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“I personally love playing the straight man,” says Matt Walsh, the actor who plays Selina Meyer’s bumbling press secretary Mike McClintock on HBO’s Emmy-winning comedy series Veep, as we sit down to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter‘s ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast. “I think it’s really funny to be humiliated — like, humiliation comedy. So I’m willing to shame myself or endure anything for a laugh.” For his adept efforts at doing so, Walsh, a major figure in the world of comedy over the past two decades, is now, for the first time, an Emmy nominee, specifically in the category of best supporting actor in a comedy series.
(Click above to listen to this episode now or click here to access all of our episodes via iTunes. Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep, Eddie Murphy, Lady Gaga, Will Smith, Jennifer Lopez, Louis C.K., Kristen Stewart, Harvey Weinstein, Amy Schumer, J.J. Abrams, Kate Winslet, Samuel L. Jackson, Jane Fonda and Michael Moore.)
Over the course of our conversation, the 51-year-old reveals that he very nearly went down a vastly different path in life: He majored in psychology in college and, after graduating, found work as a counselor in an adolescent psych ward. At nights, though, he pursued a passion that he first discovered during his “second senior year,” namely improvisation, or “learning to write on your feet.” And, after giving his future some serious thought, he decided to abandon his day job to pursue improv full-time.
Groomed in Chicago by the likes of Del Close, the “legend” who was “the keeper of longform improv,” Walsh began to make a name for himself. He started at the Improv Olympic in 1989. Then, in 1991, he met another comedian, Matt Besser, and began teaming up with him. They were soon joined by Amy Poehler and Ian Roberts, and in 1993 the foursome formed the sketch comedy group Upright Citizens Brigade. “We committed to sticking together and doing shows,” he recalls, and he took that commitment seriously: In 1994 he was hired by Second City to become part of its touring company, a prestigious gig — but quit and moved to New York in 1996 when UCB’s “core four” decided that was their best play.
The UCB team struggled financially for a while, but their network of friends in the comedy world offered them side gigs — appearances on Conan or Saturday Night Live — which eventually resulted in Comedy Central giving them their own show, which ran for three years. This platform led to other gigs for Walsh, including as a correspondent on The Daily Show and fixture of Todd Phillips movies. But his career reached unprecedented heights when, following a series of improv-centric auditions, he was cast on Veep, a show on which improv always has been integral to the creation of characters and stories, first under original showrunner Armando Iannucci and now under his successor David Mandel.
Walsh talks about his excitement at landing the gig; his concern that he might lose it before the pilot was even shot (“The first week I was calling my wife every day back home and I’m like, ‘I’m gonna get fired”); his experience working closely with living legend Julia Louis-Dreyfus (whose “attention to detail” amazes him); and, along with his collaborators, trying to come up with material that mocks the insanity of politics at a time when the real McCoy is already off-the-charts insane.
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