Breaking Records with Matt Besser
The UCB Show isn’t the only project Matt Besser is behind at NBC’s streaming comedy channel Seeso — he also stars in his own hourlong standup special available now, Besser Breaks the Record. Filmed at the UCB theater in Hollywood, the special — which Besser describes as more of a “character special” than a standup special — follows Besser as he transforms Letters to the Editor into punk rock songs, makes a case for a new and updated Ten Commandments, and flawlessly accomplishes what he considers the #1 goal for any comedian: breaking comedy records like the fastest joke ever told, most original characters in five minutes, and most pothead jokes in one minute. After watching Besser’s record-breaking performance in action, I spoke with him about how the special came about, why breaking records is more important than getting laughs, and how he hopes to bring his hit podcast improv4humans to television soon.
I just watched your special last night and loved it. It goes by so fast!
Well thank you! It probably goes by fast because a lot of what I do on it is aim for speed — maybe that’s it. I’m trying to break records based on speed, so you probably enter a time warp of sorts when you’re watching it.
How’ve things been lately between the special and The UCB Show? What’s it like working with Seeso?
I think the first thing I was told about them was they had the whole Kids in the Hall and Monty Python libraries and that their goal was to appeal to comedy nerds, and when I was starting out, those were two sketch groups I looked at for inspiration. I was like “Well they can show that stuff at other places” and they were like “Nope, it’ll only be on Seeso!” So to me, if that’s all the channel was it was worth the price of admission. And then I found out they have all this obscure British stuff, which you can’t even really find on YouTube or anywhere, and that’s also really cool — like Rich Fulcher’s Snuff Box and all these other experimental shows that are like six episodes long and so hard to find. Their library’s cool enough, but then they’re giving opportunities to people like me to try more experimental stuff ourselves. Because TV, or at least established TV, doesn’t give that kind of leeway to experimentation and short runs, so it’s nice to have that.
Now that there are more and more streaming/online outlets for experimentation like that, do you think we’ll still see it on “established TV” in the near future?
I would have to imagine, especially when Mozart in the Jungle wins Best Comedy — I don’t know anybody who’s seen that — but I assume it’s good on some level. It seems like just yesterday when Amazon just delivered us books, you know? [laughs] And now they’re making television shows. So I would have to imagine the cable networks are looking at this and saying “Oh, it’s popular and it’s on the internet — we should try to emulate this” in the way that networks have emulated cable.
How did your standup special land at Seeso?
It was actually Comedy Dynamics who sold it to them, so it was a whole separate deal than The UCB Show. I didn’t really have anything to do with it, but I was psyched that that’s who they sold it to — it seemed like the right place.
How did the idea for the special originate?
I’ve been doing a lot of the material since I started doing standup. Especially when I do this bit about reading Letters to the Editor — that goes back to my Chicago days, but I’d never documented it anywhere or done it as part of any of my past couple albums. So there was an opportunity to do some of the bits that I loved but had never done before, and a couple of them are musical. So it was cool to do an audio track where I had a band back me up, and then all of the record-breaking stuff is stuff I’ve been doing more recently. So in a way, because I had never done a video special before — I’d done a couple albums, but nothing with the visual side of it before — it’s basically my greatest hits, and since I’m not a standup per se, it was good to have the opportunity to get a bunch of years’ worth of material together like that.
How did you approach the special in terms of the format? It’s not your typical standup special — to me it felt less like a punchline/story-driven act and more like a town hall, where you’re there to make a case for the issues you care about.
[laughs] Yeah, I’m more of a sketch guy than a standup. It’s probably more of a character special than a standup special — that’s a better way to put it, but no one would know what that is. Or maybe it’s more of a one-man show. It was important for me to do it inside the UCB Theatre, or at least in a similar type of theater. I like to do comedy where I’m right up on the audience, and I use them in the special. In most specials the performer’s up — not only not surrounded, but up on a stage, and there’s a distance between them and the audience, and I think my comedy doesn’t work as well in that way. I never liked the glossiness of highly produced standup specials in general — I like it where it has more of a feel of the type of places I usually perform. It seems kind of weird when you do a special to go perform in a place unlike the place where you perform 95% of the time.
What got you into breaking records?
So many comedians, if you asked them “What’s your priority in standup?” it’s probably gonna be to make people laugh or to entertain them. That is just way down on my priority list, if on my list at all. I’m into breaking records. If I can do a set and break a record and get no laughs, I’m happy. Screw the audience…but that’s what audiences should be appreciating. If they see a set that’s really really funny and then they get to the end of the set but yet not one record has been broken, they should ask for their money back, in my opinion. Like, what’s their takeaway? A few laughs, sure, but they can’t say “I was there. I was there when the most references in one joke was told. I was there when the longest parody song was sung.” I once parodied “American Pie” — that’s a ten-minute song — I did a parody of every single verse. Most parody songs last two minutes at best. I even went five extra minutes beyond the original song as part of the parody — it was fifteen minutes. I, at one point, held the record for most offensive joke — it concerned a rape at a concentration camp, someone was yelling the N-word…I offended the audience several times. When most comics tell an offensive joke, they’re just offending one minority — you know, one victim. I don’t think it’s even an offensive joke unless you’re offending multiple minorities.
