Why the Upright Citizens Brigade Remains Relevant 20 Years On

Melinda Parks


Sunday evening in Chelsea and the city hums with the suppressed energy of a weekend gradually winding down. But in front of a long, red awning on West 26th Street, a line is quickly growing, stretching down the sidewalk and around the corner. The waiting crowd is an unexpected assortment of 20-somethings laughing and chatting, lone attendees with their headphones pressed to their ears to pass the time, and older couples who look as if they’re not quite sure what they’ve gotten themselves into. The only thing uniting this seemingly disparate group, the one thing that has brought them all to the same place on a Sunday night, is improvisational comedy – they’re waiting to watch a Harold Team perform at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre.


Since opening the doors of its current location in April of 2003, the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre has offered longform improvisational and sketch comedy classes and a packed, 7-night schedule of cheap and edgy performances to a varied audience. Perhaps because the cost of entry is so low, or perhaps because of the artistic and collaborative nature of UCB improv itself, the theater exudes a noticeably low-key, friendly vibe that imbues the entire experience; it feels comfortable, like hanging out with a roomful of friends you’ve never met.


Fifteen minutes before the show begins, audience members file down a wide staircase (“under the neighboring grocery store,” as the improv teacher laughingly points out at the start of the show) lined with flyers and photos from past performances, to purchase their pre-reserved tickets at $5 a pop. Large stage lights dimly illuminate the theater, which consists of a small rectangular stage with a simple curtain backdrop and several chairs as the only props, lined on three sides by rows of seats. The wood-paneled walls are decorated at random with homemade posters and signs. It’s scruffy and eclectic and an ideal environment for the organized chaos that will soon erupt onstage.


UCB’s co-founder Amy Poehler rocketed to success during her time at SNL, and the theater has consistently churned out a roster of well-known comedians, writers, and actors since its inception almost two decades ago, and the significant impact that Poehler and the UCB have made on pop culture has unsurprisingly garnered the Upright Citizens Brigade a lot of retrospective attention in recent years. High Status Characters: How the Upright Citizens Brigade Stormed a City, Started a Scene, and Changed Comedy Forever, an oral history written by Brian Raftery in 2013, is a compilation of interview snippets from UCB Theatre founders and alumni that chronicle the theater’s evolution, with heavy emphasis on the rampant pot smoking, drunken nights, and ill-advised hook-ups that characterized the institution’s scrappy early days. Poehler also reminisces about her formative years with the UCB in her 2014 memoir, Yes, Please.


However, anecdotes aside, we know this much about the Upright Citizens Brigade: the group emerged in 1990, established by members of the Chicago-based improv theater ImprovOlympic, which taught a unique type of longform improvisational comedy developed by famed comedian-whisperer Del Close. The evolving troupe of comics that comprised the UCB performed shows in Chicago for years before four of them (original members Matt Besser, Ian Roberts, Matt Walsh, and Amy Poehler) transplanted to New York City in 1996 with the goal of getting on TV. They did manage to land an eponymous sketch show based on their live material that aired on Comedy Central for three seasons, between 1998 and 2000. But to pay the bills, the UCB performed their bold, gritty brand of improv around the city in a successful show called ASSSSCAT, and they taught improvisation and sketch comedy classes at Solo Arts Theatre. In February of 1999, their success prompted them to establish their own space – the predecessor of their current Chelsea location – in a former burlesque club at 161 West 22nd Street. Thus was born The Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre.


The theater’s sudden, massive popularity meant that Poehler and Co. could open three additional spaces over the following decade, in LA in 2005, in New York’s East Village in 2011, and again in LA in 2014. From the beginning, each of these theaters adhered strictly to the philosophy of longform improvisation as pioneered by Del Close in Chicago, in which, according to the UCB Theatre website, “performers create an entire show consisting of interconnected scenes, characters, and ideas completely made-up on the spot with no pre-planning or pre-writing.” In fact, the UCB can attribute its success directly to this singular kind of humor, grounded in the realism of everyday life yet uniquely absurdist; their comedy was unpolished and spontaneous and weird, meant to tell the truth as much as to make you laugh. And, because improv relies heavily on teams of comics working together to create something in the moment, it felt distinctly collaborative in a way that other forms of comedy at the time did not.



