With the premiere of the Bottom Rung set for next week, we had the chance to sit down with Matt Ritter, the brains behind the new web series devoted to the gunners, dreamers, and lifers who find themselves stuck and working together as document reviewers. After his own prior work in BigLaw—and as a doc reviewer—he’s now building his career as an actor and stand-up comedian. Here’s what he had to say about his career, fellow actors and comedians, and the Bottom Rung.
Law School and Graduation Year?
University of Pennsylvania, Class of 2005
What was your plan going in to law school? Big firm, solo practice, government worker? Or was it stand-up and comedic actor from day one?
The comedy thing was something I wrestled with right after college, I guess I was too scared or couldn’t justify it to my family, so I went the safe route. During law school, I did some open mics and then when I started working at a big firm, I started doing comedy on the side. As for what kind of job, I only intended to work at a big firm and pay down some of my debt while I figured out my real life ambitions. It’s easy in hindsight to say it was all part of some grand plan, but the truth is I was 22 and not ready to face the world, so law school seemed like a great option.
So, in fifty words or less, summarize your legal career. Y’know, actual law jobs.
First job, Mayer Brown in NY. Subprime mortgage backed securitization. Helped destroy the economy. Second job, Kirkland & Ellis, private equity finance, helped further destroy the economy. Quit, helped launch a startup. Moved to LA, worked for a family friend’s sports and entertainment practice. Did a few document review jobs. Hopefully not hurting the economy as much anymore.
How did you get into comedy?
I was always that kid, the class clown. I was listening to comedy albums and staying up late watching HBO specials, memorizing every word Eddie Murphy uttered. I never did theater in high school for fear of getting made fun of. Instead I feebly attempted to play football . . . and got made fun of even worse. So I wrote sketches and bits that just sat on my computer for years. I never thought of comedy as a “career path” until my twenties. The second I did my first standup act, I was hooked. I knew I would never do anything else with my life.
Is it true your mom was pulled off stage by Eddie Murphy when she was giving stand-up a try?
Not only is it true, but she was seven months pregnant with me. I believe this was at Governors on Long Island. She’s very funny . . . when she’s not trying to be. That night she completely bombed and ran the light. Eddie pulled her off stage and chewed her out. He told her “she didn’t have an ounce of funny in her.” I guess I’ve been trying to prove him wrong ever since.
Bottom Rung is set to premier on Bitter Lawyer in about a week. What’s it about?
The Bottom Rung is about a group of people who are stuck doing document review but desperately want to get out and chase their real dreams. It’s sort of Party Down meets the Office. I was a corporate lawyer when I was in NY, so I had never even heard of document review until last year. But when I did my first document job, I realized there was so many interesting characters down there, so much ridiculousness and so many untold stories, I had to capture it somehow. My theory is that everyone doing document review is either a lifer, a gunner or a dreamer. So in a way it’s about how those three groups interact in this hellish environment.
Give me some highlights of what to expect during the first Bottom Rung season.
You get to see a group of twenty-something lawyers navigate their way through the most bizarre underwold I have ever experienced: document review. The dreamers are the protagonists of this series.
My character, Dave, is loosely based on my own life. He believes he’s going to quit law for comedy, but thus far he’s had zero success. His two wingmen, Frank and Tim, are these outrageous characters that are always hatching new schemes to get them out of there. Of course, the comedy comes from them completely failing at every attempt to leave the hellish world of document review. Dave wants out as badly as they do, but he meets Paige, a girl down there that he falls for, so that sort of becomes his new objective, despite the fact that she’s dating a hot shot associate at the firm, who actually went to law school with Dave and becomes Dave’s nemesis throughout the series.
You will get to see a lot of the absurdity that goes along with the hell that is document review. I based it off of some of my worst experiences, so you see a very hardass boss who treats them like prisoners and doesn’t let them take breaks or make eye contact. There is an episode where Dave, Tim, and Frank are convinced someone is tipping their boss off so they go on a “Mole Hunt.” You’ll also see how horrible the working conditions are. In many document reviews, there are no windows, no ventilation, no personal space, weird smells, sick people. It’s like a third world country, I tried to play that up . . . but only a little. It’s really that bad. You’ll see an episode where a rabble rouser tries to get them to unionize and his rally gets completely crushed by the boss.
What are some of the other characters?
You’ll get to hear some crazy stories from some of the lifers, people who have been doing this for forty years, have lived in their cars, have had everything go wrong with their legal career. The main lifer, a guy named Locker, is played by a phenomenal comedian, Eddie Pepitone. We were very lucky he agreed to do this. His character likes nothing more than to remind the dreamers that they cannot escape document review and that they will die down there.
You’ll get to see what a nightmare it is to be stuck in a document review with a gunner, these people that raised their hands all the time in law school and never shared outlines. Well, they graduate and become gunners. At a big firm, they’re are a slight nuisance, but in document review, when you’re in close quarters, they become the bane of your existence.
I hope people will indentify with some or all of these characters. At the end of the day, it’s about the bond these dreamers have with each other, in trying to make the best of a really horrible situation.
Do you think it’s hard to follow Living the Dream, Bitter Lawyer’s successful foray into a legal comedy web series?
Yes, definitely. Rick Eid is such a successful writer and producer and someone I know and admire. He knocked that series out of the park. He really nailed big firm life and all the subtle nuances were mined for comedic gold. (Sidenote- I had a cameo in Episode 11- The Review)
However, this is completely different. I wanted to explore doument review because the cold truth is, when Living the Dream aired, many law students were graduating and getting jobs as first years, they could identify with that world. Nowadays, its just as likely or more likely that you will end up in document review or as I call it “The Bottom Rung.” I wanted to capture the humor of that world. It isn’t about messing up million dollar deals or catching typos or going to fancy Yale alumni parties or even a nice looking office. Not to mention, Living the Dream had a much larger production budget. We didn’t really want or need that here because document review is about eking by in life. Trying to make it through the day and hatching an escape plan while being surrounded, elbow to elbow, with bizarre characters. Obviously, I am biased, but I think for sheer comedic value, this webseries is as good as anything out there.
I was fortunate that so many successful working comedians and actors (Mike McCusker, Rob O’Reilly, Hailey Boyle, Jess Garvey, Roy Vongtama, Mike Jemal, etc.) agreed to be part of this outstanding cast and blessed that the crew worked so hard to make this happen. They all got a little taste of what many document reviewers have had to endure. I am also deeply indebted to the director and editor, John Borges, and Jess Garvey, who also co-produced it. They both shared my vision on this. We are all extremely proud of the way this turned out and I think anyone who has worked at a crappy job, not just lawyers, will enjoy this series.
What’s Comedians at Law all about?
It turns out I am not the only one to switch from law to comedy. I recently hooked up with a few other lawyers turned comedians (Alex Barnett, J-L Cauvin, Greg Collett, Sebi Evans and Kevin Israel) and we formed a group that provides entertainment geared at lawyers and law students because that’s who we are and were. We put on legal themed standup comedy shows and travel all over the country to law schools, law firms and bar associations. We are going on a nationwide tour starting in DC on February 22 and hitting New York, Philly, Boston, Chicago, LA. We also have a site where we post our opinions on the legal story of the day. We hope that by next year we are booked at every school and bar association in the country. It’s ambitious, but we really do think we can make it happen. You can check out comediansatlaw.com for more info on how to book us.
Is it true you are the real-life inspiration for Bitter Lawyer’s despicable Matthew Richardson?
All I can say is that I am nothing like Matthew Richardson. Thankfully, nothing at all.
Have questions about the Bottom Rung? Contact Matt Ritter at firstname.lastname@example.org