MATT WALSH: FROM iO TO HBO

Matt Walsh has a comedic gift that keeps on giving.  It’s almost hard to wrap your head around just how much of a contribution he’s made to the community.  He’s a founder of Upright Citizens Brigade, one of the most respected improv and sketch comedy institutions in the world. UCB plays a central role in today’s comedy scene, and creating a theater with that level of influence is a success of a lifetime.  But, of course, that’s just one of the ways Walsh has graced us with his talent.  His role as Mike McLintock on Veep is taking him to the Emmys this Sunday as a Best Featured Actor in a Comedy nominee.  It’s a performance I can simply describe as “tragically hilarious;” I don’t think a character’s ever made me feel so depressed at the same time they were making me uncontrollably laugh. What Walsh does is original and fresh; his performances are specific and precise.  And in this interview, Walsh shares his insights into hitting the punchlines just right.

MC: When did you catch the comedy bug?

MW: I was bitten by the comedy bug when I did the senior variety show at my high school. Some friends and I had written some sketches that made fun of a few teachers and a couple of commercial parodies. The high I got from having the audience laugh when we wanted them to was magical. It was also nice to be praised by both teachers and students for being funny. Normally teachers sent you to the principal’s office when you tried to be funny.

Did anyone or anything inspire you to pursue a career in comedy?

The possibility of doing comedy as a career happened when I discovered the improv scene in Chicago. Many people from that scene had landed paying jobs at Second City and a rare few had made it to Saturday Night Live or gotten parts in movies that came to Chicago. So the success of the “seniors” in the improv scene really inspired me. I was also inspired by some of the teachers in Chicago including Del Close, who was a legend by the time I met him, and Mick Napier and the Annoyance Theater gang, where the DIY spirit inspired you to create things that might catch you a break. Beyond that, I can credit successful comedy acts such as Kids in the Hall, Monty Python, Peter Sellers, and even the Marx Brothers. Their perfection in comedy inspired me to keep working to make something one day that was really good.

I’m sure everything you learned from Del Close at iO has influenced the work you do now.  But can you think of anything specific he taught you that you feel really helped you hone your comedic skills? 

Del made you believe that being a professional satirist was a legit career. He got you to take it seriously. He handed out reading lists of great books you should have read, encouraged you to take risks, and have adventures to fill up your reservoir of personal experience to draw from. He also demanded you stay current with politics and popular culture because your job was to comment on it while on stage. Finally, he challenged you to find your own voice, to do something nobody had done before. Many times when someone in class did a clichéd scene, you would hear a sarcastic voice from the back of the room saying “never seen that before.” It made you strive to be interesting and unique.

What were some benefits starting out in a smaller market like Chicago where comedy is the focus? 

Chicago is affordable. Chicago is filled with Midwestern comraderies and kindness. Chicago was also all about the work; in fact, “just do the work” was a mantra often said in the comedy scene. There weren’t many casting directors or show biz agents attending our shows so we worked to gain the esteem of our colleagues in the scene. I knew at some point I would have to move to LA or New York to find a better entertainment market place, but the years in Chicago were spent getting on stage and honing my craft and enjoying it for its own sake.

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Amy Poehler, Matt Walsh, Matt Besser, and Jason Mantzoukas improvising at UCB’s Del Close Marathon–named for Matt’s teacher

Everyone on Veep is so funny and seasoned as a comedian/actor.  I’m curious, does the cast ever improvise in rehearsal and have a scene fall flat?  Can even the most talented people fall victim to something like negation, not being able to find the game of the scene, etc? 

There is a ton of failed comedy that lies on the floor of our rehearsal room.  We use the rehearsals to explore things that aren’t quite working. Our job is to be willing to suck for a while until we discover something interesting or useful or funny. We will try scenes multiple times with until we find a kernel of goodness, then the writers will go away and use some of it for their next draft. That is the lesson of Veep for me, just be willing to try things or pitch ideas and don’t be too attached to them if they fail.

Congrats on your Emmy nomination! I think this past season Mike was more sympathetic for viewers than any other.  Everything that he did and everything that happened to him was so tragically hilarious.  What did it feel like for you playing him in season 5?  Did if feel different than the previous seasons?

Tragically hilarious is a great compliment, I’ll take it! For me, season 5 was different because we were finally at the top of the mountain. The pressure was higher for him especially in his daily press briefings. He had to get up there and sell whatever Ben or Selina wanted him too. Also, Mike’s personal life was very hectic in season 5. He was finding surrogate mothers, filing for adoptions, juice cleansing, counting his steps, getting addicted to nicotine, and so on. It was fun to play all the levels of his personal life underneath his daily job as press secretary.

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Matt Walsh as Mike McLintock on Veep

Mike is often pinned as “lazy” and “a fuck-up.”  I doubt his intention is to be that way and, as the actor, you have to justify all of his actions.  What do you think motivates Mike day-to-day? 

I think Mike’s history with Selina motivates him. He is very loyal to her. Mike is also a veteran of the press game and knows that “no comment” is often the best play because the news cycle moves so fast and because when you respond you open yourself up to more criticism.  But Mike also believes he has a talent to think outside the box. He can be over creative.  As a result, his suggestions are the absolute worst ideas. His compass is also driven by decent values and he’s not as ambitious or cutthroat as his colleagues.

In addition to performing, you also direct and write.  How has being able to do all three things helped you in your career?

I’ve always loved writing and performing my own comedy. When UCB had a sketch show on Comedy Central, we even helped to edit the shows. I loved editing. Directing is the most challenging, but also more rewarding because it is the cleanest version of your vision. I guess from all the skills I’ve learned, whenever I’m doing comedy, I try to add an idea or a nuance that will help the joke or bit land better. Comedy is a very collaborative art, so it’s usually welcomed.

What’s your advice for aspiring comedians/improvisers/actors?

Do it every night! Say yes to other people’s requests to help with their projects. This is where you learn and make friends that will keep you from feeling like you are alone chasing this dream. Save your money, as it will take some time to make a decent living (or at least for me it did). Pay attention to all aspects of comedy, including performing, writing, editing, producing, and directing. You may retain some info that will help you realize a project later on. And finally, learn to listen really well. Hear what’s being called for in a scene or bit. Listening is the trickiest part to get down. ♦

Catch up on Veep on HBO and be sure to root for Matt at the Emmys this Sunday 7pm ET/4pm PT on ABC!   

Photo Credit: Willie Davis for The New York Times, HBO