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Matt Belknap, Founder of Aspecialthing.com
Matt Belknap is changing the way people experience comedy. As founder of Aspecialthing.com, Matt's created a place where comedy nerds, whether they be fans or the artists themselves, can discuss the art form they love so much. But Belknap isn't only a comedy fan. He runs See You Next Tuesday at the UCB Theater, is producer of and panelist on Never Not Funny, one of the I-Tunes picks for best Podcasts of '06 and '07, and founder of Aspecialthing Records, which in 2007 put out comedy albums by comedians Jen Kirkman, Paul F. Tompkins, Jonah Ray, and The Sklar Brothers. LAist got a hold of Matt's email and sent him a few questions about his plans for AST, his thoughts on comedy, and got some details on what new AST releases are planned for 08.
What is it that brought you to LA?
I decided when I was in high school that I wanted to make movies, and I read a Spike Lee book that said writing was the best way to break into the business, so I started writing screenplays. I majored in film in college, then moved to Los Angeles as soon as I graduated -- actually before I graduated: my first job was a summer internship that represented my final credits to get my degree.
What made you decide that you wanted to make movies?
I loved them as a kid, and I was always making little camcorder videos. But seeing "Do The Right Thing" when I was 15 is what made me want to be a filmmaker. Corny as it sounds, that was the film that made me realize movies could be more than entertainment -- they could be art, they could be thought-provoking, they could move people. That totally spun my head around, and I started to put that together with my love of playing with my video camera. And honestly, it was the first time I really cared about something passionately -- I played sports but wasn't that into them, I was an underachiever academically since pretty much every subject bored me, I didn't understand or care about what my parents did for a living... So when I realized that making movies could be a career, I thought it sounded like the greatest thing in the world. It was all I ever wanted to do.
Do you view comedy as an art?
Yeah, although as I've gotten older I've come around to believing that in both cases it's a bad idea to set out to be thought-provoking, or to set out to make something "Capital-A" Artistic (at least in the field of entertainment -- if you're an artist, by all means make art). Your work can be those things, but if that's your motivation it will be transparent. In fact that's a problem I have with a lot of independent films: they put artistic ambition ahead of things like narrative.
But comedy is a great way to make people see the world differently, because it softens them up first, then slips in the ideas when their guard is down. I think Chris Rock's comedy has changed how people view race in America, which is huge. Story-driven comedy like Jen Kirkman's can be moving and can resonate emotionally even as it makes you laugh. And all stand-up comedy is art -- it's performance art. It's not always successful or good, and a percentage of it is striving to be nothing more than escapist entertainment, a mindless reaffirmation of commonly held beliefs, but at its core it's a form of heightened human expression, and that will always have value.
Where'd you do your internship?
The Samuel Goldwyn Company (now Samuel Goldwyn Films), which was one of the last (if not the last) truly independent studios in Hollywood (I think it became the last when Disney bought Miramax, though maybe Lions Gate negates that now). Anyway, by the time I got there they didn't have much money and couldn't do much in terms of producing their own projects, but they would acquire a few movies at festivals every year and release them, and they had a hand in some great projects around the independent film renaissance of the early '90s (they produced and/or released films by David Lynch, John Sayles, David Mamet, Ang Lee and Paul Thomas Anderson, among others). They gave me a job reading scripts after my internship, and that led to a better reading job at a bigger production company, which has allowed me the time and flexibility to do all this stuff in comedy while still making a living.
When'd you start going to live comedy shows?
I went to Largo once or twice in 1998 or 1999, and I went to a Mr. Show taping once -- season 4, so that was 1998 I guess -- but I wasn't a die-hard fan at that point, and I didn't start going out to things regularly until 2002, when Death Ray started at the M Bar. Actually, before that I had been going to every Tenacious D show that I could, which still wasn't that many shows, and I went to the Laugh Factory a few times to see Dane Cook (back when he was funny). But when Death Ray started, my wife, a friend, and I found ourselves going every week. It was nearby, it was pretty easy to get in, it was cheap, and you got dinner before the show, so it was something that fit into our lives pretty seamlessly. I mostly started going because I wanted to see Mr. Show people perform, but it opened up a whole world of comedy to me, and I discovered great comics like Patton, Pardo, Hard 'n Phirm, Andy Kindler, Louis CK, Zach Galifianakis, Howard Kremer, Nick Swardson, Todd Glass, Graham Elwood, etc.
When did you start SYNT?
July of 2005, right when the UCB Theatre LA opened. Comedy Death Ray had already been going for three years or so, and See You Next Tuesday was conceived as a late-night, experimental kid sister with more up-and-comers on the stage... and fewer people in the audience. (Oh and it's free!)
