Matt Besser has done stand-up, sketch, improv, TV shows, films, podcasts, viral videos, and owns comedy theatres on two coasts. You can follow him on twitter @MattBesser.
Photo © Mandee Johnson
P&C: I read where you shot two different Asssscat! shows, one was for TV and one was a DVD release, and how you, y’know, felt the TV version was a little more constrained.
MB: Ummm, yeah. I think… What I meant was the type of freedom and ease that you feel when you’re doing the weekly Asssscat I do twice a week, versus, “Oh, this show better be really good because we’ve got four cameras here and we’re spending all this money tonight.”
So even the one we did ourselves was too uptight. So I felt like, I wish we could do this on a weekly basis: film it, and then it would get really good. It would be as funny as any sketch show, a good sketch show on television, just like I said our philosophy of improv is.
Even with our specials, we did one for Bravo, it was the first one. we were way uptight for that. We were in a studio and the audience was very far away from us, it was very weird. And you know, it was still pretty good.
And then we did one in LA at our theatre there, and I thought that one was a B+. But we still haven’t achieved what a great regular Asssscat is.
When people say, “Well yeah, you don’t have the intimacy of being there,” I don’t really agree with that. I think I can watch stand-up on television and really enjoy it. And I don’t have to be in the theatre where the guy’s doing stand-up, so I feel the same way about good improv.
Unfortunately I think that has [to] come from doing it multiple times, but it’s possible. Just like my podcast Improv4Humans, the first time I did it I was very uptight. It was a good show, but definitely doing it multiple times it’s gotten much funnier…
P&C: What was the inspiration for starting [it]?
MB: It’s kind of just an obvious idea, trying to do improv as a radio show. I attempted it, I’ve done it on other podcasts before, or radio before. It was always kind of awkward, and it’s not like I did that many things in technique so differently. It was once again from just doing it over and over again, becoming comfortable with it.
But it was weird doing it without an audience, and it was weird when it came to doing things like tag-outs and edits, but then we found a way of doing that with the way we look at each other, emotion, and I think we’ve gotten better at painting a picture with what we say, and how we say it. So it was definitely an adjustment, but it’s basically doing Asssscat on the radio, on a podcast.
We get a twitter suggestion, we, someone tells a story or we have a conversation and we do one or two scenes as quickly as possible based on something funny from that story.
P&C: It’s fun to listen to because sometimes you’ll be talking and then you’ll start the scene and it’s so quick I almost don’t notice; it’s like “Oh yeah, now they’re actually doing it.”
One of the things that’s also enjoyable is that sometimes you’ll actually break, and that’s kind of fun from a listener’s point of view because seasoned improvisers don’t usually corpse onstage. So it’s nice when we can hear that you guys are enjoying it.
MB: Yeah, I don’t encourage that. The reason I think we do it is – and I definitely don’t like it onstage – but when you don’t have an audience, and you’re doing something where everyone’s kind of feeling like “This is really funny,” it’s almost awkward not to laugh. It’s really weird; it’s very odd.
That’s why even when you shoot a sitcom that doesn’t have an audience, like a single-camera sitcom, and you’re doing a scene that’s funny and you come from a stage background as I do, I have to have laughter.
P&C: Is there anyone in particular you’d love to have on to perform with that you haven’t yet?
MB: That I haven’t yet? Well, I want the UCB Four to all get together and do it. So Amy hasn’t done it yet. And if our schedules permit hopefully I’ll have them [unintelligible] May.
P&C: You opened a second theatre in New York, UCB East, “UCBeast” which I understand is more focused on stand-up but also has sketch and improv.
MB: It’s still a nice mix. We’re just more stand-up friendly because we do so much improv at the other theatre.
P&C: So is that just because of sheer volume of students moving through your original theatre?
MB: Yeah. We don’t like to think of them as students once they’re on stage though, y’know, because you’re not necessarily on stage because you were a student. We have people that have never been in classes that do shows. There’s a lot of students too, but it’s not like we’re expanding and doing more Harold shows.
P&C: On the subject of students, in 2010 you became the first to have an accredited improv course in the States.
P&C: Why was it important to you to do that?
MB: Well, we wanted our curriculum to actually be a real curriculum, as a college credit curriculum and have a ladder of education that made sense. Because we found it frustrating when we took classes in Chicago; the way you got taught improv was kind of all over the place.
[People would say] the same terms and mean different things and give different importance to different things, and you’d go from school to school and kind of assume everybody was on the same page. So that makes improv harder to learn, and even at the best schools I don’t think there was ever [unintelligible] so that was our goal to do that, have that approved, so that when you’re taking a college course at NYU or UCLA you could take a class and you can get accredited.
P&C: You wanted to have a common language and…
MB: …have a place that someone, if they were going to college, they could take a class with us and be sure that it’s a legitimate school.
