Brick Tic Interview With Matt Besser (complete transcript)

The following is a Brick Tic phone interview with UCB co-founder Matt Besser. To sign up for The Brick Tic comedy newsletter, go here.

Matt:               I’ve performed at the Arlington Drafthouse before, I did a one-man show there. It must’ve been 5 or 6 years ago, but I loved the crowd. I liked the theatre. It seemed like a really cool place.

Brick Tic:         Is it preferable to a comedy club or just different? 

Matt:               To a club? Definitely preferable. You know, to me it’s just about can they hear me?  Can they see me? And is the place full?  If all of those things are there, I’m pretty happy. Comedy clubs can be really cheesy or expensive or all sorts of things.

Brick Tic:         They definitely bring in folks the DC Improv kind of ignores. Nick Thune or Todd Barry are just some of the ones I’ve seen there. The guys from The League had a show there recently, so they bring in some really good acts, and it’s almost always filled.

Matt:               What did the guys from The League do?

Brick Tic:         They all took turns doing standup individually and then together. They just did bits together, and then they brought some folks up on stage. One girl ran up on stage and didn’t know about the show, so they just kind of made fun of her mercilessly for about 5 minutes.

Matt:               [Laughter]

Brick Tic:         Nick Kroll actually went to school at Georgetown, so he had his own cheering section right here in D.C. I guess it was kind of like a hometown show for him.

Matt:               I know, I did a workshop with him when he was in college.

Brick Tic:         Really?

Matt:               Yeah, I remember him from that workshop.

Brick Tic:         That’s fascinating. Was it an improv workshop or sketch or something else?

Matt:               Yeah, it was an improv workshop. Alison Becker I believe was in it too. She’s like at VH1 VJ. She’s very pretty. She’s on Parks and Rec actually.

Brick Tic:         Was John Mulaney there as well? Was he in that bunch?

Matt:               Umm, I know John Mulaney well, but I don’t remember him from that workshop.

Brick Tic:         That’s neat. Cool. That’s the perfect sort of local tidbit that people are going really enjoy. So, the movie Freak Dance, when you’re doing a parody, I would imagine before you start anything, there’s got to be kind of a moment where you’re watching a legitimate dance movie and you’re just—you can’t believe what you’re watching, and you’re like I have to do something about this. Was there a particular movie or moment that stood out for you? Where you said this is ridiculous?

Matt:               Well, it’s funny, I think two of the demographics for this movie will be people who love dance movies and people who hate dance movies.

Brick Tic:         Uh, huh.

Matt:               I hate dance movies. [Laughter]

Brick Tic:         [Laughter]

Matt:               I always have, but our theatre got shut down around 2001 because of a building code violation. We didn’t have a second egress, exit, we found out, and then we had them shut down our theatre, and then in doing so, we pretty much lost all of our money that we had saved up, and it was terrible. We had to do all of these improv shows to raise money to open a new theatre, and when we were doing that, we were interviewed by the NY Times, and as I was telling them, I was like you know what, it’s just like the plot in one of these dance movies. The community center gets closed down and they have to win the dance contest to open it up again, and that got me—and I was like, it’s just like that and that made me watch Electric Boogaloo again, and then I just got to this thing where I just started watching every dance move, you know. I was just fascinated with how they all have the same plot. I can’t remember when You Got Served came out out, if it was before or after I was percolating this idea, but I was very inspired by that movie. I actually thought it was cool. The dialog and the acting is terrible and the story was stupid, but the dancing was unbelievable, and I had kind of fallen out of touch with what breakdancing had become.

Brick Tic:         Uh, huh.

Matt:               Group, crew dancing. That really opened up my eyes to how cool that type of dancing was, so we—watching all of those movies and being inspired by the new style of dancing; it was becoming popular. I was like God these all have the same stories. So, I’m just going to take this story that’s in all of the movies and then just do a sketch on every plot point.

Brick Tic:         Uh, huh.

Matt:               So it is a parody, but it’s not a parody in a way that you think of like Scary Movie or Not Another Teen Movie or those kind of parodies. It’s more of a parody, like saying like Rocky Horror Picture Show is a parody of the Frankenstein movies. You don’t really think of it—just think of it as they made this weird absurd world, and that’s what our goal was; to make a weird world and populate it with these absurd characters.

Brick Tic:         So, it sounds like you actually respected the dancing a lot?

Matt:               Yeah, I respected the dancing more than the movies themselves, that’s for certain.

Brick Tic:         [Laughter]

Matt:               And actually when it came time to film it, cause we did it on stage for a couple of years, and when we converted, made the transition into a movie, we wanted to make sure there was good dancing, you know great dancing in it.

Brick Tic:         Right.

