Matt Martin – You Can’t Make This Up

I didn’t really get to know Matt Martin until I started coaching the Nefarious Bakers in January of 2014. At the time, he was a strong performer, but fond of making contributions only when absolutely necessary. In the last year and a half, Matt’s really come out of his shell and started to put his awesome work out there. He performs on several teams (one of which recently wrapped up an 8-week run), always seems to be working on a new video, and is starting a podcast! He has a uniquely dark sense of humor, and all of his work is just so Matt Martin…which I’d say is a good thing.

Meet Matt Martin:

Matt Martin as a Clown

Why did you get into improv? How long have you been doing it?

The short answers are: My wife told me to and I’ve been dabbling with improv since 1999. I have a theater degree and some of the exercises are straight up improv games.

Now strap in for the long answer.

I first learned about long form improv when I interned at Walt Disney World. Disney Studios hired actors to improvise as old timey 1930’s Hollywood stars. Occasionally, one of the actors would drop into the camera shop where I sold film (yes, film; I’m that old) and say something stupid like “scram kid, I just bought new shoes and I don’t need no rats muscling in.” One of the performers said they did improv at the SAK Comedy Lab. Instead of buying a ticket or taking classes like a normal human being, I decided to volunteer at SAK’s snack bar so I could get the inside scoop about this improv thing.

Matt2: Matt gets a little delusional sometimes.
Matt1: Hey
Matt2: “Inside scoop”
Matt1: You’re right, I get a little delusional sometimes.

I watched a handful of shows, but the only thing that I really remember is that they didn’t want the performers to cuss. If a performer cursed during a class they would have to wear a stupid hat. That kind of rubbed me the wrong way.

Matt2: Orlando improv was family friendly, dammit
Matt1: Damn right!
Matt2: Damn right! DAMN  IT.

I didn’t actually do improv scenes until I enrolled at Columbia College Chicago. Columbia offered Intro to Improv. The teacher, a performer from IO Chicago, taught the equivalent of Level One at the Improv Shop.

Matt2: He was bald.
Matt1: He had flame tattoos on his forearms and he used to be a lawyer.
Matt2: He bragged about how short his girlfriend’s periods were.
Matt1 & Matt2:”3 and out”

I had a pretty big chip on my shoulder back then, and I wasn’t the ideal student, so after that class I dropped improv for a while and focused on film, stage management, and sketch comedy.

Matt2: Had? You really think that chip on your shoulder is gone?
Matt1: I think it’s reduced.
Matt2: Reduced?
Matt1: I think I’m a little less adversarial.
Matt2: You’re so cute when you lie to yourself.
[Matt2 takes photo of Matt1]

I didn’t really pick up improv again until I started taking classes at The Improv Shop a couple of years ago.

Matt2: Matt works from home. He spent three years interacting with society through email.
Matt1: That’s only partially true. I would leave the house to buy groceries.
Matt2: You used the automated checkout.
Matt1: The clerks always touch my palm when they hand back the change.
[Matt2 purses his lips]
Matt1: You’re judging me.
Matt2: Yes I am

Matt Martin Lizard Head

What was your favorite thing about your Longform Showcase Run with And Also With You? What did you learn from that experience?

The Showcase was a stressful experience for me. I remember before our first show, I sat in Kristy Meyer’s living room compulsively petting her dog Ginger and watching the rest of the Nefarious Bakers run through improv exercises. I was quietly freaking out. I freak out a lot, in general, but this time I freaked because I really wanted to do a good job. Then halfway through our run, Michael Barrows-Fitzgerald had his health scare. He’s better now, but the experience changed my outlook. After that, I stopped worrying so much about doing a “good job.” So, Zack Ziaja and Michael Barrows-Fitzgerald were my favorite things about the Longform Showcase.

Matt2: Are you saying Michael and Zack are things?
Matt1: Maybe, I don’t know what makes them run. I know for sure that Michael is part machine.
Matt2: I’ll get the box cutter.
Matt1: And the Isopropyl alcohol. If they really are human we should disinfect the wounds.

Our goal was to make the And Also With You show feel like a fever dream. Each show had about six scenes: an opening scene, four thematically pulled scenes, and then an ending that was a time-dash of our opening scene. On top of that, we used a pre-recorded introduction to ask the audience for a suggestion and we performed in the entire theater space, not just the stage. There were a lot of moving parts. I learned a ton of stuff:

  • An introduction can prime the types of suggestion you get at the top of a show. It is not foolproof, but if you want creepy suggestions try a creepy voice and creepy music.
  • Interacting with the audience during a scene can be tricky. The audience wants to watch a scene, not necessarily be part of it. Identifying which audience members are willing to play and which ones just want to watch is a handy skill to develop.
  • Prerecorded messages are fun, but they are easily rendered unintelligible when amplified through theater speakers, so speak clearly and don’t add much background music.
  • Check in with your scene partner. Even if you have a tech-heavy show, you still have to improvise. Knowing what your scene partner is doing seems like a good thing.

Matt2: Put check in with your scene partner last – why not?
Matt1: I was going to put it first, but I thought it would make a nice transition into our dialogue.
Matt2: That’s so meta.
Matt1: Thank you?

How has improv training helped with your video work? Also, we’re all dying to know…what is Jimmy Marcone up to these days?

I’m not as afraid to fail. I spent a lot of years not testing my ideas. That stunted my growth as a performer and as a person. I didn’t try so I didn’t fail, and because I didn’t fail, I didn’t learn. It’s something that I continually struggle with, but I’ve made progress in that area, and I’ve made some messed up videos that I’m proud of. Some of the videos I made to promote the And Also With You shows still give me the giggles.

Also, I’m way more collaborative than I used to be. Annie Niehoff and I have been working on video projects off and on for almost a year now as Discipline and Pie, and I’ve had the opportunity to be in Frank Zito’s improv mockumentary Improvidence. It’s exciting to be around so many creative and passionate people.

Matt2: Not as afraid to fail? Does that mean you’re done editing that movie you filmed in 2009?
Matt1: I said it is something I struggle with?
Matt2: So it’s not done?
Matt1: No, it’s not. I freak out everytime I open that project file. You know. You were there.
Matt2: That’s the only time I’ve seen a person cry and eat brownies at the same time.

What has Jimmy Marcone been up to? I’ll ask him.

What were your biggest takeaways from performing at Fringe Fest earlier this year with the Nefarious Bakers?

Fringe Fest was an exciting opportunity for me and the rest of the Bakers. We created an hour long improv show starting with an Armondo, then we showed a quick video sketch followed by a Bat. I feel like the experience reframed improv for me.

Before fringe, I thought of improv shows as being singular experiences. Each team had their own style and they live in a 20 minute bubble separated from any performance before or after. In some situations, this is true, but it doesn’t have to be true.

Improv can be curated, and a night of improv can feel like a night at the theater. Then I realized I had seen curated events (e.g., Storyteller, Improvised Missed Connections, Empty Full of Sorrow, and Stupid Brain) and I was just the slow guy who didn’t understand what was happening.

Matt2: Yeah you were.
Matt1: I’m acknowledging my slowness you don’t have to rub it in.
Matt2: But you were sooooo slooooooow.
Matt1: I need a brownie.

What is the best improv advice or note you have ever received?

“Take the note and shut the fuck up” – Kevin McKernan

Out of context that quote seems a little harsh, but it wasn’t. Kevin said this to our Level One class right before we moved on to Level Two and it’s been almost a mantra for me. It reminds me to take feedback seriously and to find a way to implement my coach’s suggestions.

When I was doing theater, I had a tendency to argue with teachers or directors. I wasn’t trying anything new and my directors couldn’t see how their feedback augmented the performance. It didn’t help anyone.

Matt2: Okay maybe the chip on your shoulder is a little smaller.
Matt1: Thank you.
Matt2: It had to make room for that GIANT pumpkin shaped skull. hahahahahah
Matt1: [Chewing] This brownie is really good.

Matt Martin in Buckethead

What is the best lesson you’ve learned from improv that translates to your real life?

Arguments are boring.

Matt2: Is that all you’re going to write for that question?
Matt1: Yeah
Matt2: I feel an overwhelming pressure to say something witty.
Matt1: Na, don’t worry about it.
Matt2: You only wrote three words.
Matt1: That’s how I feel.
Matt2: I’m not even sure if it’s a proper sentence.
Matt1: Want a brownie?
Matt2: Yes.

Do you have anything going on that you’d like to plug?

The Compass Improv Festival is Nov. 12-14. If you have a team you would like to submit go to

The Nefarious Bakers are podcasting. Look for Occasional updates on our facebook page.

Frank Zito’s Improvidence will be screened at the Sham Film Festival but if you would rather watch from the comfort of your own home

If I can stop eating brownies long enough to load videos there will be updates to Discipline and Pie.

BucketHead is cool. I strap and Ipad on my face and blunder around while really clever improvisers do amazing things.

Matt2: I don’t know if you plugged enough stuff.
Matt1: I guess I could write about my Jimmy Marcone project but I haven’t started it yet.
Matt2: That was sarcasm.
Matt1: I didn’t catch that. Maybe you should have used brackets like this -> [sarcastically]
Matt2: [earnestly] That would have made my sarcasm more clear. Thank you.
Matt1: You’re welcome

(Optional…well, more optional than the others). Is there a video, podcast episode, blog post etc about improv that you find particularly inspirational or inspiring?

I like learning about other performers. Some of my favorites sources for that information are:

  • This Ben Noble guy interviews people and writes books and stuff.
  • Marc Maron interviews performers like the President of the United States.
  • The Funniest one in the Room: The Lives and Legend of Del Close by Kim Howard Johnson
  • I Must Say: My Life As a Humble Comedy Legend by Martin Short
  • Girl Walks into a Bar . . .: Comedy Calamities, Dating Disasters, and a Midlife Miracle by Rachel Dratch

Matt2: Suck up.
Matt1: Why?
Matt2: You put Ben’s blog first.
Matt1: Of course I did… I’m a suck up.


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John Langen October 1, 2015 Reply

You’re right; arguments are boring. It’s been my crusade for the last 6 months. And if you are going to argue, don’t try to win, try to lose.

Ben Noble October 1, 2015 Reply

Making the choice to agree and see where that takes you is so much scarier but so much more rewarding.

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