Downright Upright

May 8

The Matt Besser Interview: Part One

I recently had the huge honor of interviewing Matt Besser (Upright Citizens Brigade, Improv4Humans, Freakdance) and we just talked strictly improv. I highly recommend checking out his interviews on Improv Obsession and, as I do skip past a lot of “basics” and try to find his opinions on a few more esoteric, specific things.

So without further ado, here it is: part one of my interview with Matt Besser, in which we discuss what he learned from writing the UCB book, playing characters, and what it means to be a selfish improvisor.

Sean London: So one of the things you were talking about was that writing the UCB book gave you new insight into improv. Was there anything where you thought about it and learned something new, or changed the way you played and thought, “Oh, I was doing this wrong.”?

Matt Besser: [It used to be] ingrained in improvisers “Raise the stakes.” And we were like, “What does that mean to ‘Raise the stakes?’” That seems like a plot, like a plot concern to “Raise the stakes.” And raising the stakes usually means putting it into life or death situations. So it seems to end up in a small, narrow group of places, that tend to make the scenes more archetypical and broad and silly and ultimately kind of lame. And it was a bad mindset to go ‘Ok you found a game in the first scene, now raise the stakes in the second scene to make it better.” And to us, it’s like “Don’t worry about making it better.” If you knew the game, just take it to another place that would be great to play the game. Don’t have some subjective judgment on whether that place is gonna be “better” or the stakes risen or even more heightened.

Like, in the same way on SNL, if a character returns because it was successful, I don’t think they say “Let’s raise the stakes for the character this week.” They just think, “What’s another funny place for this character to be?” And I don’t think after they’ve done that character five times they go, “The first time was good, the second time was better, the third time was the best and the fourth time was even better.” It’s not like it kept getting better. I’m sure if you look at string of a character returning on SNL it would just be random.   Like, you’d go, “Well the third time might have been the best.” You just didn’t think of it that way. You’re just, “What’s another good place to put it?”

So that was an epiphany of let’s get rid of that rule of “Raising the stakes.” We don’t say that anymore.

SL: So up until that point, it was in the curriculum? It’s funny that you mention that because I’ve actually never heard that in a UCB class. I’ve never heard of someone talking about  “Raising the Stakes.”

MB: I’m not sure it was ever part of the curriculum but it was definitely something that was out there, from school to school. It’s just a common phrase you hear. And we have in recent years just completely struck it from our curriculum so you won’t hear it in our school.

SL: So are you involved with the curriculum? Or is that someone else’s responsibility?

MB: Well, yeah. Like I said, we’ve been writing this book for 5 years and in writing it, every time we have a discovery or have a strong opinion about something that we haven’t thought about before we make sure that carries over into the curriculum.

SL: How much does the curriculum reflect your own style of play? Would you say it’s pretty close?  Are there things that are like “Well we teach that, but I personally do this a little bit more, or a little bit less.”?

MB: [laughs] I would say 100%. And it would reflect all of the four UCB’s improv style 100% I think. And I think we’re different. Like Ian, Walsh and I on stage have different styles or whatever, different ways to improvise, but we’re all definitely on the same page when it comes to the curriculum.

I think you can have different styles but still have the same improv philosophy. If that’s what you’re saying.

SL: So here’s something that—and I don’t know if this is part of curriculum per se but it comes up a lot— is: characters. I think a lot of teachers put out there “Just be yourself, just play yourself.” I’ve got a lot of that. Playing a version of yourself. Play a version of yourself who happens to be a doctor. Or a version of yourself that happens to be really angry at that time. And I see that a lot. And I feel like that’s maybe closer to your style. But then I look at [players who] immediately make a character choice on the first line.

MB: I would say just to be a character willy nilly is not a good improviser.

SL: Really?

MB: It depends. You can’t just be a character every scene. It doesn’t make sense to be a character. And I think it’s selfish to be a character every scene. That just doesn’t make sense that you would be something that’s not yourself in every scene. I guess if you’re doing organic improv that’s fine, because it’s just coming from wherever you want it to.

If you’re doing an opening where you’re pulling your premises from some common place, it’s not logical that there would always be [a character]. Like if I’m just doing a scene  where I’m just a doctor, like there were a lot of doctor scenes tonight, there’s no reason for any of those doctors to be a character. The premise and the game of the scene had nothing to do [with it].  I mean what does character mean? It sounds to me like you’re saying character is a funny voice.

SL: Well, it’s not necessarily a funny voice.

MB: Well then anyone who is not yourself is a character. To me, a “character” character is a physicality or a way of speaking. So like tonight in Assscat the times you saw characters was like when we all played strippers. And that was called for. Like I came out as the owner of the strip club. I could have come out and gone [gruff voice] “All right, girls!” and that would have been giving a little color to my character. And I don’t think that would have been wrong.

