Posts tagged Matt Besser interview

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.

MB: Yeah.

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.

P&C: Wow.

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?

MB: Definitely.

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.

Matt Besser is an actor, comedian, writer, and founding member of the Upright Citizens Brigade. In addition to starring in their own show on Comedy Central, he has guest starred in Modern Family, Parks and Recreation, Childrens Hospital, How I Met Your Mother, and a bunch of other funny stuff. 

Together with Matt Walsh, Ian Roberts and Amy Poehler, he owns theatres in New York and LA, and produces a plethora of comedic content at He is also a member of Asssscat, the longest-running and greatest improv show in the history of the world.

Photo © Mandee Johnson

P&C: Thank you for letting me interview you. I have to tell you I’m more nervous now than I was [performing] my first Harold…

MB: Holy crap.

P&C: So, you started out doing stand-up and you moved to Chicago to learn improv, is that correct?

MB: Actually I didn’t know what improv was till I got to Chicago.

P&C: Wow. OK, so I guess you saw it at Improv Olympic?

MB: I did. I got there and went and saw a show and actually Tim Meadows and Chris Farley were there, and they did Harolds and it blew me away and I said, “I wanna try this.”

P&C: And you actually learned directly from Del Close?

MB: Yeah. After about a year of being there, I was taking the third level, the upper level, and I had him with that, and he was inspired to direct a show which he hadn’t done in a while. He had a few forms he wanted to work on, one was called The Movie. That got us really involved with him, our group.

P&C: So you’re saying he had sort of stepped back from being so involved in doing it until you and your group… The Family?

MB: Well he was very involved in the school part but he just wasn’t, I don’t know, I don’t know why but, in like, the ten years before I was there I don’t think he directed many improv shows per se. For some reason he got the bug to, about the time my group The Family was formed.

P&C: You learned at a whole bunch of different places: iO, Annoyance, Second City, and you’ve said that Mick Napier is one of the teachers that really helped you get out of your head. What did he teach that was so different than other people were teaching you?

MB: Maybe it was that he wasn’t teaching us much; that he wasn’t filling our heads with too many techniques at once, and more… I dunno. He was kind of like a philosopher when he taught. I don’t have, like, specific memories; it was more, he made you feel really good about your choices I guess.

P&C: So, empowering and encouraging?

MB: Mmmhm.

P&C: Whereas I’ve read or heard a lot of people have said that Del could be harsh, and you’ve said of yourself that you tend to be a bit more that way…

MB: If I have used that, I mean…

P&C: Honest. You’re honest.

MB: I feel like he could be harsh every once in a while if he felt like you weren’t listening or like, he had tried to work with you on something over and over again and just wasn’t getting through to you.

If he needed to kinda slap you into shape and go “C’mon, y’know, wake up and do this!” He did that to me a few times but is harsh a good way to describe that? I don’t know. To me it’s just being a good teacher.

I think in a way there’s two different kinds of teachers. One is nurturing, at the first levels, and then ones that are a bit more stringent and harsh and honest the further up you go in levels, just like any kind of education. So I feel like you didn’t want Del teaching first levels, I don’t want to teach first levels. But it’s not like I’m yelling at people, and I only do workshops now anyway so it’s more like a lecture than giving people I’ve been working with for months hard notes.

P&C: Right.

MB: And I think that’s appropriate. Like, if you’re a Director or Coach and you’ve worked with a team for a while and sometimes they need to be given hard notes instead of being told everything they do is great.

P&C: Right, because otherwise you keep doing the same things, not “wrong” but you can fall into habits that aren’t necessarily the best.

MB: Uhuh.

P&C: You and the rest of Upright Citizens Brigade were trained by Del and obviously hugely influenced by him. How does your theory of improv differ from what he taught?

MB: Probably he was more artful; he was more interested in it as an art form, versus I think we’re more interested in it as strictly how it pertains to comedy. And I think our philosophy is that a great improvised scene is equal to a great sketch scene and it is one. It can just be taken word for word and it’s a funny sketch, so it doesn’t matter that it was improvised; it’s just funny and it stands by itself.

We think that should be the goal of every scene you improvise, and you’re basically improvising a great sketch. We’re not doing narrative at all. It’s not about relationships and story… Del I think was more about trying every, experimenting in every different way with improv.

I’m really glad we did The Movie with him because that to me is exactly my sense of humour. It was, I think, for our whole group.

Del was a multi-faceted personality, but one aspect of it was enjoyment of, like, science fiction and… that kind of thing which he kind of shared with me and our group, and love of movies, and I think doing that movie form with him was great.

I’m glad that was the form. Like, if he’d done a form based on doing poetry or something it might’ve just gone in a different direction for me. But that one really, it was a really fast form, it was about fast editing.

It also taught us a lesson about, it’s not about the story of the movie, which in early rehearsals we got hung up on because we learned you can’t expect to improvise an honestly interesting movie script in a half hour. If we were able to do that then we would be millionaires, if we could actually make movies every night that were worth turning into real movies. So we realized no, it’s more about each individual scene and making a sketch out of each scene, based on whatever the game of the scene is.

The structure, the entire form is an archetypical movie, some movie genre. Every scene is not about what happens to the character. We already know what happens to the character in a baseball movie or a gangster movie or a dance movie. Actually, my movie Freak Dance is exactly like that; it’s not about “the story of freak dance.” It’s the most typical dance movie story there is.

