If you’ve listened to a LA-based podcast, watched Drunk History or seen any Volkswagen commercials, then you’re familiar with Matt Gourley’s work. Gourley, an improviser and actor perhaps best known for the Superego podcast, has had an eclectic career simply by following his bliss.
We recently talked to Gourley about his quirky cameo on Community, how working at a Disney theme park shaped his career and why producing new episodes of Superego is becoming less and less sustainable.
[To hear the audio version of this interview, click here.]
How did you get into acting?
Gosh, I guess from an early age I was always interested in that sort of thing, like recording little improv bits and doing stunt shows and stuff in the backyard. Then when I got to high school, I saw that people were doing improv and acting and got pretty heavily into it there. I actually went to college to study graphic design, but ended up switching back to theatre because I liked acting so much and then just did improv professionally and a lot of my work sort of came from that, from the comedy world.
When did you start to seriously consider it as a career path? Were you just continuing to do little things or was there a moment where you officially decided that that’s what you were doing
Boy, I’m not sure I’ve still decided that. I think I’ve always enjoyed doing it. I don’t know that I enjoy every acting job. I guess I still teach, though I don’t know how much longer I’m going to do that. I guess I was kind of like, “When enough acting and comedy work came along that I couldn’t do the other stuff, I feel like I’m going to let that decide it for me.” I’m usually pretty active in my choices in life, but this is one thing where I feel like I’m a little passive. If it takes over, great. That means it’s for the right reasons. Otherwise, I sort of feel like I should keep my other irons in the fire just to keep my brain sane. I go a little crazy when I just do one thing. I always like to try other things.
How much time do you think you spend tracking down work and how much of it is just making your own stuff and doing the things you actually want to do?
I’d say 99 percent of the time I’m just doing what I want to do. I don’t really actively seek acting work at all. If I was to do acting as the sole choice, I would do that more, but I find the least fun part of the job is seeking out the work. I’ve been fortunate to have some stuff come up. Otherwise, I just try to create things that I really enjoy doing. Then sometimes that turns into work and that’s a really nice thing. For me, it’s just about keeping it fun and peaceful. If it isn’t, then I always wonder why am I doing this.
You spent time as an actor and improviser at Disney theme parks and wrote a pilot based on that experience. What was that experience like for you and how do you think it informed your life going forward?
I actually look back on that time of my life working at Disney as a very good time because it was a really good union job and it was steady work. I was also teaching, so it felt like the first time where I just didn’t have to worry too much about anything. I could save some money and it was a care-free time. Then, like all things when you’re working for a big company, it started to get a little oppressive at times.
Other things came along and then I met my now fiancé. She had worked there as well. When we started writing that pilot, it was a good way to put a button on the end of that period and to also take something out of it. It felt like it was going into a next level. It was really fun writing with her. It was a great little bow to tie on that end of that whole experience. Because otherwise, I felt like it would have just kind of faded away in my life, which it was doing anyway. This was a nice way to wrap it up.
Can you go to Disney now and just have fun or does it bring back too many memories?
Oh, yeah, I have. I absolutely can. I grew up in Southern California, so as a kid, I adored it, but as an adult, I never was an annual pass holder or anything because it was always just in my backyard. I don’t mean this in a bad way. I never had a reverence for it like some people do.
I go there and there are certain things that I love to do there and certain things that got me crazy. I just stick to the fun things and usually it’s about the company you’re with anyways. I really like going there. I enjoy it. I have fond memories of working there. I mean, I worked there with all my best friends before and after. It was kind of like getting paid to hang out anyway. It’s nice to see the old stomping grounds.
How you got involved with Channel 101 and what that experience like for you?
That was really fun. We were friends with Dan Harmon and Rob Schrab before that. There was the thing that was like a prototype version of Channel 101 that they did called the Midnight Movie Madness. We worked with Steve Agee on something that was in that and then I think they only did a few more before it just sort of became this thing. Whatever that was, we were either going to it or doing pilots from the very beginning I think.
It was like a whole social circle like Disney was. It wasn’t like this thing of “We’ve got to get a pilot in.” It was just, “Let’s make a movie with our friends. Let’s pull from this group here. Next time we’ll pull these guys in.” At that point, all of the Channel 101’s were very inbred. People would see each other’s films and go, “Oh, you should do mine. I’ll do yours.” That sort of thing. It was a fun community.
The one that we made that kind of ran for a little bit was Ultra Force, but the production value was so overwhelming that we just killed the character. That’s what eventually led to us doing Superego because of the audio commentary. You didn’t have to do all the visual production value stuff. It was fun.
Speaking of Dan Harmon and Rob Schrab, you had a highly-enjoyable cameo in the sixth season of Community playing Briggs Hatton, the writer of the incest episode. It’s wonderful how bizarre those tags at the end of the episodes got in the last episode. What was it like to film that scene?
