Listen to Episode #48 here:
Getting Involved with Matt Walsh
Our guest is Matt Walsh. Matt is a founding member of the National Improv Sketch Comedy Theater, Upright Citizens Brigade, which has schools and venues in both New York and Los Angeles. Chicago born, Walsh was instructed by Del Close and Matt is in very good company. Del’s students included John Belushi, Bill Murray, Tina Fey and Mike Myers. Walsh currently stars in HBO’s comedy series, Veep. He has produced and directed his own comedy films, A Better You, High Road and Under the Eiffel Tower. Welcome, Matt.
Thank you, Peter. I didn’t direct Under the Eiffel Tower but I did produce and help co-write. I had a finger in the pie, but that’s okay.
Matt, if you weren’t working in comedy, what would you be doing?
Is that the question you always ask? Is that like Krista Tippett?
Are you listening to Krista Tippett?
No, she always asks, “What was your spiritual background?” She does a podcast called On Being. She starts every interview with, “If you had one, what was your spiritual or religious upbringing?” Like a springboard. If I wasn’t doing comedy, I think I’d be in psychology or teaching.
You’d be me. I’m a Psych PhD. I’m teaching not primarily but I spend a decent amount of time.
I was a Psych major at Northern Illinois and then I did post-grad work in various places. I worked on a psych ward for two and a half years for disturbed adolescents as a mental health worker. Then I realized there’s no way I can handle that.
The clinical side of it is tough.
Teenagers especially are an emotional rollercoaster and they’re very disturbed. There’s a lot of pathology on the ward. There were eating disorders and borderline pre-schizophrenic. They wouldn’t throw the labels on them yet, but they were headed that way. We saw Tourette’s and we saw suicide attempts. We saw some wealthy kids being put away so their parents didn’t have to deal with them. We had a real mix.
It sounds like a movie in the making.
It is. I wrote a screenplay and then we turned it into six episodes of TV, but they have yet to sell it. That’s absolutely true though because it is like that. I find it interesting because it is that moment when we all get out of college and know what we’re going to do. Then we spent two or three years doing it and we’re like, “I can’t do this. I don’t want to do this.” Everybody studies to be an accountant or a teacher and then we pushed through and we think, “That’s it.” Then we spend those years realizing what we don’t want to do. For me, in the psych ward, I was 22 and some of the patients were nineteen. There’s very little difference between a nineteen-year-old and a 22-year-old, yet I was supposedly the role model and I was supposedly the one with the answers. I was struggling to figure out life myself. That’s what I think is at the core of a story like that.
I could see that. I will happily talk you out of the life that I lead if you want. Although, I do quite like it a lot.
Did you ever do therapy to a patient where they come in and do talk therapy?
I’ve paid people to do it, to sit in their office.Comedy is so collaborative because it is a social art form. Click To Tweet
How about you being the one who offers course corrections?
It’s interesting you say this because I don’t know. I don’t do it professionally, but I’m happy to do it with my friends. I have a saying that I like to give advice and I like to take advice. That’s anti-therapy because therapists are supposed to let you discover the advice there. I feel like you could save people a lot of time and money if you just tell them to get to it. During my PhD, I was in the quantitative psychology program, but there was also a clinical and counseling psychology program there too. The two sides of the research students are social psychology and cognitive psychology students. These clinical and counseling students would mix a lot, and so on. I used to always joke that I was going to start a directive counseling psychology program where you direct people as to how they should live their lives. The folks in those programs never appreciated that joke.
It’s not clinical. There’s clinical psychology. Is there Freudian psychology still or is that not even a thing?
I don’t think it’s a thing. I think that those principles still find themselves.
The eclectic therapy where everybody takes a bit of everything, but what are the schools? There’s clinical?
It’s basically clinical and counseling. The counseling programs are not even that big anymore. I couldn’t give you a good difference. As an outsider, they seem totally the same but if you’re in one of them, you’re like, “No, it’s completely different.” The big thing is cognitive behavioral therapy. That’s the technique. It is certainly the best research supported technique. That is cognitive behavioral therapy works. The problem is you can only use it for certain things. It works well for anxiety and things like obsessive-compulsive disorders and so on. It doesn’t work very well for the profound psychological problems that you are dealing with in this ward.
What’s the goal of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?
It’s this one-two punch. It essentially recognizes that a lot of problems that people have are due to either maladaptive cognitions and/or behaviors. It seeks to break the habit that you have. You do that by retraining your mind to recognize that you’re having these cognitions that might be a problem and work to change them and then also to adapt your behavior. People use it for things like smoking for instance. They are both cognitions and behaviors that are automatic, and so you have to try to reverse them and so on. What would be an example? My favorite example is I had a buddy who would talk about social anxiety. He would give his patients challenges. This is very comedic, actually.
