Since longform improvisation was created by Del Close in the 1980s, there hasn’t been a book on the art form as thorough as the Upright Citizen Brigade Theatre’s new improv textbook. Co-written by UCB co-founders Matt Besser, Ian Roberts, and Matt Walsh (Amy Poehler receives a “Special Thanks” credit), The Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Improvisation Manual is a new definitive tome on the subject that was released earlier this summer.
I recently had the chance to talk to Matt Besser and Matt Walsh about how the book came together, their improv pet peeves, their favorite performers, and the future of UCB.
How long have you guys been working on the book for?
Matt Walsh: Seven years.
Matt Besser: I know, but I feel like we’ve been saying “seven years” for two years. [Laughs]
Walsh: Yeah, that’s true.
Besser: I don’t know if we ever declared out loud how long we thought it would take. I think we thought it would take a year or two.
What was the original idea for the book when you got started on it?
Besser: I think the original idea was to make it more like [the punk rock oral history] Please Kill Me, more of an oral history of longform improvisation in Chicago and our theater. We did a pass on that. We also wanted it to be a teaching tool, and when I read the interviews, it didn’t sound like that. We were like, “Well, it can’t be this casual, conversational teaching book. It just needs to be an outright textbook.” Or we decided that’s more what we wanted to do.
Walsh: Yeah, I think the history of it has to be written, but I think we decided it should probably be written by somebody else because otherwise, it’s sort of aggrandizing your effect on comedy or something.
Besser: We were trying to do two things at once ‘cause a lot of the conversation wasn’t about the history as much as “How do you find the game? What do you feel about working at the top of your intelligence?” A lot of improv talk. Doing both at the same time just didn’t work.
When writing the textbook together, did you three ever have disagreements on improv philosophy?
Walsh: I think we had disagreements, but they were talked out. We only put in the book the rules that we all agreed on. I don’t think there were any major school departures or principles. But I mean, a lot of the discussion would find exceptions for the rules, so we had to readjust the rules or what to call things or even concepts that we had to clarify between each other. If somebody has a different idea, you can actually rethink your own concept. ‘Oh yeah, I guess that is a better way to do that.’
Besser: Yeah, and I think also not agreeing on one way to describe it is agreeing that there’s different ways to describe theory. There’s not always one way to explain something. Just like some teachers will connect with you more than others, just the way they explain concepts. That’s in the book. Three different ways to explain things sometimes.
Walsh: There were terms that we never explored like “top of your intelligence,” for example — things we’d been throwing around for years, but we came up with better definitions.
Besser: The three of us are passionate about different things. Like, I don’t like doing organic improv as much as premise-based improv, so when there was discussion of that, I would just give over to the other guys. When we were discussing openings and the pattern game opening, Ian was like, “I don’t like doing that.”
Walsh: Besser was good at pattern game, so he kind of led the discussion on that.
When it came to writing the examples of improv scenes you use in the book, were those scenes you’d done on stage or were you guys just in a room hashing those out?
Besser: We improvised them in the room, but just because the same sample had to serve as so many different examples, it definitely got rewritten many times. It’s funny because this scene was rewritten for seven years that was originally improvised in the room. That’s the other thing. We’re like, “Well, it has to come off like realistic the way you would improvise it.” You don’t say things perfectly when you’re in a scene, so we tried to write it that way.
Do you have a favorite improv note that you got from a teacher?
Besser: I liked the notes that Del gave me because they were so honest and harsh, it made me clip bad habits. I can’t remember exactly what he said, but I know the notes came harsh and true, and I did change as a result. But in general, I say this in every interview, but the word “listening” — you hear early on all the time, but it takes you a while to get it or do it.
Walsh: The big thing that’s related to listening is you have to learn to collaborate on the funny and don’t worry about driving it. That’s the benefit of performing in a group.
Besser: I think it’s the kind of thing, you can just read an article and go, “Okay, I get it. Listen.” But really, we spend hundreds of pages explaining how to use your listening to start a scene.
Do you think a lot of improv notes are like that where they sound so simple that people just assume they’re doing it without thinking?
Besser: Yeah. Like, “Yes and” is the most popular improv phrase. It might be a little misunderstood about how far to use it when creating the scene, and we talk about that a lot in the book. Non-improvisers would go, “Yeah, improv’s all about ‘yes and.’ That’s what you do. You go up there, and you ‘yes and.’” That’s not really true. That’s how you start an organic scene, but we said in the book, if you’re gonna boil it down to two words, it would be, “If, then.” If this unusual thing is true, then what else is true? It’s what takes you through a scene; what improv’s about.
Besser, you mentioned earlier you don’t like doing organic improv. What specifically don’t you enjoy about it?
