"We go to really dark, awful places": "Veep" star Matt Walsh on improv, political humor and the early days of the Upright Citizens Brigade

Long before "Veep," Walsh was one of the founders of a group that forever changed the comedy landscape

Published April 10, 2015 11:00PM (EDT)

Matt Walsh on "Veep"        (HBO/Paul Schiraldi)
Matt Walsh on "Veep" (HBO/Paul Schiraldi)

To a lot of people, Matt Walsh is best-known for his role on “Veep" -- as the schlubby, lovable press secretary Mike McLintock -- or for his countless film and TV appearances. But for people who care about comedy, Walsh is something of a living legend: As one of the founders of the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater, alongside Amy Poehler, Ian Roberts and Matt Besser, Walsh helped establish improv in New York, train a new generation of comedic stars -- UCB alums include Ellie Kemper, Ed Helms, Aziz Ansari, Nick Kroll, "Broad City"'s Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson, "SNL's" Bobby Moynihan and Kate McKinnon, and countless others -- and usher in what Vulture recently dubbed "the second comedy boom."

After relocating from Chicago in the late '90s, the UCB founded its first New York theater in a grungy defunct strip club on West 22nd Street (Walsh lived above it, on the top floor of a four-story walkup). Since then, it has morphed into the most famous improv training center in the country, with four locations in New York and L.A., and thousands of students eager to seek training in the method that Walsh, Poehler, Besser and Roberts pioneered.

Walsh is a Chicago native based in Los Angeles, but he lived in New York for many years, and he's clearly still got a little bit of the city in him. When we met up the morning after “Veep’s" New York premiere, he steered me to a midtown diner where he ordered a reuben sandwich and some navy bean soup, and we settled in to discuss "Veep," political humor, his new movie, and the state of the theater that he built. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

When you first got the script for "Veep," did you realize how good it was?

I think the pedigree was excellent. Obviously Julia’s amazing. And Armando [Iannucci], he did “Alan Partridge,” which I loved, and he did “In the Loop,” so he was affiliated with a lot of cool projects that I knew about so I was very excited to do it. And then when I read it, I did think the script was amazing. And fortunately I got it after four or five auditions.

You auditioned with Allison Jones, right? There was a huge piece about her in the New Yorker recently

Yeah, she remembered me. She knows the UCB community. But I’ve known her only when I lived in L.A. In my first audition, she was very helpful, because I did it once and she was like: "I think you should just improvise." She knows I can improvise and she said, I think that’s what they want. Had she not coached me away from just doing the written version, I may have not caught Armando’s eyes. So she was very helpful in that moment.

I've heard you slept in your suit to prepare for the audition.

I really did. There are very few roles that I’m willing to go crazy for, and this was one I was going crazy for. I was probably three auditions in and I had a couple more, and the script says in the scene that he’s been up all night and had been working and he’s a very disheveled guy -- so I slept in my suit.

Did you get to inform the direction of the Mike character a lot?

Yeah, I think so. Because they were drawing up American characters, we rehearsed from the beginning. We would do these rehearsal scenes in the pilot and the first season, and I think they saw what our strengths were and they would start to write to our strengths. So I think it was a collaborative effort from the get-go. Especially, I think there was a bit of a divide between American-English and British-English, and I think they wanted to learn how each character talked. Even though Armando knew the structure and what was necessary in the roles, I think he was receptive to discovering more information about each character. Very influential rehearsal process. And still, to this day, every script we'll table read it and then we'll put down the script and improvise scenes that we just read, or we'll pitch ideas.

How much of the script is improvised now?

On the actual day, very little improv happens. In that process, the writers are in the room and they write things down, sometimes things we say. They're taking notes, what appeals to them, basically, or what’s been working. And then the next draft reflects a lot of what we discovered in the rehearsal. So on the day, you can always pitch a joke, like if you’re doing a scene where it’s a ribbon cutting at a school and you want to screw up your hand with the scissors or something, you can always pitch bits, but you are basically trying to execute what they’ve [written]. They rewrite tirelessly. Their work ethic is incredible. The Brits never get tired. They’re constantly rewriting.

Like Mike. He's always rewriting. Not always to great effect, as we'll see in the first episode.

The speech? Spilling coffee on his speech. And what I have in common with Mike is I am a truly messy person. I don’t eat as much as Mike, but I definitely always spill coffee on myself every day, and Julia was like, "You should do that."

It’s a fun character because almost everyone else on that show is so driven and cutthroat, and Mike, you’re kind of like “how did he get here?”

I think he befriended Selina when she was a rookie and they’ve been loyal to each other forever and I think they share a lot of common interests about issues. I think they’re in each other’s camp. But I think he got lucky that he hitched his wagon to the right horse, and he’ll stay with her forever. He’s very loyal and I think she appreciates having loyal people, even though they’re incompetent. I think everybody around her is a buffoon.

