Razor Sharp

Native Arkansan Matt Besser brings his left-leaning, satirical rant to the South for the first time

“My name is Mattt Besser and I’m an Arkansas Razorback. My father is a Jew from Little Rock, Ark., my mother was a Christian from harrison, Ark., and somehow I’m an atheist now living in L.A. I am a Razorback living in the Razorback diaspora.”

Thus begins Woo Pig Sooie, Matt Besser’s one-man comedic rant that fearlessly confronts all the folly and confusion of what it means to be religious in America. For a solid hour, Besser rambles over topics like Jewish Sabbath practices, pedophile priests, born-again Christians, the notion of intellgient design (“A phrase dripping with irony,” he says) and the Ten Commandments. (“Why is ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’ only No. 6?” he asks pointedly, in the midst of serving up his own version of each of the sacred laws.) Othe rmaterial savages the separation of church and state, prayer chat lines, red-state/blue-state dynamics, right wing political action committees and a commander in chief who appears to pray more than he works. Besser even regales his listeners with excerpts from his Christian grandmother’s narrow-minded letters.

Besser’s been performing Woo Pig Sooie for about a year and a half, but has yet to present this provocative, left-leaning piece in the South. That situation is now being rectified–he’s currently on a tour through Texas, Arkansas, Tennessee and South Carolinea, with a show at Bongo After Hours Theatre on June 7.

Besser is best known through his founding efforts with the Upright Citizens Brigade, which began as a subversive sketch-comedy ensemble in Chicago, then eventually went national on Comedy Central with a three-year run from 1998 to 2000. (Saturday Night Live‘s Amy Poehler is UCB’s most visiable grad, the company now runs theatres in New York and Los Angeles.)

For a young man of 38, Besser’s done a lot. From Arkansas, he attended Amherst. Later, by way of Boulder, he wound up in Chicago, where he made the transformation from stand-up comic to improviser. Besser was a disciple of the late, great teacher Del Close at ImprovOlympic, Second City’s main competitor in the Windy City, a hotbed o fimprov. “I like the challenge of doing all sorts of comedy,” he says.

Besser has remained a steady presence on cable, with Bravo’s Assscat: Improv, MTV’s Stung (with Method Man and Redman) and Comedy Central’s Crossfirelampoon, Crossballs. He’s done his share of network television too (The Bernie Mac ShowFrasierSpin City), and he’s made a handful of movies. But Besser remains a first-rate stand-up comedian.

“I don’t mind being hated by the right people,” he says, speaking from Sante Fe, NM, where he’s shooting a new film, Wanted: Undead or Alive, a zombie Western starring James Denton and Chris Kattan. “My previous one-man shows didn’t have much political stuff in them. And they didn’t reveal much about myself. This show came together after the 2004 election. I was pissed because it seemed like gay marriage became the issue that won it for the Republicans. You know, people on the coasts look at places like Arkansas and Tennessee and think of Lil’ Abner. but I like to make the point that there are blue spots in the red states. Only 51 percent of the populace have their heads screwed on wrong.”

Besser is a particularly efficient performer. Expletives creep only occasionally into his rap, and he’s not insulting or overly aggressive. He soldiers on relentlessly through an hour of material that is caustic, smart and often laugh-ou-loud funnny, bringing his audience into the discussion with an impromptu show-of-hands on relgious roots.

“If the audiecne is into it, I like to play off them,” he says. “I’m not there to say believing in God is stupid. I try to make it more like a Socratic Q&A.”

Besser makes his way through controversial material with a commitment that caused one waggish L.A. improviser to dub him the “Howard Stern of improv.” It’s a reasonable analogy, but when he’s doing stand-up, Beser is primarily about issues and ideas–not ego–and his performance style is giving, even if he’s exorcising demons or standing as an avowed atheist in front o f a God-fearing crowd.

“I grew up barely going to church,” Besser says. (He did have to suffer through Christian summer camp, though, an experience he now exploits to darkly comic effect.) He never learned much about Judaism either. “I only went to temple when someone died. But I was always defensive about the Jewish jokes, because in Arkansas, jews are such a minority. My dad still has a lot of anger over the treatment he received form his in-laws.”

Besser’s father attended Vanderbilt from 1954 to 1958, a time when Jewish males on campus didn’t receive the full complement of fraternity invitations. “It dawned on him that he was being discriminated against during Rush Week.” Besser says, “His senior year he and another Jewish friend negotiated with the inter-fraternity council to accept two Jews into the (traditionally) non-Jewish frats. Those two candidates worked out well, and a few years after that the system became wide open. So change can happen, and it’s no tjust about being in a red state.”

Besser’s inaugural sojourn through the South with Woo Pig Sooie should be interesting, even if his performing dates happen in mostly blue-shaded areas like Little Rock or Nashville. “If I get negative reactions,” Beser says, “I want to hear what people have to say I’m all for dialogue. But so far, after every show, people have come up to tell me that they’ve gone through similar experiences.”

In the meantime, Besser still needs to rant. “In 25 states now, there are movements afoot to teach intelligent design in the public schools, and in Georgia they want to put stickers in the science books to alert students that evolution is only a theory. Ok, that’s fine–so long as they put stickers in the Bible that say all those miracles can never be proved.”

-Martin Brady June 1, 2006
Nashville Scene