A little-known fact about improv is that a lot of it used to be accompanied by music, specifically a piano. One comedian who actually began the deviation from live music in improv was UCB co-founder Matt Besser, but as many things in life seem to do, those elements have come full circle.
On his podcast improv4humans, in which Besser and some of his favorite comedians usually improvise scenes based off of suggestions from fans, he felt it would be the perfect opportunity to bring some of his favorite musicians into the studio. “I feel like there are a lot of bands or musicians that probably think improv is corny, because I think that’s a sentiment out there,” says Besser, “but they haven’t seen or heard improv like we do.”
Recent artists to drop by and inspire that improv include Lucero, Radical Face, Lydia Loveless, Michael Dean Damron, and Jeff Rosenstock. For Besser, who is deeply passionate about music, the podcast opened up an incredible opportunity to showcase these musicians to fans of improv, but in return also gives him a chance to display improv comedy to these bands and their followers. Even if Besser originally was one of the first people to kick a musician off of an improv stage.
When was the first time you tried doing improv following a song or a musical act?
Interestingly enough I started out accompanied to music, and my group The Family requested the piano player to stop playing with us. It was very common to have a piano player play along to the improv at the ImprovOlympic where we started. But our group kind of felt that the piano was a little limiting and unnecessary and even corny at times. Our style didn’t fit with it. It didn’t fit what was going on in music, which at that time was grunge and hip hop. We wanted to have that in between our scenes, not twinkly piano music. We started using music we really liked to intro and outro our scenes, and hopefully that also established a vibe to our show. We were playing Butthole Surfers and Big Black and Public Enemy and hard-hitting music like that. We felt it had the complete opposite vibe of a piano.
And you started using music-based suggestions after that?
Del Close worked on this form that became our signature form, it was called “The Movie” where we’d improvise a half-hour movie. For some reason we chose a song lyric as a suggestion to inspire us. I guess we just felt that could be inspiring. That was the first time lyrics inspired my improv. But we never did it with a live band. I know we did it at ASSSSCAT, I can’t think of who it would have been. My memories are more clear with improv4humans.
How did it come about with improv4humans?
Probably the first time we did it, it was just us poorly playing the guitar and singing some covers. Then Bobby Matthews from the band Dragoon, who did the theme song for i4h, came to town and he played some pieces with his songs, I think was the second time we did it. To be honest, when we started it was a little difficult because you’re going from music – which is generally not trying to be funny; you’re not listening to a song and laughing unless it’s a comedy song – and going from a serious thought to a comedic premise is a little bit of a jump. But somehow we’ve gotten better at it, and it becomes more about deconstructing the lyrics down to a point where you’re using the lyrics as a suggestion more than just taking the overall meaning of the song or overall point of the song. More just focusing on different lyrics and expounding from there. If you listen to some of the early times of us doing it, I don’t think we ever bombed, but sometimes it was like “Wow, that was a really serious song – how do we launch into a scene from it?” But I think we can do the most depressing songs now. Half the time even the musicians say, “Well, all my songs are depressing, I don’t know how you’ll get something out of this,” but there’s a lot of truth in lyrics, and of course that’s the motto of the improv we do: Truth in comedy. You’re always starting with a nugget of truth, whether it’s a song or an improv scene.
Do you often find yourself building the improv directly off the lyrics or more that it makes you think of something else and starting a scene from that inspiration?
Well, a good amount of songs, the lyrics are poetry and you don’t necessarily understand exactly what the writer meant by it anyway. And then some are more literal, you know exactly what the story is. And some are story songs where you can take the character of the story and go somewhere with them in a scene. But maybe more often you just like a lyric the way you’d like a line in a poem and then we’ll kind of interview them about that lyric. Or we’ll say, “That lyric made me think of this.” And once you start talking about life in general in any philosophical way, even depressing, if it’s a breakup or someone dies, even with the most depressing stuff there’s still humor there somewhere. It becomes a jumping-off point, but I don’t think we veer too far from the lyric where it’s just a random word. We try to find some truth in what they’re saying and something that everyone can relate to, and once you find the human experience you can relate to, you just start the scene there. Usually the lyric has some observation about life and that’s what comedy is. That’s where music and comedy intersect, I guess.
You said that Radical Face made your favorite song and album of the year and then you were able to have them on the show. What’s it like to be able to bring in your musical heroes to improv4humans?
It’s amazing. It’s a complete treat, and I think that if I didn’t do it I’d become bored with doing my show. It’s one of the reasons I really love doing my podcast is that I know one out of four shows is going to be a musical guest. Radical Face, most people don’t know who they are, I don’t even know how I got turned onto them, it was a few years ago. Then I just randomly read that they were moving to LA and everything worked out.
You are a huge music fan, with a blog that extensively covers your favorite songs and artists. Was there a time in your life when you decided to stop pursuing music and started following the path towards comedy?
