When done properly, improv is an astounding art form. When done poorly, well, don’t ask. I think you could safely say Matt Besser has tamed the improv “beast”. In fact, he has elevated the art form and helped garner an audience eager for innovative entertainment. A founding member of the sketch and improv comedy troupe, the Upright Citizens Brigade, Matt has graced stage, television, movie screens, Internet and airwaves. His credits go on for days. Just for kicks, Matt has played a role in “Comedy Bang! Bang!”, “Key and Peele”, “New Girl”, “Happy Endings”, “Children’s Hospital”, “Parks and Recreation”, “Modern Family”, and just about every other successful production you can think of. The UCB has evolved from comedy group to TV series to highly acclaimed bi-coastal comedy theatre and accredited improv and sketch comedy school. Matt has been a performer and teacher at the UCB. He has been a member of the long running show ASSSSCAT. In addition to performing stand-up and improv, Matt also has his own podcast, “improv4humans“, and recently co-directed the musical spoof, Freak Dance. Ladies and gentleman, Matt Besser needs no further introduction. Get comfy and get your laugh out loud on.
Serial Optimist: Mr. Besser. Welcome! First off, if you could be a female Greek deity, which would you be and why?
Matt Besser: In order to exact revenge, Hera used to turn Zeus’ lovers into objects and animals. There’s a guy right now I’d like to turn into a basket of snakes or maybe throw him up into the air and turn him into a constellation.
SO: Glad I’m not that guy! You are one of the founding members of the Upright Citizens Brigade sketch comedy group and have had a very successful career on stage, film and television. Did you always know you were destined for a career in comedy?
Matt: No way. I’m from Little Rock, Arkansas. When I was young I had this mindset that only people from the big cities were allowed to get into show business. I was the class clown to a degree but I thought my destiny was to get into something that made big money like advertising or investment banking. When I went to college I took Economics 101 my first semester of freshman year and did awfully. Meanwhile I was DJing on the college radio station and having the time of my life. The choice was obvious after that I had to get into entertainment somehow.
SO: And the rest is history. Did you have a lot of support from your friends and family throughout your career? Do you still keep in touch with folks back in Little Rock?
Matt: Most my friends and most my family. My parents were very supportive whereas my brother never thought I’d last. My best friends also thought it was very cool. Of course they were doing things like touring in a punk band so being a comedian was pretty mild compared to that. However I had one friend who came and saw one of the first times I bombed doing stand up. After the show he took me to a bar across the street from the comedy club and bought me a shot. He begged me to never do that to myself again.
Most of my closest friends no longer live in Little Rock but even so I go back every once in a while to perform and catch up with the folks who do live there. Also I go back once a year to catch a Razorback football game.
SO: Home is where the heart is. The UCB troupe had a show on Comedy Central for three seasons and has had a cult following ever since. Season 1 and 2 are available on DVD. Will Season 3 ever see the light of day?
Matt: Yes! Hopefully by next summer we can get all the extras together to finally put it out. We recorded the commentary track this last summer. When we watched it we had forgotten half the stuff in it and spent a lot of the commentary going “oh yeah, remember that?!”
SO: We can’t wait! You’ve performed; I’m guessing, thousands of shows in your lifetime. Millions is a stretch. What have been some of the more memorable performances?
Matt: Actually billions! I guess I tend to remember the shows that had a little chaos going on. In Chicago we did a lot of shows were we would take the audience out of the theater and into the real world where we had set up scenarios to prank them. Once we took an audience down an alley to break into a guy’s house who we heard playing guitar. We broke in as the audience watched through a window and we beat the guy up and stole his bass. Another time we started a riot in the middle of an intersection in Wicker Park with torches and handguns. The police, of course, didn’t get that our guns were fake and we were putting on a show so Horatio Sanz was put in cuffs and put into the cop car as he shouted, “fight the powers that be!” The audience was so blown away they thought we had planned the whole thing. Another time we were doing a scene on the street and somebody started choking me from behind. I assumed it was a fellow improviser horsing around but soon realized that it was a local gang member who didn’t like what we were doing in his neighborhood. More recently I was doing my Pope character commenting on how the Catholic Hispanic community treats gay people. This guy in the audience then stood up and threw a chair at me. What happened to the days of rotten tomatoes?!
