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 ucbcomedy.com. 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?
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.
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.
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 mattbesser.com or freakdancemovie.com 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?
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?
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)