In a rare example of a pipe dream coming true, Matt Besser is bringing his 420 Comedy Show through the Centennial State, much to the delight of pot-humor enthusiasts. A co-founder of the game-changing Upright Citizens Brigade improv theater (and a short-lived yet influential Comedy Central show of the same name), Besser and his performance philosophy have permeated the industry to the point that nearly every comedy show on TV has at least one UCB alumnus in its cast. Besser has amassed an impressive on-screen résumé in his own right, stealing scenes on shows like Parks & Recreation and Modern Family and films like Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. Besser's Rocky Mountain High tour includes a stop at Fort Collins's Lyric Theater on Thursday, July 5; an engagement at Denver's Oriental Theater on Friday, July 6; a visit to the weed-friendly Open Faith Temple in Colorado Springs on Saturday, July 7; and a show at Boulder's Bohemian Biergarten on Sunday, July 8. Westword caught up with Besser prior to his intrastate tour to discuss the enduring legacy of UCB, the 420 Comedy Show, and his comedic origins at a Boulder strip club.
Westword: You’re taking your 4/20 standup tour through Colorado in July, which is an appropriate place for it, I think.
Matt Besser: Yeah, that's why I'm going to Colorado. I specifically want to go there. I've been developing the show in California, but everyone is looking to Colorado this whole time as a place that's been leading the fight for legalization and showing other states what's gonna happen, and I decided that I've gotta take the show there.
So what can people expect from these performances?
Well, the theme is definitely marijuana, but it goes other places. I have a five-year-old child, so I talk about everything from my five-year-old all the way across the spectrum to blow jobs. And marijuana's somewhere in between and behind all of it, right?
It's the glue holding everything together.
Well, pot's the glue for a lot of things. But, yeah, I'll be singing some songs, doing my Neil Young impression. I've been working on a Willie Nelson impression; I'm surprised it's taken me this long to work on one.
I think he owns a dispensary here.
Does he? Of course he does. I'm not surprised.
There's at least a strain of weed called "Willie's Reserve" or something.
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Oh, I knew that. I have a cap that says "Willie's Reserve" on it. So I started doing a 420 show at the UCB Theater years ago, maybe ten or fifteen years ago, when weed was illegal everywhere. And people would get high during that show and it was always kind of a fun, underground thing. And it was also sort of a unique comedy show in that it would start out better than any other comedy show — because everyone was getting wicked high at the top, right? — and then it would always reach that midway point when you could find out who was smoking indica in the crowd because they're leaning way back into their chair. And inevitably, by the end of the show, someone would be asleep in the audience that we could fuck with. So that was a show we did for years, but it was more of a variety of all sorts of shit. But as a host, I'd spent years developing all this weed-specific material, and it finally developed into an hour-and-a-half show.
The tour kicks off with a couple theater dates, but there are also stops at some unconventional venues, including a church in Colorado Springs and a strip club. Are you specifically drawn to non-traditional stages, or just generally willing to make the best of it in weird surroundings?
Well, they both have specific goals. At first I was considering just touring vape lounges, just to stick with the original goal of "Let me do this show where people are actually getting high." Then I decided that maybe I don't actually want to do that the entire time. Maybe I want bigger venues and audiences that got high beforehand instead. But I definitely wanted to do it at least once, and you can't do it anywhere in L.A. — that I'm aware of, at least not yet. So the Open Faith Temple is that experience. It's not a vape lounge, per se, but it's a performance space where you can get high. At least that's what I've been told. It definitely sounds like it'll be an interesting experience, but I definitely don't want all four dates to be like that. And then I want to go the Bus Stop in Boulder because that's actually the place I started doing comedy in 1989. [Note: The Bus Stop show has been canceled].
Yeah. Right after college, a buddy of mine was moving to Boulder for some summer program, and he was like, "Come live with me." And I figured, why not? I love Colorado. So the Bus Stop is a strip club, and it's still there, and if I remember correctly, there were what we called "blue laws" where I come from in Arkansas – I don't know what you call them out there – but you couldn't strip on Sundays. I don't know if those are still the rules, but that's how I remember it: No stripping on Sundays. So they had comedy there on those nights. And I did it every single Sunday for that whole summer. The funniest memory I have from that is the guys, the men — the gentlemen — in the audience who weren't aware of these blue laws fully expected to see stripping. And I would invariably come out first because I was just beginning, and you know, the rookie always gets the first spot after the emcee, so I'd just get shoved out on the stage; and that was the beginning of my comedy career. Just dudes who don't understand why it's me instead of a naked woman, looking at me angrily.
I did a show there once where the comics were interspersed with the strippers.
That's tough. I've done that, too, but it was in my Chicago days. Why would you ever put comedy between strippers?
When people want strippers, they don't want jokes.
I think if you were there for the jokes, it might be even more uncomfortable. I don't know if the Bus Stop is going to be into it, but I gotta at least try to go back to where I started.
Well, hopefully the circle doesn't end there. It would really suck if that was my last show.
I’ve noticed that a lot of your standup sets feature lots of crowd work and unconventional prompts, like the letters to newspaper editors that you read, rather than more formulaic jokes. How does your approach to standup differ from your approach to improv?
Well, being interactive with the crowd is kind of allowing my improv to be in the show, and that always is kind of like a Socratic conversation with the crowd. I like to hear what they think about whatever concept I'm introducing, and usually I can find comedy in whatever their take is. So that's the improv right there. Yeah, I've done really conceptual standup, and this show really starts as a conversation about what's happening in the world right now around marijuana. And what's happening is very interesting, and relevant in so many ways. So just starting with that can lead to so many other things.
