Amid fluffy clouds of smoke in a dimly lit, wood-paneled room, comedian and Little Rock native Matt Besser commands a baked audience in his stand-up special “Pot Humor.” Filmed at the NW Cannabis Club in Portland, Ore., Besser’s special explores the semantics and evolution of stoner culture, with a theme about parenting his daughter. The comedian rips a bong halfway through the set, and reality-bending visual and sound editing follow, creating a trippy experience that’s dynamic to watch, whether or not you’re under the influence. I spoke with Besser about the special, toking in the Natural State, and parenthood.
I understand you’ve been developing this material for a few years now, performing it at different festivals and shows. How did you decide to go ahead and commit to doing a full-blown pot special?
I guess specifically it started out at the 4/20, April 20th, shows we’ve always done at our UCB [Upright Citizens Brigade] theaters to celebrate the mythical 4/20 celebration of marijuana. I’ve always been the host of that show, and through the years, I just naturally developed material that I would bring back. It has been at least 10 years, and marijuana culture has changed so much in that 10 years that the material has changed with it. As the culture has changed and it’s become more accepted, I have been invited to do the show at major comedy and music festivals — South by Southwest, San Francisco Sketch Fest, Just Relax in Montreal — so whereas it used to be this kind of underground show where the audience would get high, and it almost had this speakeasy, literally illegal vibe to it, now it’s very mainstream, especially here in Los Angeles and the west coast, where every other billboard on the street I live is about marijuana.
And even in places where it’s not as prevalent, like Arkansas, it’s still very much in the conversation. Even if don’t have dispensaries in your town, or [if] your state is very far away from that ever happening or happening anytime soon, everyone is talking about it. So I felt like it was time to put it all together and put out a special. And also, I’ve had a child in the meantime, in the middle of all of this, and that’s changed my life much more than marijuana ever did, and that plays into the special, too.
Do you think the special is best experienced when the viewer is also high?
One thing I did do was, at about halfway through the show, I take a bong hit. And I wanted the editing of the special to reflect that after that point. And right after that point, I really messed with it. We always shoot two shows when you do a special — anytime a special is done, there’s usually two shows done, and they edit them together. And usually the second show is better than the first, and that’s how it was with me. And I actually did not get high in the first show; I only did that in the second show. But [at a certain point] … both shows are playing at the same time. The 8 o’clock show and then the 10 o’clock show. The 8 o’clock show is playing in the mirrors on the wall [on stage]. The bits are slightly different, and I [improvised] just a little bit on it. I’m pitching up the sound of one of them and pitching down the sound of another one, so you can sort of tell the difference. But that kind of stuff, where we just had moments of it where we really make this section trippy, without trying to take away from the material itself. That was one of the goals of the festival and putting posters on the wall that come alive.
I thought all the posters were part of the bar’s decoration, so when you start bringing them into the set, it kind of gives you a surreal, unreality vibe because you don’t expect that sort of thing to happen.
I’m glad you say that. That’s exactly what I wanted. We filmed it in the Northwest Cannabis Club, which is a place where people can get high indoors, which [there are] very few places like that, it’s why I picked that place. I thought it was perfect, and I liked the way their stage already looked. It [looked like] someone’s basement room, where the … pool table is. So I took down their photos and stuff, and I put up my own. And a lot of those photos, my daughter took with her camera. I wanted it not to look like a big cheesy set, like you usually see in a stand-up special, on a big fancy stage that’s 10 feet above the audience with pink and purple lights.
In the past you’ve done this set in more underground settings. When filming this special, what was unique about being able to smoke and be high with your audience members, all out in the open? Was that a treat for you?
I’m 52 years old, so I’ve definitely seen a large arc of marijuana. I say it in the special, but I was raised in Little Rock in the ’80s, in the “Just say no” ’80s, and I definitely grew up thinking marijuana and crack cocaine were pretty much brother and sister. That’s what the message was; all kids were taught to think that. And I would say my parents, on some level … believed that. And now, I just did this festival at Outside Lands in San Francisco, where they had a special area called Grass Lands, where people were getting high there, in the middle of Golden Gate Park, with families 100 yards away, and it’s all fine, as it should be. It’s treated just like a beer garden, as it should be.