Matt:               Just bad dancing isn’t—it’s not funny and it’s not interesting. It’s just what it is. So we went a got a couple of the America’s Best Dancer Crew winners. We got the winners of So You Think You Can Dance, so we have legitimate and awesome choreography and skilled dancers in the movie.

Brick Tic:         Bad dancing reminds me of bad stage combat in improv shows as well. It’s probably never as interesting as you think it is when you’re looking at it.

Matt:               Yeah, exactly, and even some things that we’d done on stage, which was ok and worked, on film we knew that it would be so much less impressive, so we got a stunt dancer for every one of our, and I think it works pretty well. I think you can’t really notice unless you’re looking for it, and if you do notice, it’s kind of funny too. You’re like why is that actor all of sudden really muscular?

Brick Tic:         [Laughter] I guess we’ve all had these moments of, I guess, exasperation like you had with these dance movies, but we don’t all make them into movies. What are some positive things that you have going for you that allowed you to turn it into a movie?

Matt:               Hmm, well, I had originally written it as a movie. I didn’t think we would do it as a stage show, but after I wrote it, I realized that I didn’t know as much about musicals as I thought I did. I have always been a fan of muscials, but I’ve never written one. So, I paired up with this guy Brian Fountain, who had done a lot of professional musicals, and when I took it to L.A., I paired up with 2 other guys; Dick Anthony and Michael Cassidy, the lead of the movie, and those guys have professional backgrounds, and they really helped me re-write it and re-work it into a real musical that follows musical rules. And then, after we did it, people were just kind of blown away by the stage show. I think it went beyond expectations that way; the good dancing, the good music was current, and it was more than just a funny show.

Brick Tic:         Ok.

Matt:               You know, people kept saying you should make this into a movie, which had been my original idea. I’m like yeah, you’re right.

Brick Tic:         [Laughter]

Matt:               There were a lot of things that were written in the original script that we hadn’t been able to realize on the stage. In particular, just the big dance scenes. They’re so much cooler when it’s populated with hundreds of people, rather than 15 people.

Brick Tic:         Got it.

Matt:               So, and in the UCB we—that’s what we do with the money that the theatre earns. We try to put it into creative endeavors, whether it be UCB Comedy or something like this movie. So, we funded it ourselves.

Brick Tic:         Since you brought up money, a lot of folks here have sketch and improv groups and are making some money. Ticket sales from UCB and concessions go straight back into creative endeavors and nothing goes into anyone’s pockets. Is that accurate?

Matt:               Well, we are for profit, but when we started-started, we didn’t have any idea of what it would become, but we told ourselves that if we ever get into the black, we have to start making a profit, let’s put that in creative endeavors, and that’s what we’ve done. You know, it took years to get into profit, but the first thing we did was this improvised film called Wild Girls Gun, and then I think the second big thing was UCB Comedy and this is the third. This is the third major production.

Brick Tic:         Ok. So, High Road was an independent sort of thing? Matt’s movie?

Matt:               That’s just Matt Walsh. That’s independently produced.

Brick Tic:         Ok. Do you mind if I switch over to improv4humans for a couple of questions?

Matt:               Sure.

Brick Tic:         It’s very popular here with the community in D.C.

Matt:               Cool.

Brick Tic:         If I can get specific, I even enjoy when you do your Audible.com ads. For some reason, hearing you talk about a book you like is really neat. I don’t know if it’s because it humanizes a celebrity or it’s just fun listening to anyone talk about something that they’re passionate about. Are those spots things you enjoy doing or just a part of the gig. Do you put much time into them?

Matt:               Look, I like to give my opinion on anything. [Laughter]

Brick Tic:         [Laughter]

Matt:               But, yeah, when you were like recommend a book, I was like oh cool. Like to me it’s being able to find a book that I like that’s on Audible. But no, I don’t put much time into it. I am pretty passionate about certain genres of books. I got into cyberpunk for awhile. I’m really into Jewish-American comedic authors. Once I get into something, I’m like a completist, so I have like every Kurt Vonnegut ever and every Phillip Roth, you know, every book about post-apocalypse. [Laughter] I’m kind of like that. I don’t know if I’m classically well-read, but in the things that I like, I’m pretty completed, so when it comes time to recommending, I’m like yeah.

Brick Tic:         That’s great. That validates it for me. It sounds like your passionate, so to hear that you actually can back it up is really neat. Would you mind giving an exclusive book recommendation for the crowd that I’m writing for here?

Matt:               Interesting. Yeah, I will. I think this one book is not on Audible, but I might have recommended another one of his books, but it’s this guy Bruce Jay Friedman. Have you ever heard of him? He wrote The Lonely Guy, that Steve Martin movie. He is a really funny guy, and one of those books I think is the funniest is this one called Stern. It’s just about this hopeless guy that just the world shits upon. It’s just hilarious I think. It’s a real short read too. I think it’s only like 100 pages. I think I already recommended The Magic Christian, didn’t I?

