The homes were mostly your classic, two-story Georgian where I lived, which was at like 103rd and Kedzie, until I was ten. A lot of people had gardens. It was quite lovely: You knew your neighbors, you would do favors for the old lady across the street, or you would antagonize the mean guy down the street. Fourth of July was always a big block party, but not an official one; everybody was just out. It was very plain and safe. You felt like you knew the world because it was all located within a three-block radius.
It may sound corny, but I have great memories of coming home from school and just running around the neighborhood, playing hide and seek, exploring, or playing war with the other blocks. We would play in the whole neighborhood. There were no play dates, no appointments. Your mom would go to the front door and just call your name, and you would run in for dinner when it would start to get dark. In California, where I live now, you have to drive your kid to meet other kids, but in Chicago, you just came home, put your books down, and ran outside for another three hours before dinner. And we didn’t use doorbells. We’d just knock on the door and say, “Yo, Mike” or “Yo, John.”
The neighborhood was kind of working class. There were a lot of garbage men, union guys, pipefitters, electricians, city workers, guys who worked at McCormick Place. All of it, though, revolved around the school. They had a big casino night, where they would raise money every year. So it was like the cultural center of our neighborhood.
I’m one of seven kids, so there were a lot of brothers around, younger sisters. I think we had four boys in one room, two girls in another, a baby in with my mom and dad. In the summers, my brother and I would sleep on the hide-a-bed on the main floor near the air-conditioning unit. We put the older boys in the basement, but flooding would complicate things. It all felt normal.
My mom had to keep my brothers and I from killing each other. That was her job. We’d scare up some fun: throw some snowballs at cars and get chased by the drivers. It wasn’t total Bowery Boys, just slight criminality. And my father owned a business called Taft Contracting; they were right at Roosevelt and Central. He started as a salesman. He didn’t do the labor. He would get his guys to build new printing presses or take old ones and move them across the country. When a lot of companies left Chicago, his company moved them out. He worked his way up until he and a couple salesmen bought the guy out and ran the company for fifteen or twenty years.
When Dad got a better job, my parents were happy to spread out. We got more bedrooms and a nice house in Darien. We built a gas grill and had underground sprinklers. It felt like we were rich. We were definitely city kids, though; it was shell shock. I’d still go to people’s homes and scream their name instead of just ringing the doorbell. I don’t know if the neighbors were happy we moved in, but we settled in well. We became civilized.
You know what was beautiful about it? It was still farmland. It was on seven acres, so we had motorcycles and snowmobiles, and there was a dog kennel back there. It was a real departure from civilization. These were new subdivisions, so there were farm fields and abandoned barns. I spent a lot of time exploring fields and finding broken antiques and shotgun shells. It was a different terrain for us. It was what was left of nature before they built on it. And that was really fun. We’d go into houses that were being built and explore the frames. We’d push around those big spools that are used to hold cable, roll them home, and make them into patio tables. And, there was public school. It was progressive education; you didn’t have to sit behind a desk, and there wasn’t a nun hitting you with a ruler. They were really good public schools that were roomy and creative. It was a big shift.
Outside of school, we always had jobs. The money was great, but our home was like an agrarian setup. We would kick the money upstairs to Dad, and he would kick back like five bucks to us. We all pitched in to pay the bills. We would busboy or deliver papers. When I moved to the ’burbs, I would find golf balls and sell them back to the golfers. I cooked in a Bakers Square and was a busboy at Carriage Greens Country Club, where I got in a lot of trouble—stealing golf carts or sneaking bottles of liquor, stuff like that. We used to umpire little league, too, and we were terrible. My buddy and I would just call random timeouts in the middle of the game and meet on the mound to crack jokes. The coach would yell, “What’s going on, guys?” One time, I called a strike after it bounced off the plate. The coach was irate. I knew it, but you can’t change the call. You have to be decisive.
In seventh grade, we moved again to another suburban town, Westmont. I had to start going to the enemy school. That was a big deal, because as a teenage kid you want to fit in. That’s when I discovered that being funny was my card to play to be accepted and get brought in. I learned I could hide behind that or use that to meet friends and have an identity.
I became sort of the class clown. It was a smaller school, so it was cool to be a big fish in a small pond. I fortunately went with a lot of the same group to high school at Hinsdale South. I played football and did track for a couple years. I wasn’t very good, but I liked it.
Then, we moved again, back to Darien, but I was able to stay at Hinsdale South. I think I got bit by the bug my senior year. My buddies and I auditioned for the variety show. We were like the comic relief of this show. We wrote four or five sketches that were parodies. We had a security clown named Chuckles who would scare people from robbing you. We were kind of the hit of the variety show. I really enjoyed being able to write things and perform them. And, of course, the reaction from the crowd was thrilling. So that was the bug.
We had people in the class laughing, and I found that so magical. That, to me, was the crack hit that made me addicted.
When I started college, I thought I’d be a business major, which went away quickly. I was always in the theatre, but I was not courageous enough to jump into it right away. So, I ended up being a psychology major with an English minor. My junior year, I went abroad to Austria for two semesters, and that was one of the best years ever for a kid trying to figure it out. When I came back, I finished my psych classes and worked on performing. My friend told me of improv classes in Chicago, and I took classes downtown at The Players Workshop. That’s when I started pursuing comedy in a direct way. Once I took those classes, I was absolutely hooked.
