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Matthew Gregory Besser is an Arkansan comedian, actor, writer, director, and teacher best known as a founding member of the sketch-comedy group the Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB). In his comedy, Besser draws upon his background as the child of a Jewish father and a Presbyterian mother from a fundamentalist family, exploring what this means for someone growing up in Arkansas.
Matt Besser was born on September 22, 1967, in Little Rock (Pulaski County) to Sanford Michael Besser of Little Rock, who was an investment banker, and Diane Patricia Pettit Besser of Harrison (Boone County), a homemaker and volunteer in the Little Rock arts community. Besser is a first cousin twice removed of comic actor Joe Besser, who was a member of the Three Stooges.
Besser developed an appreciation for comedy during his childhood, although it was not until he was in college that he realized it could be a career. Growing up, he was a fan of the conceptual comedy of Steve Martin and Andy Kaufman, as well as punk rock bands such as the Dead Kennedys. He attended Forest Park Elementary School and Pulaski Heights Junior High; he graduated in 1985 from Little Rock Central High School, where he played on the varsity soccer team. Besser’s first comic performance was in a high school production of M*A*S*H.
As a freshman at Amherst College, in Amherst, Massachusetts, Besser enrolled in an economics course, intending to go into his father’s profession. He soon realized that banking was not for him. In 1989, Besser graduated with a BA in American Studies. He wrote his thesis on the censorship of comedy, with a focus on Lenny Bruce. Besser had a punk rock show on the college radio station. As time went on, the show become lighter on music and heavier on comedy, including on-air prank phone calls in the style of Little Rock disc jockey Craig O’Neill (real name Randy Hankins) and Howard Stern. By his senior year, Besser was performing at open mic nights, and he did well in a national comedy competition in front of a crowd of 2,000.
After graduation, Besser performed in comedy clubs in Denver, Colorado, and then moved to Chicago, Illinois, where, in addition to the stand-up circuit, there were venues showcasing improv and sketch comedy. After seeing a show at ImprovOlympic (iO), Besser pivoted from stand-up to ensemble work. He took classes at iO, Second City, the Annoyance Theatre, and the Players Workshop (eventually becoming a teacher himself), and performed as part of the sketch group the Family. In 1991, Besser co-founded the Upright Citizens Brigade. The name evoked an Orwellian ministry, and its sketches were influenced by cyberpunk and conspiracy theories. Besser has said that UCB’s goal was “messing with the expectations of the audience,” with the credo, “If you’re pleasing the entire audience, you’re not taking a risk.”
In 1996, UCB members Besser, Ian Roberts, Matt Walsh, and Amy Poehler moved to New York City. After several live shows and publicity stunts, they attracted the attention of the Comedy Central television network. The Upright Citizens Brigade premiered on that network in 1998 and ran until 2000, with three seasons of ten shows each. Episodes contained sketches placed within a framing device featuring four UCB agents; these characters were named after professors in a School of the Ozarks yearbook that belonged to Besser’s grandmother.
During their first years in New York, the members bought a theater, which became a performance space and improv school. UCB schools later opened in New York and Los Angeles, California, with two UCB theaters in each city. In 2013, Besser co-authored The Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Improvisation Manual, which draws upon the teachings of Del Close, the authors’ mentor in Chicago.
Besser married actress/comedian Danielle Schneider in 2008. They had a daughter in 2013.
Among Besser’s extensive list of credits in television, film, Web series, and stand-up specials are the 2010 feature film Freak Dance, a parody of dance movies, and the 2016 comedy short Arkippiana, set in a town that borders Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana. A fondness for pranks informed two television series Besser created: MTV’s 2002 hidden-camera show Stung and Comedy Central’s 2004 debate-show spoof Crossballs, which was canceled because of a controversial, never-aired episode about gun control. A proponent of marijuana use, Besser wrote and starred in the 2010 This Show Will Get You High.
Besser has a weekly improvised comedy podcast, improv4humans, about which he has said, “The fun of our comedy is taking an absurdity and giving it some kind of logic.” He co-created The UCB Show, a comedy-variety show launched in 2016 on the Seeso platform.
The 2006 one-man show Woo Pig Sooie: Comedy for Atheists is Besser’s most personal project. In it, he traced how his religious education—by fundamentalists on his Christian mother’s side of the family, and by non-observant, secular Jews on his father’s side—resulted in his becoming an atheist. He examined the erosion in the separation between church and state. One anecdote involved Besser, as a child, being told to “climb the rope for Jesus” at Kanakuk, a Christian summer camp in Branson, Missouri, to which he was sent by his mother’s parents in an effort to save him from damnation. Besser ended the show by leading the audience in the title hog-call, affirming his faith in the University of Arkansas Razorbacks, of which he remains a fervent fan.
For additional information:Besser, Matt, Ian Roberts, and Matt Walsh. The Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Improvisation Manual. New York: Comedy Council of Nicea, 2013.
Jamieson, Katherine. “Comedy and Acting by Matt Besser ’89.” Amherst Magazine (Summer 2009). https://www.amherst.edu/amherst-story/magazine/issues/2009summer/amherstcreates/besser (accessed December 23, 2016).
Koon, David. “Comedian Matt Besser on Seeso.com, His Stand-up Special, and the New Lay of the Comedy Landscape.” Arkansas Times, February 28, 2016. Online at http://www.arktimes.com/arkansas/comedian-matt-besser-on-seesocom-his-stand-up-special-and-the-new-lay-of-the-comedy-landscape/Content?oid=4287840 (accessed December 23, 2016).
Matt Besser. http://www.mattbesser.com (accessed December 23, 2016).
“Matt Besser.” Internet Movie Database. http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0078800/?ref_=nv_sr_1 (accessed December 23, 2016).
McClain, Andrew. “The Upright Arkansan: Matt Besser Chats about Upright Citizens Brigade, Improv & the Hogs.” The Idle Class (Winter 2014). http://idleclassmag.com/tag/matt-besser/ (accessed December 23, 2016).
Poehler, Amy. Yes Please. New York: Dey St., 2014.
Betsy Sherman Somerville, Massachusetts
Last Updated 1/23/2017
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