Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre

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UCBT performers on Variety's "10 Comics to Watch"

Variety July 17, 2009
10 Comics to Watch
by Stuart Miller (Braunger), Diane Garrett (Cenac), Iain Blair (Glover), Dennis Hensley (Kemper), Variety Staff (Kroll), Eric Kohn (Nanjiani), Anthony D'Allesandro (Plaza)

From standups to sketch artists, these funny people represent a range of promising futures, with bright prospects on both stage and screen (and even behind the scenes)

Matt Braunger

'Mad TV' star moves on

Matt Braunger is an accidental comic. Growing up in Portland, Ore., he was the class clown. But when he went to Manhattanville College, N.Y., it was to study acting, and his trips to New York City were to see theater. "Standup wasn't on my mind," he says.

His post-college plans for taking Manhattan were derailed by his practicality: "I'm 6'4, 225 pounds, and I didn't want to live in a box in New York," he says. "Chicago has cheaper apartments and also hundreds of theaters. So I thought I'd go there first and get good."

It was in Chicago that he first delved into improv, and from there segued into standup, in part just because he likes to challenge himself. "Someone said standup, and I said, 'That sounds terrifying -- I'll do it,'" he recalls with a laugh.

Braunger brought his theatrical and improv skills along, too. "I like telling stories and I like to inhabit my characters," he says. Braunger's stories often are dark and blue, but he leavens that with his affable, occasionally goofy charm -- that persona (and cleaner material) earned him big exposure last December with a long appearance on "Late Show With David Letterman."

Braunger describes one idol, Jonathan Winters, as "a hilarious everyman with a deep well of darkness," and while Braunger had a far happier childhood, he clearly models his humor on that approach.

With the Letterman appearance, a gig on the final season of "Mad TV" (including a jaw-dropping part in a "Weight Smashers" ad parody), a new role as a detective on the Internet satire series "Ikea Heights" and this summer's release of a comedy album, "Soak Up the Night," Braunger acknowledges that he finally has some momentum. But he's also a realist and knows that such momentum is "an ethereal thing," so really, he'd rather say, "Yes ... with a question mark after it."

P.O.V.

Braunger tends more toward stories than one-liners, and says Twittering has forced him to think more along those short lines:

"I don't remember ever buying the pants I'm wearing. I think a reverse burglar put them in my closet."

"Hey male bartenders! Singing 'Drive' by the Cars to single women at the bar is incredibly creepy. Or so I was told when I bartended."

"Monday is the new Sunday. Hangover-speaking."

Wyatt Cenac
From dire straits to 'Daily Show'

"The Daily Show" gig couldn't have come at a better time for Wyatt Cenac. In June 2008, the physically unimposing writer-performer was working the door at Lucky Strike in Hollywood. He had recently been evicted, his car had been repossessed and he owed a friend one month's rent for his new place. It had been four years since his last TV gig writing for "The King of the Hill."

"I was panicked," he recalls, sipping a beverage poolside at the Roosevelt Hotel. "I was in dire straits."

Three days after he got the "Daily Show" job, Cenac was interviewing elderly Jews in Florida about Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. If he seemed dazed, that's because he was.

Since then, Cenac, 33, has honed his seemingly innocent "Daily Show" faux news persona, keeping a straight face (mostly) while going off ridiculously absurd tangents about the "boyotes" Sen. Mark Sanford might have sired during his supposed hike along the Appalachian Trail.

"Wyatt is deceptive," says "Daily Show" executive producer Josh Lieb. "He's got that outward mask of innocence, but that's actually very thin. He has a deep, incisive core."

That innocence, Lieb says, draws people in and lulls them into relaxing their guard. "That's when he kills you," Lieb says. "He's a vampire of comedy."

The pace is a lot faster at "The Daily Show" than at "King of the Hill." But an even bigger shock to the system was getting thrown into field pieces where "you're talking to someone and they're not along for the ride."

The Dallas-bred multihyphenate has acted in one indie drama, "Medicine for Melancholy," and written a comicbook for Marvel. On his breaks, he always hits the standup circuit.

"If I can do movies, it would be great. I would definitely like to do more," he says. "At the same time, I'm just trying to enjoy this moment. I have a job I never thought I would have."

P.O.V.

