Matt Besser has done all there is to do in comedy, but ask him and he’ll tell you about a life that could have been as a musician. In Stolen Idea, a new punk rock comedy musical that Besser co-created for Stitcher Premium, he gets the chance to live out that fantasy and continue to weave together his joint first loves. Besser co-wrote and produced the musical in collaboration with his lifelong best friend Bobby Matthews as well as Earwolf’s head engineer Brett Morris, and the cast is a who’s who of comedic voices including James Adomian, John Gemberling, Paul Rust, Scott Aukerman, Mike Cassady, Harris Wittels, and Besser and Matthews’ wives, Danielle Schneider and Virginia Matthews. I spoke with Besser following the drop of the first episode in the three-part series about the time it takes to produce a musical, the difference between joke theft and riff theft, and the sometimes paranoid, sometimes open-and-shut experiences that informed this pointed release.
Congratulations on the launch! What’s the response been like so far?
Over social media, it’s been pretty positive, I guess. We questioned whether we should release it all at once or three acts and we did it in three acts. I don’t know part of me is, like, “I just want everybody to hear it all at once,” but I guess you might build more talk if you spread it out a little bit.
I was reading a recent interview you did with us and you said you didn’t learn how to play an instrument until Walk Hard but that you would have pursued music if you had learned earlier in life. How much of Stolen Idea has been wish fulfillment?
Yeah! It’s that a lot, actually, probably in more ways than you might even know. The guy I collaborate with, Bobby Matthews, I grew up with him. He’s my best friend since high school – or one of many best friends who were in this band called Trusty, which was a legitimate punk band on Dischord Records. Before they were legitimate we all had this common love of punk music and being in a band, and then we all tried out this band I started called Dogs Like Spot. It was like Beastie Boys-meets-punk-meets-comedy, and I think the end result was it was a little too comedic. It was a little too funny. [laughs] Meaning too corny, really. So that band didn’t last too long, and those guys ended up becoming a legitimate punk band and, I guess, I became a legitimate comedian. But this is us many years later, collaborating. This is my second musical – we did Freak Dance a few years ago – so I’ve gotten my musical ya-yas out, but being able to do something on the punk rock side of things is really cool, and we parodied a couple of my favorite punk bands in the musical. The obvious one being Minor Threat. We do a whole medley of Minor Threat songs. And then the song Harris [Wittels] sings, it’s called “Mirandized,” it’s basically a parody of this Millions of Dead Cops song called “I Remember.” That’s a deep cut for punks my age. That was definitely a fantasy fulfilled.
Obviously, you’re an influencer in improv and and sketch and, if I may say so, you have a great taste in”legitimate” music. Do you follow comedy musicians much? Who are your comedy music influences? What did you learn from branching out into that?
That’s funny, because I would have to say I don’t have any [musical] comedy influences. I like musicals that are sometimes comedic, but I haven’t even seen the Monty Python musical and I’m a huge Monty Python fan. And even though this is comedic, I’m not even sure if being funny was the number one goal. It was more to explore the whole idea of stealing ideas. I haven’t even thought of it that way until you just asked that question.
Do you remember the first time that you had an idea stolen?
Yeah. The first big one, definitely. And sometimes you don’t know for sure, you just have an inkling. You’re like, “Hey, wait a minute.” Especially when you’re starting out and doing anything that’s in the general zeitgeist of society, you should maybe have second thoughts when you claim someone’s stealing your bit if it’s just topical. But if it’s something that’s not topical and a little more unique and you have a notion but you can’t prove it, you can make yourself feel like you’re crazy. And then there are some things that you know for sure. I don’t want to dig up old controversies but yeah, I’ve had some people steal and then admit that they stole, even, and then apologize for it. More infamously, that Twitter aggregate guy, the Fat Jew – is it the Fat Jew or the Fat Jewish? You know who I’m talking about.
I think he goes by both.
He stole one of my first tweets, oddly enough. I think it was my seventh tweet I ever did that he stole. At the time I didn’t even think about it, but then when it became a big controversy I was like, “Oh, yeah, that guy did steal my bit.” It’s almost kind of satisfying when you get direct proof that someone stole your bit. It makes the times you had the paranoid suspicion feel less crazy.
On the other hand, in Stolen Idea you do a lot of humanizing of the musician. When he steals the song from Coldplay he’s doing that for his family and his future.
Yeah, I think he kind of ends up regretting it, too. I don’t think I’ve ever had a conversation with a comedian who stole except for when it’s been in anger. It hasn’t been like, “Hey, why do you, psychologically, think you did that?” The ones I can think of were all young and desperate and they had to go feed their family a piece of bread, you know? But when you hear about musicians sometimes it’s a little easier to understand. It’s not like I excuse it, but at least I can see how it happens. The band that’s running out of hits decides to steal someone else’s riff. Led Zeppelin was more egregious because they just did it so much. And then there’s also the whole phenomenon of stealing and not knowing you’re stealing. It’s just in your subconscious. I can buy that happens a lot, too. More recently, that song “Uptown Funk,” that Bruno Mars song, has been sued by two or three different musicians for different parts of the song. Like, “This part of the song you directly took from us.” And I totally buy that when you hear it. And once you buy that that guy’s stolen one lick or riff or whatever, then why shouldn’t I buy that you stole four others on that one song if he’s going to steal one? So I kind of buy it. It’s fascinating. That guy’s definitely not desperate, that producer.
