Funnyman Matt Walsh has been at the forefront of American comedy since co-founding the Upright Citizens Brigade in the early ’90s. In recent years, his face has become one of pop culture’s most recognizable, with appearances in hit films like The Hangover, Role Models, and I Love You, Man — and just about any quality sitcom one can name. But he’s carved his own niche in TV history by playing the ever-beleaguered Mike McLintock, press secretary to Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ now President Selina Meyer on HBO’s award-winning Veep. Walsh has also established a career as a film director, helming 2012’s improv-based The High Road and his new follow-up A Better You. The latter stars fellow UCB alum and Children’s Hospital star Brian Huskey as a Los Angeles hypnotherapist who finds his life spinning rapidly out of control when his wife (played by Morgan Walsh) leaves him. Co-starring a who’s who of comic stars — including Horatio Sanz, Erinn Hayes, Rob Huebel, Nick Kroll, Riki Lindhome, Seth Morris, Joe Lo Truglio, and Walsh himself — the film takes a hilarious look at LA’s obsession with self-improvement while finding room for a heartfelt tale of loss and recovery. I caught up with Walsh last week when A Better You premiered at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, where we discussed his own background in psychology, his slate of upcoming movie roles, and Veep‘s fourth season, co-starring Hugh Laurie, which premieres April 12th…
NERDIST: You’ve said A Better You was inspired by LA’s fixation with therapy. Are there any particular examples you’ve seen that you can share?
MATT WALSH: That’s a good question. My first response to that would be… I was a psych student in a university, was a psych major, bachelor of arts. Not a real bachelor of science but a bachelor of arts. But I took post-graduate work in psychology, and I worked in an adolescent psych ward for three years as a counselor/mental health orderly.
N: So you know much more than the average person about this subject.
MW: I was drawn to it. I was drawn to that world, the treatment of the human mind through science. I’ve always loved that. It’s a soft science, in the way that psychology is a soft science. It’s not medical, where you’re drawing blood and you’re reading levels. You’re interpreting emotions. So it’s crazy that a man has a garage business where people are coming to him with everything. It’s a crazy world, right? I find that funny… In the middle of the Valley, in North Hollywood. And he wears a toupee, and he has a self-published book and he makes terrible videos and he thinks he’s breaking over because he has a bus stop ad. [Laughs.] So it’s a character study really. It’s a very small story. He loses his wife and he has to get over that. That’s basically the story. Obviously we all see the different classes of people in Los Angeles. You can see huddled Hispanic men outside the Home Depot. That’s a world. That’s not Horatio [Sanz]’s character, but that’s where it started. I’m like, “Oh, this is an interesting LA culture crossover.” So that part of the story was interesting to me as well.
N: After directing The High Road, did you have any specific creative goals in mind for your second film?
MW: I thought the first movie I directed was more frenetic, and I wanted this one to be steadier and focused on a very small, small idea. So this was a departure in that way. I knew I just wanted to be more still and look for odder tension and not worry about the pace at times. That was the tonal shift as well.
N: Have you found that TV comedy in recent years has created an audience for things that aren’t as frenetic? Has it created a level of patience in viewers that may not have been there otherwise?
MW: I think you’re right. I think there have been tonal boundaries pushed because of the proliferation of multichannel successes, or multiplatform successes. I do think that inevitable there’s more experimentation because of more shows. Yes, I would agree with that. You’re a very smart television historian. [Laughs.] That’s a very keen observation.
N: Since you’ve cast so many improv veterans in this film, you apparently broke your scenes down into two-paragraph descriptions…
MW: Yes, I would say we had an outline with forty-five to sixty scenes in it, and each scene had a comic context, so there was a dynamic that was fraught with comic potential. That was the hope. Then it had the emotional arc of the characters in it, even basics like a description of the action. So two paragraphs, two healthy paragraphs. In that information we would rehearse with a couple of main characters put them together for two days to get tone straight with my characters, whom we were going to visit a lot. Then on set we would talk it through and we would put it on its feet, and we would talk it through again. Then we’d do it again and we would define what the beats were; and we’d begin shooting. We would shoot wide, cover it, make sure it’s good. If we discovered something interesting, I’d decide whether we would chase that or not if it wasn’t on story. Then we would keep moving.
N: Did you conceive any of your characters with specific actors in mind?
