Upright Citizens Brigade pushes comedy boundaries for the masses~ By CARL KOZLOWSKI ~
It's a packed house at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, where the crowd is being treated to a hilarious in-depth analysis of R. Kelly's epic song cycle and video "Trapped in the Closet." Onstage, hipster comic luminaries like Patton Oswalt and Paul F. Tompkins are among the panel of "experts" assembled to discuss the symbolic undercurrents of Kelly's ludicrously involved, 15-chorus epic of adultery and revenge.
The audience cheers like rowdy British soccer fans at a World Cup match. Yet the folks behind this UCB production, as always, have a stunning surprise for their fans: The actual amorous midget (Drevon Cooks) who features prominently in the climax of "Closet" comes bursting through the backstage door to take the absurdity to an even higher level.
In the world of the UCB Theatre – founded by the eponymous quartet who achieved cult-hero status with a three-year sketch series on Comedy Central – anything goes, and every show aims to top the one before it. The cover price is low – from free to $8 – because to UCB, it's way more about the funny than about the money.
"I think our comedy is what's different and helps us stand out. If people are talented, we let them do anything they want," says UCB founding member Ian Roberts. "As long as it's funny, we're with them. We're never 'The Man,' telling them what to say or do."
Roberts formed the UCB in Chicago during the early '90s, along with Matt Walsh, Matt Besser, and Amy Poehler. It's a testament to their unique bond that, despite individual successes, the four still work together as tightly as possible, more than a decade after they met amid the Windy City's thriving improv scene.
Mixing together an anarchic combination of adventurously unhinged improvisation and demented characters with an undercurrent that satirizes the cultural fear of our times, the UCB became a nearly instant sensation in Chicago. When close associate Adam McKay was hired as a writer for Saturday Night Live in 1997, he hooked the group up with agents as well, and they all headed off to make their mark in the Big Apple, which had traditionally been averse to improvisational comedy.
As graduates of the ImprovOlympic training center (which has an L.A. base now, known as I.O. West, in Hollywood), their specialty was long-form improv, in which multiple scenarios are built from a single suggested topic, resulting in interweaving scenes that flow in and out of each other for up to an hour at a time. New Yorkers had never seen anything like it, and the combination of a novel art form with super-cheap ticket prices and big-name guest talent quickly made the Brigade a sensation – particularly for a weekly showcase that became known as "Asssscat."
"We felt we were onto something almost from our first show, and it wasn't long before we had long lines wrapped around the block," recalls cofounder Walsh, who has gone on to solo success as a Daily Show correspondent and appears in the forthcoming Comedy Central series Man Bites Dog. "We soon managed to get a Comedy Central pilot through our manager, and the first season of our TV series [also called Upright Citizens Brigade] was built mostly on ideas we took from 'Asssscat' scenes."
Walsh and Roberts are speaking in the backstage "green room" of their theater, following one of the free Sunday-night "Asssscat" shows, which are performed with a rotating array of L.A.'s best improvisers as well as such famous UCB friends as Tim Meadows and Andy Dick. Also in the room is the troupe's seemingly wildest member, Besser, who answers a question about the group's creative inspirations by ripping a long, furious hit off a bong.
If one can even attempt to define the UCB aesthetic without the use of drugs, it would seem they draw their greatest influence from Monty Python. Being on Comedy Central honed their creative abilities to the point where they not only were forced to edit their ideas down to the fast-paced bone, but also managed the brilliant trick of establishing clues to a running joke throughout each season that built to a final episode revolving around and explaining all the clues that had come before.
"We'd play with the reality of our setups and on cutting them down so the fun could begin fast," recalls Walsh. "By the time the third season finished, it was all so complex that Comedy Central decided it was too expensive to continue. We got replaced by British shows about robots and clips from Japanese game shows."
Yet, UCB's forced TV death didn't doom it into a creative dead end. Along with Walsh becoming a star in his own right on Comedy Central, Roberts has gone on to sell several unproduced screenplays. Besser enjoys the most bohemian life of the troupers, creating wicked one-man shows such as Dumbass, in which he discusses a yearlong period when his home phone number was mistakenly listed as the national customer-service line for an array of products, and his attempts to befuddle those who called him.
But it's the fourth member, missing on this night of recollections and revelry, who's made the greatest impact in the mainstream: Amy Poehler, who has achieved solo fame as the cohost of SNL's popular "Weekend Update" segment, as well as with a bevy of movie roles. But she chipped in to purchase the L.A. theater with her cohorts, and she continues to perform there whenever she has a week or the summer off from the New York-based comedy institution.
"We opened the theater here last August, because Besser, Ian, and I were all out here in L.A., and we still wanted a place to play," explains Walsh. "We were doing such crazy shit that we'd be getting kicked out of most other clubs, so we figured we'd own our own space where no one could bother us."
That approach has paid off with a new generation of students packing classes, eager to learn how to replicate the magic UCB long-form style, plus a full slate of shows even weirder than "Trapped in the Closet" proved to be. Among them are "Fucked Up and Illegal Videos," which featured everything from graphic bumfights to a vagina that smoked cigarettes, and "World's Dirtiest Sketch Contest," which is often literally scatological.
"This is a place where people share their ideas with each other and trade ideas rather than just being so competitive they don't watch each others' work and stand off on their own," explains Besser. "We'd rather have twice as many people here for half as much money per person than half as many people for twice the cost. Our demographic skews young, and when we were young we didn't have the money to see a $12 show. It would have prohibited me from seeing us, so that's how I choose the price."
"It's kind of impossible not to try something new at the prices we charge," adds Roberts. "Most shows are $5. How can you not check out something for $5?"
Indeed, when it comes to the UCB, there is no other choice but to go. Go now.