Getting Freaky with Matt Besser; Or Why I’ll Never Grind Again
by Dan Casey on May 18, 2012
Dancing has always been a source of controversy in our culture. Whether it was its inability to produce rain, the oh-so-revealing outfits of those jazz-obssessed flappers, Elvis’ hypnotically gyrating hips, or the time it killed all those kids in Footloose, dancing is morality’s Public Enemy Number One.
Veteran improviser and Upright Citizens Brigade co-founder Matt Besser loves dancing, so long as it’s in movie form. He has expressed that love by directing the hilarious new feature Freak Dance, a musical comedy which stars the original UCB (Besser, Amy Poehler, Ian Roberts and Matt Walsh), Tim Meadows, Andy Daly, Horatio Sanz and a slew of other super-talented folks. Fortunately, I had the chance to catch up with Besser to find out why he loves dance movies so gosh darn much, his Hollywood lineage and a certain unsettling trend among our nation’s youth.
Nerdist: So, you directed Freak Dance, which is available on VOD and is currently touring nationwide, but before we get into this I was wondering if you heard the news about a group of mothers in Colorado who sprayed students with Lysol for engaging in “dirty dancing?” What sort of anti-grinding tips would you offer in lieu of chemical-grade disinfectant?
Matt Besser: Yes, I think this is probably one of the biggest problems facing youth today. It results from grinding at high school dances. In my day, it was drugs – now it’s grinding, as it’s called; our movie is called Freak Dance, freak dancing is another term for it. I don’t know about you, but if I had a daughter, I sure wouldn’t want anyone grinding on her. If I were a chaperone… well, you want to separate them, but a lot of people think Lysol is a little harsh. I guess I do too – it’s a very chemical-smelling spray. So first off, I recommend using Pledge, which has more of a lemony-fresh smell to it and I don’t think the students would be as angered if they get sprayed with something that’s lemony-fresh. They’d take more pride in it. With Lysol you just smell like a bathroom, and no one wants that, you know what I mean?
N: Do you think Febreze would be a good happy medium? That way, it gets rid of odors, but you also get the message across.
MB: Yeah, if you make it clear that the dirty dancing is equal to something filled with odor. If you don’t want to buy that… hot coffee. Throw that on them. They’ll get the message and wake up. You have to respect yourself or you get covered in coffee.
N: Your movie centers around this so-called “freak dancing.” Did you feel it was an epidemic that needed to be addressed? What prompted you to make this movie?
MB: I always wanted to write my own sort of Rocky Horror Picture Show and in the same way that Rocky Horror is sort of a parody of Frankenstein, if you think about it that way, ours is a parody of dance movies. I should mention another thing too – if you can’t afford hot coffee or Pledge and want a more organic way of separating students, you can go down to the beach and collect hermit crabs, those very small crabs. Get like a dozen of them and throw them on a girl while she’s freak dancing. They’re gonna cling to her and people aren’t going to want to grind on her. I think that sends a good message to the guys too.
N: With movies like the Footloose remake, Freak Dance and The FP, it feels like ’80s dance movies are proving to be significant influences. What is it about them that sticks, and do you think the success of the Step Up movies inspired nostalgia for the previous model?
MB: Well, every dance movie has the exact same plot, so people must really like that plot. Actually, what brought me back to dance movies was the movie You Got Served. I was under the impression that breakdancing had kind of gone out of style in the 80’s and become corny, but when I saw that movie, I was honestly, seriously blown away by the choreographed b-boy dance moves, and it got me back into watching those movies. I think it really caused a resurgence in those movies in general – like you said, Step Up, Stomp the Yard. There seems to be about two or three dance movies every year, so obviously good dancing can make up for bad dialogue and bad acting. That’s why, even if you don’t think our movie’s funny, even if you don’t like the music – I don’t know how you couldn’t – the dancing is amazing. We got real dance crews. No comedians are dancing in my movie; I’d never do that to the public, make them watch a comedian dance. I wouldn’t even do that at a wedding. I wouldn’t make people watch me dance at a wedding.