SO: Tough crowd! You’ve probably witnessed equally as much stand-up and improv over the years. Who have been some of your favorite performers on stage? Which emerging comics stand out in your eyes?
Matt: I’ll try not to say the obvious choices. In my Chicago days there was a really sharp guy named Tim Reinhard who did tight little Steven Wright type jokes. Smart stuff; don’t know what happened to him. Another guy was Rick Roman who was an improviser in our group “The Family”. He was anarchy incarnate and also a really brainy performer. He died when he accidentally drove his taxi into the Chicago River. One of the first truly tragic moments of my life. These days look out for the Birthday Boys. I think they’ll be the next great sketch group.
SO: If you had access to social media back when you started improv do you think you would have used it in the same way you do today?
Matt: Things would have been so much easier. Performing in Chicago we felt so isolated from Hollywood and NYC where you can truly make a living doing what you love.
SO: You sure came a long way without it though. Do you prefer performing alone or in an ensemble?
Matt: Even when I perform alone I don’t perform alone. When I do my solo stuff I invariably try to work off the audience in some way. As a podcaster I could never do something where all I do is talk to no one but the mic. I will say that when you kill by yourself it is a bigger charge than when you kill as a group but show-to-show I’d rather be with that group.
SO: There is safety in numbers. What’s the funniest falsehood you ever read about yourself in print or online?
Matt: That is happening more and more in the last couple of years. It’s crazy! On my own IMDb page it says that Joe Besser of the 3 Stooges was my grandfather but he was actually my grandfather’s cousin. Very recently someone sent a video to “improv4humans” describing a live show that I did in Texas that never happened but I’m guessing that he was just trying to get my goat. There is a lot of goat getting and chain pulling on the Internet. I guess you kids call it trolling.
SO: HA! It’s all madness! I saw your performance as Building Inspector General in Freak Dance. Outstanding! You co-directed the film with Neil Mahoney. What would you consider your “style” of directing?
Matt: I’m not much for camera angles and blocking and visual style. I’m more about directing the actors. I get a lot of joy in helping an actor get more from their lines. As an improv stage director I’m much different and harder, more like Bobby Knight. I guess I don’t have much patience and I expect more.
Freak Dance Trailer
SO: “The General”! How exhausting was it promoting Freak Dance all over the US? Were there any times you wanted to break down trying to finish the film under such a grueling schedule? Neil told SO it was quite brutal.
Matt: The traveling is a bitch. I did a driving tour of a dozen cities. But the actual viewings were lots of fun. I like going to towns like the one I grew up in and bringing them a movie that they would never see at a regular cinema. As far as finishing the film Neil had it much, much worse than I since he was the editor.
SO: You’ve been an improv teacher for many years. What’s the most important thing a student can learn in an improv class? Do you think learning improv is an invaluable tool when performing stand-up? Do you think learning improv can be useful outside the comedy world?
Matt: I guess my go to note is learn how to listen. Not just hear the words, but the intent of the improviser. What is the game my fellow improviser wants to play? How can I feed that game? Improv is a valuable tool for stand ups but there are plenty who are great without ever having taken an improv class. In fact many great standups are terrible improvisers because they are so used to getting the laughs all by themselves. I’d say it’s more invaluable to the stand up who wants to get into acting and working with other people. Outside of the comedy world improv can just teach you how to work with a group which many people have a problem.
SO: You heard it from the master, folks. Auto-generated YouTube channels, have I been living under a rock? Your “Inside the Master Class” web series has been quite popular on the Matt Besser channel. How did that idea come to fruition?
Matt: I think you mean on the UCBcomedy channel. There’s a documentary about an acting camp for teens called Stage Door.
There’s one scene where this British acting teacher seems to mentally torture his students under the auspices of teaching them to access their “truth” and “emotion” and other actor-y bullshit. Our first installation of “Inside the Master Class” is a direct parody of that scene. The short was well received so we’ve done a dozen more and are still doing it. The cast has fallen delightfully into their roles. The first few were a little inside baseball (improv) but we’ve made the more recent ones accessible to everyone.
“Inside the Master Class”: Elimination
SO: It should NOT be confused with PTA’s “The Master.” You’ve done a plethora of character roles in movies and television. Do you prefer acting on the sidelines or are you just typecast at this point? Did that sound harsh? Would you ever like to star in your own sitcom?
