As one of the founding members of Upright Citizens Brigade, Matt Walsh arguably changed the course of improv comedy, routing it thankfully more toward the absurd than the mundane. After making its name in Chicago in the mid ’90s, the group—which also featured Matt Besser, Ian Roberts, and some broad named Amy Poehler—headed east, then west, opening theaters in New York and L.A. that have gone on to produce some of the better young comedic talent working today.
Walsh isn’t exactly traipsing the UCB boards every day now, but he hasn’t left improv behind. He pops up frequently in guest spots on TV shows that let him shoot from the hip, and he has just directed his first movie, High Road, which is entirely improvised. The A.V. Club got Walsh on the horn to talk about improv, weed, and whether he’ll ever pop up on Parks And Recreation.
The A.V. Club: What inspired you to make an entirely improvised movie rather than to write a full script?
Matt Walsh: I guess because I’ve done improv for so long. I started in Chicago at Improv Olympic [now iO], and started workshopping at The Annoyance, and then through UCB. I’ve always been a fan of Christopher Guest’s stuff, obviously, like Spinal Tap, and I like the form, because of all of the people that I’m used to working with—people who can write better lines on their feet than you could maybe write yourself. [It’s] kind of wrangling funny people. It’s fun to make, you know? With structure, you wouldn’t just go out there and say something funny. We had like 65 or 70 scenes that were about two paragraphs of description on each. So we knew what had to happen plot-wise and what characters needed to be there.
AVC: In an interview you did with Horatio Sanz, he said that if you have actors that aren’t great, Oscar-caliber actors, then improv gives them a chance to feel a little more like themselves.
MW: True. When funny people are so good that they only have their own voice, if you cast them correctly, you can just let them go and be themselves.
AVC: The movie is interesting, too, in that it’s a stoner comedy, but weed is just kind of what drives the plot along, rather than the focus of the plot.
MW: Yeah, it’s loosely based on a guy I knew in Chicago who was a part-time weed dealer, and had he not changed his life he would have gotten into trouble.
AVC: Did he have a drag-queen dad like in the movie?
MW: No, he didn’t. He didn’t have Rich Fulcher for a father.
AVC: What made you want to direct?
MW: I had a show on Spike called Players that was an improvised television show, and I directed a lot of stage things through the years, so I’m pretty confident. I enjoy working with actors and trying to pull performances. But, I guess, just being a fan of the form of [the] improvised movie, I’ve always thought that it was possible. I’ve been in a few over the years, and I think I’ve learned what not to do and what to do. Just having actors who are very funny people, I felt like, well, if I could direct one myself, I knew who I’d put in it. And, we had a story. It was a screenplay I’d written with a friend of mine, Josh Weiner, and so we converted the story into an outline.
AVC: So how would you compare the pressure between something like High Road, where the pressure is all on you, and something like Veep, which is the new HBO show you’re on?
MW: Directing is hard. The man-hours for directing are just 100 times more. You’re making every choice. You’re starting before filming, and you’re editing for a year afterwards or six months afterwards.
AVC: Did you try out for Veep, or did they call you specifically?
MW: I auditioned for Veep. I’d heard about it [from] this guy, Armando Iannucci, this guy who’s done so many great, great shows that I love, like The Alan Partridge Show and another one called The Thick Of It, and that movie In The Loop. He was doing an improv-friendly comedy, and I like improv shows, so I ended up going in and then had a series of three or four auditions where we got to improvise with Julia [Louis-Dreyfuss], and she was really fun and seemed to be real playful, and we seemed to play well together. So yeah, I was fortunate to get through the process and get on a good show.
AVC: There’s a notion out there that working with HBO is a lot different than working with other networks. Do you have a sense of whether that’s true?
MW: Well, compared to, like, a small basic cable channel, it’s like night and day. They’re really supportive, and they really advertise a lot. They seem to take care of you and, like all cable channels, they give you a lot of freedom. Once they saw the pilot was funny and that the scripts were coming in funny, they kind of let us go and be on our own. They trusted the process. So yeah, they couldn’t be better.
AVC: Do you audition for most of the things you’re in now, or are you at a point where casting directors ask for you by name?
MW: You know, I occasionally will get calls, because people have seen me in stuff or friends I know are doing things, so you always end up, “Sure, I’ll do it if it’s a friend,” but of course I still audition.
AVC: In another online interview, you said that you took one acting class in college, but you’ve obviously had a million hours of improv training at this point. How do you think improv trains you for straight acting, and vice versa?