I think two or three classes in, I successfully did an improv scene with this guy I knew named Kevin. Obviously, neither one of us knew what it was about when we got onstage, but we discovered this reality, and we both committed to it and sustained it for, like, three minutes. We had people in the class laughing, and I found that so magical. That, to me, was the crack hit that made me addicted. It was pure joy to unknowingly step on stage and both of you discover this thing. You commit to this thing and anticipate each other’s moves in a very synchronized way. It was mind-blowing to me. So I started chasing that feeling.
I got out of college at twenty-two. I moved in with four other guys from my Players Workshop class, and we became a sketch group called Department of Works. We used to do shows at a place called The Roxy, at Fullerton and Ashland. We had delusions we were all going to get on “Saturday Night Live” at that point. During the day, I worked in the psych ward at Northwestern Hospital. The long and short of that is: I hated psychology. You would come home awash with pathology, and it was just really rough working with disturbed adolescents. So, in ’89, I took a break and went back to Europe for another four or five months, and then came back and committed to comedy. I worked six months in the psych ward to save up money, but to me, I was doing comedy full-time.
I started doing stand-up and improv shows, and to make a living, I would clean houses, help people move, hand out Frango mints on Michigan Avenue, or my buddy would give me jobs. I think somewhere around 1990, I met Matt Besser at The Roxy, and we became friends and started shooting videos. Adam McKay moved to town, then Horatio Sanz and Ian Roberts. From 1990 to ’94, I was doing shows with the Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB), and I was also doing a ton of shows at this place called the Annoyance Theatre. I had auditions at Second City with a touring company, and I jumped on that. Ever since, I never had to do a job outside of comedy or performing.
In ’94, we committed to UCB in a different way. It would be just the four of us: me, Besser, Ian, and Amy (Poehler). We started doing runs of shows at IO (formerly ImprovOlympic) and Second City, and really focused on making it as a sketch group, see if we could break out like The Kids in the Hall. They were our idols. And in ’96, we moved to New York with a suitcase and a dream. We just did shows six nights a week and did open mics and tried to make a name for ourselves.
The improv show was a big hit with young college kids or people who had done short-form improv but had never seen Chicago-style long-form. Eventually, we had all taught so many classes that our students were all doing these little improv shows. We were basically programming this little theater on 17th Street, so we decided, why don’t we just get our own clubhouse, where we can break the rules. We actually found an abandoned strip club in 1998 on 22nd Street and 7th Avenue and took out a lease. We knocked out all the mirrors. There was a stripper pole and a runway. We cut the runway in half, put the two halves together, shoved it in the corner, and that was our stage. At the same time, we got to do a pilot for Comedy Central for a UCB sketch show that got picked up. So we were really busy.
We did the Comedy Central show for three seasons, and I did “The Daily Show” for a couple years, then I did commercials in New York for a while, then I moved out here to L.A. in 2004-2005 for a show called “Dog Bites Man.” I strung together enough movie parts and TV parts to make a living.
I met my wife at the UCB in New York. I happened to be working a movie in New York and was in town visiting. She came in to a midnight show. I noticed this attractive woman in the audience. I went out after the show, and we started talking. We had a lovely week in New York to get to know each other. Fortunately, we both lived in L.A. and we just continued dating when I got back. We’ve been married seven years, and we have three kids. We settled out here in the valley, which is kind of suburban. I live in an area called Toluca Lake, which is lovely. There’s a little strip of restaurants and stores that’s five blocks away. We have a swimming pool. As a kid from Chicago, I feel like a millionaire.
I’m working on “Veep,” just wrapped up our fifth season, and I just did “Ghostbusters.” You know, “Veep” has a strong Chicago connection. There’s Gary Cole and Kevin Dunn; Tim Simons spent time in Chicago; Anna Chlumsky is from Oak Park; Julia [Louis-Dreyfus] went to Northwestern; Reid Scott was on “My Boys,” which was based in Chicago. I don’t know if it was intentional, but there’s real Chicago DNA in that cast. I also do a podcast with my friend, Scott Armstrong, who’s from Wheaton. It used to be called “Bear Down” because we are big Bears fans, but now it’s called “UCB Sports and Leisure.” It’s basically our comedian friends, most of whom are from Chicago, impersonating sports celebrities, and us interviewing them like we’re serious sports journalists.
The other Chicago corny thing is: I am a hard-core Bears fan. At a Bears game was one of the few times I got alone time with my dad. He had season tickets, and we would take a bus from this local bar on the South Side and go to the games. It was really fun each week to see the same drunk firemen who had seats in front of you. I formed a strong bond with the Bears. When I get back to Chicago, usually two or three times a year, I try to see one Bears game. I also remember going to White Sox games at old Comiskey Park for free because I had perfect attendance. I don’t know if they still do that.
That Chicago neighborhood vibe, that sense of community and that willingness to cooperate, I think that’s still with me. Living in the city, the whole world is this three-block radius, and you know everybody. You’d walk to school, run out and play, and it was safe. And the ’burbs were lovely because there was still wilderness out there. And my sports allegiances are strong—the ’Hawks, Bears, and Bulls. Then, there’s the food, I still go back to Lou Malnati’s. I’ll go to Portillo’s and get a beef. And Chicago is always with me at work, with all the comedians out of Chicago. There are a million of them out here.←
— As told to Publisher Joe Coughlin
Matt Walsh is going on his sixth season of “Veep” as the vice president’s director of communications, Mike McClintock. He also co-wrote and directed the comedy film “A Better You,” which is available on Amazon and Hulu. You can find Walsh’s podcast, “UCB Sports and Leisure,” on iTunes or art19.com.