Upright Insight: Matt Walsh & Ian Roberts
by Rich Rosell
On the eve of the DVD release of their comedy, Martin & Orloff, dOc had the opportunity to corner Matt Walsh, working in Gatlinburg, Tennessee on an upcoming documentary, and Ian Roberts, in Charlotte, for a role in an upcoming NASCAR comedy with Will Ferrell, to find out the status with UCB, the struggles of making an indie comedy, and just how the idea of a comedy about someone who has attempted suicide was born.
Matt Walsh and Ian Roberts are two-quarters of the comedy improv group, Upright Citizens Brigade, along with Amy Poehler (now of Saturday Night Live) and Matt Besser. After the cancellation of their cutting edge series by Comedy Central in 2000, the members seemed to fragment somewhat, moving on to a number separate projects while still maintaining the improv UCB theaters in Los Angeles and New York. Walsh has been a regular on The Daily Show, and has had roles in Old School, Starsky & Hutch, and Bad Santa, while Roberts has logged appearances in the second season of Arrested Development, as well as features such as Anchorman and a memorable turn as the "spirit fingers" coach in Bring It On.
The best news for UCB fans is something that Matt Walsh referred to as "an official UCB movie" that is imminent, and will once again reunite Walsh, Roberts, Poehler and Besser.
dOc: When did it occur to you that you could make people laugh?
Matt Walsh: Oh my lord. I don't know, I was always a weird kid and I would always do things to make my brothers laugh. Like put my underwear on my head or something stupid like that.
Ian Roberts: Probably when I was a little kid, like second grade.
dOc: How did you end up as a member of the Upright Citizen Brigade?
MW: I met [Matt] Besser first. We were both doing standup, and we met in a place called the Roxie and just started doing shows together. Then Ian [Roberts] and Amy [Poehler] came along, and I was doing shows with Second City, which was really the first time I got to play with Ian full time.
dOc: Do you remember the first time you went on stage to do improv? Was it a gut-wrenching nightmare?
IR: Actually it was pretty easy. I was in college, and I guess the first time would have been in acting class. Offstage we formed an improv group—I think it was called Proteus—at Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa. That was really the first time I got up, but I had been joking around like that my whole life. Sort of intuitively improvising, so it wasn't that big of a deal.
dOc: When you were in Chicago you worked with/under Del Close. What was that like?
IR: He was an intimidating guy. Super smart. Basically invented improvisation as a modern-day performance form instead of just a writing tool. He was a great teacher, but kind of a scary, scary dude.
dOc: It is true that he willed his skull to the Goodman Theatre, after his death?
IR: Yes. It was so it could be used when they do Hamlet. It's a true story.
dOc: When did you realize that the four of you (Walsh, Roberts, Matt Besser, Amy Poehler) needed to join forces?
MW: I guess we joined forces in 1994. I was always doing stuff in and out of Upright Citizens Brigade, I would do other shows and come back. In '94 we all made a commitment that we were going to stick together and really commit to the group, and we left for New York in March 1996. I thought it was only going to be for six months to see what might happen, and slowly had a little success, and more success, and stayed in New York for eight years.
dOc: I really thought the double whammy of UCB and Strangers With Candy was one of the absolute best hours of comedy on television.
MW: That means you have a sick sense of humor
dOc: What happened with Comedy Central when the series ended? Whose idea was it? Did Comedy Central just pull the plug?
MW: I think the writing was on the wall. There was a new regime, and they were buying a lot of cheap programming, and our series was expensive. I think we got average ratings, I don't think we got great ratings
IR: They have a saying in the military: "up or out". It means if you don't get promoted they basically tell you to leave the military. They're kind of like that with the ratings. We had good ratings, but they were just stable. And we were the most expensive show on the network, so it wasn't too much of a surprise. But it was a disappointment.
dOc: Do you feel Comedy Central didn't back the show as well as they could have?
MW: Sure. They picked their favorites, like South Park, and got behind them. You can get lost on that network. If they don't support you, you can get lost. That's part of it.
IR: The big money came in after we were gone, and I think they promote better now. But I know someone who has had a show on recently, and also felt it was promoted really poorly.
dOc: Looking back on the Comedy Central UCB days, were there any restrictions put on you? Because it seemed like you were able to get away with a lot of things.
IR: On the artistic side, they were fantastic. We had an executive producer who gave us real freedom to do whatever we wanted, so it was sort of heaven artistically but a real pain in the ass with regard to the way the show was promoted.
MW: There would be the occasional censor note, like "you only say ball sack five times but you can't say it ten".
dOc: That's good to know.
MW: Exactly. Yes, it's good to know where you offend America. We did a thing about a kid huffing glue that never aired
dOc: That's the infamous Highland Epoxy bit with Amy Poehler. It's on the season one DVD set.