Brick Tic:         Yeah, that one sounds familiar.

Matt:               That’s another great one that I always recommend, but yeah Stern is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read.

Brick Tic:         So, let’s see, one of your stops is Richmond and that’s not too far from here. I know a couple of folks driving down. You’re doing your one-man show there. What can they expect from your one-man show?

Matt:               Well, it’s not a thematic show show. It’s more like a greatest hits of stuff I’ve done. Usually when I do a 1-man show, it has an overall kind of theme to it, like the last one I did was about the seperation of church and state. Actually I toured that one through the South and I think a lot of it had to do with my upbringing, having Christian and Jewish parents, but I think I bummed a lot of my fans out. They were like “we’re used to you doing crazy characters and not being all serious about religion.” So I won’t be doing that.

Brick Tic:         [Laughter]

Matt:               I might do an excerpt from it, but I’ll mostly be doing stuff like when I go up solo at standup shows in L.A., the things I do there. I don’t really do standup. I do more like conceptual bits, characters, and stuff.

Brick Tic:         Yeah, I recall—I was at MaxFunCon last year when you went out as Zeus, and that was a pleasure. That was pretty ridiculous.

Matt:               Oh, you were at MaxFunCon?

Brick Tic:         I was, yeah. I wasn’t sure if I should admit because you were picking on MaxFunCon folks the other day on Jordan, Jesse, Go, but yeah, I loved it. You guys were great.

Matt:               Cool.

Brick Tic:         One of our reader submitted questions was about you doing these characters. Early on, when you did these more conceptural characters, was it harder to do when you first started performing? How were they received and are there any stories you remember about doing these characters early on?

Matt:               Well, I first started back in 1990 really. That was in the middle of the standup boom, and so that’s the road I was on, to be a standup and I was very much into Andy Kauffman, Steven Martin. They were probably the guys I looked to the most. So, when I would do bits, they were always very weird, very performance art-like, not appreciated or liked by any of the comedians that had to follow me. [Laughter] And that was fun, but I think that the more I learned about improv and the more I started writing sketches, the less I did that kind of thing…

Brick Tic:         Uh, huh.

Matt:               …and the more my characters started following our improv philosophy of, you know, finding the game of the characters, focus the characters, the funny of a character on one thing instead of being kind of weird all over the place.

Brick Tic:         Uh, huh.

Matt:               One memory I have, when I do—I still do the Nazi Pope, ever since Ratzinger was made a Pope, I’ve done him as a character. I was just like really—we’re going to let the fucking former brownshirt as Pope? That’s great.

Brick Tic:         [Laughter]

Matt:               I’ve done the Nazi Pope for years and I was doing him, actually at the Improv Olympic in L.A. once, and this guy stood up and threw a chair at me.

Brick Tic:         What?

Matt:               I know. It was crazy. I was talking about how the Catholics don’t like gays and I can’t even remember how the bit went. I think I was improvising, but I was talking about how—I was getting pretty deep and I was saying that Hispanics don’t admit that any Hispanics are gay unless they’re into Morrissey, and I really going to many levels of people who don’t like gays, and this Hispanic guy stood up and threw a chair at me. Cause I think he thought was denigrating the Hispanic Catholic, which I guess I was.

Brick Tic:         [Laughter] Let’s see. You’ve had a lot of guest spots recently; Modern Family, New Girl. Are there any others coming up that people can find you on television.

Matt:               No, this year’s kind over as far as sitcoms go. Oh yeah, I’m going to on Bob’s Burgers pretty soon. I think that’s the next thing.

Brick Tic:         I noticed you don’t have the guest spot of all guest spots: Law & Order. Have you ever had a secret desire to be on Law & Order or CSI or one of those more procedural shows?

Matt:               Well, Law & Order is done in New York and we always joke that we were the only 4 actors in New York that were never on Law & Order. [Laughter]. My wife loves Law & Order, so that would’ve been great, but no. I got an audition a couple of times, you know. I would’ve made a great rapist on there or a child molester or a junkie, but I never got it. I have audtioned for CSI a couple of times too, but never closed the deal.

Brick Tic:         [Laughter]

Matt:               Sometimes people get in their heads that sketch people, if they hear you’re in the sketch, they probably won’t even give you the audition. Because they think you’ll make it jokey or something.

Brick Tic:         Well, that’s a shame. They’re clearly mistaken. Another specific question: When I put out these newsletters, the most popular links that people click on are when I mention Nick Offerman, Ken Jeong, and Ben Schwartz. He’s really popular and your character kind of laid into him on Comedy Bang Bang recently. Does he deserve it? What’s the story on Ben Schwartz? Does he deserve the ribbing you give him?

Matt:               When Bjork went off on him?

