When researchers survey people about their deepest fears, one of the things that usually pops to the top of the list — scarier, apparently, than spiders, clowns, sometimes even the looming specter of death — is the fear of speaking before a crowd. Not to put you into a panic attack, dear reader, but try to imagine speaking before a crowd ... while trying to be funny ... with no script ... and no idea what you'll be joking about from one minute to the next.
Such is the life of an improv comic, a shoot-from-the-hip style of comedy that Little Rock native Matt Besser has practiced for most of his life. One of the founders of the cult sketch comedy troupe Upright Ctizens Brigade, which had a show on Comedy Central for several years in the late 1990s, Besser and UCB are now making the jump to cyberspace via NBC's new all-comedy streaming platform Seeso.com. Featuring exclusive rights to air back episodes of "Kids in the Hall" and "Monty Python's Flying Circus," plus over a dozen original series, including the new, eight-episode "The UCB Show" and Besser's new stand-up special "Besser Breaks the Record," the site promises to be one-stop shopping for lovers of improv, classic and sketch comedy, all for $3.99 a month.
Besser probably had to be a comedian, just because of his unique background. Born in 1967 in the buckle of the Bible Belt to a Jewish father and a Christian mother, Besser was steeped in contradictions from the time he was young. While he's no hicksploitation comic of the Larry the Cable Guy stripe, Southern characters of his childhood still make appearances in his comedy, such as the redneck he plays for a bit in "Besser Breaks the Record."
"That's a character I've been doing for 20 years," he said. "I always say that's a version of me if I'd gone down a different redneck path in Little Rock. That's the guy who used to beat me up in the carwash parking lot. So, yeah, there are definitely characters from my past who originated there, and I do carry a sense of pride for the South and Arkansas in particular, almost like a chip on my shoulder."
Besser said he first became interested in comedy by listening to Little Rock radio DJ Craig O'Neill, now a newscaster at KTHV, Ch. 11, do prank calls on his morning radio show. Once Besser went away to college, he started doing a show of his own at the campus radio station.
"I guess the patter between songs just became longer and longer every time I would do the show," he said. "When I started getting fans who were listeners telling me I was funny, that really struck a chord. I've always tried to be funny in school, but that was the first time I thought: Hey, maybe I can entertain people."
Soon, Besser was doing stand-up comedy, and eventually won a stand-up contest at the University of Massachusetts. After that success, he was hooked. He moved to Chicago and began taking classes in improvisational comedy. With Adam McKay, Ian Roberts, Rick Roman, Horatio Sanz and Matt Walsh, he formed the Upright Citizens Brigade troupe in 1991. These days, he helps run four UCB-branded improv theaters in New York and Los Angeles, tours, sells his comedy albums through his website mattbesser.com, and hosts the podcast improv4humans.
Besser became involved in Seeso.com in a roundabout way. At the time, he and the other partners in the UCB theaters were pitching a TV series. "There's a lot of places on TV, classically, for stand-up comedy," he said, "but there's rarely been places to show off characters and sketch kinds of comedy, basically all comedy that's not stand-up. That's primarily what we do at our UCB theaters. We always wanted to have a show that showed off the greatest hits of our theaters."
While Besser and Co. had originally envisioned the show as TV fodder, possibly as a follow-up to "Saturday Night Live," NBCUniversal eventually came to them with a different idea.
"Right when we were pitching it to late-night-TV type places, NBC came to us and told us about this new platform, Seeso.com, and told us how they were going to have a platform that just catered to comedy nerds," Besser said.
An ad-free subscription service that offers classic sketch comedy, episodes of NBC hits like "30 Rock" and "The Office" and a growing roster of original series, Seeso is a really good time, for less than you'll pay for a cup of coffee at Starbucks.
A particular standout is "Besser Breaks the Record," which features Besser doing stand-up, riffing on an updated version of the Ten Commandments and other subjects and reading a string of letters to the editor from angry crossword puzzle aficionados (with Besser jumping in with his own letters to stir the pot). "These days especially, millennials are into watching their entertainment on more platforms or all platforms, so it really doesn't matter if it's traditional TV," he said. "So we figured why not? Let's go with this new platform. They've given us complete artistic freedom and no censorship, so it's kind of an ideal place for us to get across what happens at our theaters."
While Besser says the stage is always going to call to a comic, online streaming is the way entertainment works now, something that's only going to accelerate in coming years. Once one gets away from the idea that the only way to "make it" as an entertainer is to have a career in film or a show on network TV, it can be freeing. Streaming online services like Seeso can allow that.
"It's great to put out very specific projects vs. being in the world where the only way to be a working comedian is to be on a network sitcom that has 22 episodes," he said. "It's a different world now. You can do a smaller, one-off project."