Talking to Matt Walsh About ‘Veep’ and the Past, Present, and Future of UCB

Matt Walsh is one of the stars of HBO’s Veep, which was just renewed for a third season, but he’s no stranger to critically-acclaimed comedy after spending over two decades in the industry. Since rising up through the Chicago comedy scene in the early ‘90s and founding the UCB Theatre with Matt Besser, Amy Poehler, and Ian Roberts, Walsh has amassed a ton of credits in well-regarded comedies like The Daily Show, Conan, the UCB’s own Comedy Central series, and cult hits like Dog Bites Man and Jon Benjamin Has a Van. Veep, from UK comedy demigod Armando Iannucci, is currently in the midst of its second season, airing Sundays at 10 on HBO. On it, Matt Walsh plays Mike McLintock, the beleaguered director of communications to Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s gaffe-prone Vice President of the United States. I recently had the chance to talk with Walsh about the current season of Veep, book and expansion plans for the UCB, and making trouble in his youth with buddies Horatio Sanz, Matt Besser, and Adam McKay.

What was the audition process for Veep like?

First audition, [casting director] Allison Jones had us in there, and she encouraged me in my interview to improvise ‘cause she said that [creator Armando Iannucci] likes improv, and that really helped me do well. Then, the second audition, I was in the room with Julia [Louis-Dreyfus], sitting down across from her and she was awesome. And we did it again… We had chemistry, sort of. Then, the final audition was one of those cagematches where you go into HBO and there’s two Mikes and two Dans and two Tonys and you sit in this conference room and they pull you off and you sign this contract signing away your life. If you get the job, you’re signed up for seven years.

Then, you go into a room and it’s a sort of like Manchurian Candidate. There’s a lot of executives who you can’t quite see except their silhouettes. Then, it was mostly improv. Armando would tell you the scene idea and what to do. It was a fair amount of laughs, and that was basically it, but it was very improv heavy, which made me very comfortable. Because Mike’s so disheveled, the night before my big HBO audition, I slept in my clothes because I figured he would be all wrinkled. That was my character study.

Do you do stuff like that a lot for your roles?

Sometimes, I do like wardrobe that I think is perfect for the guy.

But not method-y stuff?

No, I’m usually not that method. I think I really wanted this one, so I was really kind of obsessed with it. But sometimes, I’ll study. I had a small part in a storm-chasing movie, so I did some research into storm-chaser culture.

Are you a big British comedy fan?

Yeah, I am actually. I don’t know how up to date I am recently, but I grew up on Python and shows like The Two Ronnies and Benny Hill. Dave Allen. These were all PBS shows in Chicago. A show called No, Honestly. Of current British stuff, Brass Eye was one of my favorite shows. That’s not current, but Chris Morris ended up directed a couple of our episodes. He was the one guy who I was really intimidated to meet ‘cause he’s so brilliant. So, I’m familiar with Brass Eye. I don’t know much of The Thick of It. I knew In the Loop, which was great. Peep Show, I’ve seen a bit of, so I’m fairly up to date but generally I enjoy British comedy a lot. And obviously, Alan Partridge, The Day Today, and Look Around You. Garth Marenghi. Snuff Box. I’m friends with [Rich] Fulcher. I’ve seen a little Mighty Boosh. I haven’t seen a lot.

What was it like working with Armando and his group of writers?

I always say this, but their breadth of knowledge of American garbage culture is astounding. They know all our bad TV shows, all our bad music. They basically are well-versed in two cultures of garbage, so they’re not just super literate and super funny. They’re super knowledgeable in a completely different culture, which I always find impressive. There’s something slightly Shakespearean in their ability to phrase a dick joke, unlike Americans. They really make it sound better. They make it sound intelligent. And they’re all kind of like Armando’s posse. He’s worked with them on different shows, so they’re all really nice. There’s no ego. Everybody just wants the show to be good, so you can pitch jokes. They will do things in rehearsal where you improvise a line, and they’ll put that in the script. There’s 7 or 10 drafts of every script by the time we workshop it. Nobody remembers like “Who came up with that joke?” Nobody knows. It’s very collaborative.

What’s Chris Morris like as a director? Do his episodes differ from the other ones in terms of tone?

Well, I think Armando dictates the tone. He likes that realism element. He’s not a fan of the broad stuff. I think the tone is in motion when these guys step into our show. Chris likes the choreography and the poetry of little moments. So, what seems like a little joke, like a double-take, he might do six or seven takes of it because he really obsesses on the perfection of these little moments. The other guys do, but I think Chris is a little more obsessive that way. He’s also very active with the camera. I think he works the cameramen a little harder, which they may not enjoy but I think ultimately makes the show better. I think he works at a fast pace. He cranks out footage because I think he’s used to low budget, “got to get it done” projects. He’s great. He’s very nice. Super smart. I think all the directors chip in on the writing too, in some way. They weigh in on problematic scenes or stories that are disappearing.