You know what? Another thing: a scarlet “A,” like in the old days. If kids are dancing too close, spray paint, just a little bit, a scarlet “A” on them; I know that stands for adultery, so maybe a scarlet “G” for grinding or a scarlet “FD” for freak dancing. Once a woman gets that label on her, people aren’t gonna want to grind on her. It’ll be better for her and society.
MB: Oh yeah, you guys had Hester Prynne up there.
N: Right, a proud tradition. So, you’re not an able dancer yourself?
MB: No, once you see the movie, you’ll see there’s one role that doesn’t really dance and that is my role. I cleverly wrote it that way. I will get into dancing and have fun, but I’m usually drunk and alone.
N: What’s your all-time favorite dance movie?
MB: Well, as far as the movie actually being good – and many dance movies aren’t – Saturday Night Fever is probably up there, Fame if you want to count that, Electric Boogaloo, as far as cheese factor goes, might have to be number one. You Got Served for the dancing alone, and these Step Up movies – every movie they seem to get better in dancing and worse in story, so it depends on what you want out of your dance movie. You know, one more tip that I just thought of if you see people grinding and you’re a chaperone is get a sponge and soak it in an STD. It doesn’t matter what STD, just get it sopping with it and throw that at the kid. It sends a very clear anti-grinding message.
MB: Well, it’s for the greater good in the long term. In the short term, sure, they’ll have an STD, but in the long term, they’re going to know that grinding is bad.
N: Okay, good point. I guess that’s tough love at its finest.
N: This was your first feature-length directorial venture, correct?
MB: Yeah, without question, and I would have been lost without my co-director Neil Mahoney. He really had the skill set we needed for the movie; I was fine with giving actors notes, but when it comes to making a musical, a dance musical in particular, with choreography and how to shoot that, how to incorporate the music, that makes it way more difficult than a normal film. He was the mad genius behind that. All the special effects… I would not know what to do with that.
N: As a director, you presumably have to be significantly less spontaneous than as an improvisational comic actor. Was it a tricky transition, or have you seen it done enough times that it was pretty easy to get a handle on?
MB: Well, the way we used improv, you know, we had it on stage as a stage musical for two years, so the cast was able to really work their parts, and if one joke didn’t work one week, we would change it up the next week. There was a lot of improv that went into this movie. I’m no expert at writing a story, but I don’t think you’ll walk away from this movie going, “That was a great story.” I think you’ll more think, “Those were a lot of funny scenes.” It’s more like a sketch movie than a narrative movie with a plot, which is more up my alley.
N: So you wanted more of an episodic feel with a throughline?
MB: It definitely has a throughline, but… I’ve gotta say, there’s another tip I need to mention. If you happen to work a lot in a garage and have an acetylene torch, just one of those small torches you can carry with you – and I’m not saying to burn anyone, but maybe burn their clothes in the grinding area. A little burn in the grinding area will serve as a reminder that grinding is dangerous.
N: That would work well at a vocational high school prom because they’d already have welding masks nearby.
MB: Exactly. Plus they’d already know how to use it and not let the fire get out of control. And if it does burn the skin, it’s not a big deal; it doesn’t hurt much more than a tattoo would hurt.
N: Your podcast, improv4humans, has been a big hit. It’s also entirely improvised. Do you find improv plays better in front of a live audience or through audio recording? Is something in the experience lost when you aren’t experiencing it “as it happens?”
MB: I worried about that in the beginning, and when my guest improvisers come on, it takes them a couple scenes to warm up. What is lost is the slapstick comedy, which usually plays well, but as much stuff is gained. You aren’t having to project like you would on stage, you can get more subtle, soft, filmic scenes – you get some really great stuff. Not having an audience react doesn’t bug me that much because…that’s what message boards are for. [laughs]
N: For better or for worse. (Except for quemmenters. We love you guys.)
MB: Can I mention one more tip?
N: Please, go ahead.
MB: A lot of times pain doesn’t do the trick. You’ll get a football player grinding on some girl and an acetylene torch, perhaps, wouldn’t hurt a big guy. Sometimes you’ll need threats, and I don’t mean physical threats, I mean like threats to their family. If you don’t stop grinding, you’ll never see your little sister again. If you don’t stop grinding, your dad will be fired from his job. If you don’t stop grinding, the truth about your mom will come out. Stuff like that. A lot of people don’t react until they receive threats about their family.
