Matt Walsh is pumped up. For the first time in 20 years of operating, the Del Close Marathon will be held in Los Angeles. When we connect by phone, Matt is busy preparing for the 55-hour non-stop weekend of long-form improv comedy shows that run June 28th through June 30th at both UCB locations.
Back in Chicago, what first drew you to comedy?
I did performing in high school, a variety show, and I loved the skill of writing, creating and then performing your own material. It was a real drug for me. After college, I fell into improv, which was even more thrilling, and started to take classes. I guess I just liked the ability to create something and make people laugh. It’s endlessly entertaining and there’s so many different ways to do it. It’s always exciting when you discover a new bit or a new line. I’ve always been in the world of sketch and improv, which is more scenic and collaborative stuff. I did stand-up but wasn’t great at it and have always enjoyed the ensemble.
Sort of the energy of feeding off another person and building something.
And their interpretation of a line if it’s a sketch, or you know it could be anything obviously. But in the world of comedy, it’s always their take on it and they’re making it funnier than it probably was on the page or they’re improvising something that catches you by surprise. It’s very exhilarating. And obviously with improv, the audience is sort of on that ride with you and that’s what live theater has that nothing else does: everybody kind of feels that tension and the release of tension.
You studied under Del Close. What impact did he have on both your improv and you as a person?
He treated comedy like a profession. He gave you a reading list and he said “professional satirists should have life experiences.” He gave you a curriculum to pursue comedy and improv and nobody I’d met up to that point had done that. He kind of gave it value. And then he was also an innovator. I’d be in classes with him and he was always trying to find new things that were interesting and relevant to—what I felt like was our generation—because he was from the sixties and was part of the beat movement in the fifties and was sort handing off this art form where the challenge was to make it vital and interesting. Comedy and performance that spoke to the time and to the people who came through the door.
A lot of my early experiments discovering my voice were emulation. I think standups unconsciously emulate the people they see until they find their voice, and I think in improv you’re emulating sort of other moves and choices. So you’re in that development, and then a guy like Del comes by and forces you to make the choice that’s basically your second or third choice. He really hit that hard. “Don’t have it be your first choice, don’t have it be your second choice, have it be your third choice. So really think in surprising ways.”
In improv, you’re taught to listen and make your partner look better than yourself. Del was pushing you to go beyond just your first thought or second thought, because your third thought might be more interesting. Often times you can get a cheap laugh that sells out the scene or betrays your partner, and it’s a laugh the audience has seen before. It’s sort of a formulaic laugh. Del had great disdain for those choices. He always liked the interesting and the specific and the odd. Hopefully some of that stuff stayed with me so everything I do isn’t run-of-the-mill.
Where did the idea for the Del Close Marathon come from?
I think it started within a year of his passing. He was the voice for our tv show, and before he passed away he had a living funeral where people came before they pulled the plug or whatever. We sent a camera to his living funeral and he recorded a video where he gave us “marching orders.” His basic thing was “keep spreading the love of improv, keep spreading the love.” [Matt] Besser would know the quote, but that’s what I remember. We had done 24 hour theater festivals in Chicago, so it was in our DNA, and the next year, we decided let’s do a 24-hour improv festival. And it was born.
It became a wonderful festival where people from all over the country came and got slots or applied to be in it, and it was a real coming together of this outsider artform. Improv was sort of beginning to grow right when we got to New York, or we helped it grow, too. It was neat to see the growth of all these college teams coming out or post-college teams, or people from Japan, or Finland. That kind of growth was crazy.
How did you parlay Upright Citizens Brigade into a successful theater operation in both LA and NY?
The New York one started as a clubhouse. We had all these people we were teaching, we had our own show that we were doing and we wanted a place to keep our props. So we found an old strip club and turned it into a theater. By the time we all lived in Los Angeles, we opened a little theater there, which made sense because we were all living there and wanted to have our Sunday night Asssscat show. And then the other two venues that came after, I think, were just due to the demand. Classes were growing, people wanted grad shows, so we had to open another stage. Success was driven by student interest.
What was your first experience with cannabis?
