After a five-year run with the Merchant Marines, Matt Knudsen coasted into LA on the hope-and-dream fumes of becoming a comedian and actor. Since then he’s appeared in numerous shows and films, like Gangster Squad with Sean Penn, Workaholics, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and The League. He also just released his third comedy album, Yes And, recorded at the LA staple Josh & Josh Show. I talked to Matt about his history in the biz, the power of delusion, and his favorite celebrity encounters.
Isaac Kozell: In 2009 you got Best of Fest at Just for Laughs in Montreal. A lot of people go there in hopes of getting an agent or some kind of deal. Was it a worthwhile trip for you?
Matt Knudsen: One of the only things I wanted to do when I started comedy was Montreal. It was one of those things where the experience itself felt like such a W. It was so cool. When I went in I had a manager at the time and there was also a comedy agent who I signed with for a bit. It got me in a lot of new doors with television and film opportunities. Have you heard of general meetings where you just kind of go in and sit around and say, “I have a dog,” and they’re like, “All right, nice to meet you?” You don’t really know what they’re about. I had a few of those, but it was kind of an eye-opening experience because having never gone through it, it would have been a different meeting if I had five movies, five pilots and all these other tangential things that you can have as a comic. “Here’s a book idea,” you know? I think they wanted to talk about those things, but I didn’t really have anything developed that I wanted to talk about. After that I realized that the next time I make those rounds I needed to develop some original pilot ideas, something to talk about that’s kind of show business related.
IK: I’ve never had one of those meetings, but I think it’s my fault for two reasons. First, I don’t live in an industry-heavy city and second, I treat comedy the way I treat dating women: I just try to be good and hope someone comes and finds me. It’s happened so many times where women will say, “I didn’t even know if you liked me or not. You should be more aggressive.” I don’t want to be that person who is constantly putting themselves out there, but then I look at the successes of comics who hustle on self-promotion and putting themselves out there and wonder if I should be doing more. I think about Jim Carrey writing himself that check. I don’t have that level of delusion. I’m not going to show up at wherever Jerry Seinfeld gets his dry cleaning done and be like, “Mr. Seinfeld! Here’s my comedy mixtape.”
MK: You see it in sports too. “He guaranteed he was going to get an interception in his first game.” It’s like, yeah, 540 guys said that. It just happened that one guy who said that is suddenly the prognosticator.
IK: How many times did Babe Ruth point to the fence? Everybody is like, “Oh, he did this legendary thing,” but I bet he did it 70 times before it finally worked.
MK: It’s so true. But when it’s the choice between perception and reality, people always go with the perception.
IK: You’re based out of LA now, right?
MK: I live in LA. I’ve been here a while. I don’t plan on going anywhere else. I used to be a Merchant Marine. I did that for five years.
IK: How did you get into Merchant Marines? Was it your love of the sea?
MK: Honestly, it was just kind of chance. I met a guy who was doing it at a time of my life when I had just graduated high school and was enrolled in junior college. I was a cashier at an Office Depot. I was 18 and was just like, “Oh man, this isn’t it, right?” I met a mutual friend at a party who was doing it. He had been in Thailand for three or four months and he came home and they threw a party for him. We watched a video of him riding rickshaws, so I signed up and got my first job as a teenager, shipping out to Africa through the Suez Canal. I was hoping for something new and something new just came along. It was one of those leaping off moments where you feel like the vine you’re on is at the apex of its swing and you’re like, “I don’t know what the next thing is, but I’m sure something will come if I just let go.”
IK: After that phase, why did you choose to move to LA?
MK: Before I moved to LA I’d never been onstage once in my life, but I knew that I always wanted to do it. I was thinking LA or Chicago and decided on LA because my mom lives in Huntington Beach and I have family roots here. Right when I moved I started doing stand up, sketch, and improv, taking classes, just trying to get onstage and learn as much as I could. I started doing production assistant work so I could get on sets and be around the industry in whatever way possible.
IK: Was your dream to be a comedian, an actor, or just involved in entertainment in general?
MK: I wanted to be a comedian and an actor. The behind-the-scenes component was just my version of working in a bank or a restaurant. It was the survival job because you’re not busy or not making it with your artistic pursuits. The fallback job was also show business; it was just on the other side.
IK: Was there ever anyone you saw on set that you were legitimately starstruck by?
MK: I remember working with Gary Coleman on a short film.
IK: Isn’t every Gary Coleman film a short film?
MK: Touche. No pun intended. It was probably my second year in town. It felt unbelievable in a sense, not because we connected or became close, but just that I was even in an environment where I could have a Gary Coleman experience. My first LA celeb sighting was at Canter’s on Fairfax. Somebody had uprooted a newspaper stand and threw it out into a lane of traffic. People were swerving around it, so I went out and pulled it back to set it back on the sidewalk. I saw a pair of shoes and a voice that said, “This city needs more civic-minded people like you.” I looked up and it was Fred Willard.
IK: Was he jerking off at the time?
MK: Hahaha. No.
IK: I was watching your Conan set and you have a bit in there where you were talking about LA traffic and you said something like, “It would be a lot easier to get around if a million people gave up on their dreams.” It’s so funny and such a dark joke, not just because of the idea of giving up on your dreams, but also because anyone who’s been to LA and looked around has seen the people who really think they’re going to make it but have no actual hope of doing so. You went to LA with no experience and just a dream. What kept you focused enough to stay in this brutal game?
MK: Just a caveat to the million people giving up on their dreams: when I say that, I’m one of those million people. Anyway, this sounds so cliché, but I don’t know if I would do it if I didn’t really enjoy it. Not just the writing and performing, but the meeting people, reading for parts, whatever. Whatever is happening right now is a gift. It’s what I’ve wanted to do the whole time. If you enjoy it enough you’ll keep doing it because you get a charge out of it. It’s a lot harder if you get attached to the results. I really love the comedy community too. The tightest friends I have are because I do comedy.