Today marks the launch of NBC Universal’s 24-7 comedy-streaming service, Seeso. For $3.99 a month comedy nerds (and everyone else for that matter) can access the archives of sketch shows like Saturday Night Live and Kids in the Hall, countless classic stand-up specials, and new, original content. Matt Besser, cofounder of the Upright Citizens Brigade, is the creator of two new projects available on the site starting today: variety show The UCB Show and his stand-up special, Besser Breaks the Record.
Though Besser’s involvement with Seeso was the main reason I called him up, he ended up recounting tales of his glory days in Chicago, where he and the other founders of UCB started out by making audiences literally drink the Kool-Aid and riot in the streets of Wicker Park.
How did you first get involved with Seeso?
The UCB Show is the name of this variety show that we shot at our theater on Sunset (in LA)—eight episodes. I say “variety,” and every time I say that I’m imagining juggling and magic, but it’s all comedy. It’s sketch, stand-up, something comedic. We’ve been wanting for years to do something where we got the best of all our acts from all our theaters on some kind of platform where people from outside New York or Los Angeles could see it. I’ve always found it odd that you can get stand-up on just about any talk show anywhere, but where can you see someone do a great character? Unless they get on SNL or they happen to get their own sketch show, which is very hard to come by. It’s always been frustrating how many great characters and great sketches go up on the stage but are only seen by people at that stage.
We were going to officially pitch it to NBC to perhaps be something that came on after SNL, and as that was happening we were told about Seeso, this platform that was for comedy nerds, which is our audience. I wouldn’t have said this five years ago, but these days something being online or on your computer or on your phone seems to be the way people are viewing things, especially people in their 20s and 30s. So it seemed weird to fight for: “Oh, this has to be on television.” They’re also going to have the whole Kids in the Hall library, the whole Monty Python library—when they said all the libraries they were going to have of all these people I respected, it seemed like a perfect fit for us.
So the variety show is just sketch and stand-up right now. Do you have any plans for an improv-centric show?
To broadcast Asssscat, our improv show, is always a goal. We always bristle when people say, “Improv: you’ve gotta be there, it can’t be recorded.” We’ve never felt that. Bad improv is that way, but a good improvised scene is as good as a written sketch, so why can’t it be recorded?
Like on your podcast, Improv4humans.
Even when we started Improv4humans we went through a learning curve. Improvisers, when we started doing that, I’m pretty sure none of them had ever improvised without an audience. An audience is always there to clue you in to what’s funny, but now no one thinks twice about it now that we’re immersed in the podcast culture.
Tell me a little bit about your stand-up special that’s also going up on Seeso.
The big theme of the special is “Besser breaks the record” because I’m the number one record holder of different comedy records. A lot of my comedy records are speed: most jokes in one minute, fastest joke told. My big comedy nemesis is an alternative comedian from the Soviet Union named Ivan Krushnev Jr., and in my special I’m going to break one of his records: the most characters done in five minutes. The whole special is building to breaking that record.
I actually started out doing stand-up, and that’s why I moved to Chicago in the 90s. There was a huge stand-up boom—like eight clubs just in the city itself. I only found out about improv once I moved there. But it was such a vibrant scene; like the Roxy, where Bob Odenkirk started out; Theatre of the Bizarre, where Matt Walsh and I got a lot of stage time. A lot of very supportive alternative venues before alternative comedy was even a phrase, really. I really miss those years experimenting in Chicago.
A lot of my stuff in my special dates back to back then. I used to collect letters to the editor from the Reader and the Tribune. My joke is, “I’ve always been into punk-rock music, and the only thing that has more anger in words than a punk-rock song is a letter to the editor.” So a big part of my act is reading these letters to the editor and doing takes on them. The Chicago Tribune Magazine‘s Sunday crossword puzzle—the format was that it used to be on pulp paper, but it turned into a glossy-paper format at some point in the early 90s. The crossword puzzle, people hated it because I guess it’s really hard to write with a pencil on glossy paper. There were these really angry letters that lasted for like six months, every Sunday, people arguing with each other in the editorials about how bad it was and how to solve the problem. So I started writing fake letters and getting involved in the controversy, and I read that in the special. So I have these bits that go all the way back to Chicago that I never had a chance to put on film, but I think they still hold up.
So your time in Chicago has really stuck with you. When you look back, what do you remember most about that time?
I never would have known about improv until later unless I had gone to Chicago, because at that point it really wasn’t happening anywhere like it was in Chicago. I feel I owe everything to Del Close. I feel lucky to have met him and worked with him.
Outside the improv world, there were always so many supportive theaters there. It was always easy to put on a show, which it was not that way in New York—it’s not that way in L.A. The Mary-Arrchie Theatre supported us, the Red Orchid was always great to us—Cafe Voltaire. We got kicked out of all these places because we’re a bunch of screw-ups [laughs]. Once at Cafe Voltaire we put on a show, and it was a different theme every week. One theme was that we were some kind of cult that lived in a volcano or something like that, but we had some pure-grain-alcohol punch that we were handing out to the audience. The owner comes down and is like, “What the hell do you guys think you are doing?!” Then he found out we were cooling our beers in the lettuce crisper, and he said, “Get the hell out of here.”
We did some crazy shows. We did this show down in Wicker Park, the show that Jack Helbig reviewed, called Virtual Reality. The theory was that we were putting the audience into virtual reality scenarios. Most of the time we would take them on the stage and put them in a sketch, but we would always do at least one scene where we would take them outside of the theater itself, the reason being if you do something inside, they’ll know it’s a prank—they’ll know what’s going on because it’s set up. But if you take them outside, if something happened they won’t necessarily know if it’s part of the show.
A few different times Horatio Sanz would [pretend to] get hit by a car and people thought he really got hit by a car. We did this other thing where we’d go after politicians and say, “Let’s start a riot!” And we really would light up tiki torches and get our cap guns, which was insane. You’d get shot for that today in Chicago. We shut down the Six Corners intersection; we brought traffic to a standstill and had a miniriot out there. One time we did it, and the police drove up right away within seconds of it starting and put Horatio in the back of the police car as he was chanting, “Fight the power! Fight the power that be!” They put him in cuffs and put him in the back of the car and drive off, and it happened so quickly that the audience felt we had put the cops in the show. We were like, “Nope, that wasn’t part of the plan.” Not only do we have to do the rest of the sketches without Horatio in them, we have to go bail him out of jail as soon as the show is over.
So you guys have been arrested for comedy?
How is the Chicago comedy scene different than New York and LA now that you’ve experienced all three?
I don’t know enough about the scene now, but back then I would say there was more experimentation in Chicago than other big cities. If you’re going up in LA or New York, those are showcase towns. There’s always a fear in the back of any performer’s mind that there’s someone in the audience who could make or break them. That’s not a good environment for experimentation. In Chicago, it was a constant Waiting for Guffman, and Guffman never came. As a result of that there was never any fear of bombing, so that made for a lot of experimentation and weirdness.
Now you’re the guy who seems to be able to make or break newer comics coming through UCB. How does that feel?
I do go to shows to put people in shows and produce their shows, but I encourage experimentation because that’s where I come from. Now that we have three stages in LA—we in theater meetings address this—we say, “Look, we have the space. Experiment. Go crazy. Do what we did.”