MW: We had one other controversial scene, but it was our own censorship. We had a scene written about a kid who wants to kill kids in school with throwing stars, and we were filming it five days after Columbine happened. We were contemplating whether or not to do the scene or not, but I think that was a self-imposed question.
dOc: You did seem to be able to get away with some darker comic moments on UCB.
IR: Like a kid with a giant penis. They let us do a lot of crazy stuff.
dOc: What are the odds of the remaining two seasons of UCB ever getting released on DVD?
MW: I don't think it will be any time soon. I'm hopeful there's a ground swell. I think the season one set did good, I don't think it did Dave Cappella numbers, but I think it did well. I have faith that eventually that they'll (Comedy Central) see that they can make money on it. But we have no control over that.
IR: That's a question for Comedy Central. It all depends on how well the first one has done, and I don't know how it's done. All the fans want it, that's all I ever hear, but I talk to fans. That show is one of the things I'm proudest of in my life, and I'd love people to see it. Our theory of the way people saw it was that it was like people coming across a car accident. You stop if you see it by the side of the road, but it's not like you were looking for it. You just had to stumble across it.
dOc: When Amy Poehler landed her SNL gig and did that signal some kind of formal end to UCB? I know UCB still has two theaters (LA and New York), so what is the status of the group?
MW: I think the formal end happened when I got hired by The Daily Show and then Amy got hired by SNL.
IR: We're still together, though.. We're still a producing organization, we put up shows, teach classes, which is basically our philosophy of comedy and improv. Whenever possible we do still improvise together in this show called ASSESS Always, whether we're all there or not, however many of us can do those shows every week. We're still a group, but it's hard to remain absolutely as a sketch group. We tried it for about a year after the show was can celled, to try and get another show, but it just didn't work out. I don't if you know, but we just had an improv show on Bravo called A.S.S.S.S.C.A.T.
dOc: What does A.S.S.S.S.C.A.T. mean?
IR: It's just something we faked up. I think it was something like Automatic Siamese Sprinkler Connection Shutdown ?I don't know?you'd have to Google it find out. Really, it's origin was that Matt (Besser) was doing a show with a girl he was dating at the time back in Chicago and she couldn't do the show one night. And the place that had the space he was using said "you can't just not put up a show, we need to have something in there", so he said he'd bring in a good show. So he brought us all in to improvise, and everyone gets really drunk, and the show devolves to a point where Besser's on stage trying to start a scene where he's in an igloo, and it's just him, and no one comes on stage. We just started yelling across the stage to each other (in a high-pitched voice) "ASSSSSCAT!". Don't ask me what that meant, or who started it, but that name sort of became shorthand for when a show went awry.
dOc: Ian, you had a great role in Bring It On as the somewhat overly driven coach. and you turned the whole spirit fingers scene into one of those scenes that we quote around the house here on a regular basis.
IR: I got cast in that because (Bring It On director) Peyton Reed also directed a number of UCB episodes. It was originally supposed to be a typical gay choreographer, but he wanted to make it more of a bastard Bob Fosse type of guy. He showed my tape to the producer and said "I want to get this guy for the role", and he called me up and told me I could rewrite it. So about of that is the original, and half of it is my stuff. It was a lot of fun.
dOc: In Martin & Orloff, you two are the leads, and it seems like a project the two of you came up with, though Amy and Matt Besser have roles in the film. What prevented this from being a UCB reunion movie, rather than a Matt Walsh/Ian Roberts project?
MW: Ian, Katie Roberts (Ian's wife) and I wrote it, and we initially intended just to write something for us to do because we have good chemistry together. Matt and Amy are friends, so we just put them in the movie. It isn't a UCB movie, though obviously are friends are in it.
IR: It's because we (the original UCB) all didn't write it. It's just not a UCB film.
dOc: How did Lawrence Blume, son of author Judy Blume, get selected to direct?
MW: He basically said "I'll raise the money if I can direct", and we said OK. That's how the relationship began. I had made a documentary a while ago and he had helped donate some equipment towards it.
dOc: Was anyone ever advising you not to go with the "attempted suicide for laughs" storyline?
MW: No, that's just our sense of humor. We had not potential buyers or directors when we wrote, and we just wrote it because we wanted to write a movie.
dOc: Where did the spark of the original story come from? The subtext of suicide seems like a touchy subject.
IR: At first it was just "let's write a movie", with no idea of what we would write. Then it was "ok, here's a way we might t do it". What if we take a dramatic structure, just take some existing movie, and we'll use that exact story but make every scene comic. So we rented Marvin's Room, with Leonardo DiCaprio and Meryl Streep, and it was about somebody dying of cancer and somebody with Alzheimer's, and it was really depressing. The idea was to take the existing structure and just make it all comedy, and we decided "no, you can't". So we came up with a compromise. Instead of taking a really dramatic, heavy movie and making it into a comedy, how about if we just start with the most awful, non comedic thing and we try to make a comedy from that.
dOc: What was the co-writing process like? Is it done together or do you compare notes?