I guess I was probably in high school. I feel like it was at a gymnastics camp. We were downstate Illinois and somebody had it. And then I really didn’t smoke until after college. I think I tried it then but I wasn’t really somebody who regularly used until post-college. Chicago’s kind of a drinking town, so that was sort of the social thing. In New York I became more of a regular or occasional pot smoker.
Does smoking play a role in your creative process for writing, directing, performing, etc?
It doesn’t work for me for writing, but if you have a mundane thing to rewrite, you can do that a little buzzed on weed. Any sort of capacities where you can’t access your quick brain—whether it’s alcohol or cannabis – it doesn’t do you any service, so you have to keep it light. But I think you could rewrite a little high. A friend of mine told me he writes sober and then he rewrites high.
In terms of my process, I have to be of clear mind. I certainly can’t direct under the influence of anything, that’s just me. I don’t do it when I’m acting. Though I guess at a late night improv show you could be a little toasty.
Is being in an altered state perhaps more conducive to the improv stage because you’re using a different part of your brain?
I think the expectation is lower from the audience because it’s late night and it’s probably rowdy. I think the fact there’s six or seven of you on the stage means that you’re not carrying the burden of everything, you know what I mean? Like a pick-up basketball vibe.
The best thing for me in terms of like the benefit is I’ll get high and take a hike or I’ll get high and go workout. That is part of my process. That I like. If I can get to nature and be a little toasted, it’s nice.
You’re the first person in these interviews to mention the nature element.
Los Angeles is littered with wonderful hikes that are like a twenty minute drive. Burbank’s got a couple or you can get to Malibu. Or you can go out to Pasadena and see a waterfall. That’s one of the things I really love about LA. The hikes. We’ve got kids, so we force them to go up with us sometimes, too. It’s nice.
Do you feel when you’re reconnecting with nature and clearing your mind that you’re filling the well and generating new ideas?
You are replenishing. Definitely. Nature always wins. If you can get to nature, it’s the best. It biologically calms and centers people. Something as stunning as the ocean where you can look out or float in it. It’s pretty amazing.
I think solitude, silence, is very good for the brain. To sort of get away from the city noise and hear silence or birds I think is really good for you. I know a lot of people who get up and do mediation in the morning and that supposedly is amazing. I do it occasionally. Like I’ll do 15 minutes in the morning and find that to be a nice clearing. Just wake up and sit for 15 minutes, monitor your breath. Living in a city—whatever city—you need to find stillness or peace of mind because there’s such an onslaught of stimuli.
The challenge is finding that balance.
You have to build it in. Fortunately, I’ve been a working actor for a while so I can carve out my days for myself sometimes. I guess if you have a nine-to-five job you have to do it at seven in the morning or after work. I know people who sneak out and meditate for 15 minutes in the stairwell of their office building.
Somebody was telling me you have to do it twice, once in the morning and once midday. A sort of centering meditation.
Is the thought one session builds on the other or there’s a balance between the two sessions?
My guess would be, and I’m not a meditation scientist, you’re just taking another dosage of meditation. You take a dose in the morning and then you take a dose of meditation in the afternoon and it should last you the whole day.
You’ve spent the past seven years on “Veep.” Have you ever taken time on set to “duck into that stairwell” and meditate for a minute?
No, I’m not that good. I’m not that dedicated. I really just started mediation in the last year. I never have done it habitually.
But you’re on set for long hours during the day. Even nights sometimes. How do you keep your mind and body awake?
Our job was in Baltimore for four seasons so we had a lot of time at home. A lot of long hours. So we as a cast would play a lot of squash, we would go on field trips to change scenery and get out of the hotel. But the key to any good actor is knowing how to nap. That maintains your immune system. If you can just lay down and check out, that’s amazing. Most good actors know how to take a quick nap.
And you have to discipline yourself too. You either have to skip lunch or don’t hang out at lunch and just go to your trailer and have a bite and lay down. If it’s a regular nap, I don’t think it can be longer than 25 minutes. Because then you wake up all weird from almost touching REM sleep. But if you’re not needed on set for like six hours and they’re not sending you home, then take a four hour nap and you’ll come back feeling like a hundred bucks.
Follow @mrmattwalsh and check out https://delclosemarathon.com/ for Del Close Marathon tickets and showtimes