MW: I guess I’m sort of spoiled because, most of the things that I get to do, people know that you’re a good improviser, so they allow you at least one improv take, and for comedy, that’s great. I’ve never gotten hired for drama because I’m a good improviser. I don’t think people who write drama scripts want you playing with them as much. But, also congrats for doing all your research. Pat yourself on the back.
AVC: Hey, it’s The A.V. Club, we know what we’re talking about. [Laughs.]
MW: I know, you guys are good.
Anyway, I’ve taken a couple more acting classes out here in L.A so I’ve gotten a little more foundation on how to approach the serial and how to break down scripts and so on, but most of my training is in improv and comedy, so those are the things I tend to get booked for.
AVC: You came up in Chicago comedy, and you grew up in the city’s suburbs. Do you still think that Chicago is still the center of improv in the country?
MW: That’s a good question. This could be scandalous.
You know, I feel that, for improv, New York and L.A. are becoming more known for launching careers, just because of UCB, but I do think Chicago is still a great training ground. What’s great about Chicago is that nobody cares about where it’s going to get you. Once you get to New York and L.A., you’re a little more conscious about who’s in the audience and if there’s a deal to be made with the thing you’re making. That is the beauty of Chicago. It’s more of a laboratory. There’s a bit more support. It’s not as competitive. It’s a great training ground before you try to get work out of it.
AVC: But you still think people have to move from Chicago in order to really make it?
MW: Well, for improv they need to move to New York or L.A. and study with UCB.
AVC: Why not open a UCB in Chicago?
MW: I think because nobody lives there in terms of the board of the UCB. It’s a hard business to run when you’re not there, because you kind of want to check on it a little bit. So that’s really the biggest problem, and then, I don’t know, Chicago already has a lot of good improv already. We were fortunate enough to move to New York and then L.A. where there wasn’t a dominant improv scene.
AVC: How do you think your start in Chicago informed what you ended up doing?
MW: I studied with Del Close over at Improv Olympic [iO] and I spent a lot of time at The Annoyance Theater where we did improvise plays where we would spend six weeks improvising to develop, sort of parodying musicals and comedy plays, and I found that really useful, especially for directing, because it teaches you to retain what’s valuable and throw away what’s not.
By the way The Annoyance is having a 25th anniversary this month. I don’t think I’m going to be there, though. I think I’m going to be working so I don’t think I’m going to be able to make it.
AVC: And you grew up in Hinsdale, correct?
MW: I’m originally from Mount Greenwood on the South Side—103rd and Kedzie—and then when I was 10, we moved to Downers Grove, and I went to Hinsdale South.
AVC: How do you think that growing up in the Midwest affected you personally or professionally?
MW: That’s a good question. I’m a huge fan of Chicago sports and Chicago food, and I love going home and my family is still there. I guess it’s pretty easy to have a normal life in Chicago. L.A. can be pretty insane because there’s so much show business here, but I also know a lot of kids who grew up in Manhattan who are some of the most normal, nicest people I know. Casting directors always say Chicago people are just nicer. They’re friendlier for no reason, supposedly. So I guess that’s the value of growing up in the Midwest—that you’re not—I don’t know—you’re not in a hurry. You’re not necessarily focused on something else. You’re sort of just being nice because you grew up where you’re supposed to be nice.
AVC: That’s a nice way to put it.
MW: There are no stakes certainly, in terms of show business. Out here, people are nice to you because they know you’re famous sometimes, or they’re nice to you because they want to give you a script. There’s no other agenda in terms of show business, I think, in Chicago.
AVC: Are you going to do another season of Bear Down, your football podcast, when Bears season comes back around?
MW: Yes, we will. We start a week out from preseason, and then we do it every regular season game, and then we do one postseason episode usually, unless the Bears go deep in the playoffs.
I like the acquisition of Brandon Marshall, and I think if we get a tackle, an offensive lineman, we could have a good defense again… and you know, Cutler has his strengths, and they signed Forte. I think it could be an explosive offense. And they picked up Michael Bush, who’s a good runner. So, I think they’re making good moves so far.
AVC: If you say so. Though we haven’t started playing games yet, so anything’s possible. There’s still a sense of possibility in the air.
MW: Yeah, the same with draft day—when you get a good draft. They need to lock up Lance Briggs. They need to sign him—give him some money. That’s my general manager notes for the Bears.
AVC: Last question: Are you ever going to show up on Parks And Recreation?
MW: That’s a good question. There are no plans for me to be on Parks And Recreation right now, so I don’t know, but it’s a funny show. I would be honored to be on it. I was filming a lot last year for Veep, and the seasons coincide. If you know Amy Poehler, tell I’d like to be on her show.