In this way, the UCB and its disciples essentially introduced longform improvisation to the city of New York in the late 1990s, thereby instigating a new wave of comedy and pop culture that still permeates the entertainment industry today. Its legacy lives on in the bizarre humor of late night shows like Conan and The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, in blockbuster comedy hits of the aughts like Anchorman, in peppy sitcoms like Tina Fey’s 30 Rock or Poehler’s Parks and Recreation, and in countless online forums like FunnyorDie.com. The theater also launched the careers of a long list of influential stars, many of whom have gone on to act in or create some of the greatest comedy entertainment of the last 20 years. Alumni include past and current cast members of and writers for SNL, writers for shows like The Daily Show, and numerous, well-known stand-up comedians and actors. They include (among so many others) Adam McKay, Kay Cannon, Aziz Ansari, Aubrey Plaza, Ed Helms, Ellie Kemper, Jack McBrayer, Donald Glover, Rob Riggle, Bobby Moynihan, Kate McKinnon, and Rob Corddry.


Tonight, in the darkened theater, two “Harold Teams,” consisting of about a dozen UCB students in total, begin the intricate give-and-take of Del Close’s personal invention: the Harold. A longform improvisational structure, the Harold generally incorporates an opening (the team encourages audience members to shout out words or phrases that the performers will then explore in some predetermined way – tonight, “cigarette” and “fried potatoes” serve as inspiration) and three sets of three, unrelated scenes that build and expand upon each other, separated by improvisational “games.” However, performers are encouraged to depart from the Harold format, approaching it as a loose guideline rather than as a fixed set of rules.


Especially for a first-time audience member, this structure is admittedly hard to follow. Scenes flow into each other with no concrete starting or stopping point, and teams of actors run on or off the stage without warning or explanation. Even so, there’s something exhilarating about watching these comedians work as a unit to create something out of nothing, acting out a performance that has never existed before this moment and will never exist again. At times, the energy lags; a performer stumbles through a scene that just isn’t working, or a series of jokes fall flat. And then, suddenly, someone on stage begins to formulate a bit that is so true and so hilarious, and, together, the team runs with it. The vibe in the room rises to giddy heights. The audience laughs along with the cast in the organic way that performers and audience members can feed off each others’ energy. It seems the real magic of improvisation at The Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, then, is less the content of the performance than the thrill of experiencing that content come into being.


Of course, “New Team Harold” is just one of dozens of shows The UCB Theatre regularly offers. An online calendar boasts a packed line-up of two to four unique performances per night, with quirky themes and colorful names like “Grandma’s Ashes: We Won’t Tell” and “GOAT.” Shows range from improv to sketch to stand-up comedy. Some of these performances, such as the aforementioned “New Team Harold,” feature UCB students who are developing their improv comedy chops, clearly striving to break into the business like so many of their predecessors. Others, like the weekly Sunday production of ASSSSCAT 3000, utilize the talents of more seasoned comedians, such as cast members of SNL or of sitcoms like Parks and Rec (unsurprisingly, ASSSSCAT 3000 sells out weeks in advance, as ticket-buyers try to get a peek at their favorite stars).


With such a variety of performances, and at prices ranging from free to $10, it’s not difficult to understand why people have flocked to the doors of The Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre since they opened, nor why this theater and its improvisational philosophy has so deeply impacted contemporary entertainment. The UCB Theatre remains one of the best places to experience live comedy in New York – and it looks like that won’t change any time soon.



Author Bio:


Melinda Parks is the pen name of a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.


For Highbrow Magazine


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