How did you come up with the name? Is it a reference to John Landis's fictional film See You Next Wednesday?
Scott Aukerman came up with it, I think. He asked me if I wanted to book the late-night spin-off of Death Ray when they moved to the UCB. I was eager to get more involved in the comedy scene, so I said yes. I actually did think it was a reference to the John Landis in-joke at first, but then I found out that apparently some people use "see you next Tuesday" as a cutesy reverse-acronym for that word Jane Fonda said on the Today Show. (Now it's my belief that John Landis's joke is a play on the phrase.) What I do like about the name, though, is that it suggests a peek into the future, which is what the show tries to offer (since it features younger comics who are still developing, but might someday make it to the big-time).
Have you ever done any comedy performing?
Yeah, I did open mikes for a little while. I was writing about comedy a lot back then for Aspecialthing, and I felt like I needed to experience stand-up first-hand to really understand it. I also thought it would be good for my writing. And deep down, maybe I fantasized that I'd turn out to be really good at it and it would become an avenue for me to succeed in show business. The main thing I learned is that I have neither the burning desire nor the need for attention necessary to power though the long, painful early stages of developing into a decent comedian. Oh, and I also lacked any real talent. I was too aware of how mediocre I was, and how long it would take to get better, and I just didn't have the passion to keep doing it with no reward. Or I didn't have the stomach to continue being bad for however long you're bad before you get better. Then I started producing podcasts, and Never Not Funnyin particular became all the outlet I ever needed for performing. Even though it's not live, I still get to make people laugh -- and it reaches a lot of people, so that's pretty fulfilling.
What inspired you to start AST?
Procrastination, really. I was avoiding a big project that I had started and couldn't finish because I didn't want to face the failure of it, so I started getting into reading and posting on message boards, and around the same time I got really into Tenacious D. This was spring/summer of 2001. The D's official site (designed and hosted by their label, Sony Music) launched, and it had a really slow, buggy message board, so I started my own Tenacious D message board for fans who didn't want to deal with theirs. Fans of Tenacious D, at least back then, were invariably fans of Mr. Show (from which the Tenacious D HBO series sort of spun off), so discussion invariably turned to Mr. Show alumnae and what they'd been doing since the show ended. That's how Scott and BJ Porter, who wrote on Mr. Show, found AST, and Scott posting about Comedy Death Ray when it started in 2002 was what led me to attend that show regularly and write about it, and eventually get to know those guys.
When did you know that you had more than just a normal message board?
There were a lot of weird, unique things that happened on there, even in the first year. For example, Kyle Gass's mom posted from time to time, which seemed pretty amazing. It was a direct line to the band that the site was dedicated to, so as a fan it was exciting. But I guess the turning point was probably when Dino Stamatopoulos, another Mr. Show writer, popped up and started answering questions that people had about his career, and about writing comedy. He was incredibly candid and really funny, and it was a thrill to have direct contact with a comedy hero (he had written on Conan, Letterman and even the ill-fated Dana Carvey Show, where he worked with Charlie Kaufman). His posts made for entertaining reading, and I think that alone drew a lot of people to the site. It made the whole AST experience more exciting, because as other comics and writers found it, a vibe of "you never know who's going to show up next" developed. Patton Oswalt was probably the next guy who showed up and started posting. At the time I knew him mostly from "King of Queens," but people who knew his stand-up knew how great he was, and as he became more well-known, his generous support of the site really helped bring in the right kinds of fans -- basically, anyone who likes what he does will probably feel at home on AST.
You've done many in-depth comedian interviews. Do you have any theories on how and why one becomes a comedian?
I would guess that all performers of all stripes have an above-average need for attention, so that's the first ingredient. This might come from childhood neglect, but I think it's more just part of one's personality (Kid A might get a lot of attention, but however much she gets is never enough, while Kid B might get very little attention and be fine with that). Then you need an appreciation for humor, which I think is inborn -- you either have it from a very early age or you don't. Maybe this can be instilled by family, but in a lot of cases I think it's just there from the beginning, regardless of environment.
If you have that appreciation in you, it becomes something you use in your life -- to make friends, avoid conflicts, turn the tables on a sibling who's picking on you, gain the attention of an otherwise distant parent, cope with adversity, etc. This ability to influence people with words becomes empowering to a child, especially because children are for the most part small and weak and clumsy and inexperienced (I know I was) -- so humor levels the playing field a bit. A lot of people think comics must have had fucked-up childhoods. Some do, but I think that assumption is backwards: I think those comics are people who survived fucked-up childhoods by using their humor as a shield. The comics who didn't have notably fucked-up childhoods are just people who like the feeling of making people laugh (and the attention that comes with it). In either case, these kids feed their appreciation for humor with television, movies, books, radio and records; they seek it out, practice it in their daily life, and eventually master it.
