I don’t really understand geography. Then, we decided that we could do it from Chicago to New Orleans. So we’re doing it to send 500 goats and 1,000 chickens to Africa.
Are you a jet-ski aficionado? Had you ridden jet skis before?
I had ridden jet skis before. But I hadn’t touched a jet ski in probably ten years.
Until you decided to cross the country with them.
So what was the most insane moment on what was, presumably, a very insane adventure?
An hour and a half into the trip, the chase boat ran out of gas. When a boat runs out of gas, it doesn’t just stop, it starts to drift into danger. There were, like, ten or 15 people on that boat who were just in an industrial canal with barges that come by and with no way to control the boat. That was pretty insane. Then we ended up having to crash-land at an abandoned grain silo. It looked like a nightmare factory. We got stuck at this abandoned grain silo for hours, because we were on private property that was zoned by the army core of engineers, who then showed up and were very mad that we were there. That was probably the most insane moment.
Wow. Did that moment make you go, like, Uh, I should stop?
That was the first day! I was like, Oh, shit. This is a bad idea. We’re not going to be able to pull this off.
So how did it level off after that? What brought you around? Was it a matter of getting your sea legs, so to speak?
It was. The next day was a pure shit show as well. We did a show at noon in Saint Louis.
Oh, I was there for that!
Yeah! We did that show in Saint Louis, and then, after that, the production was so disorganised. The production van and the other car we had just left, and we had seats for 23 people. And both of those vehicles were driving just two people. Me and Jon Daly and the director and Scotty and the camera crew were just left at a bar. There was no way for us to get anywhere because it started pouring with rain and no cabs could come get us. So we sat at the bar for three hours. We’re on such a tight time schedule, and like, just sitting around for three hours doing nothing is insane, because we had to shoot this entire episode from 7 AM until 1 PM, and then get on the road and go 100 miles from 1 PM until 7 PM. So that was insane. I was still just incredibly frustrated, but then once we got on the Mississippi, after we launched – launching was fucking disgusting; it was filled with used condoms and cigarette butts – once we got 25 or 30 miles south of Saint Louis, that’s when it just became very… That’s when I realised this was a good idea. It’s like, the Mississippi! It’s a mile wide, there’s no buildings anywhere because it floods so often and it was just wilderness. I felt like I was in the artery of America, and I felt amazing then. It took a whole two days. That was the end of the second day, and then I was like, “OK, we did a good thing.”
The Mississippi... It’s a historically important thing. I think everyone thinks of, like, Huckleberry Finn. What is it actually like to be in it?
What’s fascinating about it is that no one goes on it. It’s too dangerous. It’s a really dangerous river to go on. No one takes a luxury boat out on the Mississippi River, because it’s a 9- or 10-knot current, which is very dangerous. Very strong everywhere. As you’re going through them, they’ll pull the ski left or right, which is insane. And there’s a lot of commercial traffic, so you just have giant barges that are pushing… It’ll be like four or five barges tied together with one tow pushing it at the end, so that means that the person who’s driving the tow and is pushing these barges cannot see the three football fields to the front of the boat. They make a lot of wake. So it was totally dangerous, but in a way that I truly enjoyed. It felt very desolate and beautiful and dangerous all at the same time.
What can 500 goats and 1,000 chickens do for families? What is the impact of that?
It’s actually a pretty amazing impact. What happens is we’ll provide… These are African-raised goats and chickens, so we’re not actually sending any animals over to Africa. They’re raised in Africa. Each family will get one goat and two chickens, which means that creates a mini-economy for that family. So not only do they have a renewable resource for food – meaning milk, cheese, butter and yogurt – but also, they have eggs that they can sell or eat. You have this completely renewable resource for the family, and that means money for the family, and it means food. There’s a level of stability there. It’s like giving them a small loan.
And it’s sustainable.
Right. These animals aren’t going over to be murdered. They’re there to be providers for the family.
That’s phenomenal. What was your favourite moment of the entire trip, from coming up with the idea until arriving in New Orleans?
There were so many cool moments. I would say a moment that was truly organic was when we pulled into this kind of weird biker bar in Evansville, Illinois. The daughter of the woman who owned the bar just happened to walk up to us and tell us that she was graduating high school the next day, and Scotty – my writing partner, who also plays Little Minnow on the show – was like, “We should give her a ride to her high school graduation on the jet ski.” We asked her, and she was super psyched about it. So we worked it out at the bar that night and then showed up in the morning, and she was there in her cap and gown, and I drove her to her high school graduation on the jet ski. That was awesome! It was so very real and a cool, stupid thing to do.
One last question: What did you learn the most about America via your journey?
The thing I learned is that there’s zero, zero clean water in America. There is no waterway that is clean. It’s all disgusting. We’ve ruined it all. What else? Oh, you know what was amazing? Coming through the bayou in between the Gulf of Mexico and the Mississippi River. We had to cross the Gulf of Mexico, and then we came in, and that was just gorgeous. Also, a crazy amount of weird houses on really tall stilts. I don’t really know what they are, but like, 50-foot tall stilts, seemingly in the middle of the ocean. Things like that reminded us that there are still these unknown places in America that are confusing and wonderful.
It sounds like you went on a confusing and wonderful journey to find them.
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