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Interview: Comedian Matt Walsh Talks Veep, Improv And Chicago Sports

By Samantha Abernethy in Arts & Entertainment on Jun 10, 2013 6:00PM

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­Matt Walsh is an influential improv comic and character actor, most recently known for his role as Mike McLintock on HBO's Veep. Walsh honed his comedy craft in Chicago, and he co-founded comedy sketch troupe Upright Citizens Brigade with Matt Besser, Ian Roberts and Amy Poehler.

A native of Darien, Ill., Walsh is an avid fan of the Chicago Bears and is one of the hosts of the “Bear Down” podcast, which is recording in Chicago on Wednesday as part of the Just For Laughs Comedy Festival. It was “started by a group of wayward Chicagoans stuck in the bright desert of Los Angeles.” We had an opportunity to speak with Walsh by phone on Thursday in advance of his visit to Chicago.

The Bear Down Podcast records at UP Comedy Club on Wednesday, June 12 at 10:30 p.m. Hosts include Matt Walsh, Horatio Sanz, Joe Nunez and Brad Morris. Guests include Mongo McMichael, Marv Levy and Spice Adams. Tickets are on sale now. The Just For Laughs Comedy Festival is from June 11 to 16 at various Chicago venues.


Chicagoist: Tell me about Veep. Do you love how much you get to swear, and do you follow politics yourself?

Matt Walsh: Ha, I don't really swear more when I'm filming Veep. The language that we write for it is pretty vulgar and violent, so it is fun to get to do that. I try not to bring it home around my kids. I'm not really a political junkie. I vote and all that, but I don't really consider myself an expert on the political process. But as a result of the show, I think I'm slightly more informed on how things get done on Capitol Hill.

C: Have you met any real-life VP staffers?

MW: Yeah, we've met a lot of people inside the Vice President's office and from various congressional chiefs of staff, press agents and stuff like that. Joe Biden's son came out for one of our premieres. People of D.C. seem to think that our show is very accurate in how a job in politics goes.

C: Do you think it's more accurate than, say, House of Cards?

MW:Yeah. People ask this question a lot. I would say — I've watched all of House of Cards, I love that show — I think there is a certain gloss or shininess to House of Cards since there is conspiracy and intrigue, and I think it's a little inflated in terms of what really goes on for the majority of people who work in D.C., so yes, I think our show relates more to the majority of people in politics. Yes, I do. I think it's more realistic. Usually it's just regular people doing mundane things, and oftentimes they screw things up accidentally. I don't think the majority of them are Machiavellian or schemers like Kevin Spacey.

Meet Mike McLintock

C: So you're a Chicago guy. When did you start performing?

MW: You know, I took my first improv class when I was a senior at Northern Illinois at a place called Player's Workshop at Second City. That was back in the late 80s, maybe '88. And then I moved into Chicago and started doing shows with a sketch group I met in my class, a group called Department of Works. We did shows at UIC, various arts clubs, and then I did some stand-up. Somewhere along the way I started getting involved with ImprovOlympic and a place called the Annoyance Theater. I did many shows at the Annoyance. I started with Del Close in the early 90s, and somewhere in the early 90s I met Matt Besser and Ian Roberts and Adam McKay.

C: Do you still do any stand-up?

MW: No. It's a very difficult profession, and hats off to anybody who can do that.

C: In acting, what has been your favorite role?

MW: Wow. Well, by the recency effect, I think Veep, to me, because we've got to do two seasons of it, because we get to improvise and contribute ideas. Veep would be up there. I did a show called Dog Bites Man, where I played a reporter from Spokane, Washington. That was very improvised. I also did a show on Spike where I played a bar owner in Phoenix which I really enjoyed. That was also improv-friendly. So I tend to like roles where they're comedic, and you can help write what you get to say.

C: You directed the film High Road, and I know that it was mostly improvised, and I was wondering, how does one direct improv in that environment?