N: Do you think a threat like that would work for a child of a Harrison Ford-type or a Liam Neeson-type where their parent is adept at recovering family members due to a very particular set of skills?
MB: Yeah, then it’ll be a battle between the chaperone and the father to the death, but most fathers will support this.
N: Well, as you said before, it’s all for the greater good, so I’m sure they’ll understand. Going back to improv for a second, Upright Citizens Brigade is really blowing up right now. It seems like everywhere you turn, you see current and former UCB students and performers populating the funniest roles on TV and film. What’s that experience been like for you? What makes the UCB family so effective and funny and what’s next?
MB: Wow. That’s a good question. [laughs] Well, as far as our school goes I think we have something tangible to offer. They can go to class, then go and see and improvised show and see how what we teach is applied on stage and actually works. I guess the proof is in the pudding. They can go eat the pudding any time. As far as being a performer there, the reason we started the theater was, selfishly, just to make a place where we felt comfortable performing, so we didn’t want to make it the way we felt when we would perform at stand-up clubs. We always felt like we were in the way; we never felt at home there and I think a lot of people don’t gel with that vibe. We wanted to make the performers feel like its their place and we’ve achieved that. That’s why people like performing there. I’m not sure if that answers your question.
N: No, I think it summarizes a lot about what UCB means to you, what it offers and where it came from.
MB: Yeah, and that got me thinking about new students. There’s always new students performing alongside people who have been performing for twenty years. And if you are at a high school dance, if you’re a chaperone and there’s nothing around, you didn’t bring anything with you to punish a grinder, ninth-graders and even some tenth-graders don’t weigh more than a hundred pounds. They’re easy to pick up and you can use them like an aluminum bat to swat at the grinders. Or just throw ‘em in between the two grinders.
N: Plus they’re at a young enough age where their immune systems will let them bounce back like nothing happened.
MB: Yeah, yeah, yeah – underclassmen are just like babies. Their bones will just grow back.
N: Any chance we’ll see another edition of your Comedy Central sketch show This Show Will Get You High, or was that just a one-off?
MB: That was a one-off. You can see it on UCBComedy.com if you missed it, but that show is for the ages.
N: You’re the grandson of one of the Three Stooges, correct?
MB: [laughs] You’ve been on my IMDB page. That is not true. Actually, my grandfather’s cousin was the guy who played him. For all you Joe Besser haters who claim that he was the worst Stooge, that’s not true – Curly Joe DeRita was the worst stooge. Joe Besser was the second worst.
N: Well, as long as you leave Shemp out of it, I think everyone’s fine. What did you think of the recent movie, and if there’s a sequel, would you want to see Joe in it? If so, who should play him?
MB: You mean reworking Joe? Well, it’d have to be me. I have the family history to be able to realize the truth that was Joe Besser, second worst Stooge. I haven’t seen the movie myself; I’m waiting for it to come out on DVD.
N: Apart from Freak Dance, what other projects do you have coming up you can share with us?
MB: I am like someone who believes the world is about to end in a week. I have not planned my life beyond this tour and the video-on-demand release today. I’m living without a purpose. And improvising. You know, if you don’t have all these things, Lysol does work. I started off this whole thing against Lysol, but if you have the industrial strength Lysol, the kind to clean truck stop bathrooms, that’s your best bet. And aim for the eyes. That’s the only way they’re going to understand grinding is wrong.
MB: You can also get some of that insect spray – I think it’s called Hot Shot – that can spray like ten feet. You don’t even have to get up next to them. They’re probably gonna lash out once you get it in their eyes.
N: It sprays ten feet away?
MB: Hot Shot? Yeah, you can get wasps up on your roof.
N: That is awesome, but terrifying.
MB: You can get wasps and grinders.
N: Are you familiar with the iPhone app Grindr? Do you think that should be shut down too?
MB: [laughs] No, because the word “grinder” needs to stay pure and not be about grinding, but be about finding quick sex within a mile radius.
Freak Dance is available on VOD nationwide, the soundtrack is forthcoming from iTunes and visit the website to find out about a live date near you.