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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?”
Definitely. I think that on all of Judd's movies and the few I've done of Jake's, they encourage that. The script was hilarious, but every time we did a take, we did a few takes where it was completely improvised. Some of my improv made it to the final cut, so I'm pretty happy.
Do you get to be in the orgy scene?
I am in the orgy scene. The whole band is. I don't get as lucky as Tim Meadows, but I get luckier than Chris Parnell.
You also have a part in another Apatow production, “Drillbit Taylor,” which stars Owen Wilson. Are you in the Apatow crew now?
I don't know if that's for me to declare, but he definitely keeps me involved. He's very cool that way. He's the type of guy who comes by the UCB Theater. He's really in touch with the comedy community in general.
Your official bio leads with “Raised a proud Razorback,” and last year you went on tour with a one man show called “Woo Pig Sooie,” where you had audiences across the country call the Hogs —
I was very upset McFadden didn't get the Heisman. I think it's bullshit.
Me too. I was going to ask if you think Pelphrey and Petrino will be saviors for Hog Nation?
So far, from the way Pelphrey talks, I like him better than Stan Heath, but we haven't really tested ourselves up to this point. Petrino is getting a lot of crap right now, but I'm all for it, bring it on.
That seems to be the general sentiment in the state. It's our time to have an asshole as a coach, you know?
Yeah, and you know what? It's the SEC. It's a brutally competitive conference. And why not? All is fair in love and SEC football. I was at the LSU game, by the way. It was my 40th birthday present. I had a sweet seat. The whole LSU band was chanting at me and my fiancée as we walked by, “Tiger bait! Tiger bait!” I had these drunken LSU fans getting in my face about Houston Nutt. I sat right in the middle of their season ticket holders, who patronized me the whole first half, and then it just became beautiful.
That's great. Back to “Woo Pig” — that was your first hometown show in a long time, right?
Wow. It was a funny show, and from what I recall, most everyone was laughing, but a comedy show about atheism isn't so much a red-state crowd pleaser. What kind of feedback did you get here and elsewhere in the South?
That was actually a kind of weird show for me because I put a lot of pressure on myself because it was a hometown thing, and I had a lot of family friends in the audience who most likely are religious on some level. It's a very anti-religious show. They were all good and very nice and so supportive to come out and see me, but I was afraid of offending their sensibilities. I don't know whether I did or not. They're all smart enough to handle it, I know.
So you're planning on coming back?
I don't have any plans, but I'd definitely want to.
Did you spend all your childhood here?
Yeah, I did. I went to Central.
Was comedy something you were into from a young age?
I always hung out with the class-clown-type kids. And my dad is very funny. I don't think I really had it in mind as a career path. I didn't really even occur to me that you could do that. I was a huge fan of Craig O' Neill. He was probably my first exposure to comedy.
You were also big into the DIY/punk culture in the mid-'80s. Not that it's ever been mainstream in Little Rock, but it was way out there back then. Can you talk about that period?
At that point in the mid-'80s, there really wasn't a place for anyone under 21 to see any kind of rock show. James Brady [who later formed Trusty] went to England and came back and kind of told us about punk. We had a Sex Pistols record and a Damned record. It was exciting to kind of feel like you're starting something or doing something that not everybody's aware of. But also it was frustrating that it was so hard to get bands to come here.
You did “Stung” with Method Man and Redman for MTV; it seemed more or less like a prototype for “Punk'd.” “Crossballs,” too, had earnest fake news down well before “The Colbert Report.” Any sense that the networks stole your ideas?
You forgot “Spy TV,” which took our prank idea. But no, I don't think any of those people stole from me.
So there's no frustration there?
I think “Crossballs” was a great show. You can check it out on my MySpace page [www.myspace.com/mattbesser]. It was put on in a terrible time slot, never promoted and it caused a lot of legal problems that just made it not worth it for Comedy Central. That was very frustrating. I don't look at “The Colbert Report” for the reason of my frustration. I just think of it as a wasted opportunity.
Is comedy art? Could you go onto “Inside the Actor's Studio” and talk about process with a straight face?
I could talk about comedy in lofty terms for hours and hours. Make diagrams and graphs and math formulas for it.
Why is a rubber chicken funny?
I don't think anything about the rubber chicken is funny. I actually just did an ad two weeks ago where I was offered a rubber chicken for a prop and I refused. You know what is funny? The rubber vomit, which was invented by an Arkansan. He lives in some small town in Arkansas. I read this article and got his phone number through information, and Adam McKay and I called him up pretending to be the producers of “In Loving Color.” This was after George Bush had eaten some sushi and puked. We said, “We want to do a George Bush sketch and have the largest rubber vomit ever.” And he said, “Well, they're usually 12 inches at the most.” He told us he'd try to figure it out, so we called back later, and he said, “I thought about, and I'll have to knock down the back of my garage…” He was a really nice guy, so we were quick to say “No no no.”
What's on your slate for 2008?
Picketing [with the Writer's Guild of America]. UCBcomedy.com is a big project. But Hollywood is pretty much shut down.
Are you hopeful?
Of course. But I don't think it's going to be resolved any time soon.