MW: So to do an improv movie, you need a tight outline that has all the stories and character arcs and emotional turns and also the nuts and bolts of production, like locations and props and details in that outline. And then, you know, I like to spend a week or two rehearsing with the characters, so we can inform their backstory and understand their world, and also get a general tone of performance, so everybody is kind of acting in the same world. And then when you get on set and start filming, you try to stick to the story points. Like sometimes in improv you can be self-indulgent and just say things to make people laugh, but you really can't spend too much time doing that because it won't end up in the final edit, so you try to keep focused on what works and what won't end up in the cut. And then you just kind of rehearse that scene once, and then you're not looking to create real lines every page. You're just trying to get the best performance of what you need. So you just have to time-manage a bit.

C: So you've said before that Chicago is a great training ground for comedy and improv, but New York and LA launch careers. Does that still apply, and what is it about Chicago that makes it such a great training ground?

MW: Chicago is a great comedy and improv training ground because part of it is economics. You can have a great life, and you don't need to make a ton of money, and you can be a 20-something, have an apartment, still have beer money and also do shows seven nights a week. I think there are many great legit theaters like The Goodman and Steppenwolf and all of the great, legit, straight theater companies. And then the comedy scene is extremely thriving, and there are great teachers there at ImprovOlympic, at the Annoyance or Second City, so the training exists, the infrastructure to work on technique. And also, because there's great theater and comedy, you can do your homework by getting out and seeing a lot of stuff, seeing what people are doing and learn from people that are a little further ahead than yourself. And I think there's also no immediate pressure to get on TV in Chicago. I think a lot of people when they start in Chicago, there are occasional scouting trips from Saturday Night Live or various, you know, shows, but in general, you're just doing it to do it, you're just trying to get better, and you're trying to have a good show, and I think that's really healthy when you're starting out, not looking to get an agent every night or you're not concerned who is in the audience that night. I think LA and New York have a little bit of, not contaminated, but there's a certain show business element, that there are purchasers of comedy and television that come to your shows out here.

C: So how did you decide to make the leap out of Chicago and move on to start Upright Citizens Brigade?

MW: UCB was a group, there were four of us, and we wanted to stay together. And I think in the mid-90s or the late-90s, there was a lot of opportunity for individuals to jump onto different shows, either sketch shows or sitcoms, and we decided we wanted to join together as a group and have a show, so we knew that we had to either gain an audience in New York or LA, where the networks were. We thought New York was better to create a theater following, to get plugged in and do a month or two of shows and keep it going. LA felt like, we'd been out there a couple times, and it felt like a showcase town, where you do a showcase and try to get as many industry people as you can that night. And then a week or two later, you do another showcase. It didn't seem like you could get a following and build something.

C: Do you still often get to do any live improv/sketch work?

MW: We have a UCB theater here in Los Angeles, so I do a show called ASSSSCAT, either Saturday or Sunday. I occasionally do other shows. It's just live improv, and it keeps me sharp. It's like a fun pastime or pick-up game, if you will.

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C: How much of Veep is improvised?

MW: I think in the second season, at the end of the day, I'd say about 10 percent of the final edit is spontaneous dialogue or whatever. But, in the process of creating the script, we improvise four or five weeks during the year. Before we put the scripts down, we try to work scenes and come up with different ideas and there will be jokes, and the writers are in the room and they sort of take what they think is useful and in the next draft comes a few days later, and we're constantly workshopping. Improv as a process informs the final drafts of the scripts, but on the day of actual shooting, there's really a lot to get shot, so there's not a lot of time to indulge yourself.

C: How is it working with Julia Louis-Dreyfus in that somewhat different environment because she's usually more of a script actress?

MW: She's great. She's a great, obviously a tremendous comedian, but she's a great improviser, and she's very playful and silly, and we just want the show to be good. She has the best attitude, and she sets the tone for everyone else, she's very giving and very smart, and she is a real strong perfectionist in the best way, like, can we get more wraps and can we get a better joke in here, so I've certainly learned a lot from her.

C: So you're coming back to Chicago. Are there things that you miss about Chicago, and do you come back often?

