To say that Matt Besser has contributed a lot to the world of comedy is an understatement, even if his name results in a resounding "who?" among those who casually graze on Saturday Night Live or prime-time Comedy Central.
In brief, Besser was raised in Little Rock, attended Amherst College in Massachusetts, and then tried stand-up comedy in Boulder, Colorado, for a year. Moving to Chicago in 1989, he studied improv and sketch comedy under legendary Second City improvisational guru Del Close, whose former students have composed at least a fourth of Saturday Night Live's cast during any given time period.
In 1991, Besser founded sketch and improv group the Upright Citizens Brigade with Amy Poehler, Matt Walsh, and Ian Roberts. UCB moved to New York City in 1996, where classes were offered, a theater was opened (the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater), and a sketch show was sold to Comedy Central. Besser also created the MTV reality prank show Stung with Method Man and Crossballs: The Debate Show, a parody of topical debate shows which aired in the summer of 2004 until one of its unsuspecting guests threatened to sue Comedy Central.
Outside of TV, Besser is not one to keep his thumbs out of pies. His reverse-prank-call CD, May I Help You (Dumbass)?, came as the result of a tech-support 800 number being accidentally routed to his Manhattan apartment. In 2003, Besser moved to L.A. to launch and develop the second Upright Citizens Brigade Theater, where he now performs several times a week.
"Woo Pig Sooie" is Besser's latest one-man show, the production that he's bringing to the Hi-Tone Tuesday night, which focuses on religion in America and carries the tagline "Don't Miss Your Chance To See Man Talk His Way Into Hell." In an interview with Besser, he shed some light on the show, unfunny people, the UCB, the "Trapped in the Closet" production, and the power of pranks.
Flyer: What are your goals for the L.A. UCB theater?
Matt Besser: The number-one goal of both UCB Theaters is to give me, Amy Poehler, Ian Roberts, Matt Walsh, and all of our friends a place to perform in a hassle-free environment. The second goal is to provide a venue for good comedians who aren't necessarily our close friends. The third goal is to provide a nurturing environment where people can feel free to get high in the green room. We've always said, "Keep the green room green."
Tell me about the "Trapped in the Closet" show.
The show is a panel of experts commenting on the opera that is (R. Kelly's) Trapped in the Closet. The experts change each show, but my favorite example would be David Cross playing the closet door.
How far into your receiving the calls did you decide to do the May I Help You (Dumbass)? CD?
After a month of calls every day, I called the tech-support company and tried to suggest a way that their customers could stop calling my apartment. They were idiots and ignored my suggestions, so I figured, "Fuck them. I will provide tech support for their customers."
Who are your favorite (most influential) pranksters past and present?
Andy Kaufman, Joey Skaggs, Craig O'Neill, Coyle & Sharpe, Negativeland, and Howard Stern. The most influential book I ever read was an annual journal called Research, which in the '80s did a whole issue on pranks. That journal turned me on to the world of pranks being a performance.
What is your stance on prank reality-TV shows?
We did 24 episodes of a show called Crossballs where we pranked 48 people. At least 35 of those people wanted to kill me when the shows were done. All those bad vibes have kind of burned me out on the whole genre.
What is your teaching style? You are harsh on students. Expound.
In Chicago, I took every level at every improv school. Out of all that supposed education, I had very few teachers who really taught me anything. Most of them took the "nurturing" approach to teaching, which is okay for a beginner but a waste of time and money down the line. All my improv epiphanies came on the heels of a harsh note, in particular [with] my mentor Del Close, who embarrassed me on many occasions. I only get really harsh if I feel a student ignores a note time after time.
Can an unfunny person be taught to be funny?
No way you can teach someone to be funny. But you can teach them techniques that help them present their funny in the best way. Especially when it comes to working with a group.
Can you give some important differences between long-form improv and short-form?
Short-form is lame, bag-of-tricks crap. It's not organic. It's basically watching people play parlor games. Long-form is improvising sketches on the spot.
Tell me about your new show.
Don't come if you are the religious type.