Matt Walsh on ‘Veep’ and the Enduring Influence of UCB
Matt Walsh is a gifted comedian and improviser, as you can many times throughout his role as Mike McClintock on Veep, which just started airing its fifth season on HBO. Walsh is also a director, as shown with his films High Road and A Better You. He’s an actor who isn’t afraid to step out of comedies, which he did for the disaster film Into the Storm and the upcoming horror The Darkness. But above all else, it would be fair to say that Walsh is an important influence on so many comedians, writers, and actors throughout Hollywood and New York.
As one of the founding members of the Upright Citizens Brigade theater, Walsh and his three original troupe partners Matt Besser, Amy Poehler, and Ian Roberts have changed how people view improvisational and sketch comedy over the last 20 years. They aren’t only enjoying their own success in the industry, but thousands of young hopefuls just beginning their careers will hear the phrase, “You need to take a class at UCB.” Walsh is still very active at the two UCB theaters in Los Angeles, which is impressive considering that he’s on a hit TV show, working on his next film, records a Bear Down podcast about the Chicago Bears during the season, and appearing in summer blockbusters like the upcoming Ghostbusters remake.
It’s not hard to keep a full plate when you have such diverse tastes.
Is the UCB theater as it is today anything like what you had envisioned it would be when you first opened the original?
No, we had no plan. We’re so lucky it turned into something successful. We just opened a clubhouse because we were doing a bunch of shows in New York and we were starting to teach classes to people who had wanted to do improv shows, so we opened a clubhouse that we could program ourselves.
Do you get a lot of young actors that come up to you and say, “I went to your school!”?
Actually, a lot. I’m surprised, if I go into meetings, or an airport, a lot of people have taken a class at UCB. So quite often I meet people who are going through the program or a lot of people have friends who have teams at the theater. There’s a lot of people I run into that are grateful that the theater exists.
Improv is so ingratiated in pop culture now with shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm that people probably go into an improv class knowing what to expect or thinking they do. What was the atmosphere like when you started out in the early 90s in regards to improv, did people have any idea what to expect?
I feel like in Chicago improv was still an outsider artform. There were maybe like 100 people who knew how to do a Harold or longform improv. Nowadays, I have friends who have told me they’ve gone to Berlin to teach improv and they’ll say, “How many people here know what a Harold is?” and 90% of them know what it is. It’s just crazy. The education and the proliferation of it is insane.
You do a lot of improv on the spot at the UCB but on Veep, you’ve said there’s only about 5 to 10% improv while filming. How important is it on a TV show like that to be really prepared by the time you’re filming?
Obviously effort that goes into a script only guarantees your chances of it being funnier. You can hedge your bets by creating really funny scripts, which is what we have in front of us on the day of filming. Improv is a gamble because you don’t know what you’re going to get and you have to go through long periods of discovery and establishing premises and it’s not as efficient. And also plot, it’s hard to really improvise plot. That needs thought and pen to paper.
Creator Armando Iannucci has made some amazing comedy over the last decade with Veep, Alan Partridge, and Into the Loop. Are you surprised he isn’t more of a household name given how popular showrunners have become lately?
Well, he lives overseas, so I don’t know that as an American name, he’ll necessarily be huge. But he’s a huge deal in England. He’s very revered at the top of the heap over there.
Iannucci once said, “Watching the political process at the moment, your instinct is to laugh because the alternative is to cry.” That was four years ago but it applies as much today as ever. How does the current political climate effect season five?
They began writing it last year, in the spring probably, so all the craziness that we’re living now hadn’t fully erupted. So season five is not relevant intentionally to what’s happening now, but because our show is a political satire and explores the absurdity and the reality of the way it functions, it’s good luck. Because it is completely relevant to what’s going on now, but I don’t think that was intentional from when it was written.
Veep is a rare show where there could be 10 or 11 people in a scene, and they’re all interacting with one another. Is that more difficult for you, is it more fun? How do they make it work?
They do a good job of keeping funny character stories alive. There’s a whole world of characters we created that come back in season five that maybe you haven’t seen since another season. Just there’s a lot of consensus polling in politics, there are many rooms that we walk into where we’re doing scenes with 10 or 11 people, like you said, because you want to get everybody onboard. And it’s a blast. The thing about Veep is that you never really know where the camera’s going to be. So you’re not really just saying your line and then just watching it, you’re trying to act the whole time just in case the camera is watching you. Even if you only have two lines in a scene with 11 people, you’re still playing it like a play, you’re still staying involved. It’s really fun because generally everyone in that room is super hilarious.
You’ve been doing comedy with Matt Besser for over 25 years. What is your relationship like now after that long of working together?
I think it’s very comforting to have rapport with someone and not have to worry about — in improv, certainly — about the quality because generally it’ll be pretty solid. I know Matt’s strengths, he knows mine, we enjoy playing with each other, we have similar sensibilities. It’s a delight to have an old friend to do shows with.
Are you ever surprised by the people who can be great at improv?
