Matt Walsh has been a staple of the comedy scene for over a decade, appearing in countless television shows and movies such as The Daily Show, Dog Bites Man, Old School, Role Models, and The Hangover. And like many of today's top comedy names, he didn't get his start in stand-up, but rather in improv.
But Matt Walsh isn't just any improv comedian. In the early 90s, he joined fellow improvisers Amy Poehler, Ian Roberts, and Matt Besser in the Chicago comedy troupe The Upright Citizens Brigade, and the foursome later relocated to New York City, landing on Comedy Central with an eponymous sketch show. Around the same time, they opened up their own theatre in New York, and after establishing it as the premiere venue for improv and sketch instruction and performance in New York, opened up a second theatre in Los Angeles in 2005.
Now, Walsh has a new show on Spike TV called Players, which he not only stars in as a co-owner of a sports bar, but also produces and writes for. After 3 episodes aired this spring, Spike decided to wait until July to air the remaining first season episodes. The show, which also features Walsh's UCB pal Ian Roberts as the bar's other co-owner (along with several other improvisers familiar to UCB audiences), is possibly the funniest thing Spike TV has ever put out, so here's hoping it finds an audience this summer!
As a big comedy nerd, and a frequent visitor to both the NYC and L.A. UCB Theatres, I was thrilled to get the opportunity to speak to Matt Walsh back in March. But with new episodes of Players no longer airing in the spring, I decided to hold off on posting the interview until closer to the show's re-launch. That time, of course, is now, so read on for Walsh's thoughts on the process behind Players, the Upright Citizens Brigade and its legacy, and the Chicago sports scene (Players does take place in a sports bar, after all).
Paul Little: So what can you tell me about the new Spike TV show, Players? Where did the idea for the show come from?
Matt Walsh: Back in Chicago I used to work at a sports bar, which was owned by 2 brothers who were complete opposites. One brother was like the cool, fun brother; the other one was sort of uptight and has a business mind. And that's sort of the premise of the show. I play a gambling addict, devil may care brother who treats it like a club house, and Ian Roberts plays the former Bennigan's manager who makes it a tightly run ship.
PL: Is there a lot of improvisation on the show, on set?
MW: It is! We hammer out outlines, sort of akin to Curb Your Enthusiasm, I guess. We hammer out outlines, we spend a few months writing the stories, and then on set pretty much all the dialogue is improvised. We have a few things that we'll write, like a couple of lines here and there, or a monologue basically, but generally everything people say they come up with.
PL: Well you and Ian Roberts have a good dynamic on the show. I watched the first episode. I mean, it comes together probably from your years of working together. Do you find it's good to work with people you have history with or do you ever get sick of them?
MW: (Laughs) I'm sick of Ian, and it's a miracle. No, I think funny people are funny people. Ian, fortunately, is hilarious, and I guess there is a short hand, because in improv you don't know the lines, so you have to kind of have these skills that you can keep going without a script, and Ian's great at it. And I guess I know his tendencies in the same way that he knows mine, and I guess there's a level of trust working with people you've worked with before that you basically are patient and know where they're going and you don't panic.
PL: The first episode seemed to me that it took a typical sitcom premise and then turned it on its head. Is that the kind of thing you plan on doing with this show?
MW: Which episode did you watch?
PL: The one that was on the Spike TV website. I think it was the first on that aired, with the mom of the waitress coming in...
MW: Oh, "Krista's Mom", okay.
MW: Yeah, I mean it is like a classic, farcical premise: someone's pretending to be a manager while keeping the illusion up. I think what we found in doing stories in a 22-minute format, you do kind of find these classic stories that work, and then hopefully you can put an interesting take on it. I don't think you can re-invent the sitcom, but I think you can put in different jokes or a different sensibility into it. So yeah, I guess some of the episodes have that. It's fairly straight ahead plots, but with weirder, strange turns and sort of odd humor. And you hope the jokes carry it. Even great shows like 30 Rock, I think they do a traditional sitcom, but they do it so well, you know. The jokes are amazing and the characters are so compelling.
PL: Has Spike TV been pretty open to most of what you're coming up with?
MW: Truthfully, they've been great. They've been mostly hands off, and then the notes that they've given us have been helpful. The executives we've dealt with have been very smart, and encouraging us to do whatever we want. It's been ideal. There's been no meddling and no terrible note that was forced on us.