P&C: So it was credibility and singularity of message.
MB: And to be accredited, they really, they really are uptight about what your curriculum is. They helped us get it into shape.
P&C: And how long did that take exactly? Months…?
MB: (laughs) No, about five years.
MB: Yeah, it took a long time. And in the process I think our school has become much, much, much better.
And in the process we ended up writing a book. It’s still not finished, but we just want to make our curriculum and our methodology very clear and understandable so that if you lived in the middle of nowhere and you didn’t have a place to take a class, you could read it, understand it, do the exercises and hopefully learn how to do improv.
P&C: You’re obviously very serious about this…
MB: And also we’ve been there, we’ve all been students. You don’t wanna be in the class with the person who’s not taking the class seriously, or who’s not even showing up. You miss two of our classes, we kick you out. Because we don’t wanna sit there and have to catch up – there’s only eight weeks – we don’t wanna catch up with you on two of those weeks, that’s a waste of everybody’s time. So it’s all these kind of problems that we were having going through improv schools that we’re trying to get rid of now.
P&C: It must be challenging though, because I was reading on your website that your classes sell out sometimes within a minute. I’ve certainly seen in Toronto that improv has exploded in popularity in recent years. Would you say there’s more people than ever now who want to try it?
MB: Oh yeah.
P&C: And what accounts for that popularity, do you think it’s youtube and Judd Apatow movies? What is creating this new influx of people wanting to do it?
MB: Well definitely the internet just being… everyone wanting to be a comedian, period, and hearing about improv being the way, and maybe even thinking that improv is easier than stand-up or sketch or acting in plays or whatever.
It’s easier to get involved I guess at the beginning levels and get something out of it. I think you could just have any job and not have any aspirations of being a comedian and get a lot out of taking a couple of improv classes. Have fun with it, meet people… That person’s probably not getting a lot out of the Level 5 improv class. In Level 5 you should be treating improv pretty seriously and hopefully you wanna get with a group and you wanna do shows.
Whereas with stand-up, y’know, once you get up at the open mic and you do a set you are a stand-up right there. There is no class. There are classes, but there shouldn’t be; but I think it’s a whole different ball game.
P&C: Do you think that, being a stand-up comedian, do you think it’s tougher than being in improv because in improv you’re on a team and you can sort of fail together or succeed together?
MB: I think being the top level at either one is tough on some level. They’re both tough to do. I think on beginning levels it’s a little easier to be an improviser than a stand-up. It’s hard to get up at your first open mic by yourself, I think it’s easier to get up the first time to do improv with eight other people.
I have a vivid memory of getting on stage the first time with eight other people and us not being very good but there’s was a lot of “Hey, we’re in this together, and we failed together,” and when you fail by yourself it’s miserable. It’s nothing like failing with an improv group. But to be a great improviser is just as hard as to be a great stand-up I think.
P&C: You wanna have your own network, which is huge…
MB: Well think about it, when we said that we were kind of joking around and it was 1990 and the internet didn’t really exist yet for all intents and purposes. Now if you have a youtube channel, you do have a network.
And now NBC is not that far away from Comedy Central as they were vastly far away in 1990. And now the internet you’re watching on your TV, so having your own network and that being a legitimate thing, it’s not so far-fetched.
P&C: One last question for Canadians: have you ever considered, or would you consider opening a UCB theatre in Canada?
MB: I don’t know. (laughs) It’s very difficult. Knowing how difficult it is to open… It took us two years to open our second theatre in New York, so in the very city where we already were open we know how hard it is. To go to another country and open something in the city, oh my God… that sounds very intimidating.
From what it sounds like you guys already have a lot of great improv theatres there.
P&C: I would say it’s growing. I guess I’m asking because I could see UCB doing very well here, but I understand because I read that you never intended initially to open a theatre yourselves. That came as a consequence of needing stage time and not wanting to pay some third party for it.
MB: Exactly. None of us think of ourselves… the worst intro I get when I go up on stage is, “Ladies and gentlemen, the founder of UCB Theatre, Matt Besser.” Like, I don’t wanna be known as a “founder.” I mean it’s nice and I’m very proud of UCB and what it is and I love it, but at the end of the day I’m a comedian, I just wanna be a funny person and that’s what all four of us are, and dreamed of being, and have the most fun being.
I’m a member of Asssscat more than I’m a founder of a school and all that kind of stuff. That stuff’s all great, but I’m most proud of being a comedian. That’s what I love being.
P&C: But one who’s inspired and helped so many other comedians become successful. So I get it, but… I think when you start learning about comedy, to be a working comedian you have to be doing a lot of different things to succeed. Would you say that’s true?
P&C: Thank you so much Matt Besser for your time. I look forward to seeing Freak Dance and listening to more Improv4Humans.
MB: OK, thanks.