Yeah. I got to do a show with Jane Fonda once at UCB and she’s such a great actress that she was just playing things real. Like I don’t know if she was improvising premises, but she could just hang with anything. So I am impressed by random people who end up doing improv shows. Jane Fonda is someone who impressed me.
How special is it to do things like that these days, where you’re having this amazing time with Jane Fonda and the only people who will ever see it are the people who were there? These days everything is online, but live improv or sketch, it’s a rare opportunity to see comedy that only happens that one time.
I think akin to seeing a live rock ‘n roll show, you have to be in the room to feel the whole potential of it and the group mind of that event. Improv is a disposable art form but it’s kind of freeing in that way too because things can fail and the audience is a little more forgiving. And they’re also engaged on the journey as well. It’s a very ephemeral art form though, yeah, and I think that can be very freeing. That’s sort of what makes me keep coming back.
You’ve also got the UCB Show on Seeso, which is something that will live on the internet.
I think UCB is a successful brand and I hope that we can use our brand to launch the next generation of comedic talent. That’s basically what our show with Seeso is. We’ve got some old friends in there who are established and we also got some new friends who this is kind of their first break. We sort of pulled them from our farm teams and put them in the spotlight. And it’s really exciting because I think we have good taste in comedy and I think there’s a sensibility that runs through all the shows at UCB, so I think it’s a great opportunity to showcase people in the midwest — areas that can’t go to a big comedy club, rural areas — and they can just jump online and see cutting edge comedy, and the next wave of comedy, on their computer or television. I think that’s exciting and I think that’s why I like what we’re doing with Seeso. They have other good shows on there, so it’s kind of consistent with UCB.
You’ve had some really memorable roles in some Todd Phillips movies like The Hangover and Old School, how did that relationship come about?
I met Todd in an audition room and we hit it off. He likes to have fun on set — not that other comedy directors don’t — but he’s willing to try things and he likes actors that can roll with alt lines and try different premises. So we hit it off right away and I think I’m the type that in this sort of comedy — I play a lot short-sleeved, necktie-wearing office doofuses, and I think a lot of his comedies had that type in there. So I was fortunate. We got along well and he’s a lot fun and I was fortunate to get roles in four or five of his films. He’s been great to me.
You’ve directed two films of your own. Do you have another one planned?
The last film I directed is called A Better You and that’s on iTunes, most everywhere on demand, and the next one I’m sort of starting to write. I’ve always loved improvised movies like Christopher Guest and the Spinal Tap era of comedy. I get great joy from the discovery and performance of real moments happening in a scene. I’m addicted to making improvised film so I’m sure I’ll make another one.
What did you learn from your experience with the TV show Players that you created with Ian Roberts back in 2010?
I think that was one where if you’re going to improvise a lot of the dialogue, you really have to break the story effectively to know the emotional turns in each scene as well as the comedic games, if you will. You really have to hammer out a solid story before you get on set because you want to pull people into the stakes of scene and the emotional heart of the scene, as well as make them laugh. The lesson I learned from that was spending a lot of time on breaking your story serves you well once you get to filming. If you have a really solid story you can hang a lot of jokes on it and you can keep the audience engaged.
Do you go back and watch your movies?
I can’t watch them, I don’t go back. I probably will at some point. But in the edit room you’ve probably seen it 1,000 times and you’ve seen every variation and the outtakes, at some point you just want to move on.
You’re in a horror movie called The Darkness that’s coming out. How’d you get involved with that?
I met the director and we had lunch and we talked about the scene. He liked my take on it. I have a smallish part where I’m friends with Kevin Bacon, who I got to work with and that was exciting. That was very interesting to me, he’s kind of a legend. It was very grounded and real. It was a neat opportunity, I like doing different genres.
You’re also in the new Ghostbusters movie. There’s typically an angry mob whenever a classic movie gets remade, but were you surprised at how heightened this backlash has been?
Well, it’s funny. When movies get out people have a personal relationship to them. The studios own them but in a way the public owns them, the way they care about them, and the characters, and the importance those films have to their memories and their lives. So, Ghostbusters is a franchise that people really care about. It meant so much to people at a younger age. I guess I’m not surprised that people had opinions about the relaunch of it, but the fact that it’s women now, who cares? As long as it’s funny. I don’t understand that at all. If anything, it makes it more interesting. And Paul Feig, a great director, kept it loose and light even though he was managing a giant production with lots of special effects, he focused on the comedy. And he gave us lots of alt lines and would talk about funny moments, so he focused on the comedy he didn’t lose sight of what’s at the heart of it.
Did you have a connection to the original as well?
Oh yeah. I loved Ghostbusters. There was a lot of attention to this remake. I don’t think I’ve walked into a project with that much attention on it. I was very reverent of the opportunity to step into, almost like a Smithsonian museum exhibit, this is so cared about, you know? So much a part of American culture. At the end of the day you’re just playing with funny people and hoping that translates.
Did you improvise in the movie?
Yeah, Paul gave us some room to play with stuff. He pitched a lot of jokes. He did give us room to play things out. I don’t know what’s going to end up getting used but there was some playtime.