PL: You've had a bunch of hilarious roles in countless movies and you've done TV before, so what brought you back to television? 'Cause I think that this kind of premise would work as a movie as well.
MW: Yeah, I guess I like sitcoms because you get to develop and revisit the characters. I enjoy that. In movies, it's usually just a one-off. And also, I think in improv, I've never tackled an improv movie, although I'd like to, but I think improv works well in short format. You can really use the outlines, and control it, and sort of like you were saying, you can use traditional stories and pump it up with the freshness of improv and spontaneity of improv. So I think that's why I ended up doing it as a TV show.
PL: That's a pretty valid reason.
PL: The UCB theatre has been around for 11 years in New York, 5 in L.A. now, and has served as a launching pad for an unbelievable amount of talent over the last few years. Do you take pride in that track record that the theatre has built?
MW: I do. I mostly take pride in the fact that we provide students the opportunity to experience this amazing art form that I got turned onto 15 or 20 years ago. I think that's an invaluable service. I remember the first time I took an improv class where I was able to sustain a scene for 3 or 4 minutes without any script, and it just changed my life. So I hope I'm affording that same opportunity to an aspiring comedian to realize that, oh, there's this wonderful thing called improv that you can create comedy and you can be the editor and you can be the writer and you can be the performer and the director, and it's all wrapped in one. And it's a skill that applies to acting obviously and writing, and it's a very wonderful skill to take with you, whatever art form you pursue, I think.
PL: Our site has a Genius Monkey Comedy Award, which is meant for up-and-coming comedians who are just about to break out into mainstream success, and the last two winners have actually been people that did a lot with UCB to begin with Aziz Ansari for 2008 and Donald Glover for 2009.
MW: Oh that's awesome! I mean, it is amazing. The theatre sort of runs itself. The four of us sort of serve as administrators and weigh in on business issues, but it's completely taken over by the next generation of comedians. Like we don't meddle in it too much -- we provide the stage and the environment to develop your point of view or your chops in comedy. And it's really exciting, because it's intimidating to see people be that funny at such a young age.
PL: Well I'm sure you were that funny.
MW: I don't think I was! I think I had a slower learning curve. I think it took me 10 years to get good at improv.
PL: And you're from Chicago, right? So you started there?
MW: Yeah. I started in Chicago at a place called Players Workshop at Second City, and then I did a place called the Annoyance Theater, and then I did a place called ImprovOlympic. And then I finally got to figure it out.
PL: The show, from the episode I saw, it doesn't focus on sports, but it does take place at a sports bar. Are you yourself a big sports fan?
MW: I am. I'm primarily a Chicago Bears fan, that would be my biggest passion. And my loyalties tend to lie in Chicago with the Bulls, obviously they had Jordan era, and I'm a White Sox fan. I'm not a huge baseball fan, but my loyalties are with the Sox. But Chicago is a great sports town, and there we love our athletes, especially when you're blessed with some of the amazing athletes that come through. We are very provincial. People who are born in Chicago are very die-hard Chicago sports fans.
PL: No hockey?
MW: I like the Blackhawks, yeah, but I don't... the seats were expensive when I was poor, and so I didn't get to see many games live, and hockey is the best sport live and it's only okay on television, so that's the challenge with hockey.
PL: Our site's based in Canada, so I had to ask.
MW: Well yeah, hockey is amazing, but I feel like seeing it live, there's nothing better. There truly is no better sport to see live. But if you're not in those seats watching it, for me personally, it's not a big a draw.
PL: Oh yeah, I understand that.
MW: But yeah, I am Blackhawks strong, of course, and they're good this year.
(Editor's Note: This interview took place before the NHL Playoffs began, but Mr. Walsh was dead on about the Blackhawks being good this year, as they just won the Stanley Cup!)
PL: Besides this show, what else do you have going on right now?
MW: I have a movie I'm in called Cyrus, with John C. Reilly and Jonah Hill, which comes out this summer which is really cool. So that's coming up. And there's a movie UCB made called Wild Girls Gone that's on iTunes. And then I'm in a movie that's at SXSW called Cherry.
Players returns to Spike TV on July 21st and will continue to air Wednesdays throughout the summer following new episodes of Pros vs. Joes.
Paul Little is the founder and Managing Editor of ShowbizMonkeys.com. When not interviewing his favourite musicians and comedians, he can also be found at The Purple Room in Winnipeg, where he is Artistic Director. (@comedygeek)