UCB Comedy takes on Sasquatch Festival, and more

I caught up with Upright Citizens Brigade co-founders Matt Besser and Matt Walsh earlier today, or should I say, they caught up with me (thank you, telephones!). Don’t know how you’re spending your Memorial Day weekend, but Messrs. Besser and Walsh will be among the comedian contingent heading for the Gorge in George, Wash., for this weekend’s Sasquatch! Music Festival (the full comedy lineup includes Matt Besser, Matt Walsh, Horatio Sanz, Tim Meadows, Jerry Minor, Rich
Fulcher, and Sean Conroy / Brian Posehn / Michael Ian Black / Michael
Showalter / Eugene Mirman / Morgan Murphy / Marc Maron / Reggie Watts /
People’s Republic of Komedy featuring:
Andy Haynes, Kevin Hyder, Aziza Diaz, Derek Sheen, and Andy Peters /
Seattle School featuring: Mike Min, Korby Sears, and Liza Keckler).

The Gorge routinely wins honors as the best natural outdoor amphitheater from industry watchers such as Pollstar, and for good reason: The main stage has the Columbia River gorge and the setting sun as its backdrop. Been there and done that. Good times. But I hadn’t seen comedy there before. Sasquatch has a separate comedy tent at the top of the hill. Enough with the logistics, though. Let’s get to my interviews with Matt Besser and Matt Walsh about this weekend’s festival, their still relatively new UCB Comedy website, and the upcoming 10th anniversary of the Del Close Marathon in New York City this summer.

Will you guys be camping out on the grounds at the Gorge with everyone else?

Walsh: "They’ve got RVs set up for us…We’ll probably be writing bits right when we get there."

With multiple shows on Saturday and Sunday, how do you pace yourselves to make sure you’ve got enough funny to go around?

Besser: "Like a marathon? We’ll have people standing next to the stage with Gatorade. I won’t bother going to the bathroom, if that’s what you mean. Yeah, we’ll pace ourselves. But no. I think I can sprint. If Chappelle can do it all in one night, we can certainly do it as a group. Am I right?"

Walsh: "Don’t get too high. Or drunk. No. I think the bits are written. I think because it’s interactive, a lot of it is presentational. We’ll be addressing the audience. Guest artists will come on."

How is performing at a festival, or even any larger venue, different from the audiences at the UCB’s theaters in New York and Los Angeles?

Walsh: "It’s challenging, because it’s a big audience. It’s more akin to stand-up, addressing the audience. But they’re not in a fictional world. We’re onstage. At a huge concert. We’re not asking 20,000 people to suspend their disbelief that we’re in a Starbucks."

Besser: "When you do a festival like this, you’re drawing people who have zero knowledge of who you are. The first time we did a music festival like this, it was a Gathering of the Vibes, kind of jam-band festival, I’d say a good portion of the crowd had no idea who we were. This dude yelled out, ‘Hey dude, where’s your guitar!’ We thought he was playing with us but he was serious…I guess."

That sounds a lot like the inspiration for the sketch you guys did at this year’s SXSW festival in Austin, right?

Let’s watch that sketch!

Besser: "Yes. South by Southwest. What was weird about that night. I actually had a guy in the venue who worked there try to kick me out. Four or five lines into the sketch, he walks up and pats me on the shoulder, saying, ‘Hey, c’mon, you got to go.’ He’s saying this into my ear. ‘Alright, buddy, we’ve had enough.’ And I’m trying to explain I’m doing a bit without letting everyone hear me! Are my lines too clever?…And then even when I do get onstage, there’s one girl, when I say ‘Comedy’s easy,’ Walsh’s next line is supposed to be, ‘If it’s so easy, why don’t you try it,’ but this girl in the audience says it, ‘If it’s so easy, why don’t you try it?’ There’s that interesting aspect of people who aren’t used to whatever, breaking that fourth wall, that we do."

Walsh says you may expect to see similar things this weekend. "I think some of the things we’re going to incorporate will be organic to that (music festival) atmosphere," he says.

Why do more and more music festivals (Bonnaroo, SXSW, Coachella, etc.) want to include comedy into their formulas?

Walsh: "I suppose, one, it’s worked before…I would presume they want to attract a wider audience. And there’s a lot of down time so they want to entertain audiences while they’re in between bands, so it’s a simple thing to include comedy. So basically, we’re the intermission entertainment."

Besser: "They don’t always work on the same stage, one after the
other, that can be rough. But giving them a separate tent, where they can get a
break from a full day of music, that can work."

Earlier this year, they also launched UCBComedy.com as "a third stage" for the many performers who now make up the UCB collective at their first two actual stages in New York City and Los Angeles.

Walsh: "It’s an opportunity to give them an outlet for their ideas. It’s just an extension of the brand. We want to be a network. We want to program things. We’ve got the two theaters in New York and Los Angeles. To program a Website is a logical next step…The truth of it is, there’s so much more video in live shows anyway. That’s one thing we’ve found in Los Angeles."

Besser says two things set UCB’s comedy site apart from the other online comedy video sites: 1) live clips from UCB shows, and the fact that they don’t allow people outside of the UCB to upload clips.

Besser: "That’s our whole philosophy to the site. It’s our third stage. It’s not open to anyone to upload…It’s another way for them to showcase themselves and get their stuff out there. And it’s great. Especially if you don’t live in a big city, to experience these shows."

One thing I’ve noticed from comedy fans is that they increasingly go online immediately in search of clips and reviews of shows they’ve just seen themselves. Have you noticed any of that with uploading clips of live UCB shows?

Besser: "To get footage that’s cut the next day, is impossible, unless you’re a full-scale production…Some people are big fans and will watch a one-camera feed for 30 minutes, but not everyone."

Any other feedback?

Walsh: "People really like it. Unfortunately, things with bikini-clad women get more hits, because those images in clips have more appeal with young men…there’s great variety, though. Clips from live shows. We’ve figured out how to shoot them really well, like a Comedy Central special, so they appear really well."

How was working on the HBO pilot for David’s Situation with Bob Odenkirk and David Cross?

Besser: "That was great. Besides working with Bob and David, who are geniuses. Eric Hoffman is who I started doing, back in Chicago, when I was doing sketches for the first time, I was doing them with him and Walsh, Bean Can Tour, ever Friday night. So that was a reunion. But the show itself is crazy. Like The Young Ones."

Do you think it’s an automatic go because of Bob and David’s past history with HBO and Mr. Show, or do you still need to wait by the phone? Besser laughs.

Besser: "I would never say anything like that one way or the other. I am not that high up in the process."

In August, you guys will come back to New York City for the 10th anniversary of the Del Close Marathon. Anything special up your sleeves?

Besser: "It’s just more and bigger, really…Kim Howard Johnson, who wrote the Del Close book this year. It’s a really great book, and the festival is all about him, so Kim is going to start it off first with a panel…that will be special and neat."

Walsh: "There’s talk of a Carnegie Hall show, and the marathon itself is a physical task in itself. It’s literally 70 hours of endurance. All of us will do 5 or 10 shows…We get people from all over the country to see what other sketch performers are doing, so it’s great for the performers, too. It makes it a real festival."

Had you ever thought about setting a world record from Del Close? The Comic Strip Live in New York says it vows to set an official Guinness World Record in June with a 50-hour stand-up show.

Besser: "Hadn’t thought about it." Laughs. "Totally, it’s been 72. Man, that’s your article. Get the real record!"

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

View all posts by Sean L. McCarthy →