"I'm a comedian who can do both -- I can write and perform. That's what I've always admired about people like Mike Judge, Woody Allen and Ben Stiller. I always thought I'd like to do both because I wanted the freedom."

Donald Glover
Quick-witted writer-performer grows up

Atlanta boy Donald Glover credits his "unusual" upbringing for forming and informing his comedic outlook on life.

"My parents had a lot of foster kids living with us, and a lot of my stuff is autobiographical -- stuff that weirded me out as a kid," he says. "I was the only black kid in my school for a long time, and I got picked on a lot as I was a big nerd. I was really into 'Star Trek' and 'Looney Tunes' and crafts and writing plays. I wasn't one of the cool kids."

That all changed when he moved to New York to study at the Tisch School of the Arts for four years. "I started doing sketch, then standup and improv, although I always just liked the term 'comedian,' as then people don't put you in a box," he notes.

Glover was still a resident assistant at NYU when he landed a staff writer gig on the show "30 Rock."

"It changed my life -- and my comedy," he says. "Tina Fey took me under her wing and really pushed me to find my own voice. Going in, I didn't really know who I was comedically, but coming out (after writing there for the first three seasons), I felt far more confident."

Since recently moving to L.A., the 25-year-old comedian and writer has performed a lot with the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater. "I also head to the Laugh Factory and try some standup anywhere there's some free space," he adds. "I really like the underground comedy scene here as it gives you a chance to try out material you can't always do in some places."

Next up is his first feature, "Mystery Team," which he co-wrote, produced, scored and starred in. The film, which he calls "an homage to 'Encyclopedia Brown,' " premiered at Sundance and will be released this fall.

P.O.V.

"Most people think I'm Danny Glover's son when they meet me. So when they ask, I say 'No, I'm Crispin Glover's son.' Then we stare at each other for a long time."

Ellie Kemper
Character chameleon has future in 'Office' job

Ellie Kemper isn't quite used to the idea that, as of this fall, she'll be a series regular on one of her favorite shows, "The Office."

"Being on set is surreal because it's so familiar to you from TV, and now you're in it," muses Kemper, who plays Dunder Mifflin's naive new receptionist, Erin. "The Internet is actually hooked up, so I sent an email to my mom that said, 'I'm at Pam's desk right now!' It's unbelievable."

Unbelievable, maybe. Unwarranted? Hardly. The St. Louis native and Princeton alum has been honing her comedy chops for the last six years at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in New York. Her one-woman shows "Dumb Girls" and "Feeling Sad/Mad With Ellie Kemper" got comedy insiders buzzing, while the 12-million-hits-and-counting Web video "Blowjob" -- in which she lays out, in squirm-inducing detail, how she likes to please her man -- made her a household face. Well, to frat houses anyway.

"I'm a bit uncomfortable about that video because I always think of my family seeing it," she admits, "but it got people's attention. I was on the Upper West Side depositing a check and this guy said, 'I love your video! You can have free wine at my wine shop anytime you want!' So it has opened doors."

With a fresh, girl-next-door sunniness and a knack for finding the nutty in the everyday, Kemper is a natural fit for TV and movies. In addition to her "Office" job, she's just wrapped two films: Sofia Coppola's "Somewhere" and "Get Him to the Greek" with Jonah Hill and Russell Brand.

"I'm the most comfortable when I'm playing a naturalistic character," says Kemper, who also has contributed comic pieces to McSweeney's and the Onion. "I auditioned for 'Saturday Night Live,' and when I was doing the biggest characters, I felt the least comfortable. I'm just more comfortable when it's some version of myself."

P.O.V.

"I've been recognized, but it's mostly 14-year-old boys and guys from NYU. If I'm in Union Square, people are like, 'Are you Blowjob Girl?' I want them to know I do other things, too."

Nick Kroll
UCB star evolves past 'Cavemen' hiccup

Nick Kroll is on a roll. A multitalented writer, improv, sketch and standup comedian, the 31-year-old Kroll has seemingly been everywhere of late: from TV ("Worst Week," "Sit Down, Shut Up," "The Life and Times of Tim," "Caveman") to movies ("I Love You, Man," upcoming "Date Night") to the Internet (Rob Corddry's "Childrens Hospital").