I remember doing this thing on Comedy Bang Bang and then rushing over from Comedy Bang Bang shoots in Glendale and Community was shooting in Studio City, so I had to drive over in rush hour traffic.
I just got my two-page monologue as I started driving over. I’m driving and memorizing at the same time. I do these Volkswagen commercials and they’re 1/8th the amount of lines, but they’re really hard to memorize because it’s just all automobile jargon. Dan Harmon’s writing – I felt like I could swallow that two-page monologue in an hour. I was running it like crazy. There was definitely a pressure thing. It all just made perfect sense.
I got there and the crew was all very tired from a long season. I think it was a scrambled season and Rob Schrab was the director, who’s just fantastic and just makes you feel so welcome. We just shot it. I don’t know, we probably did it five times maybe in different angles. The whole thing was meant to be a one-take thing. We got as close as we could, and it seemed like that was good enough that was it. I think the whole thing probably took two hours. That included shooting the little board room scene. It was pretty in and out. Very, very easy. They make it very user-friendly. It’s fun to do.
What is the process of making Superego and how involved is it? As you said, it came out of wanting to do something easier than what you were doing for Channel 101, but there’s probably a lot of production and editing that goes into it. How long does it take you to put together an episode?
That’s the irony of it. We started it because we thought it would be easier. For a while, it was. I think over time it was a natural progression of more and more people started listening, so I felt this need to make the quality either consistent or better each time. It got more and more elaborate. Sketches got longer. The production value got higher. Yeah, now we’re to the point where it’s almost impossible to get an episode out. That’s funny you should mention that because I literally am editing this morning some more Superego when you called. It’s a long, but fun process. I think it’s getting less and less sustainable. That’s why the show doesn’t come out that often and probably is nearing its natural conclusion. Nowadays, even scheduling is a little difficult. Getting the four of us in the same room, much less the four of us and a guest or two, is difficult. It’s really fun. Then we record.
Even now it seems like we record less each time that we talk a lot more. Once we get something in the can, I’ll listen to it. Maybe half of what we do that night will be worth anything. It takes a day to just even edit a story out of it. Then at least another day to do the production value and stuff like that. Each sketch is usually split up between two days. If we have five or six, we’re looking at like, I guess, 12 days of editing that I’m doing. It just became something I couldn’t really get done in a month with other work coming around. There was a period in my life where I used to literally just work weekends and I had other teaching work that was online during the week. I could spend so much time on Superego. Plus we hadn’t done as much, so it was fresher. Now there’s like a fatigue aspect of it and a scheduling aspect and all that stuff, which is good. It’s a natural progression.
It just means we’re all busy, which is a very positive thing. I think Superego still remains our first love in many ways, even if we can’t give it all the attention we need. The other thing to is that I just really want it to feel good and inspired. We’ve done recording sessions during breaks that felt like we haven’t really recharged, so I always try to remind myself and I guess some listeners too who very lovingly get impatient that the only reason to put one out is because it’s worth putting out and it’s good. Otherwise, we’re not on a schedule. We don’t make money. They’re free. We don’t make money off the free episodes, so why not put something out when it’s good no matter when that is?
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Spontaneanation, which Paul F. Tompkins already has months and months of shows already in the can. You guys could retire from show biz and there would still be episodes of Spontaneanation coming out.
Yeah, I know, I’ve recorded episodes that I think are coming out in May or June of this year. Yeah, it’s bottled up, which I really envy Paul for having all of those in the can and can just relax for a while. I try to do that with I Was There Too sometimes, but it’s difficult.
I Was There Too is an awesome show. Where did the idea come from?
Oh, that came from Jeff Ullrich, who is the former head of Earwolf. It was a brilliant idea. He and I were working together. I was a consultant for Earwolf. We were developing shows for the pop culture branch of Earwolf. He mentioned the show and then said I think you should do this. I felt like that was so nice of him to say. I was like I can’t pass that up. That’s a no-brainer. It sounds really fun. It took a while to figure out how to book guests for that thing, but now it seems to be sustaining itself a little bit with the help of a professional booker. A lot of them come from people who are listeners who set me up with good guests.
Do you have a philosophy when you go into that? How do you try to approach those interviews?
Well, I’ve sort of learned about myself as I was going along. I hadn’t really done interview shows before, so there was definitely a learning curve. Sometimes I interview people that I know, which is the easiest day because I know I’m going in with someone that I can already have a conversation with and that puts me at peace.
The first thing I do when I don’t know them is try to figure out: what are they like? Are they really open about this? Are they nervous? Are they pleasant? You get all types. I got to try to figure out how to cater to them to get the best conversation out of them. Otherwise, I’ve learned that because I struggle with wanting great diversity in film, but also there are certain films I’ve done that I’m not even necessarily that interested in, I don’t feel like I give the best interviews that way. I’ve tried to limit it this season at least to films that I care about, or at least roles that I care about that were significant and not to do it just to do it, but to have some sort of history with the film myself, so I can feel like I can be passionate. I feel like the best interviews are when I’m interested in the stories and the film as well.