As far as the audience — one of the concerns actually [was that] beer is the classic comedy lubricant, and weed is, but more in short-term than long-term. Doing 4/20 shows, I always noticed that the first half-hour got the most laughs, then people sometimes would slump into their indica chairs, and they might have a big grin on their face, but as a comedian, you want to hear the laughs. The bonus of the place I did it in, in Portland, [is that] this place had a license where you could smoke [throughout] the entire show. You keep it going, in other words. I never saw anyone that was truly in an indica down-energy zone, and that was a fear of mine — halfway through my special, are they going to zone out? But, they did not.
There was this kid in his mid-20s sitting next to my wife, and the first time the camera’s on him, he has his eyes fully closed, and I thought he was asleep. I was like, oh, no. He’s next to my wife, it’s going to be in the special, but then he starts rocking back and forth, and grooving. He started grooving on my comedy the way you groove at a Phish concert to a jam. That’s exactly the dream for the cannabis comedian, is to have someone groove to their comedy like someone grooves to music.
So medical marijuana is legal now in Arkansas.
Yeah, so-called — it sounds like you have to crawl up a mountain to get it, or break into a safe.
Would your younger self have been surprised to know that dispensaries were popping up in Arkansas?
Yeah, without question. … I was there [in Arkansas] in October, and I did a lot of this show in Conway and Little Rock. Smoking a joint behind the building in a dark alley after midnight, when absolutely no one’s around, and … still feeling paranoid, is a long-ago feeling for me, that returned. I’m like, “Oh wow, I get it.” It’s a bummer, and it’s ridiculous. And I don’t think it should just have to be medical. … I talk about semantics a lot in my special, but it shows the semantics and the perception, and even the fact that you have to call yourself [a medical marijuana reporter] is showing, “Oh, we’re taking this very seriously.” When you should be able to not take this seriously. You should be able to write a review about this the way you write about someone making a homebrew [beer]. But you’re doing an article about a pot stand-up special, so I guess it’s not all serious.
In California, [the medicinal status] was pretty much a joke. It was a wink wink, nudge nudge, but I know my dad, when he did need it in New Mexico, it was treated much differently. Much more seriously, who gets it and who does not. At least, it was seven years ago. So to me, it was a joke here. You could say anything [to get a medical marijuana card], and many states are like that. In some, it doesn’t seem that way. I don’t know what it’s like in Arkansas yet. But when I was there, I was hearing that [there are] a lot of politicians making it really slow on a roll-out, of doing anything.
Back to the semantics of this — in your set, you were talking about the “It’s not a bong, it’s a water pipe” conversation that often happens in head shops, and the fake highlighters or Coke cans or Advil bottles that people put their weed in. Did it feel freeing to be able to have this conversation about all the guises and loopholes and coded language that people have had to use to talk about pot, with an audience that, because of the nature of the event, you can assume understand this?
From doing this material in front of what I’d call a more mainstream, average audience in a stand-up club — I’ve done these jokes in regular clubs, too, outside of my show — I found I had to educate people about things before I could do the joke. Like [the bit] I do in my special about what they’re doing with how [police can] determine if someone is driving under the influence … whether it’s a pot-smoking audience or not, I’m telling them what’s up, and then I do the joke. I don’t think you have to smoke pot to get it.
Is there any material from the two shows that didn’t make it into the special?
My actual show is about an hour and a half long. We edited it down. I had some bits that I determined were too inside-baseball, and it did work for that audience. I have a whole song about — it’s so specific — there are these, what I call rednecks, making THC concentrate by using butane, and they blow themselves up. Is that happening in Arkansas yet?
Not to my knowledge, but it probably isn’t too far away.
Just google ‘THC” and “explosions” and “news,”’ and see how many hits you get.
I definitely will. So you had a song all about that?
Just about that. You didn’t know about that, but in [Portland], where that’s happening a lot more, people do. I had the whole crowd singing “Rednecks on fire,” and that was definitely cathartic for me. But when I watched it, I was like, “I don’t think many people who don’t smoke pot would enjoy this,” so I cut it out.
Have you ever hit a bong on stage before?
I did a demo for this show in a vape lounge in Colorado, in Colorado Springs. And they did a dab rig for me there, which I’d never done before, period.
Ever. That stuff is way too complicated for me. After I did it, I was like, “I don’t know. This is the kind of pot-smoking that does resemble crack.” But when in Rome.
Was it difficult for you to stay focused after you did that? Both in Colorado and in Portland?
Not in Portland, but that dab was a little bit more serious, I would say I was a little bit more unfocused in my demo.
