Because of limited space, we had to cut a big chunk of the interview I did with Little Rock native Matt Besser
, who's a hugely funny actor and comedian. Here's the whole thing in all its original ramble.
“Walk Hard” is a parody of the big, overblown musician biopics—“Ray,” “Walk the Line,” “Great Balls of Fire.” A lot of John C. Reilly's Dewey Cox character, at least from the previews, seems to be based on Johnny Cash. You play Dave, the guitarist in the band. Did you draw from any real-life musician as inspiration for your character?
I actually wouldn’t say John C. Reilly is just Johnny Cash. I don’t think Johnny Cash was as big of an egomaniac a-hole as this guy. I think he drew a lot from Elvis. They really tried to take something from a lot of folks.
The band in particular, when we started out, [producer] Judd [Apatow] and [director] Jake [Kasdan] had us read “Elvis and Memphis Mafia.” It’s really good. It’s told from the perspective of his gang that hung out with him all the time. It’s really detailed.
Did you actually play guitar and sing in the role?
I did. You won’t hear me. I am actually playing the chords. If you had my version, it wouldn’t sound so great. We did have a tutor come in and teach us how play instruments.
How’d you land the role?
I’ve worked with both Judd and Jake on different projects. I’m always coming in and helping them with reads. I had to audition, but I’d actually done some of the earlier reads of the movie. I did a small role in the “TV Set,” which was Jake’s last movie. What separates "Walk Hard" from genre spoofs like "Not Another Teen Movie" and "Scary Movie"?
It’s not that kind of tone at all. It has its silly moments, but I think it’s a lot smarter comedy. I think those parodies in recent years are just kind of for teenagers really. Lowest common denominator stuff?
Right. There is a lot of that in this movie. But not the majority. I just think it’s a smartly written parody. And you’ve also got to give a lot of it to how John C. Reilly plays it. He really is a triple threat. He can act and do comedy and really sing. He nails it, and he does it live to. He sings the title song like Johnny Cash and does another one that’s like Roy Orbison and another one that’s like Bob Dylan. He does all these different genres from the ’50s through the ’90s. You’ve also got to give a lot of credit to the directing and the tone. Your career has been largely in improvisational comedy. Did you get to adlib in “Walk Hard?”
Definitely. I think that on all of Judd’s movies and the few I’ve done of Jake’s, they encourage that. The script was hilarious, but every time we did a take, we did a few takes where it was completely improvised. Some of my improv made it to the final cut, so I’m pretty happy. This is the latest big Judd Apatow movie. In the last several years, he’s really established himself as the standard bearer for comedy in Hollywood. How much do you think his embrace of improv has played a role in his success?
Definitely, but not solely. Guys like Judd or Jake don’t just have comedians show up and do what’s on paper. Not just in terms of improv, but just getting feedback. In Judd’s movies, too, he casts a lot of comedians, not just comedic actors. Most of Apatow’s movies, even though they're raunchy, kind of reinforce traditional values, values that you and a lot of comedians have spent a lot of time subverting. Is that irksome at all?
(Laughs) Until you just said that, I’ve not had that perception. When I was growing up, the comedy movies, for better or worse, were like “Porky’s.” And it just seems like that kind of raunch in comedy went away unless it was a really cheesy movie. But now [Apatow’s] doing it. There’s an orgy scene in “Walk Hard.” Ten years ago you wouldn’t have seen that in a comedy. It’s also not done in some silly, stupid flash- some-breasts way. It’s just a funny scene that happens to be an orgy. I more think of it as, “Oh, cool an orgy scene,” or “Oh cool a drug scene,” than thinking of the overall moral. I more think of the comedy. The moral is kind of secondary. Do you get to be in the orgy scene?
I am in the orgy scene. The whole band is. I don’t get as lucky as Tim Meadows, but I get luckier than Chris Parnell. You also have a part in another Apatow production, "Drillbit Taylor," which stars Owen Wilson. Are you in the Apatow crew now?
I don’t know if that’s for me to declare, but he definitely keeps me involved. He’s very cool that way. He’s the type of guy who comes by the UCB Theater. He’s really in touch with the comedy community in general. Your official bio leads with, “Raised a proud Razorback,” and last year you went on tour with a one man show called “Woopig Sooie,” where you had audiences across the country call the Hogs—
I was very upset McFadden didn’t get the Heisman. I think it’s bullshit. Me too. I was going to ask if you think Pelphrey and Petrino will be saviors for Hog Nation?
So far, from the way Pelphrey talks, I like him better than Stan Heath, but we haven’t really tested ourselves up to this point. Petrino is getting a lot of crap right now, but I’m all for it, bring it on. That seems to be the general sentiment in the state. It’s our time to have an asshole as a coach, you know?
Yeah, and you know what? It’s the SEC. It’s a brutally competitive conference. And why not? All is fair in love and SEC football. I was at the LSU game by the way. It was my 40th birthday present. I had a sweet seat. The whole LSU band was chanting at me and my fiancé as we walked by, “Tiger bait! Tiger bait!” I had these drunken LSU fans getting in my face about Houston Nutt. I sat right in the middle of their season ticket holders who patronized me the whole first half, and then it just became beautiful. That’s great. Back to Woo Pig, that was your first hometown show in a longtime, right?
Ever. Wow. It was a funny show and from what I recall, most everyone was laughing, but a comedy show about atheism isn't so much a red-state crowd pleaser. What kind of feedback did you get here and elsewhere in the South?
