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Q&A: Matt Walsh of Upright Citizens Brigade

Upright Citizens Brigade co-founder Matt Walsh returns home for the Chicago Improv Festival

  • United Citizens Brigade (from left to right: Amy Poehler, Matt Walsh, Matt Besser and Jason Mantzoukas) perform at the Del Close Marathon
United Citizens Brigade (from left to right: Amy Poehler, Matt Walsh, Matt…
March 24, 2014|By Julia Borcherts @Julia Borcherts | For RedEye

Sometimes, size does matter. In the case of the 17th annual Chicago Improv Festival, this translates to more than 200 acts at 21 venues in 11 categories including long-form, short-form, experimental, musical and—wait for it—puppetry. That makes it the longest-running and largest improv comedy festival in the world. If that's not enough for you, there are workshops, lectures and classes, too.

But the festival doesn't sacrifice quality for quantity. In addition to top groups from Chicago and around the world—from New York to Los Angeles and from New Zealand to Brazil—national comedians including "Saturday Night Live" alums Tim Meadows, Paul Brittain and Horatio Sanz, Maribeth Monroe (Comedy Central's "Workaholics"), Dan Bakkedahl (HBO's "Veep," FX's "Legit") take the stage for multiple shows.

Headlining the fest is the Upright Citizens Brigade, formed in Chicago by Matt Walsh, Ian Roberts, Matt Besser and Amy Poehler in 1991 before moving to New York and landing a Comedy Central show (1998-2000) and moving onto other film and TV projects. The group has theaters in New York and L.A. and recently produced a new how-to book, "The Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Improvisation Manual."

Joining Walsh, Roberts and Besser for their "Asssscat" show are Meadows, Sanz and L.A. comedian Betsy Sodaro, plus legendary musician-producer Steve Albini.

We called Chicago native Walsh—who also plays press secretary Mike McClintock on HBO's "Veep" and is the co-founder of the popular "Bear Down" podcast—to find out more.

Go: 8 p.m. April 6 at Up Comedy Club, 230 W. North Ave.; pre-show lobby book signing from 6:30-7 p.m.
Tickets: $40-$50. 312-337-3992;

Additional UCB appearances at CIF:
>>5 p.m. April 5: Geeking Out with the UCB at The Playground Theater, 3209 N. Halsted St.; 773-871-3793; $5
>>8:30 p.m. April 5: Improv4humans live podcast at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave.; 773-327-5252; $25

About "Asssscat": It's our oldest improv [form]—it's, like, 20 years old—and it's long-form improv comedy with a great cast. Horatio [Sanz] will be there and Ian Roberts, Matt Besser and myself, [and some others] will be playing with us. Our monologist is a guy named Steve Albini. He's got great dark stories and a funny point of view of the world, so he'll be throwing monologues out for suggestion and then we will improvise using the information from Steve's monologues.

How the early '90s Chicago comedy scene fueled the creation of Upright Citizens Brigade: Everybody came to Chicago because of Second City. It was such a breeding ground and respected place, the ruling model for ensemble comedy. But then when they got there, many people felt like what [The Second City was] doing wasn't necessarily what they wanted to be doing. So there was a lot of alternative experimentation—in many ways, a lot of the interesting stuff was in reaction to the constraints of Second City. A lot of us beginning to perform were trying to create something that we felt was more relevant or different.

Why his parents were nervous about his career choice: They would have preferred a career with a trajectory—if you get a CPA, you know you can get an accounting job—'cause you're very poor for a very long time doing comedy or performance for a living. So whenever I visited the suburbs, mom would always send me home with tubs of peanut butter and sheets of lasagna or whatever canned goods she had in the pantry. They never liked the comedy I was doing—it was probably too ribald. But they were always like, "If it makes you happy …" And certainly, my father always liked that I was doing it. I think he was a bit of a closet thespian himself.

One common misconception about improv comedy: One of the platitudes that get thrown around improv a lot is, "It's all about 'yes, and …'" What we discovered writing the book is that it's actually more accurately described as, 'If that's true, then what else is true?' So it's not denying "yes, and ..." it's just defining it in a clearer way. So your job as an improviser is to receive and accept realities that your partner is giving and then add things—if this was happening, then what else might be happening or what else might be true? That's the big change in focus, we think, for what students learning improv should be looking for.

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