MW: I do come back. I still have family in Downers Grove and Darien. I get back three or four times a year for holidays and such and family vacations. What do I miss? I miss a ton of things now. I miss the people. It's a very friendly city, and I have a lot of friends there. I miss the food. I miss kind of the scene, like the comedy scene, you can hop around to different clubs, take a cab or walk to a different show. It's pretty densely populated, unlike LA, where you have to drive anywhere. I miss the scenery. There's no scenery like Chicago, it's just beautiful.

C: Are there any comedy venues that you'll want to visit while you're in town?

MW: I'll try to get up to ImprovOlympic. I might sneak into Second City and watch a show there, and I may head up to the Annoyance to see their space.

C: Are there any local comedians, comics, improv groups in Chicago that we should be paying attention to?

MW: You know, I'm embarrassed to say I don't cover the Chicago scene, so I don't know who the up-and-comers are. I mean, I know during the festival there are some great shows. Like Pete Holmes is funny. He's doing a couple of shows. The improvisers there at the Second City Alumni Show, which I don't think I can see, but they're great. I know all those guys. “T.J. & Dave” are a great show if you ever have a catch them there.

C: So let's talk Chicago sports. First of all, Cubs or Sox?

MW: I'm not a baseball fan, but if I had to say, I'm a Sox fan.

C: And can the Blackhawks make it?

MW: Oh yeah. Oh yeah. I think home-field advantage is going to be huge. I think we just need to get one here in LA, and tonight we might get lucky and get one. (Eds. Note: This interview was conducted on Thursday before the Blackhawks-Kings Game 4.) I think their offense is incredible. They're not as thick as the Kings, but I think if we can get through the Kings and get into the finals, it's a coin toss between them and it looks like Boston Their offense is so impressive. I think they can get goals. I don't know that they go through droughts like other teams.

2013_6_10_beardown.jpg C: As for the Bears, what do you think of the new coach?

MW: I'm pretty excited. I think their offense is going to be really good. I'm very optimistic that Trestman will bond with Cutler, he's a quarterback guy. I love the acquisitions and solidifying the offensive line. I think that's awesome for Cutler. He's probably one of the most beaten-up quarterbacks in the NFL in the last three or four years. I love that Martellus Bennett as a receiver. I'm curious to see if Alshon Jeffrey can stay healthy. I obviously like Forte and with Michael Bush, that's a great backfield. if he can get the run going and play the option fake or whatever, it could be really good. And Brandon Marshall is a beast, so I love the offense. The defense is a question, but I always have confidence that Chicago will have aggressive defense and we'll somehow pull it together.

C: What do you think of Jay Cutler? Is there a reason he's such a polarizing figure?

MW: (laughs) I like Cutler. I think he's probably one of the best quarterbacks we've had in Chicago forever. And he is a prickly person, he's not media-friendly. He seems moody at times, but I think he's confident, I think he's a team-player. I get why people don't like him, but I'm a fan.

C: Do you have any upcoming projects that we should look for? I saw on IMDB that you did an episode of Drunk History, which is something I'm really looking forward to.

MW: I did a Drunk History, I'm doing a movie this summer with David Cross that I'm excited about. I go back for Season Three of Veep in September. I'm doing the Del Close Marathon in New York at the end of June. It's like a 3-day, 72-hour, long-standing comedy festival.

C: What's the film with David Cross?

MW: It's about a small town, basically a town council where... I think it's an exploration of small towns and people with few options doing desperate things. That's how I would describe it.

C: Speaking of small towns, you were on Parks & Rec, the Emergency Response episode. What was it like working with Amy Poehler again?

MW: It was great. Amy and I are friends, and she's super funny. Their set, I think, is similar to Veep in that it's improv-friendly and really collaborative. No egos, but everyone just wants to be fun and funny. I was really glad to do one of them. Super fun.

C: Anything you want to add? I think I'm out of questions.

MW: No, I think for “Bear Down” that's coming up on June 12 we have Steve McMichael is going to make an appearance, Marv Levy is going to make an appearance and Anthony “Spice” Adams, so we have a really good lineup, along with Horatio Sanz, Brad Morris and Joe Nunez.