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Matt Besser might be the funniest Arkansan alive. For almost two decades, the Little Rock native has helped shape contemporary comedy, notably through his involvement with the sketch comedy group Upright Citizens Brigade, which has theaters in New York and L.A. that are regularly credited as being at the center of their respective comedy scenes.
As a founding member (along with Amy Poehler, Matt Walsh and Ian Roberts, all of “Saturday Night Live”), Besser helped lead the troupe, from 1998 to 2000, on three seasons of “Upright Citizens Brigade” on Comedy Central. In the wake of the show's success, Besser co-created and starred in “Crossballs,” a debate prank show on Comedy Central, and “Stung,” a hidden camera show with Method Man and Redman, for MTV.
On Friday, audiences across the country will see Besser in “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story,” a comedy that seems poised to be the hit of the holiday season.
“Walk Hard” is a parody of the big, overblown musician biopics — “Ray,” “Walk the Line,” “Great Balls of Fire.” A lot of John C. Reilly's Dewey Cox character, at least from the previews, seems to be based on Johnny Cash. You play Dave, the guitarist in Cox's band. Did you draw from any real-life musician as inspiration for your character?
I actually wouldn't say John C. Reilly is just Johnny Cash. I don't think Johnny Cash was as big of an egomaniac a-hole as this guy. I think he drew a lot from Elvis. They really tried to take something from a lot of folks.
The band in particular, when we started out, [producer] Judd [Apatow] and [director] Jake [Kasdan] had us read “Elvis and the Memphis Mafia.” It's really good. It's told from the perspective of his gang that hung out with him all the time. It's really detailed.
Did you actually play guitar and sing in the role?
I did. You won't hear me. I am actually playing the chords. If you had my version, it wouldn't sound so great. We did have a tutor come in and teach us how play instruments.
How'd you land the role?
I've worked with both Judd and Jake on different projects. I'm always coming in and helping them with reads. I had to audition, but I'd actually done some of the earlier reads of the movie. I did a small role in “The TV Set,” which was Jake's last movie.
What separates “Walk Hard” from genre spoofs like “Not Another Teen Movie” and “Scary Movie”?
It's not that kind of tone at all. It has its silly moments, but I think it's a lot smarter comedy. I think those parodies in recent years are just kind of for teenagers, really.
Right. There is a lot of that in this movie. But not the majority. I just think it's a smartly written parody. And you've also got to give a lot of it to how John C. Reilly plays it. He really is a triple threat. He can act and do comedy and really sing. He nails it, and he does it live, too. He sings the title song like Johnny Cash and does another one that's like Roy Orbison and another one that's like Bob Dylan. He does all these different genres from the '50s through the '90s. You've also got to give a lot of credit to the directing and the tone.
Your career has been largely in improvisational comedy. Did you get to ad lib in “Walk Hard?”