I recently had the chance to sit down with one Mr. Matt Besser: master improviser and terrific human. He will be performing Improv4Humans at this year’s Riot Fest with Andy Daly, Seth Morris and Lauren Lapkus. We talked about it, and some other stuff! ‘Nuf said, read on!
Serial Optimist: This is your second year performing in Riot Fest with Improv4Humans, right?
Matt Besser: Yeah.
SO: So what was the most memorable part about last year’s Riot Fest for you?
Matt: If I’m not mistaken, was that the first time we did Improv4Humans Live? Let’s just say that it was. I think it was the first time that we did it live on a stage, and since Improv4Humans came from Asssscat which is a live show that became a studio show and then it went back out and became a live show, that was a very interesting and very receptive audience downtown.
SO: Cool. What are you looking forward to the most about this years riot fest? Are you excited to see any specific shows? Are there people that you don’t get to see very often that are going to be there?
Matt: Because they’re so busy I can rarely get some of the guys I’m getting. I’m getting Andy Daly, and Lauren and Seth all together, and that’s pretty special.
SO: For people who might be from out of town and coming in for Riot Fest, what are some LA things they should do before they leave aside from the festival?
Matt: Hmm…I think they should go down to the LA River and see what a river made of cement looks like.
SO: Ha ha, see the wet ditch?
Matt: Yeah, well I think it actually is pretty cool. It used to be kinda putrid but I think it’s turned itself around. It’s managed to be this combination of city and nature, which can only be seen in LA.
SO: Any other things?
Matt: Well I think just, in terms of the festival itself, it’s kind of hard to pull off a festival in Los Angeles since there’s so much great comedy there all the time I think they manage to do this by putting it in an interesting location making it a place where people can walk from venue to venue. I think that’s what makes it unique and worth checking out.
SO: Nice, yeah it’s making a lot of people very accessible very easily. As far as Improv4Humans goes, why did you originally start it, what makes it different from other comedy podcasts?
Matt: Well I guess there’s a lot of interview-style podcasts out there, and so Improv4Humans is one where instead of talking about the comedy you can just do the actual content.
SO: Right. It’s more performance based,
SO: Is there a guest that you’d love to have on Improv4Humans that you don’t think you’ll ever get?
Matt: We’re reaching out right now to Steve Martin, Woody Allen and Catherine O’Hara, and we’re not gonna do the show unless we get all three.
SO: So if Steve Martin said yes, you’d be like, “No Steve, Catherine said no.”
Matt: “No no no [Steve], we couldn’t get Catherine.”
SO: So The Six Most Important Sets in the History of Stand Up might be my favorite thing in the world right now. Can you describe it for people who may not be familiar with it?
Matt: Well, ya know I mostly do improv but I still dip my feet in the stand up world and get out to stand up shows more often than not instead of doing stand up I’ll do a character doing stand up, and I thought a good way to put those all in an album is call them the most important sets in history. Because I have, ya know, Zeus, Satan, the Pope, Bjork, how can you group all those characters without saying they’re the most important sets in history?
SO: Do you enjoy stand up as Matt Besser or as characters more?
Matt: Probably as characters, I’ve done both, but it’s just my tendency and I guess strength to try to find out how a character could work in a stand up venue.
SO: Comedy is great, when it’s great, obviously, but what do you think is harder to watch, in your opinion, a bad stand up set or a bad improv set?
Matt: I don’t know. They’re both pretty bad. I don’t know, I can’t say that one’s worse than the other. I think it depends on what bad is. I mean there’s bad like they’re just not doing well and failing, there’s bad like they just will never be funny ever ya know? And ya know, when they’re bad and it’s just that night, they’re doing poorly, that’s not so bad to watch. But when it’s just like, “oh boy, that’s, that person or that group is…doomed,” that’s sad.
SO: UCB is a really cool theater, has an amazing training center that’s constantly growing in popularity, what inspired you guys, as a group, the Upright Citizen’s Brigade, to make a theater of your own? Was it because you had a different philosophy than the existing theaters had, or did you just want to create a place for yourselves to play or both?
Matt: Well, when we started one in New York, there weren’t any other theaters, so, to say there were different philosophies, there weren’t any others period when we got to New York. At least not in the way that there were comedy theaters in Chicago, and that’s what we liked, we missed that kind of comedy theater scene, which is different than just a scene where you rent spaces and put up shows. That’s not really the same thing. So, we really just started a space cause we wanted a place to perform and we were sick of renting all over New York. So it started as just a very practical thing for our own show.
SO: What’s your favorite part about having your own theaters?
Matt: My favorite part now is what it was originally; it’s just having the comfort of having a place where you know you can perform. When I first moved to LA, after having that comfort in New York, it was a complete bummer. I felt like it was just in so many ways starting over. And no one wants to feel that way. Everybody wants to have their comedy home.