Making the jump to the stage is another matter, but every performer has to face that -- most people do theater in elementary school and find out if they like it or hate it, and then go from there. However, comedy is unique to the performing arts in this way: humor, in theory, is supposed to be spontaneous, and trying in any aspect of life is intrinsically un-cool, so getting up on a stage with the stated purpose of attempting to make others laugh (with prepared material, no less) is paradoxical: you are in effect saying, "I'm so funny that you will soon forget the contrivance of this situation and the inherent desperation that my appearance up here represents and laugh in spite of it all." Most people would be naturally wary of such a shaky social contract, but a comic has either spent his whole life feeling like he needs to perform and make people laugh to get the attention he craves, or he's gotten a taste of the highs of live performance and can't resist chasing that feeling.
What prompted you to expand the board to podcasting, a record label, and now a video channel with the Independent Comedy Network?
I sank a lot of time and energy into establishing and maintaining Aspecialthing, and at a certain point I felt the need to prove to myself (and maybe my family) that it hadn't been a complete waste. So that meant expanding it, with some vague notion that getting to know all these great comics and running a great website that they all read could lead to a paying job in comedy someday (wow, it sounds even more convoluted when I type it out like that).
I had been doing really long and detailed written recaps of live comedy shows for a while, and the next logical step was interviews. I did a few written interviews, but with the advent of podcasting, I realized that I could save a lot of time and avoid the tedium of transcribing if I just did an audio interview instead. So that's how AST Radio started, and then that led to Never Not Funny with Jimmy Pardo (which is more freeform, conversational comedy). Once I had the recording equipment for doing podcasts, and experimented with recording some live shows at the UCB so I could include clips on AST Radio, putting out records was kind of the next logical step -- and right on cue, my friend Ryan proposed we start a label together, which is how AST Records came about.
All this is under the umbrella of helping give these great comics I've come to know in L.A. more exposure, and the video channel is just another way to do that. At its core, AST exists because there are people around the world who love good comedy, they love discussing it and dissecting it and listening to it and watching it, but they can't find enough of it on TV or at the movies or on their radio or in their record store (or on iTunes), because there's no comedy equivalent to the independent film movement or the indie/alternative music movement (well, there is -- that's what AST and the UCB Theatre thrive on -- but unlike film and music, there's very little support from the corporate entertainment world). We're trying to fill that void in every way we can, even if it's on a relatively small scale. Hopefully, over time, it will grow, and we'll be able to reach more and more people in more and more ways. The video channel is exciting because it gives the members of AST a chance to show their talent and even get paid to produce their own web series.
I guess another way to answer your question is to say that AST expanded in part because I was looking to get back to my original goal of being on the creative side of the equation -- not just writing about comedy, but writing and producing comedy myself. One thing I love about AST is that it kind of blurs the line between the artist and the fan -- both are on the site, both are discussing what they love and loathe, and just as Patton Oswalt might post about his admiration for "The Office," a fan of Patton's who in the past has sought his advice about comedy might turn around and post a short film she just made. All performers and writers and directors are fans on some level, and a lot of times the fans are writers and directors and performers themselves. The video channel, and AST in general, just allows for all that action to flow freely in both directions.
Do you ever worry that AST will get too popular?
Well, as a message board, there might be a limit to the number of active posters it can withstand before it becomes more discussion than one person can realistically digest in a day -- but then again, you don't have to read every thread. I trust that the interesting stuff rises to the top and the not-as-interesting stuff gets filtered out through lack of participation. Your question hints that popularity could change AST and shift its focus to more mainstream, and perhaps less worthy, subject matter, but that's why the label and the video channel and the podcasts and the news column on the front page exist: to assert the identity of the site and set a standard for what we think is good in comedy. I'm open to the membership pushing that definition in one direction or another -- which I think it has -- because for the most part I trust their collective taste. In fact, AST has exposed me to a lot of great comedy I might not have otherwise discovered -- for example, it's where I first heard of Ricky Gervais and the original UK "Office." And that's the real value of the site: it draws people who share a general taste in humor, and it educates them on where to find more of it. It's pretty much self-sustaining on that front -- which is great, because it leaves me free to produce new stuff to add to that canon.
What's next for AST Records?
Upcoming '08 projects include a Doug Benson CD, an Andy Daly CD, a Comedy By The Numbers CD (with Bob Odenkirk and his many comedy friends participating) and an R.O, Manse CD (Chip Pope's washed-up '80s Brit-pop singer character).