Oh, the Indignity

Comedian Matt Besser rails against humanity’s dumber side.

By Paul Brownfield, Times Staff Writer

I’ve been getting phone calls for my deceased mother again. Just a few, but enough to unnerve me and wish that I had some retort handy, some snide line I could commit to memory. the people calling, of course, want to sell my mother things, or renew her contribution to a cause, or improve her long-distance service. modern life offers up many wonderful things, but the unsolicted phone call from the telemarketers, asking if your late mother is home, and mispronouncing her name in the bargain, is not one of them.

Matt Besser, at least, offers some vicarious revenge. his one-man comedy show, “Don’t Be a Dick,” currently running at the Improv Olympic West in Hollywood, chronicles, among other things, the homemade war Besser waged with another invasive side effect of technology.

Two years ago, besser discovered that his New York City phone number had been co-opted by a major Internet provide called Spinqay, which was using his number as it’s tech support hotline. That line was in Houston, but if you didn’t dial a 1 before the area code, you got Besser’s apartment.

The calls were coming 20 a day, Besser says, and after pleading with the Internet company to rectify the problem, he took matters into his own hands. besser could have changed his phone number, but as he explains, he had a 212 prefix and wasn’t about to give it up for the lesse glitzy 646.

Instead, Besser began dispensing his own sort of tech support. People would call with problems, and he would ask them to name their favorite color (this became their “F.C.” number, as in favorite color number, which Besser urged the caller to write down for future reference). He invented other outrageous, labyrinthine scenarios with callers, then recorded the conversations for public amusement, which formed the basis for “May I Help You…Dumbass,” a live show and CD that captured Besser’s career as a phony tech support hotline guy.

Most amazing is that people actually stayed on the line with him.

“I had my own little code of ethics…If they were Hispanic I wouldn’t screw with them, because I figured they might not know [to] dial 1 before the area code,” Besser says. “they might’ve lived in New York City their entire life [but] don’t know anyone outside the city, except when they dial mexico, which is a whole different thing…But if any white man’s calling me, I was screwing with them.”

Besser, 33, is a comedian with a keen iconoclastic streak. This is betrayed, somehow, by his hair, a shock of brown curls that once prompted a producer to say he had “TV hair,” which was evidently a compliment.

For 10 years, Besser was a member of the coedy troupe the Upright Citizens Brigade, a band of social pranksters and improvisational performers who came together in Chicago after workign with late Del Close, a legendary Second City alumnus and guru of a more challengin form of improv.

The Upright Citizens Brigade landed its own TV show on cable’s Comedy Cetntral from 1998-2000. Unable to land a broadcast network slot, the group recently dispersed; Amy Poehler is now a cast member on “Saturday Night Live,” and Matt Walsh is a correspondent on “The Daily Show.”

What still exists is the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York, a breeding ground for up-and-coming performers. besser, for his part, is temporarily in Los Angeles, renting an apartment with his girlfriend and, for the second year in a row, making himself available for pilot season–that months-long period of auditions and studio drive-on passes whereby actors hope, come spring, to get acse in a comedy or drama.

“the janitor thing got be crazy last year,” Besser said of the numberous janitor roles for which he got callbacks.

To fill the creative void, Besser is doing “Don’t Be A Dick” at the Improv Olympic through April 24. It has evolved form “May I Help You…,” which Besser performed in Los Angeles last year.

Note the running indignation in the shows’ titles. Besser is drawn to moral outrage, his own and anyone else’s. He has collected letters to the editor for years–from newspapers and magazines–seeing in them a repository of misplaced anger, an oral history, in its way, of what truly plagues modern man. In his act, these letters become performanc epieces; Besser assumes the writer’s indignation and cross-pollinates the letter with different genres for comedic effect. There is his rhyming ode to Carol Balir, who complained in her local newspaper that a children’s poetry contest was woefully lacking in rhyming stanzas. In another, Besser screams a letter about improper usage of the word “able” to a punk rock song. “Don’t Be a Dick” is about anger, but it’s not mean-spirited; Besser’s rage is mostly reserved for things that can be fixed but never will be, for the bureaucracy of contemporary life and for the idiocy that’s only ever a phone call away.

Los Angeles Times Feb 21, 2002