The worry is if you have social anxiety, you’re just worried that people are going to laugh at you and judge you negatively and so on. What the average person doesn’t realize is no one gives a shit about you. Even when you do something stupid, they rarely ever judging you negatively. Oftentimes there’s a lot of empathy there. He would have people stain their shirts. He would have them put ketchup or mustard on their shirt and huge stain purposely and then go out into the world and observe what happens. The interesting thing was nothing happens. People are like, “That’s too bad. It’s terrible,” versus pointing and laughing. My favorite example of this is he would have these guys go into a public restroom and sit in the stall and make loud, grunting noises.
People would be sympathetic?
They do nothing. They wouldn’t say anything.
That your identity is blocked, that one seems safer.
Though you still have to get out at some point.
You can time that with a new crowd. That’s basically like a prank.
The funniest thing about that was this was twenty years ago. He’s telling me about this stuff when I was a student and he was a student. There was a toilet down in the basement of the psychology building where my lab was. I use that a lot. At one point I was in there, I wasn’t making grunting noises, but let’s just say it was one of the more aromatic experiences that I’ve had. Someone came in there to use the urinal and wash their hands. I can’t believe I’m telling this story. I’ve never told this story. As they were leaving, as the door was closing, they said, “You stink,” anonymously. I don’t know that person. They didn’t know me. It was an anonymous exchange. First of all, I started cracking up laughing. I thought to myself that would’ve backfired on Jay, who is my friend, if that was an intervention he was trying to use.
In any case, I’m glad that you are in comedy because we’re similar ages and over the years, I’ve seen many of the movies that you watched. I had a computer attached to my TV and it cracked out. I viewed that as a blessing. It was like the world telling me, “Pete, you have a lot of deadlines. This is not for you right now.” I have this old pile of DVDs and I was going through them and I came across Old School and I was like, “Let me see how funny this still is.” I popped it in and it aged pretty well. You are in there. I was like, “That’s Matt. I’m going to interview him in a couple of days.” You play the guy at work who wants in on this fraternity. “I need this, man.”
“I need this. I’ve got to get in.” That was a great movie. It was a fun movie. It did age well, I agree with you.
Some of these male-focused movies.
Since the whole awakening of the #MeToo Movement and stuff, it’s interesting what will age well.
For instance, speaking of Belushi.
Does Animal House play well?
It plays awful. I haven’t watched it recently.
It’s super rapey. There’s a whole scene with a devil and an angel on a guy’s shoulder and a passed-out woman.
She’s an underaged woman too. She’s like sixteen.
On the other hand, The Blues Brothers is outstanding still. It’s still great. When you’re doing Old School, are you in for a few days?
Old School, I think I was on and off for a month or two. They shot stuff at UCLA and we shot at various office buildings.
I think there was a USC scene.
There’s probably a USC scene in there, but I feel some of the stuff I remember being at UCLA campus for a month and a half or two. Then there was a couple of days additional that they wanted to add some epilogue stuff or they wanted to add some pieces to connect certain scenes, I think a van or something that I was in listening. That was the later piece.
Admittedly, I didn’t watch the whole movie but I’ve seen the movie many years ago. I just popped it in. I don’t remember how many minutes of screen time you have, but I stopped shortly after the scene where you get smacked. How many takes does that smack take?
The smack was probably three or four and it was about Luke Wilson, a very nice guy. He’s like, “Does that hurt?” I’m like, “No, go for it. Let’s just do this.” It never hurt but it does startle you. It stings a little bit, but to capture it in a real way was funny, like just to go bam.
The timing is. That works great. You say the phrase about the daughter, then it’s like boom. Then he realizes how he’s crossed the line. When you’re doing a movie like that, I get the sense there’s a lot of waiting around as an actor and then you have to be on. How do you manage that? Is it easy for you to turn it on and off? Do you have a process? I’m curious about this idea that you’re sitting in a trailer, you’re chilling out, you’re doing makeup, you’re easy, you step onto a set and you have to be this other person.
It’s pretty light lifting. It’s not heavy lifting. You’re not wearing prosthetics. You’re not doing an impression of a character. You’re not quoting giant monologues. It’s scenic and so you’re doing scenes. To get into character, fortunately for me it’s not hard. I would assume on the days we would get the scene and Todd Phillips was there and he’s like, “Here’s a scene,” then we’d say it out loud. Then he’s like, “Let’s try this here.” In a loose collaborative way, people might pitch an idea. Will or somebody might have an idea like, “I don’t like this,” or Todd might have a new line. It’s very malleable and it never feels like we have to go on stage and execute perfectly in front of this live audience. It’s always in flux. Somehow you get through it that way with that willingness to have it be malleable and learn from consecutive takes.Democracy only works if people get in there and get involved. Click To Tweet
I assume your improv background makes you well-suited for that.
