Matt Besser is angry about some things. "People take toasting way too seriously," says Besser, "especially the clinking glasses part. There are always a few people who are seated too far away from each other to easily clink. I say just raising the glass suffices, but some people need to make sure that everyone clinks everyone else's glass -- like it's some NASA 'go/no go' situation, as if there is some rule that if everyone doesn't clink then the toast isn't true. It's not like we're trying to trick a genie."
Besser is sitting on the arm of a couch in the green room after a performance of his first one-man show, "May I Help You ... Dumbass?" at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in Manhattan. Besser, a founding member of the theater's eponymous improv comedy troupe, has built his show around the idea of irrational anger in our society.
"Don't invite me to a surprise birthday party," he says. "I don't have room for that secret. I've got enough real secrets I have to keep: dark, life-destroying secrets. Adultery, man-boy love, true hair color -- real serious shit. I don't need to carry around your stupid birthday secret for two weeks. I've got enough real lying and covering up to do."
Besser, a tall, skinny 33-year-old with a mop of curly brown hair suggesting a mad scientist, saunters onto the stage of the UCB Theatre wearing a black T-shirt. He sits at a desk piled high with electronic equipment and starts the show by playing a cut from the album "Two Sides of Leonard Nimoy," the cover of which features two opposing profiles of the "Star Trek" actor. Besser stares out at the crowd as Nimoy's voice recites a monotonous New Age chant about nature.
The crowd is younger than most that pack this theater -- the hippest of New York's comedy rooms, and home to the highest-quality improv in the city. It has been said that the UCB Theatre has done for New York what the Second City did for Chicago and the Groundlings did for Los Angeles. New York had never been a serious player in the world of improv, but Besser and his fellow Brigadiers -- Amy Poehler, Ian Roberts and Matt Walsh -- have changed that.
The Upright Citizens came to New York from Chicago in 1995, where they'd worked together at the Improv Olympic and Second City, some under the tutelage of Del Close, one of improvisational comedy's founding fathers. The foursome opened the theater in Manhattan and quickly got a deal to do a sketch show on Comedy Central; it ran for three seasons before being canceled last year. They're now concentrating on individual projects and working together on a movie script.
After a minute of Nimoy's soothing voice, Besser jumps out, screaming, from behind his desk. "That's what it's like to be cold-cocked," he tells his startled audience.
A little over a year ago, Besser explains, he was cold-cocked by life. One day, he and his girlfriend began getting phone calls from people asking for technical assistance with software they'd been given for free Internet connections. After interviewing some of the wrong numbers, Besser figured out that they (all fellow New Yorkers) were attempting to call a tech-support line based in Houston, and had all failed to dial a "1" before the area code.
Besser called the telephone company for help, but was told that it couldn't do anything about it and that he should change his number. ("Five years paying Manhattan rent prices has earned me my 212," Besser rants. "There's no way I was giving that up for a 646.") So he tried to reason with the Internet company that gave out the phone number. "They told me they'd put a bracket around the area code, but they wouldn't put a '1' in front of the number," he says.
So Besser did what any self-respecting comedian would do: He began fucking with people. "I would tell someone that they had the wrong number, but because [the Internet offer] was free, they wouldn't believe me," says Besser after the show. "They'd insist, 'But it says to call this number.' So I'd say, 'OK, you're right, give me your EPL number and your P8 code.'"
He recorded one of the calls (he was getting about a dozen each day -- many of them between midnight and 2 a.m.) and played it at a stand-up date. His audience howled, so he began to record the calls regularly, resulting in conversations like these:
Besser: Hi, what's your problem?
Male caller: My problem is I want to know whether these three numbers are local numbers ... When I set up my Internet service there were three numbers -- a main number, a secondary number and a third number in case you can't connect.
Besser: All right, do you have a pencil to write this down?
Caller: Um, yes.
Besser: [Heavy sigh] Your first number's called your main number.
Caller: Oh ... right.
Besser: All right? Your second number is called your F.C. number, favorite color number, OK?
Caller: [Obviously writing this down] Fa-vor-ite co-lor. OK. And the third?
Besser: That's called your cock-ring number.
Caller: Oh. How do you spell that?
Caller: R-i-n-g. OK.
Besser: That's your cock-ring number.
Caller: OK, so these are all local calls?
For a year, beginning in the spring of 2000, Besser recorded about 100 calls. For some callers he was a bad Jimmy Stewart imitator:
Female caller: I'm trying to get on the Barnes & Noble line and I can't get on.
Besser: [In a hoarse J.S. croak] Aaaahh -- you gotta be more specific, but we're gonna get through this. We're gonna turn this thing around.
For others he was Björk:
Male caller: I'm trying to get onto Barnes & Noble's Internet line and it just came on and it says my version of Microsoft Windows is not compatible and it said to call this number for further information.
