By Bailey Pennick on October 2, 2012
There is a mysterious allure surrounding comedy. It’s an amazing talent to be able to make people laugh, but no one really knows what it takes to keep jokes flowing unless you’re on the inside. The Upright Citizens Brigade—a Chicago comedy troupe originally composed of Amy Poehler, Ian Roberts, Matt Walsh and Matt Besser—founded its first improv and comedy theater in New York in 1999, before setting up a branch on the West Coast in 2005. The UCB sometimes seems almost as indefinable as the dedicated talent that puts on sold-out shows seven nights a week. Started as a response to the stifling nature of the brick-wall world of stand-up, as a school as well as a theater, it has transformed into a launching pad for some of today’s biggest names in comedy, including Los Angeles branch veterans Aziz Ansari, Maria Bamford, Doug Benson, Ed Helms, Aubrey Plaza, Paul Scheer and Jenny Slate. It is inclusive and exclusive all at the same time, while continuing to redefine what is funny in a new age of technology. For us outsiders, the question begs: What is the Upright Citizens Brigade really? And where is it going from here?
A Safe Haven
“I never thought that I’d have a theater,” says Matt Besser, as shrieks of laughter echo down the labyrinth-like halls of the Upright Citizens Brigade’s Los Angeles theater. He looks right at home, albeit a little tired, after his weekly improv show ASSSSCAT. “We never planned on having [a theater]; it almost just came out of necessity. So the fact that we have one is a surprise to me.”
When moving to New York from Chicago, the UCB troupe didn’t predict instigating a comedic movement; they just wanted to get their unique brand of sketch-comedy noticed.
“The stand-up clubs were really a bummer. Either they were really expensive or they were really unfriendly to sketch and improv,” says Besser of the UCB’s beginnings. “Our theater came from a selfish place… I think the fact that it’s not just a stand-up club but also a place that has improv, sketch and other shows is what makes the theater great.”
A School of Thought
While freedom of creativity separates the UCB from its comedy troupe predecessors, each of UCB’s performers has one strict principle instilled in their very being as they step onto the stage.
“We teach finding ‘the game’ here, which is essentially what makes a piece funny, whether it’s a single joke or a half-hour show,” explains Besser. “By learning that kind of analysis, an actor working on a scripted show can do the same thing [they learn here]. If I’m going to ad-lib, I’m still going to respect the writer’s ‘game.’”
Neil Campbell, UCBLA’s artistic director, praises the improv school’s teachings—not only as an administrator but also as a graduate of the system. “[The school] gives you a shared vocabulary, training and approach to all types of shows,” says Campbell proudly. “That shared approach is UCB. [The classes] can make you funnier or take what’s funny about you and show it off!”
Highlighting the talent of pupils has given the UCB notable alumni, but what happens when these performers hit the big-time? Besser ensures that once you join, you can never escape the Brigade.
“Well, they don’t really go,” he says with a smirk. “They have so much fun because this isn’t a job, this is just a place to have fun and do your craft. Even if you are in movies, or on a sitcom, you always come back because you need the feeling of a live audience.”
With the theater providing the perfect rush, there is never a shortage of takers looking for a fix. The latest is an incredibly tall and abnormally sweaty comedian named Nick Thune. While getting his start in the solitary world of stand-up, Thune couldn’t resist the UCB. “I really love what happens at UCB and I wanted to have my own show… I literally just called them up and asked.”
Nick’s BIG Talk Show, Thune’s monthly UCB offering, showcases the theater’s commitment to innovative comedy. “I love The Larry Sanders Show and Fernwood 2 Night; I started thinking, I’d love to have a fake talk show live. I bet UCB thought I was going to do stand-up instead,” laughs Thune to himself as he double-fists a beer and tea in the UCB hallway. “I think that [the show] has made me a better actor.” It’s hard to imagine the UCB not rubbing off on Thune when he’s surrounded by world-class comedians like Bob Odenkirk (Mr. Show, Breaking Bad), who was a BIG Talk Show guest earlier this month. “I’ve met more of my idols here than anywhere else,” Thune says, in reverence. “UCB creates this sense of community, because we are all in this business together.”
A Supportive Community
“A big part of improv is making each other look good,” says Campbell, when asked about camaraderie. “People are supportive and laugh at each other. I think that all comes back to having to work together onstage. If you can’t do that in real life, you probably can’t do it onstage.”
The endless support of the UCB community is what keeps the theater expanding, at least in LA. “A space for our school is definitely going to happen,” says Besser, addressing new ambitions. “A second theater in LA would be nice, too.” Campbell confirms this goal: “We want to become more of a production entity as well; where it’s just as easy to make a video here as it is to put on a show here.”
The growth into multimedia production only reiterates how much the UCB wants to dominate through innovation and passion. Besser, for one, is still coming to grips with its popularity.
“For better or worse, when I go up on stage, part of my intro is ‘co-founder of UCB.’ When I was a kid, I never dreamed of being a ‘founder.’ It’s a little weird. I’d rather be known as a comedian, but that is my lot.”
While the UCB has moved well past anything that the original foursome could have imagined, it still thrives on that tried-and-true, rebellious desire to perform. And while we might not be able to fully understand all of its inner workings, we’ll always enjoy the show. F
Photo of Upright Citizens Brigade by Liezl Estipona: (L-R) Amy Poehler, Matt Walsh, Ian Roberts, Matt Besser
Photo by Hawkey Photos: (L-R) Chad Carter, Owen Burke, Rob Riggle, Paul Scheer (at computer) in "Facebook"