Do the writers ever incorporate British terms in the script that Americans don’t say?

There’s often Britishisms in every scene. The word “keen” or something. We don’t say that. They say “slash” for “I’m an actor slash director.” There’s always little phrasings like that that we’re always on the watch for. By the time the second season came around, we’d been in the room with them so many times that they can hear how we might say things, so it’s gotten closer to our American vernacular as the seasons have gone on.

You and Julia both came up via the Chicago comedy scene. Were you able to connect with her over that? Did you guys know any of the same people?

No, we didn’t. She went to Northwestern, and I think she was 21 when she was on SNL. She didn’t spend that much time there, and she was up at Northwestern. I guess we did because I had a little theater, and she had her own theater company back in the day, so we did kind of bond over that. But we don’t have many of the same – she loves Amy. She knows Poehler, so we had that friend. Surprisingly, I’d never met her until that second audition.

Do you have any good stories from coming up in Chicago with UCB? I always hear that story about Horatio Sanz getting arrested in the street. Is there anything along those lines that maybe isn’t told as often?

There was a show called Thunderball where [Matt] Besser and Ian [Roberts] and [Adam] McKay and Horatio, we all got chased. I wasn’t in the show, but I was watching it. [They held] a candelight vigil outside of Wrigley Field, and they were mourning the death of Shoeless Joe Jackson. The minute the cops showed up, everybody ran. In the old days, people would have committed and said, “We’re doing street theater,” but after an arrest or two had happened in the early days, nobody stuck around the minute the cops showed up. Everybody bolted. I thought that was funny. It’s like, ‘Oh, we’re growing up.’

There’s a couple, like Besser doing his Unabomber character and going into a post office in the middle of that story, dressed as the Unabomber and delivering a package and filming it, as well. That was pretty crazy.

Did he almost get caught for that?

No, they didn’t even recognize him. Literally, there was probably a Most Wanted poster of that man in the post office, but they didn’t recognize him. There’s things like, we got kicked out of a place called… I forget the name of the joint. I think McKay and [Horatio] were keeping their beer in the lettuce fridge of the restaurant, so we got kicked out of there. In the early days, we got an audience drunk because we had a “pleasure drink” that we were making the audience drink that was basically grain alcohol and Kool-Aid. We got in trouble from the restaurant for that. Then, when we were in New York, we got the audience high. That was fun … We were doing like an “Up with People.” We were like a fake improv group, if I remember correctly. We wanted to transport people to another level, so we started passing out marijuana joints and people started smoking, which is pretty wild.

You mentioned there were one or two arrests. Was it just that one?

I think there were run-ins with the police, actually. At one of the parties, Horatio and I were on the roof of Charna [Halpern]’s house and the cops heard complaints. They literally climbed up on this peak roof. They were really mad at us and were threatening [that] if we didn’t get down, we’d have to go to jail. We had many run-ins with the police, but I guess the only official arrest might be Horatio. But as we got older, we didn’t push it as much.

Were you as gung-ho about that stuff as everyone else?

I got nervous about it. I ended up doing a lot of prank shows in my life or prank theater, but I always got fairly nervous about doing ‘em. But ultimately, if you have a prank where two actors are involved, I always feel much safer because then you can just play your reality to them and ignore everyone else. Those are much easier, but if you’re just the only guy and you’re doing a prank and you’re trying to convince everyone in the crowd – real people – those are really difficult. They get dicey.

Do you have one experience in particular that got dicey?

Besser and I did one at Planet Hollywood in New York. You know how they have all the bric-a-brac? Like, they’ll have a glove from Field of Dreams that’ll be under glass and there’ll be a plaque, “Field of Dreams 19-whatever.” They had all this Hollywood memorabilia on the wall, so Besser and I found this glove that had spikes on it. We were eating at a table at Planet Hollywood, and Besser pulled it out and then we pretended that it fell from the ceiling and I pretended it hit my head. The manager came over, and all we kept wanting to know is, “What movie is that from?” [Laughs] He kept apologizing and trying to buy us free dinner. We were like, “Is that Alien? I don’t even know what movie that is. Look at that thing. Is that Predator?”

Then, somebody recognized us, and they put us off into a room in the corner. They said, “Come back here.” Then, they saw the two guys who were filming it and they confiscated their footage. We didn’t stay in the room. We had to run out, so we didn’t get in trouble. ‘Cause we started smelling like, “Oh, they know who we are.” So, we had to run away from that one.