Besser: [In a gentle, Icelandic squeak] Eeah ... are you trying to make a musical?
Caller: No, I'm just trying to get the Barnes & Noble Internet service.
And for still others, he was just really annoying:
Female caller: The, ah, you know, place where I, I just go online, and then it says, of course, invalid password.
Besser: [Sounding like a bored techie] Excuse me, ma'am, you've got to ask the question in the right manner, please.
Caller: [Now indignant] Oh, if I don't ask the right question, you're not going to help me register?
Besser: You have to ask me the question in the right manner or I don't know how to answer it, ma'am.
Caller: [Now condescending, and exaggerating her pronunciation] How do I register a user name and password, please. Do you understand that?
Caller: You don't?!
Besser: If you could just rephrase the question.
The exploration of anger in comedy isn't new. Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, Denis Leary and Nick DiPaolo have all done it to grand effect, and crank calls in particular have been around forever. What makes Besser's show different is that he has turned the traditional formula on its head. "I actually find prank CDs pretty annoying," says Besser, who has, indeed, produced a CD with 21 of his recordings. "Prank callers call someone up to bother them. But these people are calling me because they don't know to dial a '1' before they call outside of their own area code. These people are harassing me with their stupidity."
There's more to "May I Help You" than just Besser messing with people. He adopts the persona of a "vigilante of common sense" to thread the recordings and the show's other elements together. He reads from actual letters to the editor he's collected through the years, including one from a woman in Illinois who was furious about the poor quality of children's poetry printed in the pages of her local paper. For visual stimulation, cartoonist Peter Bagge was commissioned to render Besser's remarks and illustrate each of the recorded calls you hear in the show.
Since "May I Help You" opened, the company that ran the actual tech-support line has gone out of business, and Besser's callers have slowed down to an average of one a day. But he's still skewering deserving callers.
"The other day, a lady calls and insists that I'm tech support, so I start doing this terrible Asian accent thing," says Besser. "It was literally like, 'Chow chee cha. Ching chang chong. Bling bong hong.' But instead of hanging up, she was trying to figure out what technical help I'd just given her. I'd do these sounds, and she'd say, 'I'm sorry, do what with my tool bar?' She refused to believe I wasn't who she thought I was. She was trying to decipher my nonsense into some sort of help."
If you've ever raged against anything -- maybe it's the cable company, maybe it's air travel, maybe it's "Access Hollywood's" Pat O'Brien -- Besser's show lets you know it's OK to laugh at the many, many stupid people in the world. For example:
Besser: What's your area code?
Male caller: 212.
Besser: OK. [Sound of rapid typing on a keyboard] Do you celebrate Chanukah or Christmas?
Besser: [More rapid typing sounds] And would you like to have our free Chanukah gift?
Caller: Ah, no.
Besser: Is that because ... would you like our free Christmas gift?
Caller: No. All I want to do is try to get onto the Internet.
Besser: Would you like to register for the New Year's bottle of champagne?
Besser: Would you like to be a judge at the Cannabis Cup in Amsterdam?
Caller: Say that again.
Besser: Would you like to be a judge at the Cannabis Cup in Amsterdam? It's in the summer.
Besser: Until what age did you believe in Santa Claus?
Besser: What made you not believe in Santa Claus?
Caller: Wha ... What's this stuff?
Besser: I'm sorry, sir, I feel like that's why we're not on the same page here. This is tech support ...
Caller: Can we do whatever you said we could do before -- try to take me through the problem ...
Besser: I have to take you through the ...
Caller: The whole mess? I'll do it.
Caller: Six, I think, was the last answer.
Besser: Why did you stop believing in Santa Claus?
Caller: Because of friends.
Besser: Be more specific?
Caller: Other kids told me that it was a ... a fraud.
Besser: Do you believe in Jesus?
As the crowd files out of Besser's show, one short, stubby 13-year-old fan stays behind. He watches the comedian as he gathers his props into cardboard boxes.
"Matt?" he says haltingly. "Can I get a picture with you?"
Besser poses with the kid as an older guy takes their photo.
"I watch you on TV, and you're the reason I want to be a comedian," the kid says.
"Oh yeah?" Besser asks. He seems genuinely surprised. As Besser continues to clean up, the two banter about the other UCB members, and the kid tells Besser about his favorite UCB skit, "Grandmaster Dialectician." The kid is confident in his UCB knowledge, but clearly astonished to be in the same room as one of them. The conversation eventually comes to an end and the kid says goodbye, but, flustered, he starts running toward the back of the theater -- the opposite direction of the exit.
Besser calls him back. The kid returns to the front and Besser disappears backstage. When he returns he's carrying a couple of videotapes of the Comedy Central shows and an autographed photo. The kid looks up at Besser in some combination of gratitude and disbelief. Grabbing the stuff from Besser's hands, he mutters something and hightails it out the door.