What sort of antics can we expect from this season?

I think because she’s president, the stakes are higher. Just seeing her by the nuclear devices is not good. She makes us nervous. But, yeah, it’s basically about -- she can’t relax because she inherited a five-month, or six-month, presidency, and then she’s got to campaign when she gets in office. So there’s no comfort at all. She’s hectically campaigning, she’s trying to run the world. And it's also bigger because each character is sort of spun off on their own journey because we have less time around her. She’s constantly insulated by Secret Service and chiefs of staff and heads of state, so we have less face-time with her. So you see more of our worlds as well, which is really interesting. And truly, every room she walks into has a real decision that has to get made that has worldwide implications, so it’s crazy.

There was an article in the Atlantic recently that was talking about how the Americans are just generally not as great at political satire, partly because there’s still a "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington"-esque idealism about politics.

Yes, like "The West Wing." Very idealistic, yes.

Exactly. Whereas in Britain, which is where I grew up, there's no such reverence.

I do love the House of Lords, where they heckle. I think in many ways it's healthier over there. They also don’t have the celebrity of politicians. I don't think politicians are celebrities over there, they’re just constantly being whipped down.

They're just, like, assholes.

They're just boring assholes.

That’s a level of meanness to "The Thick of It" [the British show that "Veep" was based on] that doesn't quite exist in "Veep." There's no Malcolm character, for instance. Do you feel that maybe that’s out of a desire to cater to American audiences who aren’t used to the sort of darkness and bleakness of some British comedy?

I think the fact that there’s no Malcolm on “Veep” is probably based on Armando’s intuition of what he has in front of him. I think there’s no character that fulfills the role. In “Veep” there’s really no enemy that we’re constantly battling against. There’s no bad guy. We’re our own enemies. So the structure’s different. There’s no heavy, there’s no Darth Vader character, if you will. There’s only the hero and her team. I don’t think it struck him. I think it was a possibility in the pilot, because it was mean, and every episode has great cut-downs. Those haven’t gone away.

I mean, Jonah serves as an antagonist, but he's hardly a villain.

He’s incompetent, yeah. He’s lovable. He’s much softer than Malcolm. He’s so transparently insecure.

I know you guys improvise and workshop, but you are probably, I would imagine, the most experienced improviser on the set. Do you feel people defer to you at all? Do you teach people improv tricks?

I think some people in the beginning were asking, How do I improvise, because they were true actors and they hadn’t done it. But in truth at this point, everybody just owns their character so well. You’re just improvising from a point of view. So it’s like you’re just playing a character and you know how that guy sees the world, so you just say things. And then you also know these other characters. So you’re not creating anything at all, it’s not like getting a suggestion and saying, "we take you now to this diner," and you and I do a diner scene. It’s like, no, you’re Jonah, you’re Mike, you’re Dan, you’re stuck in a limo, Jonah forgot to charge the phone -- you know where it’s going to go. We’re going to make fun of Jonah, Mike will screw something up, Dan will sell us out at the drop of a hat. So there’s character traits that we own, and so you just commit to that point of view. It’s not pure improv, but it’s character improv.

What distinctive attitude does Armando bring to the set as showrunner?

He’s very calm, very jovial, casual. He can yell occasionally if people are too loud, not yell but ... he’s not a pushover really. He calls himself a benevolent dictator. He is a kind person. And he’s very generous. But I think what’s unique about him is that he's very receptive to best idea, no matter where it comes from. There’s no hierarchy in the writing process. You can pitch ideas or he doesn’t feel beholden to anything because of where it came from or who spoke it, which is really cool. I think he keeps it light and likes it sort of raw and jagged. He prefers that reality that’s not too rehearsed. And I think that informs the performance of the show.

It’s exciting that you guys are going to have Hugh Laurie on the show because he’s such a veteran comic as well.

I was a big fan of “House,” I loved that show. I was a little star-struck, a little fannish, but at some point I did have to ask some questions about “House,” like, "do you think after doing that show for nine or 10 years, you could actually, in an emergency situation, help people, maybe save a life?" And he said, "No, absolutely not."

UCB comics are everywhere right now. Every major sitcom seems to have them -- Ellie Kemper, Zach Woods, Aubrey Plaza, Ed Helms, Rob Corddry, Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson, I could keep going and going. Do you feel, in any way, a paternal pride? Do you feel like you helped create this?

