Self-promotion being the necessary evil that it is in the film and television industry, you’d think comedian Matt Besser’s biography might lead with some of his entertainment bona fides — founding member of beloved comedy troupe Upright Citizens Brigade, perhaps, or co-creator of Comedy Central’s cannabis-centric “This Show Will Get You High,” or film actor in gems like “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.” It doesn’t. The opening line — “Raised a proud Razorback in Little Rock, Arkansas” — is typical of the way Besser wears his Arkansas roots on his sleeve. Comedic characters, like the redneck he played in a stand-up special called “Besser Breaks the Record,” were mined from life in Arkansas. “I do carry a sense of pride for the South and Arkansas in particular,” Besser told us in a 2016 interview, “almost like a chip on my shoulder.” Maybe that’s why an accomplished comedian who hasn’t lived here for years took up a political cause on his old Central Arkansas stomping grounds, pairing a comedy set with punk-rock-scene catalysts Trusty in the name of voter registration and mobilization. We talked with Besser ahead of two events — called #votethemout — at 8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 14, at Vino’s and 8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 15, at Kings Live Music in Conway, the proceeds of which benefit the Faulkner County Democratic Party.
These events, stand-up and punk rock bills from two Little Rock scene pioneers — is called #votethemout. And you’re doing this in what most would agree is an era of completely unprecedented chaos and corruption in the White House administration. What was the impetus for putting this together? Was there a moment in which you and the folks in Trusty were in conversation and just said, “OK, now we’ve gotta say/do something”?
If you share the opinion that Trump’s world is a disaster, then I believe you need to be doing something beyond just going to the polls and preaching to the converted on your social media. The way to really make things happen in the midterms is to engage with people, human to human. If you live in a blue spot, then you need to go to a purple spot and help flip it. I don’t just mean entertainers. People need to talk to other people and get them active. To, at the very least, take the first step of getting registered to vote. It was a goal of mine to target a district in my home state, and District 35’s Sen. Jason Rapert needs to be voted out ASAP.
It’s probably a terrible idea to ask a question to which I already know the answer, but I’ll do it anyway. Why the focus on Rapert?
I believe I first read about Rapert when he was trying to get the Clintons’ name taken off the airport, and I thought to myself at the time, “Wow, what a stupid priority for a legislator to have. Boy, I bet his constituents are pissed he is wasting his time on their dime.” Then I read about his bill to get the Ten Commandments [monument] placed on the Capitol grounds. Separation of church and state is kind of an obsession of mine. The last time I performed in Little Rock my whole show was about separation of church and state — probably to a fault! So, when I read the ultimate test of the separation of church and state was being instigated by Rapert in MY HOME TOWN, I knew that I had to help vote this guy out. What an utter waste of time this guy is spending on what appears to be stunts to advertise his church more than progress for his district.
My mind didn’t get totally blown, though, until I saw a documentary called “Meth Storm,” which is the saddest thing I’ve seen in a long time. It focuses on some people in Faulkner County whose lives have been ruined by the meth epidemic. Then I realized, “Wait, Faulkner County is in Rapert’s district! The guy spending his time in the House changing airport names and trying to put granite religious idols on the Capitol lawn is the so-called leader of the county starring in ‘Meth Storm!’ ” This has to stop. Vote him out. His opponent is Maureen Skinner, who is a politician with her priorities straight. Vote her in.
Stand-up and punk rock as a pair; it’s not so far-fetched. Do you feel like venues (and audiences) have become more open or less open to the idea of mixed-medium bills like this?
Yes. But I didn’t even really think about it as a mixed bill. Trusty is made up of my best friends from childhood — James Brady, Paul Bowling, Bircho [Michael Birch], Bobby Matthews — so I’m going to make them stay on stage with me when I’m doing my act. I’m visualizing this as more of a collaboration. I always wanted to be in a punk band, so doing comedy next to one is as close as I’m going to get to that.
Even now, even when so many people’s lives are potentially affected by policy (and the whims/financial ties of the politicians who make it), there are plenty of folks —some of them, no doubt, in the comedy industry — who insist that they’re “not political.” That they’re tired of “all the negativity” or “all the political fighting” on their social media feeds. What do you say to that sentiment?
First off, I promise that my comedy act at the show won’t be all preachy and political. I’ve got at least an hour just on the topic of pot, and I’d like to think I can bust out at least one Neil Young impression. In regards to the negativity online, I’m on the fence because I think people need and want to get active to change things, but one’s own social media is usually just an echo chamber that often just gives me a headache. The worst is when people get so fed up that they give up. You can’t give up. Vote them out, and encourage others to do so, or nothing will change.