Matt Besser and Ian Roberts on Bringing the UCB Stages to the Screen with ‘The UCB Show’
The UCB 4 — Amy Poehler, Matt Besser, Matt Walsh, and Ian Roberts — have returned for a second season of the hosting The UCB Show, a comedy variety show featuring the best sketch, characters, and standup from UCB’s NY and LA theatres. Eight all-new episodes dropped today on Seeso, so to get you prepped I talked to Matt Besser and Ian Roberts about the vision behind the project, honoring the true roots of variety shows, and some of this season’s must-see acts.
When you first came up with the idea for this show what were you hoping to achieve? What was the motivation for getting The UCB Show together, curated, and released?
Matt Besser: There’s a couple of things. One, I feel it’s kind of a shame that there’s not a way for people who do sketch and characters specifically to showcase these sketches and characters on a national level, like TV or a platform like Seeso that is hitting more people than a YouTube video. Standups have all the talk shows, but you never see a sketch group on a talk show. Even on so-called variety shows, if you do see a sketch group or character it’s written specifically for that variety show and usually written around the host of the show or a celebrity. It’s not really an act per se like it used to be in the old days when on a variety show every act would be a polished act that the group or individual has been doing for a while. I feel like this variety show is true to the roots of real variety shows. We’re showcasing their best stuff, stuff that they didn’t just write for the show, but that they’ve been doing for a year or more. HBO used to have this Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen every year and I always kind of felt that everyone’s characters and sketches were gearing up for that every year. That was the best showcase for that genre. When that went away there wasn’t a thing for people to get excited about every year. For our theatre at least, this is kind of like our Olympics, especially in the second season. The first season kind of came out of the blue, but in the second season we were more prepared. People started earlier. It really is the best of our theaters.
Ian Roberts: The UCB Seeso show provides both young and seasoned performers from the UCB community an opportunity to present their work to a larger audience without dilution or compromise. Most of the time when you’re paid and allowed to reach a larger audience it involves compromise, what I like to call “involuntary collaboration” with the people paying you. The UCB Show is a rare opportunity to reach a larger audience while fully maintaining the uniqueness of your vision.
When you say that the first season came out of the blue is it because you were approached by Seeso and had to put something together quickly?
Matt Besser: We were actively going to go out and pitch it when the Seeso opportunity came up. So it didn’t come out of the blue as an idea to us, but to the population of the theatre in general, they weren’t gearing up for it at all. They didn’t know we were pitching it. Even now it’s not like people are doing all of their work for the show, but I would hope that they have in mind that the “best of” will be in the show eventually.
What’s the process for selecting standups, characters, and sketch groups for the series?
Matt Besser: This season I started asking all of the theatre members, “What did you like?” on Facebook. I got a lot of good recommendations. I’d say a lot of what I picked came from that. I would have the group submit to me and Bart Coleman — one of the producers that put this line up together — “What’s your best stuff?” We put it in their hands as to what they thought their best stuff was. Then we would pull from that to find a nice mix of everything.
I was reading an article where Bart mentioned “The Black DVD.” Can you explain what that is for people who don’t know?
Matt Besser: Before this show existed we had the idea of making exactly what I was describing, except for the industry, to show them every year what the best material coming out of our theatre was, in particular, acts they haven’t seen before. That’s a big goal for the show, to show people acts they haven’t seen before. There’s people like Jon Daly and Jerry Minor who have been doing it for a long time and who people would be excited to see. But then there’s a lot of people I think folks will be seeing for the first time, like Natalie Palamides. She’s a huge star this season. I think she’s in three or four things. Mary Holland was big in Season 1 and now she’s back in Season 2. It’s definitely a big goal to get these people out there.
It’s cool when you’re watching the show and you see somebody pop up and you realize you’ve seen them in a show or movie, or heard their voice as a character on a podcast. I think a lot of people will watch the show and say, “Hey, where do I know them from?”
Matt Besser: And even more exciting than someone recognizing them is that a year from now they’ll say, “Oh, I saw that woman a year ago before she was on this sitcom. I saw her before she was famous.” I saw Chris Rock do standup before he was famous. I was just a teenager. That will always be special to me.
Who are a couple of your favorite acts from Season 2?
Ian Roberts: Off the top of my head, a few of my favorite acts this season are Jerry Minor, Mary Holland, and the sketch groups Big Grande and BOAT.
Matt Besser: We experimented in one show with having a character host the show. Connor Ratliff doing his George Lucas character hosted one of the shows. That was one of my favorites.
Was part of Season 2 filmed at the Del Close Marathon?
Matt Besser: Yeah. Something that the UCB 4 — Amy, Ian, Walsh, and I — have always done when we enter Asssscat or most shows is just kind of work the audience. We thought it would be fun to work the lines in front of the theatre instead. We split between the two theatres. We did the line in front of UCB Sunset and the lines outside of the Del Close Marathon. People are usually in a big party mood in that Del Close Marathon line.
What do you feel you personally bring to the UCB 4 that sets you apart from the other members?
Ian Roberts: Can’t think of a single thing. Wow, that’s depressing.
What are your thoughts on releasing the show on a subscription site like Seeso?
Ian Roberts: I’d say the biggest advantage of releasing on a very affordable digital subscription platform is that you can be more niche. You can stay true to your vision, and let the appropriate audience find your work, rather than shaping your work to please a mass audience.
Matt Besser: I think Seeso is the hottest place for comedy right now. What I like about a Seeso — and I guess you could say Netflix too — is that your comedy is always there. I could have done my special on Showtime, but I don’t know how many times they’re going to show it and where it’s going to exist after they show it. But with Seeso I can plug it on my podcast and you can go watch it right then. There’s something satisfying about that. On the other hand, there’s something satisfying about being on Showtime or Comedy Central too. It’s kind of six of one half a dozen of the other.
Other than The UCB Show is there anything else coming up that you’re excited about?
Ian Roberts: The second season of the show that I showrun, Teachers, premiers on Tuesday, Jan 17th at 10pm on TV Land.
Matt Besser: This is the big thing we’re promoting right now, but I will say, still check out Andy Richter’s Home for the Holidays. I mean, it’s not the holidays anymore, but I still think it’s a funny show. It has John Daly doing his drunken Christmas tree character Sappity Tappity, Seth Morris doing Bob Ducca, I did the Bjork. Lauren Lapkus and Betsy Sodaro are on the show. There are a lot of funny people I’m forgetting right now.