Sunday, October 24, 2010

Interview: Matt Besser on "This Show Will Get You High"

Matt Besser is co-founder of the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. The Upright Citizens Brigade television series ran for three seasons on Comedy Central, and in the fall of 2005, the UCB premiered their improv show ASSSSCAT: Improv on Bravo. Besser teamed up with Method Man and Redman to create and perform in the hidden camera show Stung on MTV. He was also a co-creator and star of Crossballs which ran 23 episodes on Comedy Central; and created and starred in The Very Funny Show for

Besser has guest-starred on The Sarah Silverman Show, Reno 911, Mighty B, Word Girl, Pilot Season, The Bernie Mac Show, Frasier, Late Friday; and featured in the movies Freak Dance, Year One, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, Drill Bit Taylor, The TV Set, Junebug, and the zombie western Wanted: Undead or Alive.

His new sketch pilot/special, "This Show Will Get You High," hits Comedy Central Wed., Oct. 27 at 3am; Thurs., Oct. 28 at 4:30am; and Mon., Nov. 1 at 4am.

UCB Comedy talked to Besser about This Show Will Get You High, what's exciting him about the UCB scene, and Save the Last Dance.

What is the premise of This Show Will Get You High?

MB: The show is a sketch show but we do a performance live on the road -- we did one at a theater in Santa Cruz -- but we also go to a big event and hang out at it. So we went to 4/20 at Santa Cruz, the Long Beach Grand Prix and the Anaheim Comicon.

Costume Contest 2 - James
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So each episode has the live show element and a big event?

MB: That was the idea but we ended up shooting too much material. A lot of that material will end up on UCB Comedy.

One of the goals of the show was to get the best sketch writers and performers from UCB Theatre. So, the first step was to ask both artistic directors, Anthony King and Neil Campbell, who are the best writers out there? Who is putting out the best stuff? We got a bunch of good submissions. I must have looked at 40-60 submissions and then we ended up whittling it down to around 20 people we really liked and a couple people we brought on to be there just about the whole time, including Chris Kelly, who was kind of our senior writer, and Craig Rowin, who also came out from New York. And there were 15 other writers from the theater, mostly from L.A.

The original idea for my show was to use the entire UCB Theatre and not have a set cast. I thought it was an unique idea -- calling it a 300-person ensemble -- just whoever is best-suited for the scene is cast. But the network wanted to go with a cast where you’d become familiar with their faces, so we went in that direction.

What were you looking for when selecting writers and performers for the show?

MB: For writers, I look for someone who knows the game, which is what we focus on at the UCB. I look for people who know how to find game, know how to find the focus of the scene really quickly and then are really good at heightening that without being too verbose, too, because these days, sketches need to be on the short side. You know, you’d like to have a five- or six-minute scene, but we have to aim for three or less, which is a kind of a whole skill in itself.

I think there’s less attention span now, that people would like you to get to the joke a little quicker. I do think that’s a trend. And that’s okay. It has a lot to do with YouTube and being able to see so much sketch all the time -- so viewers demand a lot more from their sketch, too.

From a performer perspective, I just looked for who is working the hardest on their sketch. There are so many funny people at the UCB, but as anyone who has auditioned for a sketch show, specifically SNL, you know you can’t just show up for the audition. You really got to have characters that you’ve worked on for while and that you know are good. You need characters that you work on all the time, put them up onstage all the time. I’d say there are very few people that are doing that each year. You got to focus like you are focusing for the Olympics, you have to really decide, “This is going to be the year I do characters all the time, I’m getting on stage and I’m working them out.” And I’d say it really showed in the audition. It came down to like 20 people who I think really have it going on in the sketch character category. It wasn’t just up to me, it was also up to Comedy Central, but there were about 20 people I would have been happy with. And then we used five or six.

Did any characters from the auditions get written into the show?

MB: Without question. John Gemberling in particular has this character called “Winnie the Whiney Baby” and it did really well in the audition and ended up getting a full scene in the show and we took Whiney Baby to just about every event. People were loving him.

Winnie and the Jesus
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A lot of the sketches featured on UCB Comedy involves the cast interacting with real people.

MB: I’ve done a lot of prank shows and I didn’t want to do another prank show but I’ve always liked putting characters out in the real world. We’re not really tricking them or fooling them that John Gemberling is a baby, but it’s funny to see a character interact with a real person. And people react in all kinds of ways. We had rednecks threatening to kick our ass at the Grand Beach Grand Prix, and we had hippies completely tripping out on us.

We went to this 4/20 smokeout in Santa Cruz and Gelman’s character was a Republican and we turned him into a bong and asked stoners if they wanted to smoke out of a Republican. And while they would smoke out of “the Republican,” he would insult their liberal ways. And some people thought it was hilarious, because they’re cool people, and some people got very aggressively mad at us. Like, “Get this guy outta here!” And then some people, he had one guy flip his lid like he was having an acid flashback, screaming.

Wait. The cameras were fully visible, right?

MB: Yes.

But no one got punched or anything?

MB: No. A guy threatened to elbow me in the face. I was playing a character called Nick the Nicknamer. “I’m the guy who gave everyone on the Jersey Shore their nickname, including The Situation, Snooki, Jwwow.” And I nicknamed this guy -- his name was Ludlow -- and he looked really stoned, so I was like, “More like Lud-high!” And he was very insulted by this nickname and threatened to elbow me in the face.