So why do you think that musicians can kind of get further with stealing? What is it about comedy that makes it feel more protected?
I think it’s easier to prove in comedy, maybe. I think most comedians would agree with me that you know it when you hear it. The Conan O’Brien show’s been accused of stealing – the writer’s room – of stealing jokes from a Twitter guy, and those just seem like absurd accusations because they’re all completely topical. You can completely see a writer’s room stumbling into those similar jokes. Other things you hear and you’re, like, “No, there’s too many levels to that joke, it couldn’t happen. There’s too much coincidence there. I can’t buy that those standups would both have that many levels to that same joke.” Especially when you hear a wordplay joke – are you kidding me? Anyone can come up with one of those twisty-turny wordplay jokes that are two sentences long. But when you hear a bit that goes on for a while that’s like a five-minute bit and it’s very similar, you’re like, “Hmm…”
You talk about taking on the essence of musicians and jokes in Stolen Idea. How would you describe the essence of the album?
The essence of Stolen Idea, wow. [laughs] Well, that’s interesting. For a lot of the songs, of course on purpose, we took on the essence of other bands. “It’s not a direct parody,” I would say to Bobby. Like on the song “Alex Bell Stole My Shit.” We talk about Alex Bell stealing Elijah Grey’s idea. When we put that song together I said to Bobby, “I want this song to sound like a Shellac song,” Steve Albini’s band. So in essence we’re stealing their essence. Directly, I’m saying, “Steal their essence for that song. I want it to sound exactly like that.” I don’t know if we achieved that. But I would say the other fifty percent of songs were just totally original and aren’t based on anyone’s essence. So what does that mean about the entire show? I don’t know. You’ll have to come up with that, I guess. I don’t know. You’ll have to tell me.
I’m sure I can figure something out.
As for the dialogue, how much of that is scripted? Some of those, especially your argument with Paul Rust, seem like you were playing around.
Yeah, that piece, which we recorded live on stage at the UCB, was the most improvised. Most of the rest of the show is not improvised at all. We did that on stage. That’s the scene where he’s the young comic who has stolen my essence and basically stolen one of my bits and he’s doing better with it. And then the final argument between the musician who’s stolen a song and me, the comedian who’s had a bit stolen – we didn’t exactly improvise it, but we kind of beat-ed it out: “Let’s talk about Led Zeppelin stealing the ‘Stairway to Heaven’ bit. Let’s talk about that here and have it lead into the next point.” Because those are all arguments that people have had on both sides of this issue, so we tried to cover the logic and emotion that goes with both sides of stealing an idea and having an idea stolen – the same arguments they use in court when they try to get out of having to pay for the ideas they’ve stolen.
Scripted musical comedy with the level of production that you have in this is not what most people think about when they think about podcasts. I was wondering if you had any wisdom that you could impart about that process to people who might have an idea of their own.
Yeah. Well, there’s two sides to it. One: it’s hard to produce a musical, period. To put it on stage, having done that myself on a really small scale and knowing how much trouble it is, it’s a little easier to do it this way, digitally in the form of a podcast. That being said, the other side is it’s taken us years to make it, to mix it right, and not have it sound half-assed. That’s all credit to Brett Morris, the sound engineer who I’ve worked with for years on improv4humans. He did a great job recording our musicians on the show. He’s just a stud and did a great job of mixing this, but it’s a long process. So if you want to put up a musical idea, it’s a great place to do it, but it might take a while.
You mentioned Brett Morris, and Earwolf fans at least know him from improv4humans and Who Charted? and Hollywood Handbook. What were you looking for when you brought him in to play and produce?
Well, I was already a fan of his from our music episodes. It just felt like a natural fit. But when he became more truly a producer who added a vision was with Bobby, just coming up with all the arrangements and instrumentation of all the songs. There’s some songs, like the one that’s called “My Sweet Chord,” the one that John Gemberling sings. Listen to that one a few times. There’s just so… it’s so many instruments! Such great orchestration on that song. So many different songs being parodied in that song. It really built over time. That’s an example of a song we’ve had recorded for a couple years but it’s still gotten better over those couple years from Brett just adding stuff. Like, “Hey, why don’t we put that George Harrison ukulele right there?” “Yeah, that’d sound great, let’s do that!” That kind of thing makes a song better but makes it take so long overall.
There’s a surprising posthumous cameo by Harris Wittels in the third act. How does it feel to finally be releasing a hidden little character from him after all this time?
It’s very emotional. We recorded that probably in the fall of 2014, and I’m pretty sure it’s the last time I saw Harris, when we recorded this. I might have seen him one more time. But it’s definitely my last memory of being with him. So it’s very odd – very odd – but I guess also cool that he’s still performing with us. [laughs] You know, it’s great to get another [chance] to hear Harris again.
Noah Jacobs is a writer, podcaster, and mark who lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota.