Rage Against the Answering Machine

Matt Besser sets the world straight in his one-man show

Does it ever seem that tech support lines are staffed by a bunch of quarter-wit Luddites who take sadistic pleasure in keeping you on the phone? It might be because some of your never reached the help line at all. Perhaps you–like so many other New Yorkers– neglected to dial a one before the area code when calling a popular internet service line, and while you thought you had called a tech-saccy trouble-shhooter in Houston, you had actually reached Matt Besser in his Manhattan apartment. “I started getting calls going on a year ago,” says Besser, a seasoned comic and founding member of the Upright Citizens Brigade. “It probably went on for two moneths before it even occurred to me to tape them.”

Besser is no stranger to improv, so it was easy for him to create inept characters on the spot to lead the callers on. The hilarious recordings of those conversations are now the focus of Besser’s one-man show, May I Help You…Dumbass? He strings the calls together with other elements: monologues that lash out at people who don’t understand long-distance dialing, irate letters sent to the editors of various publications that lambaste things like the cheap standards of a local children’s poetry contest, videos that show Besser encouraging people in a long line at the post office to revolt. But for most of the show, Besser just plays the calls from a table loaded with stereo equipment. Sitting alone on the UCB theater’s tiny stage with Peter Bagge’s outrageous cartoons projected on the wall behind him, Besser looks like a DJ spinning rage.

Besser is merciless with his callers, and audiences love it; the theater has been packed for Saturday night showings of Dumbass since it opened in February–maybe because people understand where he’s coming from. besser is just a regular guy who’s fed up with everything from voice-activated systems that malfunction to people who can’t dial a phone correctly, and the overall effect is a fantastic mix between the venom of Rush Limbaugh and the pranks of the Jerky Boys.

“the Thing that makes these different than parnk calls are that those are outgoing and these are incoming,” says Besser. “It makes the victims a little more deserving of what they get.” In one call, Besser plays an all-business operator curtly demanding information: Favorite color? (Green.) Favorite Yankees player? (Jeter.) Cocki-ring size? (Um…excuse me?) In another, Besser flatly explains that it’s company policy to make sure that the callers have accepted Jesus into their lives before they can receive free Internet service. Naturally, almost every exchange ends with a pissed-off slam.

“I think what we get angry at every day is funny,” says Besser. “The angriest I ever get is with this voice-activated system that tells arrivals and departures [for United Airlines]. I can never get any information out of it, and I’m just sitting there screaming at something that isn’t human.”

Besser fights the petty fight in Dumbass. But despite the small point the show makes about misguided anger, Besser isn’t asking anyone to change–he just wants people to laugh. “I’m not going to pretend that I’m solving my own anger issues in this show, and that now I understand what’s really important,” Besser says. “I just did the show because I thought the calls were funny.” And unless you’re the one oon the other end of the phone, you’ll probably agree.

Time Out New York April 12-19, 2001