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Q&A: Matt Walsh of Upright Citizens Brigade

MoviesMusic IndustryUpright Citizens BrigadeVeep (tv program)The Second City

Sometimes, size does matter. In the case of the 17th annual Chicago Improv Festival, this translates to more than 200 acts at 21 venues in 11 categories including long-form, short-form, experimental, musical and—wait for it—puppetry. That makes it the longest-running and largest improv comedy festival in the world. If that's not enough for you, there are workshops, lectures and classes, too.

But the festival doesn't sacrifice quality for quantity. In addition to top groups from Chicago and around the world—from New York to Los Angeles and from New Zealand to Brazil—national comedians including "Saturday Night Live" alums Tim Meadows, Paul Brittain and Horatio Sanz, Maribeth Monroe (Comedy Central's "Workaholics"), Dan Bakkedahl (HBO's "Veep," FX's "Legit") take the stage for multiple shows.

Headlining the fest is the Upright Citizens Brigade, formed in Chicago by Matt Walsh, Ian Roberts, Matt Besser and Amy Poehler in 1991 before moving to New York and landing a Comedy Central show (1998-2000) and moving onto other film and TV projects. The group has theaters in New York and L.A. and recently produced a new how-to book, "The Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Improvisation Manual."

Joining Walsh, Roberts and Besser for their "Asssscat" show are Meadows, Sanz and L.A. comedian Betsy Sodaro, plus legendary musician-producer Steve Albini.

We called Chicago native Walsh—who also plays press secretary Mike McClintock on HBO's "Veep" and is the co-founder of the popular "Bear Down" podcast—to find out more.

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"Asssscat"
Go: 8 p.m. April 6 at Up Comedy Club, 230 W. North Ave.; pre-show lobby book signing from 6:30-7 p.m.
Tickets: $40-$50. 312-337-3992; chicagoimprovfestival.org

Additional UCB appearances at CIF:
>>5 p.m. April 5: Geeking Out with the UCB at The Playground Theater, 3209 N. Halsted St.; 773-871-3793; $5
>>8:30 p.m. April 5: Improv4humans live podcast at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave.; 773-327-5252; $25
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About "Asssscat": It's our oldest improv [form]—it's, like, 20 years old—and it's long-form improv comedy with a great cast. Horatio [Sanz] will be there and Ian Roberts, Matt Besser and myself, [and some others] will be playing with us. Our monologist is a guy named Steve Albini. He's got great dark stories and a funny point of view of the world, so he'll be throwing monologues out for suggestion and then we will improvise using the information from Steve's monologues.

How the early '90s Chicago comedy scene fueled the creation of Upright Citizens Brigade: Everybody came to Chicago because of Second City. It was such a breeding ground and respected place, the ruling model for ensemble comedy. But then when they got there, many people felt like what [The Second City was] doing wasn't necessarily what they wanted to be doing. So there was a lot of alternative experimentation—in many ways, a lot of the interesting stuff was in reaction to the constraints of Second City. A lot of us beginning to perform were trying to create something that we felt was more relevant or different.

Why his parents were nervous about his career choice: They would have preferred a career with a trajectory—if you get a CPA, you know you can get an accounting job—'cause you're very poor for a very long time doing comedy or performance for a living. So whenever I visited the suburbs, mom would always send me home with tubs of peanut butter and sheets of lasagna or whatever canned goods she had in the pantry. They never liked the comedy I was doing—it was probably too ribald. But they were always like, "If it makes you happy …" And certainly, my father always liked that I was doing it. I think he was a bit of a closet thespian himself.

One common misconception about improv comedy: One of the platitudes that get thrown around improv a lot is, "It's all about 'yes, and …'" What we discovered writing the book is that it's actually more accurately described as, 'If that's true, then what else is true?' So it's not denying "yes, and ..." it's just defining it in a clearer way. So your job as an improviser is to receive and accept realities that your partner is giving and then add things—if this was happening, then what else might be happening or what else might be true? That's the big change in focus, we think, for what students learning improv should be looking for.

