“I always say the great thing about improv is that comic actors will say things funnier and in a very unique way. Better then you can ever write,” Matt Walsh concedes. “Often times when you write, everybody speaks like you do, if you’re the writer. When you get different people improvising, is sounds like ‘oh, that’s a unique character. A specific take on the world.’”
Indeed, Matt Walsh’s prestige in the comedic world of improv is well established, as a founding member of the Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB), one of the most respected names in improv. Prolific in both television and the theatre, Walsh has advanced several big projects this year, including the feature comedy High Road, a mostly improvised script which he wrote and directed, and the comedic television series Veep premiering on HBO, in which he is costarring with Julia-Louis Dreyfus. Recently, Walsh shared with Working Author about his experience in the business and the exciting things in store this year.
The core players from UCB started humbly. “I just moved in with a bunch of my classmates and we just started doing sketch seven nights a week….We started in the early 90’s in Chicago and it was basically me and Ian [Roberts] and [Matt] Besser and Adam McKay…and Horatio Sanz and then…somewhere in there, Amy Poehler joined.”
Eventually, they set their sights even higher and decided to move to New York. “In ‘96 we all walked, the three of us, Amy, Ian and I quit Second City and moved to New York with Besser and just decided we would put up some shows…we were just fortunate enough to find a community that was starved for our flavor of comedy.”
Walsh’s feature comedy High Road premiered this year, a quirky story about a musician/pot dealer from Los Angeles who goes on a road trip to evade the law. Walsh had a blast directing from his improvised outline. “I directed some episodes of a TV show I had on Spike. I directed a lot of play comedies, sketch shows, UCB and my experience in Chicago. So I had a lot of director experience but I never did a feature before.” Being an actor himself, Walsh loved helping other actors develop their comedy. “It’s great, I really enjoy not being on camera and helping people, you know, perform things in a certain tone, and discovering comedic beats to their improv, you know, trying to capture things.”
Viewers of High Road will notice the naturally hilarious and realistic style of great improv throughout the film, as most of the actors come from an improv background. “Most of them are people I’ve worked with or done stuff with through UCB, or I worked with in Chicago…. Like Rich Fulcher was a friend of mine from way back in Chicago, and he played the dad, and I’ve always loved him.…” Walsh’s good friend and improv actor Ed Helms, of The Office and Hangover fame, also agreed to be in the film. “Ed I know since New York, we sort of overlapped a bit on The Daily Show. He’s a friend, we play golf and hang out…so I had this part and I thought he’d be great…he was nice enough to say ‘yeah, I’ll come by for a day’ had nothing to gain from it other than helping a friend out, so he did a good solid.”
On the casting of musician/pot dealer Fitz, played by James Pumphrey, Walsh made a strong casting choice. “He is that guy. He really is that guy,” Walsh said, laughing. Some of the other actors who weren’t as experienced in improv were intimidated at first, but performed very well. “Lizzie [Kaplan] felt that ‘oh, I’m not as funny as these people’ but she held her own, she’s great.”
Walsh’s upcoming HBO comedy Veep has him passionately excited. “Veep is a political comedy centered around Julia Louis-Dreyfuss who plays the Vice President of the United States, and I play her Press secretary. It was created by a guy named Armando Iannucci – pretty much a British comedic genius.” On the style of Veep, Walsh makes clear this unlike anything we’ve seen before. “Armando shoots it and he wants it to be real more than anything.… It’s not like The West Wing. It’s very kind of real people struggling to make any kind of small difference in a very difficult profession.”
As an improv artist, Walsh gets some say in the creative process of Veep’s episodes. “The process was amazing…all the writers were British, so we got to do a table read and then we’d get on our feet and play with what they created and try to make it a little more American, or maybe improvise a line and they would take notes during these improv sessions and create another draft with some of our jokes in there.”
When discussing working with Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Walsh beamed. “She’s the best. She really is. She’s very playful…and not a snob at all but very much married to the work, and wants to make a funny show and take chances…. couldn’t be nicer and couldn’t be cooler, really.”
Reaching out to younger comedic actors, Walsh has some sage advice. “Be nice to everyone you’re working with, because you may end up working with them again…. Don’t worry about the money or where it’s leading you to, just do it seven nights a week, learn as much as you can…and make it a priority, realize that it’s a different path.” Pausing, Walsh adds, “You may see your friends getting houses and starting families and it may take you a little longer to find your feet in this business. So be patient.”
With a marriage, three kids, and a prolific career, Walsh has made his commitment to comedy, and patience pays off.