Matt: I’m so sick of being typecast as the handsome perfect man! Rich Fulcher (The Mighty Boosh) and I are currently writing a sitcom for a cable network for us to star in. I’d tell you more but I should probably wait to see if it gets made into a pilot. I do love doing small character roles. Especially with directors who encourage me to improvise. I’ve been lucky to work with guys like Jake Kasdan, Judd Apatow, and Adam McKay who all work well with improvisers.
SO: You and Rich are the perfect duo! Make it so. You’ve been a guest on a number of podcasts like “You Made It Werid“, “Doug Loves Movies” and “Fitzdog Radio“, to name a few. Which are some of your favorites?
Matt: The only one that I listen to every episode is “Stuff You Missed in History Class” but I will never appear on that podcast unless I make history. Perhaps I should assassinate someone. In general I like a host or hosts who aren’t afraid to say something that might piss some people off like the guys on “Walking the Room” for instance. Of course “Comedy Bang! Bang!” is a lot of fun because I get to do characters that usually are fucking with the other guest.
SO: Everyone loves a rebel. Of course, you also have your own podcast, “improv4humans“, on the Earwolf network. Please describe your podcast to the SO readers. Who have been some of your craziest guests?
Matt: Craziest guests? I guess I don’t think of my improv friends as being crazy. One episode that had Horatio Sanz and Matt Walsh probably led to some of the craziest scenes. Sometimes I will have listeners on to debate a topic. Once we had a guy on to debate whether or not Captain Pike from “Star Trek” was a cyborg. Another time a listener didn’t like our usage of the word “catchment”. That’s pretty crazy right? More recently we’ve had our intern go out and interview people. On one episode he interviewed some members of a UFO cult called the Raelians who once a year have a Go Topless rally. Go to their website if you want some good crazy.
SO: Disclaimer: Go Topless is NSFW & NSFW & NSFW. This concludes the disclaimer. Did you enjoy bringing “improv4humans” to the recent RiotLA Fest? What are your thoughts on LA’s new alternative comedy festival?
Matt: RiotLA was great. I love festivals. Especially the music festivals that have a comedy tent. Great to perform and then hang out.
SO: You perform weekly in the insanely popular long form improv show, ASSSSCAT, at UCBTLA; it is performed once on Saturday and Sunday nights. The lines are usually around the block. Are there any differences between the show you pay for and the free show? What elements of the ASSSSCAT show have made it such a draw over the years?
Matt: Yes, there are usually a few idiots at the free show. I have a love/hate relationship with the idiots. Sometimes they disrupt the improv and that pisses me off. But then we usually rip them to shreds after that, so that’s always fun. I think a lot of people have the impression that improv is corny and hopefully Asssscat disproves that notion.
SO: Those silly bad apples are a nuisance. Do you carry around a comedy journal? What’s your writing process? Do you have a favorite writing utensil? Have you ever thought about publishing the letters to the editor you’ve collected and used in your stand-up?
Matt: You mean my colonial feather pen? Yes, I have thought of publishing the letters to the editor that I do bits with. But first I’ll probably release a recording of that act.
SO: Fantastic. What’s it been like working with your pal, Scott Aukerman on the IFC “Comedy Bang! Bang!” program? Has the show drawn in more folks to live theatre at UCB? Will be you making more appearances next season?
Matt: When Conan started his late night show I think he really revolutionized the type of comedy seen on TV. I think Scott’s show is the first show to do that since Conan. CBB is truly alternative comedy.
SO: I would have to agree with that statement. Can you tell us anything about your part in the TV series “Your Pretty Face is Going to Hell”? What other projects are you working on?
Matt: “Your Pretty Face is Going to Hell “ is really funny show that will be on Adult Swim next year. It’s done by the same guys who do “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” and a few other Adult Swim shows, but this show is live action. I probably shouldn’t give away what my character does but I can say it takes place in hell and Eddie Pepitone is there too. I’m going to keep my sitcom idea on the down low for now. Check out my movie Freak Dance that is available on DVD, iTunes, Netflix and everywhere else. I release one or two “improv4humans” episodes every week. And very soon I will be self-releasing on www.MattBesser.com a recording of six of my characters doing stand up called “The Six Most Important Sets in the History of Stand Up”.
SO: We will be waiting with gleeful anticipation for the Adult Swim show, the secret sitcom and everything and anything you’ve had a hand in. Thanks Matt!!!