I do like looseness and I do like openness to open air inside a scene to play with stuff. It’s not necessarily even verbal just to have to make awkward silences or to play with distance from the character you’re with, like walking away to get something at an inopportune time which might create a laugh. All that stuff. Having liberty to do those things which we do on Veep in fair amount is fun as an actor and you’re collaborating.
In Veep, are you doing rehearsals of sorts?
Yeah, in Veep we do table reads. If there’s a problematic scene or two, they’ll pull an actor or two from that scene and they’ll put it on his feet and workshop on the day of the writing or the table read. Then on the day of filming, they’ve done five or ten rewrites of that script and sometimes successive table reads if needed. On the day of filming, it’s pretty tight. It’s all written and then you rehearse and you pitch ideas and you can paraphrase because I own my character for seven seasons and they’re very respectful like, “He’s great at that. What do you think, Mike? What do you think, Matt?”
You’re like, “He wouldn’t do that. He wouldn’t say that.”
You can do that or you find a way where they’re like, “It’s funny,” like, “Really?” Then you have to go like, “How do I sell this? How do I make this funny?” because there are moments where like, “I don’t know.” They’re like, “No, it’s funny.” It’s like, “All right.” Then you trust them and you trust the process and you try to find a way to do it. If it’s way off target, you’re off course like, “There’s no way. I don’t even understand this. Why is this funny? This doesn’t work. Can I suggest this?” There are those conversations.
The actors in Veep serve as a test of sorts. If you read the lines and you go, “Hmm.” I don’t know a lot about writers’ rooms. On one hand, I think, “What a fun job,” and then on the other hand I think, “That sounds hard.” You’re trying to, in a room with a bunch of other people, create a dialogue that’s going to be funny. The place that you’re doing in that room and the place that it’s being executed are wildly different. Can you get to a point as a writer where you convince yourself, “This is good,” and it may be good in that place, but it’s less so when you’re performing?
When table reads happened for me as an actor, that’s the most exciting time because you’re seeing the material for the first time and it’s very fresh. It’s like some of those laughs that take you by surprise. It’s self-indulgently fun to step into a table and read it and hear the laughter and see how things play. The writers will sit in a donut around the table and they’re nervous if their contributions don’t work or whatever, but they’re also wanting to hear. They have in their mind like, “If Mike says it this way, it’ll be funny,” and lo and behold, I’ll say it that way and it does work. I’ll say it a different way or I’ll add a paraphrasing and they will be like, “That’s a better way to do it.” Everyone’s checking their ego a little bit and looking for the best version of what that script can be. In truth, the writers get excited for table reads because it elevates what’s on the page. They have no idea truthfully if something’s funny. To see it be funny and that these characters interacting across the table elevates it, in those interactions, you’ll find authentic moments and new discoveries and like, “That was so much funnier,” and there was nothing on the page. Those moments are whatever it lives for in that table read.
It sounds quite collaborative. Improv is my favorite form of comedy. I went just the other night to see Sentimental Lady and I never get tired of those guys. It doesn’t get any more collaborative than improv. One of the things that is interesting about comedy more generally is the notion of collaboration. Even what you think is the most singular solo form of comedy, which is standup, actually has a lot of collaborative elements to it. For instance, comics are constantly bouncing ideas off of each other and giving each other notes in the green room, in the bar afterwards. Even the process of creating standup is collaborative because you’ve got a test joke with an audience. You actually need an audience in order to make a future audience laugh. It’s probably no surprise that comedy is so collaborative because it is a social art form.
I’ve been looking back and I was doing a little bit of research about the Seinfeld process of creating a sitcom. To your point, what you said is you don’t know. There’s this story of Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld locking themselves in an office to complete the script. Then they would send the notes out to be typed up, and this is back in the day. It’s literally typed up by an assistant and sometimes she would just be tickled by what was on the page and she would laugh out loud. They would run out of the office to see what she was laughing at.
Because they had no idea?
You have a hunch but like, “What is that thing?” It sounds very similar in this donut around the table read.
I think a willingness to throw out what you think are great ideas and go back to work, that’s ultimately what’s in the DNA of Veep for many seasons. They would scrap whole episodes after the table. We wouldn’t see the process, but the writers would confab and go away and then we would come back and say, “We’re going to take another week of hiatus.” Then you knew, “Armando wasn’t happy with that.” Dave Mandel in the early seasons when he came on board, there were times where like, “Nope, not good. We’re going back to the drawing board.” Holding yourself to that greedy, “It’s got to be perfect,” but we don’t know what it is up until the last-minute onset when you’re still filming. You still don’t know what exactly it’s going to be. I think that serves you well.
Would you say one of the secrets to Veep’s success is this willingness to toss out and get rid of ideas and take the extra time?