But if I had come out and gone [weird German voice] “Oh hello, girls.” and had some just weird voice that was just apropos of nothing? That’s ridiculous for me to play a so-called character there. Because I’m taking away [from the premise]. Because the premise was that there’s a strip called “Crazy Girls” for real. And my premise was “Wouldn’t it be funny if they all were actually crazy?” And that was a requirement of working there, that you’re crazy. So that’s the premise. That’s the funny of the scene.

So there’s no reason to be a character unless it reflects your craziness somehow. However, don’t get a support character confused with a game character. Like, I was playing a little girl tonight, right? If I had come out speaking and had gone “Hey daddy!” and spoke in my normal voice, then that’s not good improv. Because I’m not committing to playing a little girl. So I have to take on the character of a little girl as best I can without being cartoonish.

So I hope UCB teachers aren’t saying “Never play a character.” I think they’re saying, “Don’t play a character that comes out of nowhere.”

SL: I think that is closer to it.

MB: Well, that’s just bag of tricks basically. When people pull out characters that they’re just naturally good at. Like I pulled out a character tonight out of my bag of tricks when I was doing the warm up, because I was talking to people about being germans and I brought out my nazi voice. Which I do as my nazi pope. So it’s like, that’s definitely in my bag of tricks. That’s definitely something I feel comfortable [with] and I know I can get laughs at.

If a scene started and I was just all of a sudden my nazi pope and it was apropos of nothing, to me, that’s cheating. And that’s not good improv.

SL: And I would agree with that. So let’s see if I can distill this down: if you’re in a moment that calls for a character, then that’s what good improv is, you should leap to nazi pope. If you need nazi pope, then you’re nazi pope. But otherwise you’re playing yourself?

MB: Let’s say [you initiate] “Hello doctor, can you just give me the straight news? Just tell me what I want.” And if I do anything besides a normal voice there? Then I’m being selfish. I’m introducing an unusual thing just apropos of nothing. I’m just bringing it out of nowhere.

I should use a normal voice and go, “Yes, here’s the bad news. You have cancer.” or whatever. I have to go with his initiation.

But if he had gone, “So doctor I hear you’re the cheapest doctor in town and you’re known as the homeless doctor.” Then I’d be a bad improviser if I didn’t take on a voice and didn’t try to [gruffly] “Oh yeah!” and get a gravelly, homeless type voice. So I have to do a character then.  I’m being told by the initiation to be something more than what I am for the sake of a scene.

So yeah, I mean sometimes a character is called for. Sometimes it isn’t. And you can come up with a great character that organically comes from the suggestion. That isn’t a support character; it’s just an initiation. You can start out the scene that way. Hopefully it came from something. […] It’s not just something I’m good at doing. And to be honest, that’s something a lot of people do.

SL: Well, let me get a little improv schooling from you then. If someone initiates with me, something like “Hey man, stop looking at my test.” My first instinct would be to play a character. I’m always going to listen for my character. So I’m the type of guy who’s a fuck up or a slacker and I *need* to steal off his test. And I’m immediately, going [like a stoner] “Oh yeah, sure.” And I’m immediately going to take on all the affectation of sort of a burnout.

MB: That’s okay!

SL: You’d have to see how it plays out, but does that seem like [a good scene start]?

MB: You have to yes-and until you hit the unusual things. I don’t see an unusual thing there. People don’t like to be cheated on. I’m just yes-anding. If he’s making me a character with his initiation, and you’re like “Well, what is a cheater?” Cheaters are kinda slackey and kinda losers and I’m gonna slouch my back because I’m thinking of the guy who used to cheat off me in highschool—well, you’re yes-anding there. But if you go way past that and become just totally fucking weird… you can’t confuse game characters with support characters.

A support character is doing what is asked of him. He’s just yes-anding. He’s just doing what helps the scene.  The game character is a character that is the game. The character is the premise.

You just don’t want your character to be so unusual [that it’s the unusual thing now] and now that’s what it has to be. If it organically happens, it’s fine. If it seems forced in there, it’s like “Oh that guy, no matter what you do with him he’s always gonna initiate a huge character and make it about that.” And there are some guys like that. I don’t want to improvise with you. Because I feel like you’re not playing with me. You’re playing for yourself.

You just gotta yes-and to “yes,” that doesn’t mean “Oh he wants me to [stop cheating].”… the improviser actually wants you to keep cheating on him. So it’d be denial to stop cheating on him. So yes, he wants you to keep cheating because that’s what he wants to explore, people cheating on each other. And you yes-and. You keep adding details and yes-anding until something organically happens. But I just hate it when someone’s like “Hey stop cheating off me,” and [then someone says]  “Hey man! I just want to get high off this bong!”

It’s like, “Woah! you just right away forced an unusual thing that just came out of nowhere but your own brain.” And a lot of those people that maybe do characters all the time, if you notice they’re doing the same characters a lot. And that’s just selfish.


That’s it for Part 1! Come back in a few days for part two of more improv nerd talk with Matt Besser. We’re gonna walk-through how he pulls a premise from a monologue, how he knows what’s a good premise worth playing, and justifications. All very interesting stuff.
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