Interview: Matt Besser, Upright Citizens Brigade and “Woo Pig Sooie” one man show.
As one of the four members of the Upright Citizens Brigade, Matt Besser has founded a theater, a school and a community that finally made New York a rival to Chicago for improv. He’s since moved to Los Angeles, extending the community and establishing another coast for students and peers to play, where the industry can see much of the best live comedy performed today. However, Matt right now is more concerned with the middle of the country, as he is taking his one-man show about religion, atheism and the fighting Razorbacks “Woo Pig Sooie” across the South for a series of dates in June. We talked about the reaction he hopes his show will spark in the bible belt, as well as some of the politics surrounding it, along with touching on maintaining the integrity of the growing UCB and the sometimes cult of Del Close.
How do you think your Southern performances of “Woo Pig Sooie” will differ from our LA or New York performances? Are you expecting more negative reactions?
If I get negative, that’ll be a lot of fun. (laughs) You saw the show and it’s kind of a dialogue too, I like to talk to the audience a lot. And yeah, in California and New York, kinda preaching to the converted in a way. And I still expect to have liberal audiences, but I also expect because it’s in the bible belt I’ll get more reaction to certain things.
Usually when I do that show, everybody has different lines. Some people will be laughing along, and I’ll start talking about the pope or priests fucking kids up the ass and all of the sudden they’ll be like, “Whoa! Not funny any more!” (laughs) The Jews will be laughing and I’ll make fun of the Sabbath and “Hey, not funny anymore!”
You make that point in the show. Does the dialogue ever get too thick or does that comment defuse things right away?
I encourage it a little bit. If you know my work, I like a little bit of confrontation. I think that’s fun. I’ve only done this in New York, San Francisco and LA, pretty liberal audiences anyway. The only time it really got a reaction was I had a Catholic in the front row who kicked a chair against a chair. I engaged him and said, “What’s your point? There’s a story about priest molestation in the paper every Sunday, how do you feel about that? If there was a story about truck drivers molesting kids in the paper every day, we wouldn’t have trucks anymore. We’d find a different way…”
There a part of the show where you talk about people wearing cowboy hats. I imagine in those Texas shows there could be people wearing cowboy hats.
The point I make is when you see somebody walking down the street in a cowboy hat, you think to yourself, “That guys from Texas or an asshole or both.” But if I’m a Texas, if they wear a cowboy hat, they deserve to wear a cowboy hat.
They may feel the same way about some city slicker wearing a cowboy hat.
Exactly. The weirdest thing on that question would be that a lot of show I’d be explaining Arkansas to people who’ve never been to Arkansas. I’m going to be doing the show in Arkansas, so it’s going to put a whole twist on the show.
Have you been back to Arkansas much since you started the UCB?
Well my parents moved away from Arkansas once I went to college and most of my best friends did to. But I do go back every once in a while. My friends have a band called Trusty that reunites every once in a while. So I’ve been back a few times for a wedding and reunions, but not on a regular basis. I’ve never performed there and have always wanted to. It will be quite a homecoming I hope.
Are you going to tape these performances?
Oh yeah. That’s why I don’t mind negative reactions, because it’ll probably be interesting. And I also hope to do interviews after the show, because I usually have people come up to me after every show and say, “I’ve got a similar story.” I wanna hear ‘em.
So the show’s had several different titles as you’ve developed it. How’d you come upon, “Woo Pig Sooie”?
Well, I don’t want to scare people away from my show. Because usually when I tell people it’s a show essentially about the separation of church and state, it’s sounds boring and political. I don’t think it’s a boring show. I don’t think once you’re in it, it feels like it’s political.
No, it feels more personal as it goes along actually.
I didn’t want the title to imply that the whole thing was about religion and I thought, “Woo Pig Sooie” was just a great three word phrase. And it plays into the fact that I say my religion is the Arkansas Razorbacks.
It’s like the amen for that.
Exactly. That’s my Sabbath is watching the Razorbacks.
So it seems that for a lot of people when they leave the south try and leave it behind, but you’ve kept parts of it with you.
Arkansas used to get picked on a lot. Next to Mississippi, maybe more than any state. It has this kind of Li’l Abner, barefoot and suspenders kind of image that I’ve always tried to defend. We’re not stupid. And I’ve always had a chip on my shoulder about that. They are the butt of the joke a lot, unlike Texas. They got a cool reputation.
What’s funny is that Arkansas has the reputation of being a bunch of dumbasses, but we have Clinton, both the Clintons, and Wesley Clark. We have some very famous smart people.
The other thing is it is a red state as of the last election, but the past four elections it’s a swing state. And I take pride in the fact that we’re only 51 per cent lame. That 49 per cent of Arkansans are pretty cool. Hopefully we can convert another 2.
It seems like it might be pretty easy with how our government has been performing lately. Is there a temptation to bring more politics into it, because so much of religion and politics is tied together now?