A guy was offended for being called high at a 4/20 event?

MB: No. That was at the Grand Prix.

We also went to the LA marathon and pretended we were one of those “Jesus Hates Gays” groups. We were “Jesus Hates Runners” and we were telling them to stop running. Yelling, “Listen to Kanye’s ‘Jesus Walks’!” There were cameras, but people were buying that we were for real. It was really funny, because they were screaming at us. They thought we were backwards, narrow-minded people.

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Our original pitch for the sketch show was that it would be in the Middle of America and an old medicine show, in the old days, when you’d just show up and put on a show for people. The original idea was that we’d have a mobile stage but it proved a little more expensive than we counted on.

You’ve worked in many different comedy formats: improv, sitcoms, film, “cable news” parody shows. What keeps bringing you back to sketch?

MB: When I think of comedy, I don’t think of stories. 99% of writers, when they talk about what they write, they always talk about story. Stories don’t really occur to me. That’s not how comedy comes into my brain. If I were to work on a sitcom, I could probably come up with a lot of good ideas -- elements of stories -- but I don’t think my strength is writing stories. So I like sketch. A sketch is not a short story. That’s not a smart way to think about it. A sketch is a sketch -- it is its own entity. It’s about finding a focused game and heightening and exploring it. That’s why I like doing improv, and that’s what I like doing in sketch. I like characters but I also like conceptual ideas. I like parodies. I like the wide variety of opportunities that sketch provides.

This Show Will Get You High has a lot of warning labels: "Please don't watch this show if pregnant, recovering addict, or while driving." Have you ever endangered yourself watching comedy or doing comedy?

MB: I always make sure to wear something over my ears, some sound-dampening device, if I know I’m going to watch something or listen to something that is funny. I’ll put on dark-colored glasses that are hard to see through and try not to hear it, so I’m not affected by the comedy. I’m careful about my comedy, even though I do it all the time. I’m careful so it doesn’t become a problem.

What about the UCB scene excites you right now?

MB: I’m excited that we’re opening a second theater in New York. I think we’ve reached a point where talent is literally brimming over and we need another place to put it. We have such demand from our performers for stage time -- and they deserve it. I think the theater is almost finished and I look forward to coming back and performing there. It’s going to have a more stand-up/solo performance, non-improv focus to it, which is good, because it creates balance. Our theater is kind of known as an improv theater in New York. In L.A., it is known for more of a balance, which I’m proud of. It’s really worked out well for us in L.A.

We’re doing a lot of shows now that we record for podcasts. That’s kind of a new thing. We started doing that for ASSSSCAT, and we’re going to start to do that for other shows in LA., so people in the middle of the country can enjoy our shows.

I like our Beta teams a lot. That’s really great. Hiring someone like Todd Bieber to really get that into gear -- people have been really focused. New York, in particular, has put up some really impressive videos on almost a daily basis. And the quality is so much better than it used to be, it’s really impressive.

How involved is the UCB4 in day-to-day operations at the theaters?

MB: We’re always weighing in via email on something or other. Like the new bar at the new theater is called the “Hot Chicks Room,” and about every day we get a new draft of what the logo is going to look like. It could be something as fun as that, or something as boring as dealing with our accreditation, which is a strenuous process of getting our curriculum in order -- which has taken us years to do it. We get together to work on our improv book almost every morning. Sometimes it’s fun, and sometimes it’s stressful, because you’re putting together a textbook.

When is the book coming out?

MB: I can’t say. It’s been at least a three-year process. We can see the end in sight.

What projects are you working on right now?

MB: There used to be a musical onstage at UCBLA called Freakdance, a parody of dance movies. And we shot it last fall and it has taken us a year to edit. It’s pretty much done. Right now we’re waiting to see if it gets into Sundance. I’m pretty excited about that.

Is it in the vein of Save the Last Dance?

MB: You can’t name a dance movie I haven’t seen.

You’re a big fan of dance movies?

MB: Yes. I hate dancing but I love dance movies. I think they’re funny. There’s movies like Beat Street, Electric Boogaloo, You’ve Got Served, Step Up, where dancing is almost treated like gang warfare. I think that’s funny, all the way back to West Side Story. And then there’s Dirty Dancing and Flashdance and Center Stage, Save the Last Dance -- the more romantic ones. Even within dance movies, there’s all different kinds of dance movies. We tried to pile in all the archetypes into one movie.

Are you dancing in it?

MB: I’m involved in choreography but I’m not breakdancing in it. But we do have real B-boys. We got many of the groups from America’s Next Dance Crew appearing in it, even some of the winners, so we have really good dancers for the movie. One of our regulars was Joshua Allen, who won So You Think You Can Dance.

So, you’re a big fan of dance TV shows, too?

MB: I’ve seen every episode of America’s Next Dance Crew.

Any advice for up and coming writer/performers?

MB: Follow me on my Twitter account and you can see how great comedy is written.

I actually do think Twitter makes people better writers. In the same way, making a sketch writer get their scene down to three minutes, is what Twitter does to get your joke down to 140 characters. I think there’s a discipline there that helps.

Watch more comedy videos from the twisted minds of the UCB Theatre at

Don't miss "This Show Will Get You High" on Comedy Central Wed., Oct. 27 at 3am; Thurs., Oct. 28 at 4:30am; and Mon., Nov. 1 at 4am; watch other videos from the show online.

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