SO: So you have two comedy homes, that’s awesome! A lot of talent is coming out of UCB these days, how can aspiring young baby comics get up on stage there, what steps can they take?
Matt: Well, unlike a lot of theaters, we don’t have steps that you HAVE to take to get on stage. If you’re funny and got your act together there’s shows that you can do right away. I mean, you just go through the schedule yourself and figure it out but some shows, like a Harold show, you gotta audition to be on a Harold team, you don’t have to even take our classes to audition, or I don’t think you do. I know you don’t have to take all the levels or whatever. You can do the audition and pass the audition and get on a Harold team. You can come to town and be a good stand up and you can get involved in stand up shows right away. So not really steps, it’s just, our theater and the entire comedy scene, if you just keep doing it enough and you do well, you get noticed and you get invited to do shows. Some shows are by invite, some shows (I’m talking about my own theater) are by auditions. So it just depends, some shows, the producer of the show, they, you catch their eye, whether it’s at the UCB or somewhere else on the comedy scene. You do well and you get invited to do more shows, it’s just that easy.
SO: And you guys also have a sketch open mic, which I had never seen before I moved here, that’s a great opportunity too.
Matt: Yeah, we have a, let’s see, we have Not Too Shabby on Fridays, which people can do sketch at, and that’s open. And we have a stand up open mic, and we have an improv open jam, so we have shows where you can just literally show up and jump out on stage.
SO: That’s really cool that you guys make those opportunities available. You’ve obviously performed all around the country, what are the differences that you see of a Chicago, a New York and a Los Angeles audience? And do you have a favorite?
Matt: The only clear cut difference I see is rarely do I feel the audience be offended in New York. And it’s not always, I’m not saying in LA the audiences can be easily offended I’m just saying that every once in a while you’ll run into an audience that is and it’s striking. But of course it’s even more so that way in the middle of the country. But not necessarily in Chicago, I don’t know. I don’t know, sorry.
SO: No, that’s okay, I get it. Do you have any old improv sets or scenes that you will just absolutely never forget?
Matt: Well, yes by the fact that a lot of the “Upright Citizens Brigade” TV show came from improv. So the best, the better the scenes were, the less they were re-written, so those were literally set in stone (or I guess they’re figuratively set in stone). Umm, and now with Improv4Humans we’re recording every set. So I guess just over and over again, what’s great about now versus when I started doing improv, is that the improv is not going away into the ether after you do it, it is being recorded and available for podcast. So that’s cool that improv isn’t just a memory like it used to be.
Inside The Master Class: Pure Gibberish
SO: I just re-watched Inside the Master Class, which is great! Do you think people sometimes take comedy too seriously?
Matt: Oh yeah. Maybe improv’s more guilty of that than sketch or stand up just because there is more philosophizing behind how to actually do improv. I think stand ups all pretty much agree, you go up there and you do your jokes, and what works works, what doesn’t, get rid of. But with improv there’s all sorts of different philosophies on how to do it, what’s right and what’s wrong, and some people talk about it WAY more than they do it.
SO: Have you ever had a point in your career, particularly early on when you felt like you should just throw in the towel and if so what kept you going?
Matt: Hell no.
SO: No? Well, alright.
Matt: No, I feel like no. I mean I was always looking, you’re always, and that’s what people have to do, you have to look around you and go, “how am I doing compared to other people who are doing it an equal amount of time?” and if you’re just completely being left behind then I don’t know, that might be a clue that maybe you’re just not good at doing it. ‘Cause I think people that like bomb one night, they’ve got mental problems if they really think that, “aw, I gotta throw in the towel cause I bombed one night.” But if they’re bombing for a year, then that’s a big clue that maybe they’re not doing it well. And there’s a difference between like, when I say that, like, not getting auditions is different than not doing well in stand up. Because auditions, it’s up to all these different forces you can’t control, but like going up and doing stand up, the audience isn’t going to lie. You’re either doing well or you’re not. So if you’re bombing consistently, then maybe stand up’s not for you. And I can say the same for improv. You just, you’re taking improv classes for years and it’s not clicking then I don’t know what to say, it’s not for you. It’s not just to say, “aw, I gotta make an attitude adjustment,” ya know? You gotta try something else.
SO: Are there any projects that you’re working on that you’re excited for people to find out about that they might not know about yet?
Matt: I am very excited about a project but I can’t talk about it cause my deal hasn’t closed but it’s how to use improv to make another kind of show, I’ll say that much.
SO Note: Matt Besser can be seen performing Improv4Humans alongside Lauren Lapkus, Andy Daly and Seth Morris at The Smell (247 South Main Street) on January 10 at 10-11:30 pm. Tickets can be purchased for $15.