In your special, you touched on how weed becoming pervasive has kind of taken the edge and fun out of it a bit, with your story about trying to bring your vape pen into Disneyland. Do you think that if and when weed is federally legalized, that part of the appeal of it will disappear? Or do you think that stoner culture will just get even more widespread?
I think it will just become more widespread. I’m too old to care anymore about the rebellious side of it. The point of my special is that I have a daughter, instead of caring about that anymore. I’m proud to say I don’t care about that any more, but as far as it being treated [as] normal, I do care about that. And like I said, there’s zero reason it should be treated any differently than beer. I think for the good of society, we should all be aiming for that.
I really enjoyed the way you talked about the second-hand high you get out of watching your kid experience joy, and seeing things for the first time — like the onion volcano at Benihana. Are there other connections you’ve made between some of the sensations you sought when you were younger, and your experiences as a dad?
In my immature teen years, I definitely have distinct memories of making Peter Pan vows to myself that I would never grow up. And I was also into punk music, where that message was being re-enforced — never trust anyone over 30 — I was very much into the hippie culture that my father came from. There were definitely lots of forces [saying] “Don’t grow up, that’s no fun.” Like I talk about in my special, I still have T-shirts with words on them, and I still have posters on my wall, so I’ve definitely achieved that vow, by becoming a comedian, and leading not-so-mature a life, for better or for worse. I did have a kid later than a lot of my friends; it took me a while to get to that.
Your daughter is 6 years old now. In this process of having a pretty young kid, do you feel that you’re learning more about your own self as a child, now that you’re parenting someone at that same age?
Not really, because my daughter is a lot different than I was as a kid. I was more introverted, and she’s supremely extroverted. She behaves more like me as an adult than me as a kid. She’s very funny and a lot of fun, a lot more fun than I am.
You talk in the special about not wanting to be “that guy” — the obnoxious, loud friend who doesn’t quite get it. I think we all know “that guy” in our communities and our schools, or at our jobs. So, do you have any advice for young people who are seeking attention and friendship in that same way? What do you wish someone had told you, or wish you could have known?
In my show, I talk about a [friend from college] — he didn’t say it so directly, but I think by [asking me if I wanted to] get high, he was telling me to bring it down a notch. I don’t know if its a gendered thing, but in your teenage years, I definitely see that me and a lot of my male friends had whatever you want to call it — anger, aggression, energy that we didn’t know [how] to deal with, puberty that we didn’t know how to handle — whatever it was, it’s chemical. So, I don’t know if you can even tell someone going through that, who has that inside them, some advice. If anyone at that age cared to listen to me, I would say [that] high school seems to last a lot longer than it really is, and it isn’t that important. I just remember how important high school and social life and all that felt, and I feel bad for kids who get all hung up on that. I think a lot of people have the epiphany in college of, ‘Oh, I can just hang out with whoever, and I don’t have to be around people I don’t want to be around.’ High school sucked because you’re inside this cage adults put you in, but you’re going to be out of it soon. Don’t sweat it and [let it] make you feel like this is how it’s going to be your whole life.
If you view yourself as not being popular or whatever, and you think, ‘This is going to be my whole life,’ you don’t need those people. Go find people who are into the things you’re into, and be popular in that crowd. That’s a lesson I think you could have told me and everybody in high school. I’m also glad I didn’t get high on pot — as we called it back then — in high school, too. As much as I didn’t need it to be equated to crack, I am glad I didn’t smoke until college. I don’t think I was mature enough.
I wouldn’t have been able to control it. I didn’t have the maturity. I would have been sneaking it. I was a good student, I’m afraid it might have affected that. At that age, it’s definitely a mischievous drug. You shouldn’t be doing anything at school — you shouldn’t be drinking alcohol at school. When I was in my calculus class, I have a distinct memory of this kid [who was] sitting right next to the window and hitting a bowl of weed and blowing it out the back window. It just blew my mind. That was probably the first time I’d ever seen marijuana get smoked, too. And it was in a calculus class.
That’s really hardcore.
Yep, sure was.
One last question: How have you been feeling about the Razorbacks lately?
(Laughs weakly.) Well, I’m very excited about the basketball team, that’s what a politician would say. I don’t know when this article is coming out, but I definitely think it’s time to move on to [John Stephen Jones] or [KJ Jefferson], for sure. That’s the most diplomatic thing I can say, but I am gonna be on a Hog podcast, if you really want to hear me get deep. But I try not to get negative about the Hogs. I try to keep my chin up.
It’s hard to be humble, as they say.