Did you guys get your footage from it?

We got some footage. We didn’t get all angles, but then we were gonna go prank the Harley-Davidson Café [after]. So dumb. But they’d already called them. They said, “These guys came into our club. We have a feeling they might be coming down your way.” Just by chance, and they were right. So, we didn’t go there.

The riskiest one we ever did was the Little Donny prank on The Today Show … I just remember Al Roker going, “All right,” and walking away. Then, Willard Scott said something funny because he saw it. That was a really funny one. Really scary.

What was the impetus for that stuff? Did you guys have role models for that kind of comedy or in general?

I’d have to give credit to Besser. He really loved the art of the street prank, so he really pushed it and convinced us that it was a great way to go. We liked taking characters from our show out into the real world because it kind of pushed the boundaries a little bit. We all liked the excitement of that, but we didn’t like the dangerous element. I think Besser liked the dangerous element the most.

I’m trying to think of who the inspiration was. I used to like these guys, they were from the ‘50s. Coyle & Sharpe. You should check them out. They exist on DVD or certainly CD. They were two guys who met in a transient hotel in San Francisco in the late ‘50s and one of them had a tape recorder and they just became friends. They would go on the streets of San Francisco and they would just start doing man-on-the-street interviews and crazy things like, “Hi, we’re with Amalgamated Bank. We were wondering if you’d allow us to put a quarter in your head every year for the next 30 years?” “What? What will I get?” “Well, at the end of it, you’ll have 30 quarters.” That kind of stuff where they would just blow people’s minds. They would go into a drug store and try to buy things so you could assemble your own shotgun. They were some of my early favorites. I really like those guys a lot.

What comedy were you into growing up?

I was big on Peter Sellers. After college, I got into Kids in the Hall a lot. Besser and McKay and I were so poor that we got into the Kids in the Hall when they came in – because we worshiped them. They were really like our gods – we somehow convinced somebody that we were from a newspaper, so that’s how we got in to see the Kids in the Hall. That was our prank. I’m not proud of that one, but we did it.

What in particular weren’t you proud of about it?

Well, it’s like, get the 60 bucks and pay it. They could use the money. They weren’t rich. But we were really poor. But we did a lot of that. We did one where it was me, McKay, and Besser. There was a cash register, probably still is, called Micros. We went into a Pizza Hut, pretending that we were the branch officers of Micros Computers, to update their software or something. For the register. McKay called them a half-hour beforehand and said, “Hey, I’ve got a couple of guys who are going to come by, upgrade your software. If you could just hook them up with some free lunch and take care of them, that’d be great.” So, we came into this busy Pizza Hut. The guy was like, “Oh thank God, there’s so many little bugs on this cash register.” We were like, “Okay, but can we eat lunch first?” And then, we ate lunch and then we left. And that felt bad. That’s like kind of a scam. We had a lot of dumb, rambunctious, rebellious energy that wasn’t channeled into anything other than occasionally a free pizza. We did a lot of stunts, just ‘cause we had nothing to do.

We went to the Hancock once, pretended we were Flock of Seagulls, the band. Me and Besser had terrible British accents, and we almost got on the air at two in the morning, which is so crazy because we were drunk. We went down to the radio station, they were like, “Okay, hold on. Come up.” We didn’t get on the air.

How’d they figure it out?

I think we got on the elevator, and then the elevator wouldn’t open. By the time we got in [they figured us out], so they escorted us out of the building. We had McKay playing the manager. He’s like, “I’ve got Flock of Seagulls here.” Besser had the hair to prove it because he had radical hair. I just had a hat on, so they didn’t know. We had really bad British accents. We did something where we got into the Taste of Chicago, which is a big summer festival. My friend Dave Adler looked like – I’m dating myself – Captain from Captain and Tennille. We just said, “Hey, we got Captain here. Do you mind if we go backstage? So, they let us on stage.” To no point really, other than you could get away with something. We did a lot of stuff like that.

What was your experience studying under Del Close like?

He was great. By the time we got him, he was fairly old and slightly failing. He was so respected, and he had such great stories. Like, some classes, he would just tell you some of his escapades or talk about the many people whose lives he had interwoven with, so that was fascinating. To me, he was always pushing you to play as smart as you could and to also find the next evolution of the form. It wasn’t just like, “Okay, do the Harold.” It’s like, “Okay, no. Now that you can do the Harold, what’s a form or what’s a show that would speak to your generation?” He had that constant, scientific “experiment and try” mentality. That, I really feel like is something I took away from him.

What are some of the ways you experimented with forms?