There’s a community centre for dancers, street dancers that the Building Department wants to shut down. The street dancers need to save it, and there’s a rich girl, a street dancer, and gang-banger dancers… and those are all archetypes for movies, but it’s not about some story where you’re gonna, in the movie say, “That was a really good story.”

You’re going to say, hopefully, every scene was funny and it stood by itself as a funny scene. And I think that sums up how we did our sketch show, how we improvise, how we try to write, and how we made this movie.

P&C: So Freak Dance, you wrote it and co-directed it. Was this something you’ve wanted to do for a long time, because you co-wrote Wild Girls Gone, but have you wanted to write a screenplay on your own and have you wanted to direct?

MB: Yeah, definitely. I like bringing ideas to life, you know. I would direct movies all the time if I could do that, it’s just so hard. It took so long, it took years to make this movie. So directing movies and getting them made, to me, is a very frustrating road but it’s definitely satisfying.

P&C: You’re in it, Tim Meadows is in it, Amy Poehler, and you have real dancers in it, and you have a lot of UCB Theatre students or grads in it, so is that more… I guess it’s fun to work with your friends but also does it make it easier because you can sort of shorthand things with them?

MB: Well one of the advantages of the movie and why we could make a musical that had choreography and singing and so many different locations and do it in a short amount of time was that we did it on stage for two years, and so we had basically been rehearsing for two years already.

And we used, the same cast from the stage were the stars of the screen as well. To me that was a bonus, and they were so tight and after you work together for that long, a great ensemble. And all the celebrity cameos came in part…[unintelligible] but all the leads were stage-cast.

P&C: Which is great for them to get that kind of exposure. Now you’re going on a tour. Are you coming to Canada?

MB: I don’t think we’re going to come on this tour, but we are going have a release by a company called Phase 4. Our Video On Demand is gonna be in May in the United States, but in Canada I don’t know, but or will be updating everybody.

P&C: Is there any improvisation in Freak Dance? Or how much of it, if there is?

MB: No, barely any at all. When you’re doing a musical and it’s so choreographed and so much of it is sung, and since we have been doing it onstage for two years where there was a lot of… y’know what, that’s where you could say the improv was.

P&C: So you basically workshopped it on stage?

MB: Yeah. There was barely any in front of the camera, just because by that point it was like they all had jokes that they loved. And we did different takes and a little bit, but it has more of a tight, more of a tightly-scripted vibe.

P&C: Do you dance at all in the movie?

MB: I do dance a little bit. I try to write parts where I keep that to a minimum.

P&C: Now I read that you formed Upright Citizens Brigade with the intention of having a TV show on Comedy Central, and you did that for several seasons. Once you achieved that did you think, “OK now let’s move on to feature films”? Is that, uh, do you prefer one medium over the other?

MB: No, I like both. But we always, our mission has always been to have our own television network, so that’s the long-term goal. But y’know, that’s becoming easier and easier. Al Gore can have a network, why can’t we?

P&C: (laughs)

MB: But no, I like them both. It’s just harder to make movies.

P&C: Well they’re both very difficult in Canada.

I read a piece last year with you, Jason Mantzoukas, Lennon Parham and a bunch of other people about the exodus of comedians from New York to LA. UCB is well established in both cities, so do you see it as a negative, or do you see it as a good thing?

MB: Uh…

P&C: You said in this interview, “LA is the hardest place to grow as a performer.” Do you think that’s because you don’t have to work as hard to get noticed as you do in New York, for example?

MB:Um… OK. I feel that LA… there’s just so many people here, so by the time you get on stage you better do well. It’s basically like, don’t squander your stage time. I don’t think there’s a negative to any of those cities. There’s always more comedians being born.

P&C: Well America is such a huge, huge place, and I think the three cities people seem to be drawn to are New York, I guess more for theatre, Chicago for improv, and LA for both, and for, less for theatre, but for improv, stand-up, and for film and TV obviously.

When I speak to Americans there seems to be this east coast versus west coast thing, but you have lived in both cities now… I just wondered if New Yorkers sort of feel betrayed when other New Yorkers move to LA?

MB: (laughs) I feel like some people just like living… I have a lot of friends who still live in New York. And they’re not necessarily young either; I mean, they just prefer to live in New York. Todd Barry, David Cross, John Gemberling. There’s just a lot of funny people there. Jon Glaser.

So I don’t know, different personalities. I think ultimately my personality would rather be in an environment like LA. I don’t mean Hollywood, I mean the warm weather of Los Angeles fits my personality better.

P&C: One improviser I know visited LA a little while ago and he was talking about an actor who’s on a sitcom and she still performs on a Harold team, and she waits for the privilege of getting that stage time once every two weeks.

Why do you think improv is still so important to those people when it’s essentially an unpaid sort of “labour of love” almost?

MB: I don’t think it’s a labour at all though. There’s actually a lot of people that are on sitcoms right now that are still performing improv. Not necessarily waiting two weeks, but… I think they have a lot more fun improvising on the weekend than they do doing their sitcom.

Sitcoms are definitely one of the best jobs in the world, and they bring some awesome money, but I think they’re having a lot more fun improvising.

(Stay tuned for Part Two, where we discuss comedy on television versus the internet, Asssscat, Improv4Humans and more)