The ones I know ... I was probably a senior when Ellie was a freshman; I don’t really know Ellie that well. I don’t feel responsible for people’s success. But the generation that I perhaps caught when I landed in New York in '96, people like Paul Scheer, Rob Huebel and Andy Daly; we’re all friends now. It’s not like I feel like they’re students, but those people I know, and I feel very familiar with their lives so ... But when somebody comes out of UCB, I’m very proud that they grew up at UCB. Yeah, I am. But I don’t take any ownership of their success. They were probably talented and had they not found UCB they might have succeeded somewhere else.

Do you think there is something distinctive, in terms of method or style, that UCB grads share?

I think UCB is the best training. Obviously we wrote a book and were very proud of the book, but Sam ["Veep" cast-member Sam Richardson] is from Second City and he’s as hilarious as anybody I know. And he didn’t study at UCB. So I think the skills that you learn at UCB are like -- it really hammers home the listening, and playing to the top of your intelligence, playing things real. We're big on committing to the realities you’ve created. But, I mean, obviously there’s crossover with different programs, but I do believe we have the best training center. I stand by our curriculum over anybody’s at this point.

UCB has four theaters now and it's gotten extremely popular, but I know there is frustration among some students and performers with how mainstream it's gotten. Is there any sort of nostalgia for the old days?

Well, I think maybe in some ways when we were struggling in to fill our new theater in New York with seven nights a week of performances, I think weirder shows were able to happen, sometimes offending audiences, or more dangerous shows. So I think I might be a little nostalgic for the craziness of that. But in truth, the reason we opened a new theater in L.A. is to afford, you know, we have three stages in L.A., we have two in New York. I don’t think we wave a carrot and say “you can get on 'SNL'” or "you will get on a UCB team" if you take classes. I guess the big numbers maybe make it more challenging for people to get onstage, sure, but the only thing I get sort of nostalgic for is the oddballs that could possible have gotten onstage in the early days. Now, there’s just too much demand for those spaces. Tightly rehearsed shows would probably win out over somebody’s crazy idea.

I used to live above our old theater on 22nd Street, on the top floor, it was a four-story New York apartment. I had a great, cheap apartment. But it was weird living above the theater.

I bet. I used to go to the newer theater a lot, on 26th Street. It's very grungy, leaky pipes and all that.

It’s like a punk rock vibe, yeah.

Can you tell me a little bit about your new film ["A Better You," starring UCB-er Brian Huskey]? I know it's making the festival rounds.

Brian Huskey plays a hypnotherapist. L.A.’s big on alternative therapy. Like in New York or Chicago, if you’re not feeling right you’d see a doctor or maybe a psychiatrist. In L.A., you got to a Reiki therapist, you go to a hypnotist, you get a personal trainer or life coach. So it’s sort of an exploration of that world and it's a character comedy. Brian plays a hypnotherapist, who’s treating people for everything from somebody wants to be faithful to their girlfriend so they want to be hypnotized, to somebody who doesn’t want to stutter because they’re a voice-over artist, in addition to a lot of smoking patients, who want to quit smoking, which is, truthfully, I think, what most hypnotherapists are for. But it’s an improvised comedy.

So when you say “improvised comedy,” do you have a script and then you improvise off it or how does that work? 

It’s an outline with like three paragraphs under every scene. Each scene should have a comedic context or kind of the rules of that scene. For example, you know if somebody’s at a bar and they’re going to order a drink called a Russian Hooker, you can improvise other drink names. So that's not hilarious, but at least there’s something comic to explore. So you make sure that that’s on the page. And you also track the emotional arc of the character, and then the basics of who's there and when they come in.

This is the second one I’ve done [2011's "High Road"]. You always improvise for a week beforehand, get to know the world, all the back story that you’ll never see on camera, get the main characters together. And then they understand the tone we’re shooting for and they understand the history of the people in the movie. And then you just shoot it, you get in there, you shoot it wide, you rehearse the heck out of it before you roll, kind of shoot it wide and safe. And then once you think you have it nailed, you don’t necessarily on successive takes try to create brand-new jokes. It’s like -- that’s perfect. That’s funny and that’s the scene. And then you just go in for coverage, and if you discover something that wasn’t in the outline, you chase that, as long as it’s -- the discipline is don’t chase things that aren’t in the story. Sometimes in movies, people will improvise 50 names for “penis” or for “blow job,” and that doesn’t serve the story. So you don’t chase those things.

I remember that you also played a therapist in a movie with Ian Roberts, "Martin and Orloff." Was mental health an alternate career for you?

I was a psych major in college and took post-graduate work in Chicago to be a psychologist, and then I worked on a psych ward for three years with disturbed adolescents. It was intense. And then I realized I couldn’t handle it. Too much.

Not to draw what might be a silly connection, but do you feel that your time working in therapy, dealing with people, might contribute to making you a better listener and a better performer?