Achieve this by moving into the "game" of the scene: The game is basically the comic engine that continues to get laughs—what the audience enjoys about a certain scene and its dynamics. The classic one is "Liar, Liar." It's a movie where Jim Carrey was a liar as part of his job and he was successful because he could lie so well. And then he was cursed with he could only tell the truth. So the "game" of that movie is, "What if a guy could only tell the truth?" And then just move him to different locations, show him with different people. You raise the stakes by exposing him to situations where his boss is there or his wife or somebody he doesn't like. You're basically playing that same game in different scenarios.

Why Chicago is good for comedy: Chicago is a great, very theater-friendly town. It's not expensive to put up shows and there's tons of talent and there's definitely an audience, so if you can get a stage, you can get something going. [Whereas,] New York's cost-prohibitive and in L.A. there's no audience, really. People would rather stay home. In terms of the audience, it encourages experimentation, whether for music or comedy, because it's not totally polluted with the agents who come by or the industry [executives] who pluck people out of shows. People are just doing shows to make their friends laugh, especially in the beginning.

How he drew on his Chicago background for his "Veep" character: I grew up in Chicago, so I based it on Chicago networking. In my imagination, that's where that guy learned the trade—a guy who grew up in politics where it was all about, "I know a guy who knows a guy," "I got a relationship here; let me use my relationships." And now, he's a bit of a dinosaur because the social media made it a 24/7 news cycle. It's faster and knowing a guy isn't enough anymore, you know? You can't just ask the New York Times in the front row to go first—you don't control the story as much anymore.

What he learned from this role: One of the interesting things we learned—because we got to meet congressional aides and chiefs of staff—is that oftentimes the press secretary will maintain the relationship with the media over that with the candidate. Because they know that they're going to move on and try to go higher. And they want to bring those media relationships with them since they're more valuable.

His own take on politics: Putting a bill through Congress is like planning a wedding, I would imagine—you're so focused on it. You can have good ideas or aspirations for change and because it's a human endeavor, you're constantly making compromises and getting good ideas hammered out of things you want to push through. And then, in the eleventh hour, you find out that your support is gone or that the administration is not focusing on this issue anymore. And you're just left in the lurch and it doesn't mean anything anymore. I think that would be defeating as all hell.

What's next for the "Bear Down" podcast: We'll probably drop a new episode on drafting. We're very lazy and disorganized because we're all busy. So the output is not consistent, but it's always good when we do make an episode.

Being "busy" includes the completion of a comedic improv film, "A Better You," in which he acts, directs and co-wrote: I've always been curious about mental illnesses and the categories they fall into and the treatments that you could get. In L.A., I think people are more willing to try alternative therapy for traditional problems. They might see a massage therapist or hypnotist or something. So it's about alternative therapy and it's also about L.A. There's a certain unique desperation that L.A. has.

Since improv is unscripted, how do you "co-write" an improv film? I spent about a year and a half with my friend Brian Huskey—who plays the main character—writing an outline of about 50 scenes. Each scene has about three paragraphs of description beneath. And it has a story arc and intersecting moment and characters and expectations of what you want out of each scene and the emotional trajectory of the characters. Once you have the cast, you do as much rehearsing as you have time for to get people on the same page of tone and backstory. You don't improvise things from the movie—you save that for shooting days. And then on the shooting days, you talk through it once, then you rehearse it a couple times and then you start filming it.

He's crowdfunding post-production and there are some crazy prizes: Someone will get an outgoing message from one of our actors like Rob Huebel or Nick Kroll or Horatio Sanz. Another one of my favorites is I can get a famous person to deface my headshot with graffiti and then I'll send you that. And I'm teaching a bunch of workshops and improv classes for anybody who's interested in improv.

 

* * * * *
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
Chicago Improv Festival dates:
Monday through April 6
Schedule and tickets: chicagoimprovfestival.org
Additional resource: Chicago Improv Festival app for Android and iPhone
Ticket price per show: $5-$50
Number of acts: 200
Number of stages: 20

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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MoviesMusic IndustryUpright Citizens BrigadeVeep (tv program)The Second City
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