I did the Harold, and I did the show called Armando. Those were the forms I was in on, but I never did any of the other forms like The Movie. There’s a lot of forms out there. When we moved to New York and started teaching classes at UCB, I always tried to get a group together to try to find a new form.  We did ridiculous forms like Robot TV, which is supposedly TV for robots. But it was basically trying to incorporate the interface of computers. This was like ‘99, so we had scrolls and we had pop-up windows, so that became the context, as if the show was happening on a computer screen. So, we tried that. We had a bloody Halloween show we did. That was really fun.

How often were you performing back when you were getting started?

Oh my God. In Chicago, I was at a place called The Annoyance. I was performing six or seven nights a week. Some nights, two shows. Some nights, three shows. Every night, doing something. When we moved to New York with UCB, we were going up at least five nights a week, doing whatever comedy venue we could. Then, we had shows on the weekends. I always say that for like young guys. My advice is do it every night. It’s the simplest way to start.

Do you have any other advice for young improvisers?

Remember that the people that you come up with are eventually gonna be successful too. Like, your generation is with you now, and many of them will succeed. Just be nice, really.

When you guys came to New York, was that a scary time before you had the Comedy Central deal, or were you confident that something was gonna come through?

No, we were scared. I drove out in my dying Volkswagen van with Horatio. We broke down in Pennsylvania in a snowstorm and literally had no money. Sold my van to get money to pay rent. I was living on Bill Chott’s couch for like a month. Our plan in New York was to give it six months and then reassess after six months. So if there was any sort of success in that time… but we had reached enough success that it was never in question. Once we had started teaching classes, we could use that money to fund a trip to LA to do a showcase or make a little movie or buy props.

You guys have a UCB textbook coming out. Can you tell me a little about that?

We’ve been writing a book on improv for the last seven years, I think. It’s the most tedious, challenging, dull endeavor I’ve ever undertaken in my life. Imagine writing an assembly manual for an Ikea desk. It’s like that because you’re creating rules and you’re trying to think through – are there any exceptions to this rule? You’re trying to apply math and logic to a very strange art form, which is improv. We’ve been doing that for seven years, but, hopefully, it’ll be out this summer.

And I think it’ll be very good. I have confidence that it’ll be very good ‘cause we tried to treat it like a college level textbook. Like, an academic approach to [improv]. It’s not just “believe in yourself and take risks.” It’s beyond that. It’s skillsets, things to rehearse, exercises. We really tried to make a complete – if you grew up in Iowa and didn’t know anything about improv and you had this book, you could actually put a group together and learn what the people in LA, New York, and Chicago are learning. That’s our hope.

What’s the pagecount?

I’m gonna say 350, 325. It’s not a fun read. It’s not. It’s the kind of book like, “Wow, I’ve got to put this down for a few minutes.” It’s just theory or concept after concept … There’s no fun writing a book on improv, but I think it’s worth it.

This is probably the last improv book you guys’ll write together?

[Laughs] We might go back and do a second edition, but I can’t imagine all of us getting together to write that thing.

I heard you mention in an interview that if UCB expanded to another city, Austin would be the next place. Is that something that’s still on the horizon?

I think I’m in the minority for UCB. I love that town, and I think it’d be a great artist community to tap  into. But I think the challenge with opening a UCB is you need a big influx of students every year. And I know you have University of Texas there. In New York, you have NYU and you have Columbia and you have Baruch College. That’s generally how our school works is you get a lot of young people moving there. In LA, you have UCLA, USC, et cetera, et cetera. I don’t know that Austin has enough changeover for that. That’s the argument our manager made, the guy in New York.

But we were talking about London as the next [theatre] because they don’t have an improv school there that’s doing what we’re doing. The challenge would be going to a different nation and setting it up, but we were all on board for that. We’re all like, “Yeah, let’s do it,” but nobody will probably do it. It’s a big undertaking. What’s good about New York is we were all living there, and what’s good about LA is three of us were living here. You need one of the four of us to be there to just keep an eye on it. Nobody’s in London so I don’t know how you would do that … But I have a lot of friends in London now, through Veep. There’s cross-pollination there. There’s also all these shows that come through UCB , that come to New York and come to LA. We already book a lot of great similar comedians that just happen to be in England. Same sensibility, though. I don’t know, maybe it’ll happen. We just need an ambitious young person who wants to run it and live there.

Are you careful to not overextend the brand?

Yeah, it won’t happen in the near future because we have a lot of projects. We have our 15th anniversary for the Del Close Marathon this summer. That’s a big deal. We’re [doing] a lot of planning for that. We’re gonna build a school in LA, like a second building, so we’re working on that. The book. There’s a lot going on, and we’re all busy.

Talking to Matt Walsh About ‘Veep’ and the Past, […]