Comedy fans surely know the great Matt Besser—a mainstay in film and television, a co-founder of the Upright Citizens Brigade comedy mecca, a master of improv comedy and one of the weirder, funnier and most talented people working in yuks today. Besser comes to Santa Fe this week to record his Improv4Humans podcast live (7 pm Thursday, Aug. 11. $30-$40. Jean Cocteau Cinema, 418 Montezuma Ave., (505) 466-5528) and to teach a special invite-only class for Santa Fe Stages students. Obviously we had to get in touch with the guy. (Alex De Vore)
A buddy told me you have some kind of Santa Fe connection—your dad lives here or something?
My parents have passed away, but when we were kids, we used to go to Santa Fe on vacation every year starting when I was 8, we’d be there for like a week at the end of August when it’s so exciting in Santa Fe—the markets, in particular. I have good memories of that, and when I went to college, my parents both moved there. Both were very active in the arts scene in supporting artists—particularly the Museum of International Folk Art.
Did you find your comedic practice evolving during the pandemic, when lockdowns prevented live events, and are you really thrilled to be getting back to in-person shows?
At first I think it was awkward for improvisers and everybody to do Zoom shows. It felt awkward at first, but it didn’t last too long. I think as we all got used to the tool, it got better. As it’s opening up and people are going back into studios, I don’t think [Zoom is] necessary. I enjoy live shows in front of an audience. We just did a show at the abandoned old zoo in Griffith Park in Los Angeles, and that was the first I’d done since the pandemic, so that was very exciting. Some people were actually doing Zoom shows where the audience is sending out ‘likes’ and ‘laughs,’ and good for everybody doing all that, but when you know you’re being watched but can’t heart the laughter? It was like people doing shows at drive-in theaters where people were honking, but you can’t hear the laughter.
I really enjoy going to places that I really enjoy, so I’m more interested in going to laces I enjoy for shows than making my profession touring the show, if that makes sense. I’m going to be in St. Louis at this club I really like in November; I like doing festivals; I love South by Southwest.
Do you find a different energy in small cities versus large? Sometimes in Santa Fe we’re just thrilled to get anything at all.
There’s an energy and appreciation for sure, and I’m from Arkansas, I’m from Little Rock, which in lots of ways is the same size as Santa Fe. I do, in a way, have a place in my heart for the small cities, and it’s not like Santa Fe’s a small town, it’s a small city. But Arkansas has kind of a chip on its shoulder in general—like, bands would never tour through there. When I was growing up it was like, ‘Look what Dallas got and we didn’t get! And Memphis!’ But I always say to people who don’t know New Mexico, who don’t know Santa Fe—because I think a lot of people assume it’s all like Albuquerque, especially after Breaking Bad—I go, ‘No you don’t understand. There’s this elevation, and Santa Fe becomes this whole different place. They think it’s a desert all year round, but there are kind of two different New Mexicos as far as scenery and places to visit go.
I understand you’re a bit of a punk rock fan. Is part of that a sort of ethos overlap between punk and comedy?
That’s a deep one. I don’t think you have enough ink. In your teens, when you first hear it, you have a lot of pent-up energy you don’t know what to do with, and at the time you might even call it anger. You want to put it somewhere besides other people. For teenage Matt Besser, the energy of punk rock really was a great outlet for what I was going through, and I think a lot of young men go through it—and women, I’m just speaking from what know.
So this is a specific Santa Fe story: There used to be this cool record store there, and I’m trying to remember the name but I can’t, and I’d go there when I was in Santa Fe, and I bought Dead Kennedys’ Nazi Punks Fuck Off when I was very young, like 13 or something. I have such a vivid memory of buying that because it had this armband that came with it that had this anti-Nazi symbol; it was a 45 that had so much anti-authority in it I couldn’t believe it. I remember a parent driving us back to Bishop’s Lodge and my friend trying to get me in trouble like, ‘Matthew, tell Mr. Burford what you bought…'
DK was kind of like a forbidden fruit. Punk at that time was something crazy, and I grew up liking a lot of those bands most simply because of that. I was laughing at my young self listening to some British bands like The Angelic Upstarts, and they’d have these songs about coal mine workers who died and stuff I didn’t know about historically—people I had no idea who they’re singing about, and I’m all angry about it. It’s just funny what you latch onto. At the time, maybe I think I’m political, I’m into anarchy. When I was a teenager, I thought I was starting a band that was going to be a funny Beastie Boys, and after we did one show, the rest of the guys in the band came to me and, in so many words said something like, ‘You should just do comedy, Matt.’ And they ended up being a real punk band, the band Trusty that was on Dischord. I was the Pete Best.
You probably get asked this so often, but what is making you laugh lately?
On my show Improv4Humans, I don’t have an official ensemble, but I do have people I invite back a lot. Someone in particular I’m thinking of right now because she also just got New Faces at Just For Laughs is Lisa Gilroy. There’s Vic Michaelis, and you can see her on that show Upload. There’s Dan Lippert, he’s part of a group called Big Grande; Ronnie Adrian; Mookie Blaiklock...
It’s cool you do that. One of the cooler things I think UCB has done is to help raise up comics.
I will say when I was 16, I went to New York City and to Catch a Rising Star. My parents took me to this comedy showcase, and Chris Rock was there—a totally unknown, a teenager, and he KILLED that night, totally killed them. It changed my life forever. I was like, ‘Oh, I want to do that!’ Once again, he was unknown and it’s so special to look back and say ‘I saw that guy.’ It’s cool to support and know and see artists before they were known. Then you can call them sellouts later.