For me as an actor, I would say the writing is spectacular. That’s the first thing you have to have for a good comedy. We’ve had great writers for seven years, an incredible writing staff like a murderers’ row of British dudes and ladies, and American dudes and ladies. They’re just fantastic. We couldn’t ask for a better staff. That’s the first part. Then the way the show began is they wanted input. Armando and the Brits wanted input because for whatever reasons, some reasons being they’re American and so they’re going to say things slightly different. There are idioms and things to hear.
Also, they were creating a pilot and then a new first season. They wanted to see how we embodied the characters. Armando would always say, “I don’t care where the best idea comes from, as long as it’s the best idea.” It could come from the catering lady, it could come from anyone. He was trying to call all the ideas and make sure the best ones were executed. That stayed in the DNA of the show and it is very open to pitching ideas. I feel empowered as an actor to go for it or try things and bring ideas and pitch jokes for other characters to the writers or to the characters themselves.
This reminds me, there’s the Anna Karenina principle about all happy families are happy for the same reason and all unhappy families are unhappy for different reasons. I think what you’re saying is Veep is a happy family. In the world of comedy, what that means is you need a great showrunner. You need great writers. You need great actors. You need them to get along. You need a good idea. You need a good premise. Everything has to fall into place, not by luck, and so on. You seem to have all those things with that show. I want to ask you one more question about that one and talk to you about your directing. I don’t normally talk politics on this pod, but Veep proceeded this current presidency. I’m just curious, as you play a press secretary, that character, is there anything like, “I can’t believe this is happening,” in terms of art imitating reality, in terms of how the presidency has changed in a sense.
Do I have any inkling this was coming?
No. What is your reaction now that you were living Veep before the presidency. You’re living Veep now. Has it changed either your perspective of the presidency or your perspective of the show?
I think for everyone in the country, it’s changed the perspective of the presidency. I feel like common courtesies that aren’t necessarily in the constitution but have been executed by generations of Presidents have fallen by the wayside with Trump. He’s a wild card and a narcissist basically. It’s been shocking to see on the domestic stage and on the international stage. It’s very disappointing. It’s also a reflection of the divide that exists in the country. There are the people that still cling to Trump felt like the improvements of the Obama administration were passing them by. Why do they get to be so happy and we’re still losing our jobs in these various communities that we’re still taking root in? That has to be fixed. That goes back to the Clinton era actually because there is a lot of divide in the Clinton White House or the Clinton Congress, etc. The seeds have been sown many years ago.
My take on politics is consistent. I don’t ever want to be a politician. It’s the hardest job in the world. As a result of this recent midterm, I’m not a political animal, but I got involved with this guy in Illinois named Sean Castin who’s from my home district. He’s a guy who cares about the environment and came from a business where he helped companies pollute lessons, also save energy and save money. That was how he made his money as millions. He’s very successful. He’s someone that I admire and I got involved with him and I got to see how elections run. I helped get behind his campaign and he won a campaign. I thought that was an interesting journey for me personally because I am not that political.
You just happened to be on a show about politics.
I’m on a show about politics and also there is a certain feeling of crisis with Trump in the White House. I felt many people do feel this is abnormal and it’s degrading or institutions. Then the ultimate truth is democracy only works if people get in there and get involved. I got involved in a bigger way than I had before. Not just writing checks but flying out, doing a fundraiser live, going knocking on doors, whatever you can do. Visiting the campaign office when I go back to visit my mom. Whatever you can do to put your shoulder behind that cause and try to uplift morale. Celebrities are there to be show ponies and uplift morale and take photos a little bit but you can also do some real work.You can make or break a movie in the editing room. Click To Tweet
You and Oprah knocking on doors.
Oprah for our next President.
I think Oprah was knocking on doors in Atlanta or something like that.
Probably for Stacey Abrams.
You’re a producer and a director also. Can you tell me a little bit about how that happened, when that happened, why it’s happening? I’m curious about the diversification of your career.
Simply put it like everybody can do things themselves. I came out of a sketch background where UCB would bring their trunk to New York and we would do a show. Then we would fly back to Chicago and then we’d fly to LA and do a showcase again. Then we would move to New York and we would travel to three different theaters. You’re constantly putting up your own stuff, trying to get noticed on your own. It’s not like you’re waiting for your agent to send you the script to audition for the next Aaron Sorkin thing. You are constantly making your own opportunities basically. That is an extension of what I’ve always done as a comedian or improviser or actors. Just try to do shows, try to write things that are funny and then try to perform them in front of audiences and build a good reputation and word of mouth.
