UCB's Matt Walsh Talks Improv Stoner Comedy
Matt Walsh sounds like he’s having a great day at the office.
The actor, writer and Upright Citizens Brigade veteran is on the eighth day (of 12) of shooting his new feature film High Road, a stoner comedy sporting a cast with some of the hottest names in funny business. (Sadly, beloved UCB character Bong Boy will not make an appearance, though Walsh says he “is still out there.”)
“We have Ed Helms today,” Walsh says. “He plays Abby Elliott’s boss who tries to put the moves on her when she tells him she’s pregnant.”
It sounds like a delightfully awkward scene, especially considering who’s involved. What makes it more delightful is knowing that the scene is almost entirely in the hands of Elliott and Helms. Walsh’s film has no script—the dialogue is all improv.
Walsh wrote the story for High Road with fellow Upright Citizen Josh Weiner. The two cut the story into around 50 scenes, but it’s up to the actors to fill in the dialogue. Walsh’s main role, once cameras are rolling, is to make sure the dialogue the actors choose gets the major plot points across.
Walsh is no stranger to the world of improv. It’s one he’s worked in for nearly 20 years, starting in the holy humorous breeding grounds of Chicago at Second City and the Annoyance Theatre, where he would develop full-length plays and musicals from improvised scenes. Walsh says when the cast was preparing to shoot High Road, they spent a few weeks at the UCB Theater working on character development and establishing character relationships, using the same tactics Walsh employed when creating full-length works for the Annoyance Theatre and later for UCB. “We would develop things from improv into full-length scenes, doing simple things like, ‘Let’s have this character and that character meet. We’ll put ‘em in a driving range and see if there’s anything interesting,’” he says. “And then, we’ll take them out and tell them, ‘That’s good. ‘We don’t need that.’ ‘’This is a good thing, so let’s incorporate that and ignore that.’ You’re writing it through improv.”
More recently, Walsh helmed a comedy series for Spike TV called Players, which relies on completely improvised dialogue. His television work inspired him to test that same style for a feature-length film. “That process gave me confidence that you can get really talented, funny people and if you beat out a story that’s solid and has enough emotion and mystery or plot points built into it, then you can take advantage of what funny people give you, which is alternate versions of the same story,” he says.
It also helps when those funny people boast a ridiculous collective résumé. In addition to Helms and SNL‘s Abby Elliott and alum Horatio Sanz, High Road’s cast includes Zach Woods (The Office), Daily Show correspondent Rob Riggle, Lizzy Caplan (Party Down), Joe Lo Truglio (Wet Hot American Summer, Superbad) and Tenacious D’s Kyle Gass, to name but a few. Walsh says he knew everyone in the cast prior to starting the project through UCB and other various endeavors in the comedy world. He’s taught some of them, done shows with many, made videos and shorts with a few. “The casting should be 90 percent of the job,” he says.
Walsh says he’s had positive experiences acting with improv-friendly directors, including Todd Phillips (The Hangover) and the Duplass Brothers, who he worked with on their new film, Cyrus, and that having a hilarious cast and a director who will allow said cast to go beyond the script will inevitably lead to comedy gold. “The advantage is that you have really funny people that can basically say funnier jokes than you can possibly write,” Walsh says. “If they’re really committed to the character and to the situation, the way they phrase it has a different voice than you would write yourself.”
Making a film with entirely spontaneous dialogue isn’t without a few logistical issues, however. “Because it is real, there’s overlapping dialogue in the way that people really talk, so it may be a challenge to sound edit,” Walsh says. “But we’ll make it work.”
Walsh doesn’t seem too preoccupied with logistical concerns—he’s more focused on his objective, to combine, as he puts it, the raw power of spontaneous humor with a tight storyline audiences will enjoy.
“You’re living in the unexpected, which is pretty fun.”