So how do you go about seeking new records to break?
Um, there’s the Guinness Book. There’s a world organization — they have a list and you can also submit, and you can submit a record and they’ll approve it or not. I got the record for most subtle joke — that record is determined by how long it takes after you’ve told the joke for an audience to get it, and with my record, the audience would contact me a couple weeks after the joke and say “Oh yeah, now I get it.” And if I’m coming off like a braggart, I’m not — I have a nemesis who you see in the special, Ivan Krushnev Jr. from the Soviet Union alternative comedy scene, who I’ll admit has more records than I do, but we are competitors and I’m on his tail, and if I have enough good Americans reading this article supporting USA comedy, then with that kind of support, hopefully America can be in the #1 position again.
You mentioned the Letters to the Editor part goes back to your Chicago days. That’s something you’ve always loved to follow?
Yeah. I was always into punk music, and the anger of it, even before I was into comedy. And at some point I noticed that the only place that has more anger would be the Letters to the Editor. I would read them onstage and do interpretations of them and turn them into songs and stuff like that. I also participated in them. A few times in Chicago I would get involved, because readers of Letters to the Editor know that controversies will go on for weeks if not months on certain topics — people will have back-and-forths within the section arguing with each other. A couple of the ones I didn’t do in the special…one time the Chicago Reader’s music critic criticized this one band — pretty heavily, like really ripped them a new asshole — so I wrote a Letter to the Editor pretending to be the lead singer of the band. [laughs] And in an intentionally lame way I criticized the critic, and it just so happened — and this is all true, and I didn’t know it at the time — but the lead singer of the band was dating my former roommate. And she knew I was doing this Letters to the Editor stuff, and she called me up and was like “Matt Besser, I know you’re the one who wrote that letter. You need to apologize!” And I’m like “Uggh…I don’t know if I want to.” And this guy was also a DJ on WXRT in Chicago, and she said “You better turn on the radio right now, because he’s talking about you!” [laughs] He called me out on the radio. And then I wrote an apology letter the next week where the apology lasted the first two lines of the letter, and then I lapsed into another lie about getting beat up by Chicago Cubs fans outside of Wrigley Field for my Waiting for Godot parody that I would perform before Cubs games. And then in the special I read letters from the Chicago Tribune Sunday magazine — the crossword puzzle went from a pulp format to glossy format, and that pissed off all crossword puzzle people who used pencils because you can’t erase on glossy paper, and I got involved in that one too. That went on for like six months. It was incredible how pissed off people were about each other’s opinions on using erasers on glossy paper. [laughs]
Yeah, for a while we had a network that was videotaping improv4humans, and I think that network went away. We’ve been looking for another platform, and over the summer I was told they were 99% sure we had a place — and I won’t say what it was, but they pretty much went under too. So it’s disappointing, but that’s always a goal that will never go away — to find some way to do improv on TV or a place like Seeso.
What do you envision for an improv TV show? How do you keep the spirit of improv going for an audience that’s watching it but not there?
Well, it would be kind of a mix between what ASSSSCAT is and what improv4humans is. It wouldn’t be props or sets or anything like that because it’s improvised, but I think what’s different than ASSSSCAT is instead of just one monologist getting a suggestion and going into a story, on improv4humans we go with all sorts of different ways of inspiring it and we wouldn’t limit ourselves. And I have done improv4humans live at our theater, so I almost do a version of what we would do live. But yeah, it’s just that simple. And I even go back and forth on whether or not we need to get out of our seats — I guess we do, but there are a lot of shows on TV now that are basically just radio shows that are broadcasting on television, and I’ll watch those, so I feel like why couldn’t we watch an improv4humans version of that?
And it’s not like it would be difficult to involve a TV audience with an improv show. Shows like @midnight are proof of that.
Yeah, that’s definitely a big part of it. We’ve already done man-on-the-street interviews, we’ve done a segment called “Tell Us Your Best Story,” and we take Twitter suggestions. @midnight’s a perfect example — that’s a great show for giving standups another way to do comedy beyond their act, but there isn’t really anything like that for improvisers on TV. I think improv got a bad name 20 years ago with TV for whatever reason, and it’s kind of like one of those things development people say: “Oh, we won’t develop anything purely improv!” They always want to turn it into a game show — I’ve gotten that every time I’ve gone out to pitch a pure improv show, and that just makes it something else completely. The closer you get to the networks, the more they want to look over every single thing. There’s a lot of fear, and you just want to say “Trust them! These guys are really talented — they’ll be funny.”
Besser Breaks the Record is now available on Seeso.