I try to keep up-to-date and my show does slightly change according to what is in the news more. Intelligent design is more relevant now as opposed to a year and a half ago when I started doing this show. To me, you would think that would just be a blip on the media radar, but it’s amazing, I think 25 of 50 states have school districts trying to include intelligent design in their curriculum.
There’s always new material, are you always trying to incorporate it in or do you want to stay with the tested stuff? Is there new stuff every night?
Over the year and a half, I’ve probably done two and a half hours overall of different material, but in the past three months I’ve tried to hone it down to a hour. But I’m also going to try and talk about things that are relevant to the area that I’m in.
Certainly, you won’t have to introduce Arkansas to Arkansas.
Right. They have this great governor - terribly great – Governor Huckabee. He’s most known for last Valentine’s Day, he did this marriage covenant concept. Have you heard about this?
No, I haven’t.
It’s like an extra contract on top of your marriage that you can’t get a quick divorce. It takes two years to go through the divorce process. He had this giant communal renewing of the vows, very similar to Reverend Moon.
Is it because it’s too easy right now?
Well, Arkansas has the largest divorce rate. And that’s because it’s one of the easiest state to get a divorce in. He tried to change that. But it also play into the whole gay marriage thing, because in this covenant you reiterate that marriage is only between a man and a woman.
I know that at least seventeen red states are doing this marriage covenant. I also know that very few people are actually doing it.
Of course. Don’t mess with the sanctity of marriage, but let me get out of my marriage if I don’t feel it’s particularly sanctified.
There’s some devastating personal material here with your grandmother. Were you hesitant at all to reveal it? It’s family stuff.
It is. But it almost needed to be revealed. I mean, what she did to my parents was just terrible. And I hope I’m at the point in the show where I’m not just saying “here’s a story about this one evil woman in Arkansas.” No, she represents a whole swath of people in Arkansas and through the South and in California and New York too.
It might not be about Jews and Christians getting married, it’s not an issue now as it was in the 50s and 60s. But it can be applied to gay marriage and integration and all those things.
It’s funny to me because you find people who are all for interracial marriage, but you get to the gay marriage part and that will be just insanity to them. It’s strange how far their sense of discrimination extends. It’s kind of that same blinder you talk about with religion.
I really hope that, the same way we look back on the 50s and say to our parents, “There were really water fountains for black people?” In twenty years, our children will say, “You didn’t allow gay people to get married?” I hope we’re incredulous about it. But you look back at the Scopes trial and we’re still in it. We’re still arguing the same fucking issue.
You’ve said that this is one of the few issues you felt you could speak to. Did you want to find an issue that was larger for your next one-man show?
I didn’t look for the show, the show just kinda came to me. I started doing material on these subjects right after the 2004 election, because I was just amazed by the whole gay marriage thing.
I was actually auditioning for another show, and I was doing a man on the street interview with real people. I was asking them why they voted Republican. This was in Sherman Oaks, California. And I’d say out of the twelve people I interviewed, six of them said they voted Republican because of gay marriage. And I was just amazed by that. Especially in Sherman Oaks.
You would expect that in a red state. And that’s why don’t just blue & red state. These people are everywhere. They’re right here in Los Angeles. They’re everywhere. Some people were Hispanics, and the Republican party isn’t for Hispanics, but their Catholic background makes them have that opinion.
One of the things that struck me about the last election is how African-American churches were on that side. Some of these churches may have been on the forefront of the civil rights movements.
Right. These were churches that were fully behind Clinton. But the Bush administration fooled them on this one thing. And it’s such a small little thing, but a big thing in the election. I think they’re going to make immigration into gay marriage for the next election that everyone going to get upset about.
UCB now encompasses two coasts now. How do you keep that true to your original intentions as it grows?
Well, we don’t put people on stage willy nilly. I can still say I know the majority of people on stage. If it ever gets to the point that I say, “Who’s that guy?” then I’ll probably feel we’ve become some institution. But most people on stage are a friend of one of the four of us, or a peer we’ve worked with or respected. As you know, we don’t rent out the space. We book the space. We work very tightly with the artistic directors. So as busy as we can get, we still work on a lot of the day-to-day.
And you’re right, it probably will get that way. But what happens, you make new friends, and a lot of them are young. They learn the ropes, they get the same kind of sensibility and you have trust in them that they can handle it. And that’s pretty much what’s happening in New York right now. We have a good artistic director out there, Anthony King, who’s doing a great job of getting quality work out.
Is there any differences between UCB New York and UCB LA now?
I think they both have in common is that they’re both not a place where you show up and do your show and leave. People like to come, and hang out, and watch other people’s shows and then the next week they’re in that show. They’re a lot of cross-pollination. That’s the thing I’m most proud of the theater: stand-ups trying sketch or a sketch person trying stand-up or a stand-up doing a monologue for an improv show. I think everybody enjoys that. There’s not just straight ahead improv or straight stand-up. There’s a lot of different ways to do comedy. And people doing a lot of different shows. Not just one show at the theater.
