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If you’ve watched Veep’s depressing and hilarious press secretary Mike McLintock struggle to keep his administration out of hot water, it’s easy to see why Matt Walsh received an Emmy nod for his work on the show. But if that’s where you came into the picture, you’ve witnessed only the tip of a very funny iceberg.
Walsh is so connected in the comedy world he’s become a virtual Zelig of droll, double-take film and TV appearances; but any footprints he’s left on those projects will remain dwarfed by the crater-like impression he’s made as a founder of the legendary Upright Citizens Brigade. In that regard, he’s not only marked our modern comedy world, he’s literally helped create it.
Not that he had any idea he was doing something so influential when he, Amy Poehler, Ian Roberts and Matt Besser founded UCB in 1993. “We had no real plan, we were just doing shows and wanted a clubhouse.” Okay, it was a converted strip club, but never mind that – it became an iconic showcase, school and launch pad for ultra-talented, under-exposed performers like Aziz Ansari, Ellie Kemper, Nick Kroll, Ed Helms, Donald Glover and Kate McKinnon. Most of them have less than six degrees of separation from UCB and Walsh, making him sort of a Kevin Bacon of sketch and improv (or Kevin Beeken, for purveyors of inside jokes).
Though he was bitten by the funny bug in a variety show at his Chicago high school, Walsh graduated college as a psychology major and worked in an adolescent psych ward after graduation. But nights spent studying improv with Del Close convinced him he wasn’t long for the day job. He began making his name (and finding his voice) at the Improv Olympic in 1989, eventually meeting fellow comics that would become the UCB Founding Four. Walsh was so committed to the cause he left a prestigious gig with Second City to continue building the struggling troupe, using money from side jobs to stay afloat.
In 1998 UCB scored a three-year show on Comedy Central. Splitsider called The UCB Show “a show for comedy nerds, people who care about whether and why a sketch works with near-academic intensity.” It opened the floodgates to a parade of TV roles – on The Daily Show, Reno 911!, Party Down, Community, Parks and Recreation, to name a very few – and in movies like Drillbit Taylor, Step Brothers, Cyrus and 2016’s Ghostbusters. He’s also a consistent figure in Todd Phillips movies, where you’ll find him playing characters named Walsh, or ‘Valsh,’ as the situation demands.
Along the way, Walsh (the real one) also managed to write and direct several of his own projects, which are notable for being almost 100 percent improvised, and bold examples of alternative comedy. As an actor and writer on Players, he transformed loosely outlined situations and characters into surprisingly watchable TV, largely due to a cast of improv pros who knew how to lift and level the jokes. In its review of the pilot for his Dog Bites Man, IGN wrote, “If subsequent episodes of the show maintain this level of quality, this is going to be one of the best comedies on television. The chemistry of the cast is amazing, the writing is sharp and witty, and the timing is perfect.” On the big screen, he’s gathered improv cohorts for cult classics like High Road and Martin & Orloff, the latter in which he is Martin Flam, an advertising costume designer who is agonizing over the death of an actor dressed as an egg roll with no eye holes, who stumbled into the river and drowned. Guilt-stricken, he attempts suicide; the movie starts with Flam’s return home from the hospital as he cleans his own dried blood from the bathroom floor. If that intro alone has you sniggering to yourself, maybe you’ll sympathize with tech issues Walsh encounters in turning his friends loose in front of a lens. When the cameras keep shaking and lights start moving around because the crew can’t stop laughing, you’re in for a long day of shooting, but he loves every minute of it. In discussing High Road with Collider, Walsh cited Christopher Guest as inspiration. “He got to make four movies with his buddies. That alone is a huge success to me.”
If Veep is only now bringing him attention he’s more than merited all along, you get the feeling he’ll use it for the same purpose he always has – championing comics. He believes they have a harder job than they’re given credit for in comparison to their dramatic counterparts. “Comedians have to be relatable, so the pedestal gets smaller.” Hopefully not too small to accommodate a guy who truly deserves one.