That was actually a kind of weird show for me because I put a lot of pressure on myself because it was a hometown thing, and I had a lot of family friends in the audience who most likely are religious on some level. It’s a very anti-religious show. They were all good and very nice and so supportive to come out and see me, but I was afraid of offending their sensibilities. I don’t know whether I did or not. They’re all smart enough to handle it, I know. I just put a lot of pressure on myself. I don’t even usually do shows like that. That’s the only really serious one-man show I’ve done. Also, part of that show is I’m talking about Arkansas, and I haven’t lived in Arkansas in a long time, so it was weird to talk about Arkansas to Arkansans. I think it will be a lot easier when I come back. So you’re planning on coming back?
I don’t have any plans, but I’d definitely want to. Did you spend all your childhood here?
Yeah, I did. I went to Central. Was comedy something you were into from a young age?
I always hung out with the class clown type kids. And my dad is very funny. I don’t think I really had it in mind as a career path. I didn’t really even occur to me that you could do that. I was a huge fan of Craig O’ Neill. He was probably my first exposure to comedy. You were also big into the DIY/punk culture in the mid-80s. Not that it’s ever been mainstream in Little Rock, but it was way out there back then. Can you talk about that period?
At that point in the mid-’80s, there really wasn’t a place for anyone under 21 to see any kind of rock show. James Brady [who later formed Trusty] went to England and came back and kind of told us about punk. We had a Sex Pistols record and a Damned record. It was exciting to kind of feel like you’re starting something or doing something that not everybody’s aware of. But also it was frustrating that it was so hard to get bands to come here. You published a zine, “Barking at Life,” when you went off to college at Amherst?
Yeah, I guess it would’ve been my freshmen year during the summer. What kind of stuff did you put in it?
It was a very simple eight page zine — reviews of new albums, reviews of a few shows and also my first attempts at comedy. I’d do things like take comic strips and erase the dialogue and make them my own. Does the DIY/punk culture still have relevance to you today?
More than ever. Because of MySpace. You can do it yourself and be a band and sell your music, and finally it’s that way for comedians. You’ve been making a lot of videos and putting them up in MySpace. You’re doing those all by yourself?
Yeah. And our theater is about to put out UCBcomedy.com in January, where we’re producing daily videos. It’s always been our long-term goal to have our channel. It used to be joke, but now it’s become a reality. Is Upright Citizen’s Brigade your full-time gig?
No. I’m acting and writing for other things. UCB, the four of us, are constantly involved in new projects. Like UCBcomedy.com. We’re going to put out A.S.S.S.S.C.A.T., our improv show, on DVD on March 25 and, hopefully, we’ll have an hour special of it on Comedy Central. Is A.S.S.S.S.C.A.T. an acronym for anything?
Yes and no. It is if you want it to be. It’s Automated Sprinkler System Siamese Connection Alternative Theater. Before you decided on the name did y’all sit and debate the number of “S”s?
I think I just gave you three and there’s actually four. I always forget the one S. It’s important to us that it be four Ss. You’d have to go through a whole initiation to understand. You did “Stung” with Method Man and Redman for MTV; it seemed more or less like a prototype for “Punk’d.” “Crossballs,” too, had earnest fake news down well before “The Colbert Report.” Any sense that the networks stole your ideas?
You forgot “Spy TV,” which took our prank idea. But no, I don’t think any of those people stole from me. So there’s no frustration there?
I think “Crossballs” was a great show. You can check it out on my MySpace page [www.myspace.com/mattbesser]. It was put on in a terrible time-slot, never promoted and it caused a lot of legal problems that just made it not worth it for Comedy Central. That was very frustrating. I don’t look at “The Colbert Report” for the reason of my frustration. I just think of it as a wasted opportunity. Is there a difference between improve and pranks?
They’re definitely different skills. Pranks use improv skills, but pranking is its own beast for sure. Pranking takes something out of you. Is there one you enjoy doing more?
Oh, I’m done with pranking. Did something happen?
“Crossballs” — you had people getting really mad it you. It was important to me that we, for the most part, tried to prank people that I felt deserved it. That would make me feel less guilty. You prank someone who doesn’t deserve it, it’s kind of lame. It’s confrontation. Even though I was doing a character, we were having real debates. I guess that’s what being a politician is. Is comedy art? Could you go onto “Inside the Actor’s Studio” and talk about process with a straight face?
I could talk about comedy in lofty terms for hours and hours. Make diagrams and graphs and math formulas for it. Why is a rubber chicken funny?
I don’t think anything about the rubber chicken is funny. I actually just did an ad two weeks ago where I was offered a rubber chicken for a prop and I refused. You know what is funny? The rubber vomit, which was invented by an Arkansan. He lives in some small town in Arkansas. I read this article and got his phone number through information, and Adam McKay and I called him up pretending to be the producers of “In Loving Color.” This was after George Bush had eaten some sushi and puked. We said, “We want to do a George Bush sketch and have the largest rubber vomit ever.” And he said, “Well, they’re usually 12 inches at the most.” He told us he’d try to figure it out, so we called back later, and he said, “I thought about, and I’ll have to knock down the back into of my garage…” He was a really nice guy, so we were quick to say “no no no.” What’s on your slate for 2008?
Picketing [with the Writer’s Guild of America]. UCBcomedy.com is a big project. But Hollywood is pretty much shut down. Are you hopeful?
Of course. But I don’t think it’s going to be resolved any time soon.