You keep mentioning doing stuff that you’re passionate about and that seems to be the arc of your career. That’s not everyone’s experience in Hollywood. There are a lot of people who end up doing things that maybe they’re not super passionate about. Does that feel unique to you or is that just always just been your approach and it’s worked to this point?
Yeah, in fact I think that’s the only way I operate, but it’s not a principled sort of thing. It’s truly like I wouldn’t know how to do it any other way because I’ve found myself doing work before that was maybe good work, but I was saying, “Oh, I felt obligated to do this,” not like I obligated to a person, but like this is an opportunity that I think everybody else would really love, but down deep, I’m going, “I don’t know that this is something I’m enjoying.” It’s the hardest thing in the world to draw the line and go, “Do I turn something down because it just doesn’t seem fun?” In the end, I try to think I’m not necessarily in this for fame. I think I work enough so everything’s fine, so why not just do the things that make it fun? That’s not always easy to choose, but in general, I feel like I don’t do good work unless I do that. I’m kind of shooting myself in the foot either way.
It’s an interesting mix of following your joy, but doing a lot of things that involve planning and work. How much of a long-term plan do you have – do you think in the future or is it just reactionary? Are you able to schedule and plan and look towards a five-year plan or anything?
It’s funny, yeah. I have a long-term plan only so far as my life stability goes like the responsible things about retirement and home ownership. I look at the long-term plans of that 100 percent, but career-wise, I think, honestly, maybe a month at the most because I’ve been able to teach pretty regularly, so I feel secure that I’ll at least have a baseline of work, but that allows me so much free time that I don’t think of work in terms of money. I think in terms of products.
I think this week I can edit Superego. I can do this podcast because it’s something I enjoy. Even those can feel like burdens sometimes, but in a good way. I just think about what’s next on the horizon in terms of projects that I get to do and stuff. I guess going all the way back to when I was a child, that’s the way I thought. I would wake up in the day and go, “What should I draw today? What should I make today?” My mom was very good about creating a creative environment. Sometimes we would do things together. I just always look forward to making things and I guess I’m realizing right now I guess that’s never changed.
It’s great that you’ve been able to maintain that.
Yeah, I feel incredibly lucky. I forget it sometimes, but even in the times where I have work that goes on steadily that doesn’t allow me to do creative pursuits, I really feel the pressure of that. I really, really appreciate having the time and flexibility to do this stuff even though it seems like it’s happening less and less, I still really long for it.
Do you have stuff that you want to do that is still filed away as someday projects, or have you been pretty good about having ideas and being able to execute them?
Yeah, I do. I definitely do. I really like dabbling in music and art too. I’d like to maybe do a children’s book. I would love to do some animation and then at some point record some more music. I really enjoy that. It seems like I go through these almost seven-year phases or something like that where it’s drawing, then music and then comedy or something. I don’t know. They feel like they’re all mixing up right now.
There are plenty of things I want to do, but I only listen to the one that that day is going. This is the one I want to do. I mean, it sort of answers itself where there’s just one I’m more excited about. I definitely head toward that.
What do you think you’d be doing for a living if you hadn’t pursued this path?
Oh, boy. Maybe something in graphic design, I guess. I wanted to be an animator when I was younger, but that 2D animation died out around the time I would have been training for it, so I bet I would have evolved into like an industrial designer or something like that. Maybe an illustrator. I think that was my first creative pursuit was drawing and illustration. I think that’s what it would’ve been. I had too much of a need for fun, immediate satisfaction, so that’s where acting came in, I think.
That’s what’s great about improv is that you get that immediate feedback, even more than acting.
Yeah, definitely. It’s funny because a lot of the stuff I do is released later on a podcast, but I think I’ve learned that it’s not the attention of the audience I crave, it’s the fun with the performers I crave, so with Superego and Comedy Bang Bang, when you’re in the room and you’re joking back and forth and you see the reaction on the other person’s face and then you react that way to theirs, you’re getting an immediate feedback from people you respect and being able to build something off each other’s reactions is such a fun high that that becomes the thing that I think is the most fun for me.
What is something that most people don’t know about you?
I guess that I’m pretty shy. I think people that listen to my podcast know me as a what would seem like an extrovert or a conversationalist or something. I think I possess that from being a teacher and a performer, but day to day, I’m basically happiest when I’m at home and I’m not great at small talk at parties. I’m not really great at parties. I can do it. There are times when I definitely have fun, but if given my druthers, I’m home on the couch being a recluse.
Interviewed by Joel Murphy. Follow Matt Gourley on Twitter to keep up to date on his latest projects. Superego will celebrate its 10th anniversary with two live shows at Largo at the Coronet on Saturday, March 5.