MW: We developed the characters completely free of any conception of who would be them. So it was more abstract. We weren’t necessarily writing for anyone.
N: Then after casting…
MW: They changed a little bit. Yeah, there are jokes that are written in. Because I knew the doctor’s function. When he would break the session, I knew what he would say in those sessions. Those were written. There were written elements that you knew you were going to come to. So there is some writing, but it’s mostly rehearsed and then beaten out and executed.
N: As one of the founders of Upright Citizens Brigade, have you heard the voice of that institution in today’s screen comedy?
MW: That’s the story everyone’s always trying to write. [Laughs.] UCB’s influence on television… I think there are tons of people that have come through our school, or come through our shows, and gone on to be really great. It’s amazing.
N: In hindsight, looking at today’s pop culture, UCB was pretty ahead of its time.
MW: That’s a huge compliment. I don’t know if we were ahead of our time or not, but that’s very nice of you to say.
N: If one goes back to the ‘80s, for example, the comedy appears much broader…
MW: Yeah, but Kids in the Hall — if you want to get nerdy with the evolution of comedy — changed tonal comedy. At least in the sketch world, because they were subtler, and always interesting. To me, their brilliance was they were always interesting and often funny, super funny, with great characters. So they took it into the ‘90s. Then Bob [Odenkirk] and Dave [Cross] were alternative in the best way, and super funny. To me they’re funnier than UCB really. I think they’re just super funny. They’re great.
N: They certainly perfected dryness as a form of wit.
MW: Yeah, and exponential… In the way that Python would take absurdist, exponential jumps and beats. I think that’s part of it.
N: You have several new films coming out soon…
MW: Yeah, David Cross’s movie Hits is coming out in February. My character works at the county dump — where people drop their raw metal, their garbage, their paint — in a terrible town in upstate New York. A man with few options. He gets radicalized by the lack of the choices, and, in this story, the right-wing wackos… Then I have a film with Kevin Bacon — 6 Miranda Drive — Blumhouse is making it. I’m just a buddy of Kevin Bacon’s.
N: Which immediately links you to every movie ever made.
MW: Everybody makes that joke! It is true though. He’s known for that. But he’s a very nice guy. Super nice. Him and his wife come to the theater a lot. Isn’t that cool?
N: We’re looking forward to the next season of Veep. When we last saw Mike he was disappointed he’d lost the opportunity to buy a farm and raise ducks, and was instead stuck with being press secretary to the new President of the United States. How does that presidency affect him moving forward?
MW: This season for Mike would be about him exploring the decision “Do I really want to do this for the rest of my life?” — in continuation of the duck dream. [Laughs.] This might sound lofty about a comic character, but his emotional journey is “Do I really want to be doing this? Because I have a happy marriage. But I’m fucking next to the President of the United States…” That is the drug.
N: He’s the voice of that President.
MW: I get to be the voice! And there’s ego. He’s in front of the world every day. He’s known in some circles, certainly on television, as much as the President. But he has no power of course. He’s the face of the administration.
N: Are there mounting pressures on his marriage?
MW: Yeah. Well, Hugh Laurie’s character is here this season. His interaction with us is very interesting.
N: Because he comes from the English comedy tradition, does he introduce a new flavor to the show?
MW: Yeah, I think so. I think he’s very revered by the writers. I love Jeeves and Wooster and Black Adder and I loved House. I was such a big fan of that show. So I had to not be too much of a fan. [Laughs.] But I also think it’s a bigger show now because the stories… You don’t get as much access to the real President. So our stories are more on our own now.
N: So Mike has more autonomy within the story?
MW: Yeah, certainly story-wise you’re following Mike or Tony [Hale]’s character. It’s interesting that way too It’s a broader world… In every room she’s in there’s more security and there’s heads of state and there’s heads of departments, so the tension is just that much higher. And she’s a terrible President. [Laughs.] She’s a terrible President.
N: Mike has the two best moments in the show to date — when he asks Siri why God invented suffering and when he asks the Veep’s daughter if he can, after her disastrous birthday party, have her cake, offering to cut it with his cell phone.
MW: [Laughs.] Well Mike likes to eat. Mike has a voracious appetite. He binges a little bit. That was a crazy limo ride at eleven at night. One of those nights where we’re like, “What are we doing?!”
N: Thank you for your time, Matt.
MW: Thank you very much!