imageMatt Besser is in a Jack Black film and on Comedy Central

Profile by Katherine Jamieson

If the American studies department at Amherst hadn’t rejected Matt Besser’s thesis, he might never have made his mark on the world of improvisational comedy. “I thought, what am I going to do with a rited thesis? I’ll become a comedian,” Besser says. Though the department didn’t award honors for the work, an exploration of shock humor in American society, the thesis laid the foundation for Besser’s future career. “It was the first time I was exposed to Howard Stern. I listened to everything and learned a lot about the world I’m still in,” Besser says.

After Amherst, Besser moved to Chicago, where he studied with Del Close, who trained many of the original cast members of Saturday Night Live, including Gilda Radner, Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi. “Close was the first to say that improv can be a form of entertainment and not just practice,” Besser says. In 1996, Besser and three friends from Chicago—Ian Roberts, Matt Walsh and Amy Poehler (of Baby Mama and Saturday Night Live fame)—went to New York City to found The Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. Taking over a former strip club in Chelsea, the group began staging the award-winning show they had started back in Chicago and hosting innovative improv and sketch comedy throughout the week.

The new theater soon attracted casting directors, agents and journalists seeking fresh comic talent. In 2003, the theater moved to a new space, doubling its seating capacity, and began producing more than 25 shows a week. In recent years, Upright Citizens Brigade opened an additional theater in Hollywood, Calif., as well as comedy training centers in New York City and Los Angeles. Besser teaches improv and sketch writing at the Los Angeles Center.

In addition, Besser is pursuing his own movie and television career. “There’s nothing more gratifying than performing live on stage and hearing the people directly,” he says. He created and performed in MTV’s hidden camera show Stung and co-created and starred in Crossballs, which ran for 23 episodes on Comedy Central. This summer, he appeared in Year One, a movie directed by Harold Ramis and starring Jack Black that lampoons Old Testament stories and creation myths in general. (“I’m in one scene where someone asks me why they’re sacrificing a woman, and I explain that it’s because they want it to rain,” Besser says.) He will also play an evil sheriff on Comedy Central’s Reno 911, a parody of the show Cops. The Reno 911 role fits well with Besser’s goal to transition from comedies to “being the evil bad guy in science fiction movies,” which he believes will be easier as he “gets older and more evil-looking,” he says.

Besser credits his Arkansan background with his interest in humor. “People always pick on Arkansas. It’s like Jersey or Cleveland—it’s thrown out as a place where stupid people are from.” Growing up in Little Rock, hundreds of miles away from any other big city, fueled his drive to establish himself. “Creativity comes from isolation, having a chip on your shoulder and wanting to prove something,” he says. He was spurred to tour the South with his recent one-man show, Woo Pig Sooie!, because he got “so pissed off about the Bush administration.”

At Amherst, Besser was inspired by the course “Deviance,” taught by Donald Pitkin, now professor emeritus of anthropology. “In one class, a man walked into the back of the room while the professor was showing a film and started babbling nonsense, non sequiturs, and throwing leaves on the floor,” says Besser. The next week, the man came back wearing the same clothes and spouting nonsense, but this time he was introduced as a poet from Northampton. In this new context, everyone clapped for him. For another class, Pitkin was late, but the stage was filled with chalk, crayons, paint and rain sticks. After five minutes one student got up and started playing with a rain stick. “At first some people were judging people for messing around, but by the end of the class the majority of people were judging those still in their chairs.” These experiences taught him about “making a point without saying the point,” Besser says. “This is what satire does. Only on the surface level it’s offensive, but back up a little and you can see the point it’s making.”

The Upright Citizens Brigade will host a festival, The Ultimate Comedy Bash, Oct. 9 to 11 in California. Besser will perform as part of a reunion with his original comedy group and promises that “some of the biggest names in alternative comedy” will be on stage.

Though Besser claims to still have nightmares about his rejected thesis, he believes his career has compensated for the early academic failure. Still, he seeks redemption. He jokes that if only his former professors were to watch some of his clips, they might say, “Bring Besser back and give him the sheepskin that he deserves.”

Jamieson is a freelance writer who lives in Whately, Mass. She profiled John Hanshaw ’89 in the Winter 2009 Amherst magazine.

Photo by Seth Olenick