What’s different about it, in New York when we started out, it was probably 75% improv, 25% sketch and just barely any stand-up at all. But when we started out here, we were fortunate enough to get BJ Porter and Scott Aukerman’s Comedy Death-Ray right away. That’s the best alternative stand-up thingee, if that’s what you want to call it. And from that, we put up a lot of stand-up shows. So I’d say, it’s a third split stand-up, sketch and improv.
That might change as you do more improv training out there, right?
It might. But I’d be happy if it stayed a pretty even split. I like that we have more stand-up. In New York, it was like, “UCB Theater does everything but stand-up.” We’re changing that in New York too.
It seems like in LA there was probably a bit more of a dearth of alternative environments?
It’s a little more of an individualistic… it’s hard to get a lot of people to rehearse for a long time. To be a really good sketch group or improv group, you’ve got to do a lot of rehearsals, you got to commit for a long time. And in LA, where people have so much work and opportunity, it’s hard to make those commitments.
One of the greatest achievements of UCB is community. And when I heard about the LA group, the thing I wondered is how hard would it be to form that in the industry town, where there’s a bit more careerism.
It does make it a little harder. Like in May for instance, I think we cancelled seven different shows because of people getting jobs, including myself. And last minute sometimes too. Some of our best shows got cancelled in May, and that’s hard on the artistic director. He’s really has to hustle to get new shows in. And I don’t think we come across that as much in New York.
But it’s great to have people working. So it doesn’t upset us. We like that.
What can you tell me about “Don’t Think” – the upcoming UCB Humor Magazine? Is that true?
Yes, that’s a recent development. The first issue is going to focus on the ASSCAT 10th Anniversary. It’s not my idea or project, so I don’t know much about it. We got a lot of people in New York who are funny blog writers, so it seems like a good way to centralize all of that. And then also, a place to talk about everybody’s projects and careers and all the things they’re working on it.
The networks seem to be playing with improv – the short form stuff or the semi-scripted stuff like Sons and Daughters. Does you give you more hope for long form improv on TV?
You know we had one on Bravo (an episode of ASSCAT ran last year). And even doing it on a cable channel… you have to have commercials. You can’t argue away commercials. Outside of HBO and Showtime, everybody has commercials. So that’s one thing that makes it a little different from what you see on stage. And the other thing is censorship. In an ASSCAT we’re very free. (laughs) We get rated R definitely. So the Bravo show wasn’t exactly what we have on stage, but we believe that we can under those strictures be funny.
We look at improv as just coming up with a sketch in the moment. If you look at it that way, it’s just another sketch show. People traditionally look at improv as, “Part of the fun is the failure and watching them sweat.” We don’t just look at it like that. The failure scenes or the sweating scenes of the Bravo special – we cut those out. You want to do stuff as funny as a written sketch. And if it’s not, it’s not worthy. And if it is as funny, you don’t even have to call it improv if you don’t want to. Call it a comedy show.
One of the things we’re working on at the theater is a live stream of the ASSCAT show of the Internet.
Is there anything else fans can do to get Comedy Central to release Season 2 or Season 3 of Upright Citizens Brigade on DVDs?
(audible sigh) It’s a very frustrating process. And even when they released the one season, they didn’t promote it at all. It’s really hard. We have zero control over it. We have the desire to buy it back from them at some point. I don’t know. We feel kind of like the bastard child of Comedy Central.
You talk about religious fervor is equal to sports fandom for you in “Woo Pig Sooie”, but in some ways I feel that there’s an equal fervor for Del Close and long form improv out there. Do you think that’s an accurate description?
In both positive and negative ways. And (Del’s) kind of like Jesus too, in how people say, “that’s not how Del wanted it to be done. This is what Del said.” Del went through several generations of improvisers. Every year… every class pretty much, he would have a different mindset. When he was working with my group, The Family, we developed this form called The Movie that’s a very fast improv long form. And then you’ll hear this long form snobbery from some people, that “fast form improv isn’t good. It needs to be slow. And Del liked slow improv.” Fuck you. Del taught us fast improv. Don’t tell me what Del said.
The year after we left to New York, he was teaching a long form which was basically poetry. They would read a poem and the improv was basically poetry. All I got to say, is thank God I wasn’t there, because I don’t think I would have been interested in that. (laughs) But I’m also not going to say, “Del said poetry long form is bad.”
I do believe that the positive side of it is the Yes-And philosophy. Improvisers, this may be a general statement, get along as a group better than other groups of comedians because of that philosophy. You build ideas together rather than “here’s my funny idea, now it’s time for your funny idea.” No, we’re building an idea together.
What happens when you die?