Brick Tic:         Yes, exactly.

Matt:               Yeah. I’ve known Ben since he was an intern and I will always remind him of that.

Brick Tic:         [Laughter]

Matt:               Even when he reaches Eddie Murphy status, he will always be an intern to me. You don’t want these kids to get too big of a head.

Brick Tic:         [Laughter]

Matt:               They’re just obnoxious, right?

Brick Tic:         Right. Absolutely. No one is entitled to anything. You won’t have to worry about that in D.C. We’re always fascinated when folks like yourself decide to make an East Coast tour. It’s kind of like, what are you doing here? We’re happy to have you, but it just seems like it’s a big effort and we realize that, so we appreciate you coming on out here.

Matt:               Yeah, I appreciate it, and it’s so great to be somewhere besides New York, L.A., or Chicago, and have UCB fans. I mean, we know they’re out there, but when they actually show up, it’s heartwarming.

Brick Tic:         Last thing…This next question has kind of become the Arrested Development movie question for you guys, but any update on the improv book that you guys are working on?

Matt:               Uh huh. We’ve been working on it forever and because every time we do like—we’re on the final pass of it now, but every pass that we do, it’s like oh yeah, we didn’t think of that or let’s reexamine this philosophy or this technique, so there’s been a lot of re-writing. But I’m very, very proud of it. I think it’s the most complete book on how to do improv. And I think it’s pretty complete too. It’s like 400 pages. We really cover everything and yeah, hopefully that will be out in the next year. We’re on the last pages of our proof read when I left town.

Brick Tic:         It’s 400 pages? To this point, all improv books have been the size of Truth In Comedy or I guess Second City had that almanac, but most of them are tiny, so it’s neat that there’s more of an encyclopedia out there or a larger book, I mean.

Matt:               Uh, huh. Yeah, that almanac is all over the place, isn’t it?

Brick Tic:         Yeah, yeah.

Matt:               I just read that the other day and I was like, wow, some of these are saying opposite things.

Brick Tic:         Yes, I definitely noticed that, or they just come back to the same idea multiple times, just by different people? It’s good, but it just takes some effort.

Matt:               It’s funny though when you go to different people on the same thing, they say opposite things and you’re learning something for the first time, you must ask yourself, who do I believe? [Laughter]

Brick Tic:         Yeah. Was that a rhetorical question? There’s so many different things that you hear, who do you believe or do you just want to leave that question kind of open?

Matt:               Well, honestly, I believe you should go to UCB [Laughter], but I—what’s always been a frustration of mine was when I started out in Chicago, I took classes at every theatre in town, there’s four different theatres, and it took me years to get that they were not all on the same page.

Brick Tic:         Uh, huh.

Matt:               Like I kind of entered classes believing, oh yeah, all teachers know improv and they all understand it the same way, and they’re all using the same language. They’re all saying the same words. It took me a long time to figure out, oh, when he says “yes and”, he doesn’t mean what she says when she says “yes and. When they talk about playing a game, it’s different than when they talk about playing a game, and I think if you’re a student, if you are going to multiple, different places or reading different books, that can be really confusing. Like I read that Second City book, and they all say—they don’t point that out. They don’t say, “Oh, here’s seven different people talking about working at the top of your intelligence and they’re all saying different things, so watch out.”

Brick Tic:         [Laughter]

Matt:               They just say here’s our—you know, there’s different people talking on top of each other, but they’re saying opposite things. So, if I was a reader, I’d either think I was stupid or I’d think I was confused or I don’t what I would think if I was a beginner.

Brick Tic:         Right.

Matt:               I think I would think I didn’t get it. I think I would go, oh, I guess I just  don’t get it. They seem like opposite. It took me years to go, oh, no, they don’t all agree with each other. We’ll all pretend like they agree with each other, but we don’t.

Brick Tic:         Uh, huh.

Matt:               So, my recommendation for a new person is to go and watch improv and go to where you like where they do improv the best, I guess. I would always be wary of taking classes from a teacher that I have never seen improvise. You know?

Brick Tic:         Uh, huh. Yeah, that’s a point that’ll resonate here. Alright, Matt. Thanks for spending a half an hour with me.

Matt:               Great. If you would include some just specifics—it’s coming out on video On Demand on May 15 and the soundtrack as well is available on iTunes and the movie also on 15. If your readers want to find out more about this or improv4humans, they can go to MattBesser.com or  freakdancemovie.com.

Brick Tic:         Awesome. May 15. Great! That’s fantastic.

Matt:               Alright dude. So, I’ll see you at the show?

Brick Tic:         You’re up against a Steel Panther concert, but I’m trying to finagle my way out of that one.

Matt:               Fuck Steel Panther.

Brick Tic:         [Laughter]

Matt:               Alright man. Well, hopefully I’ll see ya.