Actually yeah, there was that point. My friend Bobby Matthews, he and another friend of mine, James Brady, and Paul Bowen, formed this band called Trusty, a legitimate punk band. Before that, we had a band that I started with them called Dogs Like Spot. It was a comedy band, somewhere between punk and the Beastie Boys rap, but all the lyrics were trying to be funny on purpose, and it definitely was not. I’m glad we didn’t record it, is all I can say about that. After we did our one show, which was at a party we organized, the guys kinda got me and were like “Matt, we think you wanna do the comedy thing and we wanna do the more serious punk rock thing, so this is the end of Dogs Like Spot.” So we only had one show and we were done, and that is the fork of the road where those guys started serious punk and I pursued comedy.
I was always a fan. I was a DJ in college and had my own punk music-focused show all four years. I don’t think I thought I’d ever do it as a profession in any way. I didn’t even learn to play guitar until the movie Walk Hard, which is probably fortunate because maybe I would have pursued it and that would have been a waste of my time.
When you started i4h, audio-only improv, did you know what would happen when you started the podcast or was it something you had to discover as you progressed?
No, it was definitely a learning process. The main thing is not having an audience. That was the weirdest thing as an improviser or a standup – not having an audience and not knowing how the scene is going because we’re used to having that gauge. Also to tell us almost how to begin the scene in our improv terms, how to find the game, the audience always clues you in early on what to focus on in the scene. I think that threw people off when podcasting was kind of new, but now it doesn’t, because everybody’s doing podcasts. Then also to be aware of the fact that the listener can’t see anything we’re doing obviously so we have to be very descriptive. I bet in the early shows i wasn’t being as descriptive in describing the scenes and taking us from one scene to another and setting up a new scene. Using that movie form from Del, incorporating ideas from that, made it more visual in our description.
You’ve been doing ASSSSCAT for years now and you always open with a conversation with the audience that is never used for improv, it’s more of an opener before bringing out the improvisers and the monologist. Some of these can be heard on the Besser vs. Audience podcast. So since you’ve worked hundreds if not thousands of crowds, I’m just wondering how that came about originally and evolved.
We did two shows during the week that were sketch shows where we were showcasing ourselves to get on television, and ASSSSCAT started out in New York as our free show that we did every Sunday. We felt we were working hard during the week on the sketch shows and we wanted to do something that was more fucking around in a completely improvised show. Since it was without rehearsal, we felt like we’re not going to charge the audience so that we don’t feel we owe them anything. We always made a big point of that at the top of the show: “We don’t owe you shit. We’re having fun up here, and if you want to enjoy that you can, but this is a free show so fuck off.”
It was a very, I don’t know, punk attitude to have. It was done in a fun way but I think it just grew through the years where the improv show used to start right away but if me or [Matt] Walsh or Ian [Roberts] are there, we’re going to screw around with the audience for at least 15 minutes to a half hour. And let them know it’s a free show so we can say whatever we want to. It’s something between the attitude of doing a free show that was just for us and working the crowd. But that is the difference between a Saturday and a Sunday crowd too; I’m much more polite with the Saturday show, because they paid for their tickets and I’m not going to really get into somebody’s grill. Whereas on Sunday I will get into somebody’s grill to the point of asking them to leave. It happened with some Orange County Republicans where I was like, “Get the hell out of here. I don’t want to entertain people like you.”
During any of those conversations over the years, has there been a confession or realization that shocked you?
Yes, and some are too disturbing to even repeat to you. Some people will tell us a story that is disturbing and they may not even know that it is disturbing – to the point where the person gets to the end of the story and the whole audience either feels sorry for them or hates them and is judging them. One that’s more funny: Something about ASSSSCAT is that we rarely, if ever, announce who the monologist is going to be. It’s always a surprise to the audience, and usually the improvisers. In other words, the audience is never there to see the monologist. Every once in awhile a monologist will themselves plug the show, so their fans do show up. And one time we had this guy, he’s a TV star and a heartthrob for teenage girls. I didn’t watch the show he was on, I wasn’t even aware that he was a big teenage heartthrob, but when I went out and I was working the audience like usual, I noticed how many young girls were there. It was too many. It didn’t make sense. I was like “Is there a birthday party? What’s going on here?” and it took me awhile to realize that they were there for the monologist because it rarely happens.
That does not sound ideal for ASSSSCAT.
Also, they were so young and not interested in me or the point of the show that they were barely listening to me. They were just waiting for this guy to come out. Also I could tell the audience didn’t even know what I was talking about, the references are beyond me being older than them. “Who are these girls? Where are they from?” And their parents are with them too, and I’m interviewing them and they’re conservative Republicans. Then we bring him out and the place goes nuts for him. Then it hits me, “Oh I see.” Then they start asking him questions from the audience and he starts fielding questions and I’m like, “What are you doing, man?” This one girl was like “Can I get on stage and take a picture with you?” and she did it. Then she says, “Can I ask you a question?” and it was something like “Do you believe in Jesus?” or “Are you saved?” and he gave this wishy-washy answer to that. And then I was like “Fuck it.” At that point, I was like “Alright everybody, I’m out of here,” and I left the show. I am not entertaining these people.