At some point, I saw a void in the improv movies because a lot of people I knew were doing improv movies and I know improv pretty well. I felt like, “I can do an improv movie because I know funny actors and I have a sense of how to manage an improv story.” It was a hunger to do that and also to maybe create an opportunity like I like directing. The challenges are enormous, raising money, and then producing and making your days and all that. That’s the learning curve for me. I’ve made two of them and I enjoyed it. I’ll probably make another one. My wife and I are writing the script that hopefully will be making in 2020.
That was exciting. I’m starting to do a little bit of research on entertainment. When I started to get into it, I started talking to whoever I could talk to, whoever will talk to me about it. I asked him about the role of the director. This strikes me as an incredibly difficult job. The way he described it was the thousands of decisions you have to make.
It is and it’s like decision fatigue. Every single decision in a movie technically is signed off on by the director, whether he gives somebody autonomy. You can pick whatever song you want or pick whatever fabric you want. Whoever you empower or everyone’s coming up to you in the video village thing. You like the shirt, which hammer, can you go shoot, come on, here are some locations, here are some paint colors, here’s the new draft, here are the tapes of the audition. All of it, every single thing is coming your way. My friend who’s a successful director said, “Sometimes you just going to have to pretend you have an opinion.” There were moments on movies he’s made. He’s made several movies and people come up to him like, “What do you think of this eggshell white on the chair,” and he has no fucking opinion. He’s like, “No, that one,” just to make it seem like he has an opinion. It’s like faking it until you make it.
When you’re directing, how do you deal with those decision fatigues and how does that affect your life when you come home, for instance?
It doesn’t necessarily affect my life when I come home. I feel very lucky to direct. Honestly, I’m in a good mood when I come home from directing because it’s like the best job in the world. It’s very challenging and extremely tiring. You might be tired but it’s also like, “I’m directing a movie. That’s exciting and fun.” Then you get to the edit room, which is even more fun. That’s a race, you just want to get in the edit room because then you can see it get better and put it together.
There’s a Hitchcock saying which says a movie is made three times; when you write it, when you shoot it, and when you edit it. The editing side of things is super overlooked by the average person. They don’t understand how a movie can be made. You can make or break a movie in the editing room. You sound excited about being in the editing room. Tell me why.
On a simple level, it is where you see improvement and you have tangible results from your choices. You can tinker with one scene or a two-line exchange. You can know at the end of the day like try this song or try that take or try this take. At the end of the day, you can see the results and it’s like, “That’s better.” It’s very immediate.
It’s almost like an experimenting process.
There are infinite nagging problems all constantly hanging above your head in the edit room. There’s very tangible progress. As a sculptor, you’re chiseling away things that don’t work. That’s what I love about the edit room. You’re also that much closer to a film. Once you’re watching it on a screen or a little monitor, it feels like, “I can see the experience of the audience a little better now.”
Do you ever have regrets in the editing room where you go, “I wish I had X?”
Yeah, you don’t want to have too many. I don’t have an example, but I’m sure there were days, hopefully not too many, where the producers are like, “We got to go. We lose the restaurant in 30 minutes and we have to film the restaurant scene.” You’re like, “Fuck it. One more take and we’re out.” Then the thing you were working on got squeezed by the thing that you have to go get to because locations are jumping. There are those moments where it’s serviceable what we got, but it wasn’t the best. Those are hopefully things you can fix or work around or take the one best take and hope that it carries. It’s also in general, whatever you’re doing, it seems like as an actor or director or even a writer, you’re constantly testing things with feedback or collaboration or smarter minds in your own and getting feedback to massage them, to bring them a more elevated execution. At the end of the day, a lot of what you’re doing is you just have these trained unconscious instincts or impulses that have guided you so well through this point.
If someone says, “Why don’t you say this?” You’re like, “Ah.” You don’t verbalize yet why you don’t like it but that “Ah” comes out. That’s your instinct and that’s your craft. You’re like, “Ah.” Whatever that is, it’s you’re intuiting and you’re visualizing that thing being executed and some part of you is going, “I don’t know why.” Then the logic can be formed and then the pitches of newer versions of what could be better can come out. You have to listen. What you have to do is if someone shows you the coffee mugs for the guy’s home desk and they gave you three and something like, “I don’t know, all of them could be good but ah.” There’s something you see a bright blue and you go, “Ah.” That’s the caveman in you or that’s the animal or that’s the instinct that you’re trying to follow because you’re trusting all your experience and your voice perhaps or the realness that you’re trying to capture. It’s not very gracefully said but that’s truly what I believe.
I’ll say it even less gracefully. What you’re describing is this idea of you’ve developed skills and sometimes as you develop the skills that become harder to articulate, it manifests in a feeling.
I’ll give you a psych ward example. You would see kids in the unit and then on weekend you’d see their parents walk in the unit and you’d go, “I get it. I know why they’re screwed up.” You’ve never talked to those parents, but there’s something about those people that walked on the unit. You’re like, “Now I know why you’re screwed up.”
