UCB Cofounder Matt Walsh on Amy Poehler's Ascent, Improv, and His New Show Players

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Matt Walsh was one-fourth of improv troupe Upright Citizens Brigade's most famous lineup -- the one with fellow comic totems Matt Besser, Ian Roberts, and Amy Poehler that fronted the '90s Comedy Central series Upright Citizens Brigade. The 45-year-old's cult hero status has led to a number of supporting roles as a correspondent on The Daily Show, bit player in The Hangover, Role Models, and I Love You Man, and star on Comedy Central's recent Dog Bites Man. Now, as Walsh's new Spike TV sports bar comedy Players takes off, he talks to Movieline about improvisation, the college experiences that led to Players, and the kind of "postmodern" comedy he finds annoying.

Spike TV is an interesting venue. How does the landscape there help or influence your show?

I think I've been sort of fortunate to really work with funny people and sort of hone a take or perspective on what I want to do in a show, so when I got to do my own show on Spike, I guess I wanted to do an improv show because that's what I've done my whole life. I've worked on improv movies and improv stage shows all my life, so I think I was sort of geared up or had the tools to do it and because of everyone I know, I was able to assemble a really strong cast of improvisers. We set out to write really tight outlines for the show. When we shoot the shows, the dialogue is pretty much 100% improvised with the exception of a few jokes or monologues here and there -- in terms of the landscape, I think cable lets you do that. I think a network would be scared of doing an improvised format show. I think they'd want to get their hands on it and tweak it and touch it more. Spike is very hands-off. I guess I'm fortunate to be where I'm at to do that creatively. Shows like Curb do it well, and even Reno 911! had a good handle on it. I think they really capitalized on the strength of people they're putting in the show. If the story's there, you can bring the audience with you for the funny moments.

The cast is made up of UCB graduates and students from all different levels of classes, correct?

Ian [Roberts] and myself are founding members, June Raphael started at UCB, she's gone on to do movies and such. Danielle Schenider, she was a VH1 staple for awhile, and she pops up in a lot of things. James Humphrey is pretty new and he's an exceptional talent. He's definitely someone who's doing his first TV show. And we grabbed Jack McGee, who's been a cop or fireman in 10,000 movies.

For those who are unfamiliar with Upright Citizens Brigade, how does their style of improv differ from other venues like Second City or ImprovOlympic?

I think how we've distinguished ourselves from the others with is we focus on the game of a scene. There's a basic concept of "yes and," which means when you're onstage, you have to agree with what they're saying and not contradict what they're giving you. We take it a step further. You "yes and" to begin with, but your goal is to find a game, which is the comedic premise through audience response or the pattern of what happens you find a consistent pattern of behavior that will guarantee the scene is funny. I think that's what we have established. I don't think we've patented it, but we teach it and I don't think it anyone else does.

What's the hardest part about helming the proceedings at a TV show? You have to let it be, the improvisational nature of the show, but I'm sure you want to steer things sometimes.

The hardest thing for me is occasionally trying to do too much. But I like hiring really talented people and then letting them do their job. It's actually a part of my lazy personality. If you cast different funny people and you write for their strengths, you have the lion's share of it defeated. You know, it's never-ending; there's four of us that write the outlines. We spend a decent amount of time really hammering out solid stories and good turns and things like that. Then I think in the edit room, you have to just be patient with it, be willing take other people's notes. I think that's where you shape it, especially in improv. There's a lot of material that's off-topic and funny -- and sometimes you're glad you improvised, you realize it's better than the story. Occasionally you'll drop a plot line you wrote and and pick up something that happened off set.

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The spontaneous dynamic between characters is the real star of Players, but I think its setting also has a significant role. Why did you decide to set it in a sports bar?.

I worked in a sports bar in Westmont (IL) for four or five summers between college years. I'm probably much older than you, but it was the advent of the sports bar. It was like 1989, or '87. It was a cultural revolution in Westmont. I always joke, like, no one had seen a Pop A Shot machine indoors. What was that thing? You could eat chicken wings and look at the signed autograph of Phil Jackson. You're eating inside a sports museum, and you could watch games with your softball team. This was also the beginning of satellite TV. You could watch a Blackhawks game that wasn't on at all, but you could go the bar and drink with 15 guys and watch the game, and feel like you're at the stadium. There was live simulcast going on. For several years, it was the center of all activity in Westmont. Every night you'd go to a sports bar.

Is there something specific about the dynamic there that you wanted to recapture?

I guess for me it's the sentimentality of when you're that young and working the summers. It felt like I had the best friends of my life at the time, and we were kind of like a family. Just the whole shift, you'd be like, "Where are we going later tonight?" There's a little bit of romance between waitresses and bartenders, a little bit of drama. It really was the center of my life when I worked there in the summer, so it kind of felt like a summer camp in a way.

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Comments

  • Roderick Jaynes says:

    Saw him and Matt Besser at the free ASSSSCAT show last week--fantastic.
    And he's absolutely right about how boring Demetri Martin-esque shoe-talker comedy is.

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