You had a bunch of projects going on Seeso, like your last special and The UCB Show. Do you know what the fate of those projects will be now that Seeso has folded?
Well, yeah. I'm actually doing promotion for this next week, but Starz has bought the rights to both seasons of The UCB Show, and I believe they're available on the Starz app as we speak. I think they'll occasionally show them on the network, too, from what I understand.
So they have the back catalogue, but you're not going to be producing new episodes?
Yeah, they just bought the rights to seasons one and two, and also the Andy Richter's Home for the Holidays special that we made. I don't know if they bought Besser Breaks the Record, which was the name of my special, or where you can see it. The audio version is still available. But, yeah: What happens to old comedy specials when networks go under?
Speaking of UCB, why do you think your instruction methods have been such a reliable generator of comedic performers? Basically every comedy on TV has a UCB alum in the cast.
Well, I'm definitely not going to credit our instruction for the success of all the people who've come through our theater, because they were talented before they came in. But we definitely have a methodology, an improv methodology that can also be applied to writing comedy, called "finding the game." And I think learning this method makes it easier to work with other people, for one, because everyone has their own talents. People are either funny or they're not, and you can't teach that — but you can teach people to work together to make an idea better. Instead of improvisers who want to be funny by themselves, we aim to try and make the scene itself as funny as possible. As a creator, I think that's someone you'd rather work with, whether it's a movie or a sitcom; that kind of methodology is good for collaboration. People want to be with those kinds of performers.
I think I read an interview somewhere where you said that standups often don't make good improvisers because they're used to getting all the laughs for themselves.
Yeah, like I told you, I started as a standup before I even knew what improv was. Back then it wasn't on TV, and even though I knew what sketch comedy was, I didn't realize that any sort of process came before that. I certainly didn't know that people were improvising full scenes. I didn't understand that concept. So I started as a standup, and then I moved from the Denver/ Boulder area to Chicago, for the standup scene. Chicago had a huge standup scene back in 1990. So I heard about improv on the standup scene and started going to shows at the Improv Olympic, which my mentor Del Close was part of — the guru of it, really. When you saw his style of improv, you knew something was going on besides just being funny. You'd be like, "What are they doing, and how do they do it?" I even thought, "They're cheating. They wrote that." I literally said that the first time I saw it. I went up to David Koechner, who I didn't even know at the time, and said, "I know you guys wrote that. Right? No?" So when I started, people said, "You're a standup. It is never going to work for you here. It's too late for you." But, yeah, if you're used to getting laughs as a standup, especially if you're good at it, why would you ever want to work with someone else? Why do you care if they're getting any laughs? It took me at least two years to learn that lesson, because even when I thought I had learned that lesson, I hadn't. I had to let go. And I don't want to say, like, "All standups are selfish and all improvisers are giving" — because it's not that simple. The form forces you to collaborate; it's not like improvisers are better people.
I continue to do the Professor Besser podcast on Patreon. I think that's a thing that a lot of podcasters do is have a side project for their Patreon subscribers. I only do it every once in a while, but Professor Besser is essentially just talking about comedy and the philosophy behind performing, kind of like what we're doing now. I get really deep into different things. But it's intended for people who want to be comedians, whereas improv4humans is just a comedy show for everyone. And the Asssscat thing is very old; we were just recording live epsiodes of our Asssscat show at UCB. But we weren't even wearing lav mics or anything, so the sound's not great.
In your email, you mentioned bombing at Comedy Works back when you were starting out. What happened there?
Well, that was the first legitimate club I went up at. I don't know how many times I'd done the Bus Stop at that point, but the other closest open mic was at Comedy Works. If memory serves, it was on a Monday or Tuesday.
It's on Tuesdays now, so not much has changed.
And this could be an exaggeration, but I remember something like forty different acts going up, doing four minutes each. Something like that. It was a ton of people doing a very short amount of time. That's the memory, anyway. It was just a morass of people. It was also packed, and open-mic shows generally aren't. So tons of people saw me bomb. Most open mics have maybe twelve people in the audience, but on this particular night, the Comedy Works was a-rockin'. So in my memory of 1989, I went on stage for the fourth or fifth time ever to do four minutes, and my bit back then — which is so lame — was basically my version of the Wizard of Oz, and every character was an impression of someone else. Like, "Here's Marlon Brando as the Cowardly Lion!" And I did the thing you should never do: When the first bit didn't work, my confidence went out the window, and I was just riddled with flop sweat. I mumbled the last two minutes of my set, and when I came off, my buddy who I was living with in Boulder, who'd come to see my big comedy show, said, "Hey, Matt, let's go across the street so I can buy you a drink." In my memory, there was a bar across the street, and he took me there and bought me a shot — and I don't even drink shots. He bought me a shot of whiskey and said, "Hey man, I don't think you should ever do that again. That was really brutal. You should quit, because that was bad."
I feel like for a normal person, that's sound advice. But not for a comedian.
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[Laughs.] No. I don't think I ever went back to the Comedy Works that summer. But I didn't quit that summer. I kept doing the Bus Stop and weird shows in Fort Collins before I moved to Chicago to bomb there. That was my worst-ever bomb, though, I'm proud to say.
You gotta have at least one. Boy, the full room does make it worse, though.
That's the other thing: At open mics you usually have a lot of people bombing, but that night everyone was doing pretty well! Except for me. So even now, I'm scared of Comedy Works. But I'm not scared of Denver anymore.
Besser's Rocky Mountain High tour, Thursday, July 5, at Fort Collins's Lyric Theater; Friday, July 6, at Denver's Oriental Theater; Saturday, July 7, at The Temple of Open Faith in Colorado Springs; Sunday, July 8, at Boulder's Bohemian Biergarten.