A founding member of the Upright Citizen’s Brigade, Matt Walsh is constantly popping up in comedies, especially those by friend and frequent collaborator Todd Phillips, to steal an improvised scene or two. But lately, he has been getting a lot more face time — and with the vice-president (as played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus) — on HBO’s Veep. On top of that, he recently wrote and directed what might be the first true improv movie, High Road, in history. So we thought it was high time to check in with the comedian about his movie, the show, and how he came up with his character’s fake dog.
Why are you in Chicago at the moment?
I’m in a hotel room awaiting the premiere of High Road, along with James Pumphrey, Zach Woods, and Lizzy Caplan.
I thought it was already on DVD?
It’s an indie, and we’re very disorganized. [Laughs.] We’re having a few major screenings where we’re showing it on the big screen.
It’s an improvised script. How did that work out?
Josh Weiner and I came up with a script with, like, 75 detailed scenes, each with a two-paragraph description and an emotional arc. We did two weeks of rehearsal for the scenes to help discover the tone and the backstories, which would never actually be in the movie but could be shorthand during the process. Everyone pitched lines and jokes. It meant that we shared responsibility with the actors.
Did you pick up any tips from Todd Philips or any other directors you’ve worked with?
Todd is one of the reasons I wanted to direct an improv movie. He really knows the value of keeping it loose and trying things. He can see things that might have been funny on the page, and realize we need a different exchange instead. Like the line my doctor character says in The Hangover? Todd said, “We need something here,” and he came up with the line, “It’s at the corner of get a map and fuck off.”
Would you want to write and direct another structured improv movie?
I would. I’m writing a movie about a counselor at Northwestern, and the working title is 20 Somebodies. I thought I wanted to be a psychologist, and I think this experience is pretty common, where you think you know what you want to do right out of college, and you’re prepared to commit to this thing, whether it be finance or accounting or psychology. Then you get your first job, and it’s the worst job in the world. Although I do use some of my psychology training in comedy, but it’s more like pop psychology, not a course of treatment or anything. To me, it’s more like social intelligence.
How much improv does Armando Iannucci let you guys do on Veep?
Armando’s stuff is a bit more scripted. We get these 40-page scripts, and there’s tons of great jokes in there, but once we start rehearsing, we play with it. We’ll paraphrase some of the more British stuff, make it American, and he’ll write down what we say and take what he likes from that. And on our filming days, we’ll get one or two loose takes — not to be self-indulgent, but to look for things to discover. And he’ll shoot in this open, documentary-style, which is very forgiving — it’s not about hitting the marks. The show is pretty truthful about portraying Washington, but it’s not The West Wing. It’s not idealistic. It’s shabby. Some of us don’t have desks and work on a couch. We have bad coffee. Papers are everywhere. And we seem to be dressing like people did in D.C. about twenty years ago! No cutting-edge fashion.
Your character is the director of communications for the vice-president. And yet, he seems remarkably inept.
He hasn’t adjusted to the 24-hour news cycle. He doesn’t realize that you can’t retract your words. He comes from an era where you could just perform a presser and relax. Things are constantly being filmed, being recorded, and that’s just what it is now.
Is there anything you’ve learned from portraying him — probably more from his mistakes — that you could apply to your own career?
Well, politics is much more severe than entertainment. You have to hit those points, in politics, word for word. You have to remember the date. You have to remember the website. You have to rehearse stories that might be asked, have anecdotes ready for questions that might come up. You have to think forward. So yeah, I think I’ve learned from playing Mike McLintock! But I’m so flawed and lazy that I don’t do all that. I don’t have anecdotes ready for you, for instance.
Where did the fake dog of his come from?
That’s based on an actual White House staffer that I met, who created a fictional dog to get out of work. Because those people don’t sleep. They are completely sleep deprived. So that fake dog lets him go home, just to get time away from the job. At least it worked for a while. [Laughs.] It’s a good excuse, until the jig is up.
Do you think you can you teach someone to be funny?
If I have a guaranteed joke, and a controlled audience, who I know to be neutral — not expecting someone in particular — yeah. But a thousand different people can deliver that joke a thousand ways. And the audience is a big part. A fat guy is guaranteed to get the highest laugh count. There are just certain types that we like to laugh at, who have been a staple of American comedy, from Kevin James to Chris Farley to John Belushi, and we perceive them to be more gregarious. There are other types, such as the proper type — the high-class character who is being subverted or undercut will always be funny to us, such as John Cleese. So in some ways, you can’t overcome what you are, or what the audience tends to laugh at, but I can teach you how to improv, how to listen. There are certainly personality disorders, from Asperger’s to obsessive-compulsive controlling types, that probably won’t be funny. You can’t be controlling in improv.
So which type are you?
I’m pretty close to the fat guy. [Laughs.] I’m jolly looking. It’s the mustache. Maybe I’m more of an Everyman, which is broader.
You’ve been in nearly everything Todd Phillips has directed: Road Trip, Old School, Starsky & Hutch, School for Scoundrels, The Hangover, Due Date …
And I’m on the DVD extras for The Hangover Part II, so technically I’m in that one, too. They made a funny mockumentary about the horrible things they were up to, and I played myself, because somehow I was affected by the debauchery. I first met Todd in an audition room. He was writing Road Trip at the time, and I auditioned for a small role, and he just took a shining to me! He thinks I’m funny. And after that, he wrote a part in Old School for me, and since then, we’ve become friends. He’s incredibly busy, so we don’t see each other a lot, but he’s a great, supportive dude. I auditioned for Starsky & Hutch, but School for Scoundrels, he just gave to me. Hangover, he just gave to me.
Do you remember anything you improv’d that made it into those films?
Little things come to mind. Like in Starsky, there was a shower scene with Chris Penn, Ben Stiller, and Owen Wilson, and I’m in the background, next to Chris. They were all very fit, and standing next to them in a towel was humiliating, so I just chose that moment to clean out my belly button, and they loved it.
In some of these films, your character is also named Walsh.
Because we’re being lazy! [Laughs.] I think the first time was in Old School. And in the script Seth Rogen wrote [The Apocalypse], I’m Walsh, but everyone has their own names in that. I think it’s because it sounds like a generic office name, most of the time. Or maybe people just like the sound of my name! Waaaallllshhhhh.