You’ve produced Under the Eiffel Tower. It’s a rom-com.
It’s a rom-com, which was a genre I hadn’t done. I play a Bourbon salesman out of Kentucky who loses his job then goes on a family vacation with David Wain and Michaela Watkins. I’m trying to fix my life so I propose to their 27-year-old daughter on vacation. She has a PhD in art history and we’re talking romantically about paintings. I’m like, “We should be married.” He gets a ring, proposes and then it goes south from there.
She says yes?
She says no, appropriately so. Then he goes on an odyssey and a drinking bender through because he’s stuck in Europe now through France.
You’ve been exiled by the family.
The family’s like, “Thanks a lot for ruining our vacation, Stuart.” Then I run into Reid Scott, my buddy from Veep who plays a Scottish-like footballer. We go on a drinking bender through France and end up both landing in this vineyard where this woman, Judith Godrèche who plays the female lead, owns the vineyard and the love story began. There’s a little competition, more challenging and more appropriate, definitely.
Under the Eiffel Tower is the title. Why the title?
That’s where that awful proposal happened. He is inspired by France and he’s under the Eiffel Tower and it’s so romantic. He makes the big mistake of doing that.
That sounds cringe-worthy.
It is pretty good. It’s comedic and we got to spend a summer in France two summers ago.
We were just talking about boondoggles.
It was a boondoggle. You get your family. My wife is in the movie. She’s great. She plays my boss. The kids got to see France and then we went to London. I brought Gary Cole over for a week. It was great. There were a lot of friends and fun to do. I think it turned out well.
You described this as a lot of fun personally and professionally. When that’s happening, you reflect on your life. Your alternative life is working as a clinical psychologist somewhere. You go, “This has been hard work.” You live an interesting life, Matt.
I do, I’m very fortunate. I get to go to France.When you're as a sculptor, you're chiseling away things that don't work. Click To Tweet
You’ve adapted to it but you live an interesting life.
I got to go to France for example and make a movie with France and help write it and help edit it. Shoot at the Eiffel Tower. My nephew, Chris, is in the movie. It was a whole family affair. It’s hilarious. I do live an interesting life and I would not probably be a good clinical psychologist. Getting back to psychology, I didn’t like the responsibility the therapists have because in this given unit, Northwestern Hospital, there were four doctors. I would say two were great and two were bad. I would see patients of these two doctors not getting better and I’d see patients of these two doctors getting better. I felt like right there that’s scary.
You see the stakes are high because if somebody is disturbed, wrong medication, a threat to themselves, a threat to others and you misdiagnose it and you give them a weekend pass or you give them whatever the wrong meds to me was like I was never going to go to med school anyways and prescribe meds. The idea of managing that life in an intense way where your decisions could have a negative tragic impact, I didn’t want that responsibility. That’s why I ended up in comedy and specifically sketch and improv because you never are the sole person to blame.
Your biggest failure in comedy is you don’t make someone laugh.
It’s a big deal. I learned that lesson early on. I have no problem sucking and I’ve sucked many times on stage, but to the disappointment of an audience. I did standup and standup is hard because I always felt like I was in a hotel room in Michigan. The audience hated me and I’m just alone. I don’t even know what to do with this shame or this depression.
Improv is a happier form of comedy. Speaking of Paris, this is a little bit of a weird thing, but you have mentioned how fond you are of Peter Sellers as a comedian. I’m thinking Pink Panther or that stuff. Tell me why. If you ask people to name famous comedians who passed, if you mentioned Peter Sellers, people will recognize him but they might not bring him up. I’m curious about your fondness for Peter Sellers.
Part of it is bonding at an early age with the films he had made, The Pink Panther, Being There, The Party, Dr. Strangelove. A lot of that stuff I saw at a very indelibly imprinted moment in my life teen years when we first got our VHS tapes or whatever. Part of it is that. I realized that, but also like a first love if you will, because I also loved Woody Allen back then when I was discovering him. For me, Peter Sellers’ unique quality is his pacing. He could go super slow and get a laugh in those silences or that inaction and also his confident buffoonery. He was always arrogant about his competence in the Pink Panther and then never good on execution. That always made me laugh. The unique trait for him is his pacing and then obviously just the chameleon. The range of characters he played was spectacular.
You’ve mentioned this idea of silence twice now. To me, that strikes me as a wise comedic approach. My sense is young comedians want to fill the air. They want to tell jokes. They want to make things happen. It sounds like you’re describing there are moments in time where you want to do nothing to make something happen.
I can only say it works for me. I don’t think I would make an audience laugh. They bought off if I was like the chatty comic persona. I don’t know if I have the quick mind for it. I don’t know if I have the material for it. It doesn’t serve me or what my skill set is. I do better in situations where I can react in a grounded way and play things realistically. I love playing stupid moments or absurd choices and playing them as believable as possible. That always tickles me. In general, everybody has a range. We do a kid show every year. My wife’s like, “That’s my favorite thing you do,” because we play elves and we’re so hyper and energetic and dumb, but I don’t play that a lot. For me, there’s a lot of power in the silence or the stillness and the listening side of comedy.
I had Billy Merritt on. He has a forthcoming book about this taxonomy of improv. It’s called Pirate, Robot, Ninja. Essentially, the idea behind it is that there are these two forms of improvisers that you naturally tend to be. The pirate is the fearless performer who, as he described it, is like the tornado that comes through the room, so to speak. Then there’s the robot, which is not as fast and intuitive but is a little colder and more calculated. Then the idea is that if you do it long enough and well-enough, you can become a ninja where you could move between those two styles.
I’ll buy that metaphor whatever that is.
I was watching old ASSSSCAT videos on YouTube. I was trying to characterize the gang of four, the four of you originally UCB people as pirates or robots.
What did you come up with?
You strike me as a little bit more of a robot who developed into a ninja. Matt Besser seems like a pirate to me. Amy, I couldn’t tell. She might be a ninja very early on.
I feel like Ian is probably ninja but initially robot because he’s so good at logic.
All of you are ninjas now. There’s no doubt about that.
He’s so good at logic and he’s so good at improvising logic. You could come in and lay in Ian’s feet, the most ridiculous sentence. Through the course of that scene, he would help us both understand what got us to this moment before. He was very good at that, extemporaneous logic. That’s the natural gift. He’s a ninja too. I guess we’re all ninjas.
I’ve done 101 and 201 in LA and I’m so much of a robot.
It’s funny what improv for me now truly is like Sunday night. I’ll go and do the free show where there’s no extra. I’ve completely created this life where I don’t have to deliver anything. It’s a free show. We always end up giving away t-shirts at the top or I’ll go to gifting sweets and get swag and then give it away to people. It is fun. It’s a free show. I completely have every right to be self-indulgent and be a goofball. I don’t feel any burden to deliver. I’ve created this life and in a theater that I helped create as well. It’s like pickup basketball and I do it once or twice a month. The challenge for me, I’ve set this up for myself. It’s almost like Shaquille O’Neal having a pickup basketball game in his own gym and he has invited all his friends to watch. That’s how I feel. I feel like everyone’s friendly and it’s pretty easy.
The challenge inside of shows in general is like, “I’ve done this before,” the creeping thing of doing improv for 25 years. It’s like, “I’ve done this before.” I feel like, “I wish I didn’t always do this character or something.” You judge yourself a little bit. That’s the behavior or the psychology of it all because going back to what we were talking about earlier. You were talking about clinical behavioral psychology. The thing I took from the doctors at Northwestern was generally, human beings have these destructive behavior patterns that start in our lives. You have to recognize them and then you have to change those patterns. The problem with behavior patterns is simply repeating them is gratifying. It’s consciously gratifying. It’s reinforcing. It somehow applies to improv.
We make these tendencies and these choices where you want to expect like, I’m never going to be a character that’s not Matt Walsh. I don’t know that I’ll ever fully, unless I had prosthetics where people wouldn’t recognize me but I own. Also, that’s why I’m human. I love that I can make choices that incorporate my history as a human being on the planet. The things I’ve seen, the relationships I’ve had. That’s great. That’s using a fountain of experience and then regurgitating it to hopefully get an audience to laugh. That’s amazing. It is also that other side of it where you’re getting on stage and you want to challenge yourself just a little bit like 2%. Do something 2% different over the course of an hour and a half show. That’s the psychology of it.
In my world, when I teach and when I’m with my friends, I’m basically the same person. I’m a little more crass when I’m with my friends. This is my second time speaking to you at length. You strike me as closely related to many of the characters I’ve seen you. I’m curious what is the most different character you’ve played? It sounds like when you improv, you’re Matt Walsh volume turned up a little. What character is most different from Matt Walsh?
In some ways, my current job as Mike McLintock, he’s very different than me because he’s a little stupider than I am and aggressively stupider than I am. He’s more of a glutton for punishment than I am. The unhealthy just adhering to these old relationships that aren’t serving him well and still believing, his whatever crazy purchases. He’s terribly financially irresponsible, almost buying lottery tickets with his money, that kind of guy. I’m not like that. There are a lot of traits in Mike that’s much different than me. That’s an example of someone.
I got to ask you this idea of stretching yourself. You just come out 2% but is there someone that you did dislike?
Corny ways like doing an accent. In a small movie, I played a Russian guy who owned a roller rink. I liked that because that was two talents. One was speaking Russian and believably speaking Russian, hopefully. Then the second one was roller skating a little bit, which I’m not good at. That was like a couple layers of departure. That was fun to do. That was a stretch. He was also a criminal. There were several layers. A role like that, I’d love to try that because that felt like a real departure for me. That’s an example. I think it was called Bad Night or something like that. I forget the name of it but it’s out there.
I don’t know what I’d be worse at, the Russian accent or the roller skating.
Roller skating is more challenging. I took the kids with me too and they were better at wiping out. When you’re 50 and you fall on your ass in roller skates, it does not feel good at all and it stays and it bruises.
I’m 6’5”. On roller skates, I’m 6’9”. It’s a long way to go down. I won’t do it. I don’t care how much I like the woman if she wants to go. The other one is ice skating. I had a girlfriend who wanted to go ice skating. I was like, “I like you, but no. I like myself more.” It’s just so hard.
That’s an injury waiting to happen.
Last question, what are you reading, watching or listening to that stands out, that’s great?
I get a book every year from my mother-in-law. She’s a literature junkie, really into poetry, really smart lady. She gave me a book which I’m halfway done with by Louise Erdrich and it’s called Future Home of the Living God. It’s about a woman who’s carrying a baby and she was inseminated by an angel. She had sex with an angel. It’s an apocalyptic future. There’s a whole thing happening. I feel that’s going to be good or it is good along the way.
It sounds like a movie in the making.
I keep talking about Sapiens.
Did you read Homo Deus?
I did. I was less impressed.
That’s fair. I loved it. It’s bleak.
That’s exactly the point. What I loved about Sapiens is this is a historian. It’s backward-facing so it’s accurate. Forward facing stuff, I’m not a big believer that we can predict the future.
That’s fair. I gave him much respect because of his first book. I’m like, “This is definitely happening.”
The book is still beautifully written and it’s provocative and I enjoyed reading it. It’s just to me, Sapiens was exquisite.
Then a friend of mine recommended a book called The Great Believers. He’s a guy named Sung Kang who was the only Korean kid in my junior high and he lives in San Diego. He’s the one who hooked me up with this candidate running for Congress in our hometown because he’s from my high school. He always gives me the gossip about people I don’t know anymore. He’s a lovely guy. He recommended this book called The Great Believers and it’s interesting because it’s about the AIDS crisis in Chicago from ‘84 to ‘96. That’s exactly when I was living in Chicago. That was mind-blowing. It’s a very good story and it’s obviously tragic but wonderful. Also having someone walked you through the environs that you as a young man were passing, going through, restaurants you shared, people you may have liked.
There was a guy from my theater, The Annoyance, who was one of the first guys I knew who passed away from AIDS in probably ‘91. That was a fascinating book just because of my personal experience with that city in the near north side of Boys Town because I lived at Halsted and Addison. I lived at Newport and Halsted. I lived right on top of all of it. My theater company, The Annoyance, was one that was at Belmont and Broadway. That’s where I met a guy named David who passed in the ‘90s from it. Then they moved to Clark Street right by Wrigley. The intersection of those lives. I’ve never had the opportunity to read the book. It’s like so much detail about the places I was spending a decade. It’s fascinating.
You live in LA and you’re in your car a lot. What are you listening to when you’re in your car?
I roll calls? That’s a great time, usually going home for some reason. I’m feeling like the call I’ve been putting off. The call you’re supposed to do in the first part of the day. I always ended up doing it at the end of the day, the annoying calls. Then podcast-wise, I like Political Gabfest on Slate. I love Krista Tippett. Guy Raz’s How I Built This. That’s a great podcast. 99% Invisible is remarkably excellent. I love that one.
I make my students listen to How I Built This sometimes. It’s better than reading a case often.
Then Criminal. I’m on Criminal. I dip into it. It usually revolves around a crime, but it could be like how a parking law was developed in Denver in 1950 to keep hobos off the street or whatever. It’s usually an unsolved murder or run away or something like that. It always involves some small crime or big crime.
Matt, I appreciate you doing this.
It was fun.
It’s good to see you.
- Upright Citizens Brigade
- On Being
- Future Home of the Living God
- Billy Merritt
- Homo Deus
- The Great Believers
- The Annoyance
- Political Gabfest on Slate
- How I Built This
- 99% Invisible
About Matt Walsh
Matt Walsh is a founding member of the national improv-sketch comedy theatre Upright Citizens Brigade, which has schools and venues in both New York and Los Angeles. Chicago-born Walsh was instructed by Del Close. Matt is in good company Dell’s students included John Belushi, Bill Murray, Tina Fey and Mike Myers. He currently stars in HBO’s comedy series Veep. He has produced and directed his own comedy films, A Better You and High Road. His new movie Under the Eiffel Tower is in theaters now.