I don’t know. I really don’t. I don’t know if I've used it. It’s like one of those majors, people say, wow, it must have come in handy, and acting and improv, it’s like ... I don’t really know. It’s almost like a hobby of mine or a personal obsession. I like the world of illness and I like the idea of treating people and helping them get better, of course. That’s a wonderful profession.

Did you read the New Yorker story by Michael Pollan about giving hallucinogens to terminal cancer patients? It was really fascinating.

I will read that one! I’m behind on my New Yorkers. I do get it. But there’s also like, for post-traumatic stress, molly, they give people molly and it works. I totally buy into that if it’s controlled and you’re taking them on a journey. People have always said, "I took acid once and it changed my life," especially if the doctor's administering it and controlling it. I think that’s absolutely possible that it would help people.

Totally. And I think the scientific establishment is starting to come around to these sorts of therapies, now that some of the drug war panic has died down. I should qualify that this is not my area of expertise.

Well, even getting high for cancer ... pot’s legal in California, basically legal. You just get a card. But, I mean, I was talking to my aunt about it because she has arthritis and she’s the last person in the world who I would ever think about getting high. She’s like a sweet, conservative older woman. And like, absolutely you should be getting high, it would totally make you feel better.

Give it a try, right? As a group, is the UCB still in touch, do they still collaborate, or is everyone sort of doing their own thing?

We do collaborate. We’ve made a couple of improv specials of ASSSSCAT over the years. We still help run the theaters, not run it physically, but we keep tabs, go to meetings, make sure things are good. In L.A. we’re starting to consider getting some projects going, not with us four in it, but trying to develop as opposed to, you know, talented people are in the field already, so why can’t we produce them. Why can’t we go to NBC and say, [here you go].

Yeah, like Amy did with "Broad City."


There’s such a big talent pool.

And like you, we know who’s funny.

I remember seeing Jack McBrayer [Kenneth on “30 Rock”] do improv and being like, man, someone’s got to give that guy something to do.

Yes! Those people are right now performing in New York and in L.A. I could walk into a room and see a show and like, “That guy could be on a sitcom."

On thing that David Cross [who directed Walsh in his recent … “Hits”] said when I interviewed him was that he not a fan of YouTube culture, because comedians nowadays don’t have to work as hard as comics of your generation did. Do you think that’s true?

I can’t speak to stand-up. I did stand-up for a few years in Chicago, but I was never great at it. But I do feel like there’s a way of jumping the line now, if you make a YouTube channel for yourself and you get a million viewers and basically you’re in your own bedroom, just ordering pizzas, but doing comedy -- you’ve leaped over that hitting the boards training, that working with a live audience, that feeling of a room. And certainly for sketch, that collaborative feeling that comes getting your chops, if you will. I think that’s invaluable, obviously in stand-up, but also in sketch and improv. I think it takes years to get comfortable and confident and know how to deal with anything.

Do you think that “SNL" is still important as an institution for comics to pass through?

Absolutely. That’s a huge springboard and they’re always relevant if they dial into the right issue and get the right host, they’re back in it. That’s a tremendous break for anybody, absolutely, a huge show.

There are a lot of UCB guys on it now, Bobby Moynihan….

Sasheer Zamata, she was on Doppelgangers, if you ever saw that. There’s a few. And Kate McKinnon is amazing. She does Bieber. She’s amazing. She’s fucking hilarious.

And she’s going to be in “Ghostbusters.”

She is so goddamn funny.

I wanted to ask finally about the recent Trevor Noah Twitter controversy. A lot of comics came to his defense, saying that Twitter is like a training ground and that a comic shouldn’t be judged based on a few bad jokes, because you have to fail in order to be funny. Do you think in the age where there are cellphone cameras and where everything is recorded online, and with the Internet allowing for easy outrage -- is that stifling experimentation in comedy?

I think for stand-up it is. I do think that is true for stand-ups, because there've been many instances where people are being punished for failed attempts at comedy, which is kind of unfair, because there has to be that playground and that space to fail. I don’t think it affects improv as much, for whatever reason people tend not to film it, or you’re not publishing albums of improv or whatever. So, yeah, I do believe artists need to have a safe space where they can fail. I don’t know these people, what their beliefs are ... I think we’ve all said things that we probably didn’t mean that were perceived [negatively]. And it’s unfortunate that they’re on Twitter, but I guess that’s why you don’t tweet when you’re drunk, because you'll be held accountable for that.

Do you think that a culture of extreme political correctness, of policing what is and what isn’t OK to joke about, is harmful to comedy?

What do I want to say about this issue? I don’t know. To me, I can only speak about sketch and improv, and like, I feel we go to really dark, awful places, and we do trade awful ideas all the time. But there is like, if it’s incessant, you keep repeating it, then you probably believe it. But there has to be room for people to go after any subject matter.

By Anna Silman

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