MW: We wrote it in the room together. Ian and I improvise all the time together, we can play together really well. The three of us?me, Ian and Katie?would be in a room together and kind of improvise. It's bad screenwriting. Good screenwriting you write the structure first, but we wrote from point one and then continued on; if "that" then what happens next.
IR: Nobody should ever write a movie this way. We wrote in linearly. One scene to the next, not knowing where it was going, instead of being plotted out. We did have to go back and lay in a bunch of things to give it some structure because it originally played too much like a bunch of separate moments. It was always the three of us in the room together, and it made the most sense because we all improvise, so that was the easiest way to keep coming up with dialogue, improvisationally.
dOc: How much of the dialogue was improv as the cameras were rolling versus material that was improv'd during the writing process?
IR: Very, very little. David Cross probably improvised more than anyone in the movie, and he improvised a fair amount, but we had done so much of that ahead of time in the room during the writing that it came down to what was probably the best thing to say. Ironically although we're improvisers, and that's such a big part of what we do, we did not improvise much in front of the camera.
dOc: Was the process of making a film satisfying, or more of a pain?
IR: It was pretty good. It was quicker than you would have done it with a big budget, we had a really good DP (David Phillips), and I think was really a key part of it. I recommend that to anybody. Kind of knowing when to cut your losses, knowing what the budget is, and maybe on some Hollywood movie you might keep trying for some sort of elusive perfection.
dOc: I've heard about this film for a few years. Not that it was your doing, but why did it take so long to get issued on DVD?
MW: I don't know, Rich. It's the plight of independent movies. Their hard to capture the public attention unless you get a big, national distributor behind you. It's just one of things. For Martin & Orloff it was word-of-mouth or ground support, and it just slowly built an audience, and after all of us had gone on and made a small name for ourselves it garnered some attention.
IR: We tried for a long time to get a theatrical release. We ran in New York for a week, ran in Chicago for a week or a weekend
dOc: I'm in Chicago, and somehow I never even about the screening.
IR: It's so hard when you've got an independent film. If you do it like that, and no one is distributing it, you just gamble your own money. It's got to be such a home run to make it worth keeping it open, and then also to indicate that it would be worth trying in other cities. The reality is, if someone bought that film for what it cost us to make, and then put $10 million of advertising behind, you'd make money. It would be a minor success, I think, because I've seen it done before. Something gets bought at Sundance, they buy it for nothing, and then put in ten times what they bought into advertising. But you can't show a film in your garage and have it be a success.
dOc: You have to get the word out.
IR: Like you said, you're a fan, it played in the city you live in, but it didn't get on your radar. That's advertising.
dOc: Who are the comedic performers that really make you laugh?
MW: Wow, that's a great question. I think Will Farrell, Steve Carell are pretty damn funny. I'm still a fan of Ben Stiller, though I know a lot of people have kind of sold out on him. Acting wise, I love Peter Sarsgaard - he's a wonderful actor. But who's funny, though? A lot of my friends on SNL are funny, even if they may not get to be funny. Like Horatio Sanz, Rachel Dratch, Tina Fey, obviously Amy, Stephanie Weir (MadTV).
IR: Vince Vaughn kills me. His sarcastic, fast-talking characters kill me. I like Bill Murray, and his new string of subtle performances - that's been a lot of fun. I admire Ben Stiller's ability to play the straight man, which I think almost nobody does these days. David Cross and Bob Odenkirk on Mr. Show are great.
dOc: I look at the state of television comedy today, and in general it's a little weak. What are your thoughts on what's passing for television comedy these days?
MW: I am not that studious about current TV. I love that Bobby Brown show, I have a guilty pleasure about Entourage and probably the best thing in the last five years has been The Office (the original British version). It's just perfect. And another British one is Alan Partridge. It's a brilliant show.
IR: There's good stuff. The Simpsons. Arrested Development. The Office. There's good stuff, but the stuff that's bad is an imitation of an imitation of an imitation with a stupid dad and wisecracking kids. It's just so obviously dead and lifeless.
dOc: If you sit down to watch a movie at home, what genre are you going to gravitate towards?
MW: I would have to say lately it's documentaries. I just watched Cocksucker Blues, about the Rolling Stones. Grey Gardens, that's brilliant. I did just see Why Should The Devil Have All The Good Music, about Christian rock. It's pretty damn good. And Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man, which is out now, is really good, too.
IR: That's weird, but drama. Action-adventure. But usually my last choice is comedy. If I get highly recommended from people I respect, I'll go see a comedy, but I don't want to see most of the heavily advertised comedies. I think comedy is the hardest thing, because it's got something empirical that needs to happen. You need to have your diaphragm contract and expand air. You need to laugh. If you don't laugh, there's nothing. But with drama or action adventure you can go "the story was good" or "hey, that was exciting even if it didn't make sense", but with comedy, if that criteria isn't met, you've wasted your money. With that said, I enjoyed The Wedding Crashers and The 40 Year Old Virgin. It's the R-rated revolution.