Besser: It’s more difficult for me. I enjoy watching it as much. You know, improv4humans is not organic improv — it’s premise — and ASSSSCAT — the two forms I do, which are basically the same. We get a suggestion, we tell a story, and the scenes come from something funny in that story, whereas organic really comes from interacting and finding it out of nowhere. You start the scene with nothing, and I like to start the scene with something. As far as watching it, successful organic or successful premise are good and entertaining.
Walsh, do you have a preference, organic vs. premise?
Walsh: I think lately, I enjoy organic more. I don’t know why. If you have a preceding pool of information, like a monologue you’re all watching together or interviewing an audience member, that’s all useful. There’s a lot of good moments in those things, but I guess I like the challenge of doing something I haven’t done a lot of, which is organic. I haven’t had a bunch of opportunities to do that, so I enjoy it.
Do you guys have pet peeves that you see a lot when watching improv?
Besser: Oh yeah.
Walsh: [Laughs] I don’t like clever improv where no one’s committing emotionally or physically. A talking head scene is one where you see that. I find that that’s almost like people showing off their wisdom or that they’re well-read. I find that really tedious.
Besser: Yeah, I agree with that. Recently, someone I really like to improvise with, I told them, “I don’t like when you undercut scenes.” People who undercut the realities of scenes in getting a quick joke, kind of commenting on something in the scene. Like the word [their scene partner] said or they said something that was out of date, like kind of correcting them. Or they’re playing a girl but they’re a really big guy playing a girl, kind of winking at the audience, which is kind of what Walsh is saying. Basically, you don’t have any stress after that. You’re like, “Well, great. I thought we were working on something together. You’re not committing to it. What do we do now?”
You guys have been doing ASSSSCAT for a long time. Do you have a favorite ASSSSCAT story?
Besser: [Laughs] The memories seem to be the bad ASSSSCATs more than the good ASSSSCATs, don’t they, Walsh?
Walsh: Well, I remember we did one in Austin where Ian broke his finger and just set it back in place in the middle of the show. Do you remember that, Matt?
Besser: We were doing a bit in the audience, and he hit one of us or something. His finger was completely dislocated, like a right angle to his hand. He held it up, and he went, “Oh, man.” He popped it back into place right there on stage, and that’s nasty to watch too. So, the whole audience, like me and Walsh, was freaked out. Like, “Oh, fuckin’ a, man.” It was hard to come back from that.
Do you have plans to do a second edition of the book?
Besser: I think we agreed that there’s going to be a lot of discussion, and from that discussion and feedback, we’ll probably change things or add things or whatever seems natural.
What does the future have in store UCB?
Besser: As a school, most immediately, we found a building that will house all our classes in LA. That’s a big deal because they’ve been spread out all over the place for all these years. That’s a good, big thing for our school in LA.
Walsh: Yeah, I think another down-the-road thing, when we get a new space in LA especially, is teaching kids how to shoot and edit a lot of the performing we’ve created. We teach how to improvise, but we also offer sketch writing, and there’s sketch groups called Maude teams; they perform as sketch groups. We kind of created all these collectives. Then, there’s also Beta teams, which are video director groups that make videos once a month. I think one of the goals for us is to teach people how to create videos or create sketches or direct things.
Do you guys know when you’re planning to open the training center in LA?
Besser: Every time we put a date on something [Laughs], it goes bad for us, like the book thing. But I would say we’re really hoping next year.
Walsh: Yeah, I would say by the end of summer.
Besser: By the end of summer? 2014.
Walsh: Yeah, not this summer.
Are there any performers who have come up through the theaters recently that you’re big fans of?
Besser: Yeah. I actually went to Harold Night a lot recently. I think Walsh would agree with me on some of the new additions to ASSSCAT like Betsy Sodaro, Lauren Lapkus, Stephanie Allynne — I’m naming all the ladies, but they’re our most recent additions.
Besser: Mary Holland is really funny. I’m an open book for that ‘cause whoever is on improv4humans is who I think is a good improviser and I like to improvise with.
Do you scout a lot for that show?
Besser: I didn’t until recently. I was like, “I want to open it up to some new people who I don’t really know much.”
Walsh: People that come to mind. They might be well-known, but people like James Adomian or Gil Ozeri or Joe Wengert. Anthony King. There’s a lot of writers who are really funny.
Do you guys have any individual projects that you’re working on that you’re excited about?
Besser: Yeah, we’re gonna pitch improv4humans pretty soon. That’s something that I’d like to be a TV show. I’m gonna be on The Millers next week, Will Arnett’s new show.
Walsh: I’m back on Veep, and I directed a movie this summer starring Brian Huskey called A Better You that hopefully will be finished by January of this coming year.