Kroll's first television break was ABC's ignominious "Cavemen," the Geico commercial offshoot. He has no complaints. "Everybody has to have his first show," he says. "They paid me to learn to act on-camera and I got to watch the crew and how the work is done."

Kroll also is getting more outside writing opportunities -- he writes for "Life and Times" and is working with John Mulaney on a film for Montecito and Paramount in which Tracy Morgan will play a deposed African dictator who ends up on a college campus.

More often than not, however, the Westchester, N.Y., native disappears into an outrageous character, like the Latino radio deejay El Chupacabra on "Reno 911," the status-conscious Bobby Bottleservice and the horrifyingly decadent Alistair in "Rich Dicks" (soon to be an online video creations) or his flamboyantly gay craft-services coordinator Fabrice Fabrice, who pops up alongside countless celebrities on YouTube clips.

"There are definitely things I can say as my characters that would be a little more difficult to say as myself," Kroll reveals. "I can say just about anything as long as that character is being honest. It is actually easier to know their point of view than my own." Animated shows like "Sit Down" and "Life and Times" offer similar freedoms, he adds.

Kroll also is refining his standup act, saying that only now is he finding his own voice as in that realm, noting, "I'm now as comfortable doing a half-hour of standup as I am doing my sketch characters."

P.O.V.

"On Wikipedia, Kroll is described as a graduate of Rye Country Day School, where he gave a contentious graduation speech in which he exposed his genitals." In fact, he did graduate and gently chastised the school administration in his speech, but he never exposed himself. Yet Kroll enjoys watching the misinformation proliferate online. "I sort of like the idea of letting it run out there," he says. "People need to do their own research and not just believe what they read."

Kumail Nanjiani
Pakistani comic's name won't be 'Unpronounceable' for long

New Yorkers familiar with local standup have surely encountered Kumail Nanjiani, because the 31-year-old Pakistan native performs every night of the week. "I'll write four or five new things and try them," he says of his regular gigs. "Audiences like those moments where they know you're doing something for the first time."

Fortunately, the hard work has paid off: This year, Nanjiani performed on "Jimmy Kimmel Live," acted on "The Colbert Report" and "Saturday Night Live" and plans to make appearances on "Late Show With David Letterman" and Comedy Central's "Live at Gotham" in August.

"That just gives me impetus to write more," says Nanjiani, whose friendly stage presence resembles his real-life persona. "I try to be as natural as I can," he adds. "You can get away with a lot more."

Nanjiani rarely indulges in stereotype humor. "It can be so dicey and hard to pull off," he explains, speaking from experience. The comic first obtained significant media exposure for his 2006 one-man show, "Unpronounceable," which dealt with his Pakistani upbringing and transition into a secular lifestyle. The show did well, but Nanjiani received death threats from angered Pakistani radicals. "Since then, I do take people's reactions into account more," he says. "I always considered it to be a personal story, but it's very political as well."

After Nanjiani moved from Chicago to Brooklyn in 2007, his career took off. In addition to opening for Zach Galifianakis and Eugene Mirman, he has contributed to Comedy Central's new series "Michael and Michael Have Issues," appearing in five of the seven episodes of the first season. Despite his increasingly hectic schedule, Nanjiani says he never passes up an invitation to perform in the area. "I do it for myself," he explains, "but it's validated by other people liking it."

P.O.V.

"When I'm not doing a joke, I'll just stand there quietly. The illusion of standup is that it isn't prepared, but when you're doing a long bit, they know that you wrote it. When you just hang out between jokes, that's something that has never happened before and will never happen again."

Aubrey Plaza
The 'Parks and Rec' intern perfected craft online

A master of the above-it-all annoyed-teenager look, Aubrey Plaza found a way to take her disgruntled millennial girl routine to primetime in the NBC sitcom "Parks and Recreation." It's a character type the improv-oriented comedian first honed on the Web series "The Jeannie Tate Show," where she plays the troubled stepdaughter to the show's titular soccer mom, developing it even further on a trashy MTV-style dating show satire she wrote and directed.

"I am not sick of roles as the angry teenager; I could be one for the rest of my life," quips Plaza, who explains, "I have a younger sister who I draw a lot of inspiration from."

Sure enough, Plaza jumped at another droll adolescent role opposite Michael Cera in "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World." And though the acting attention is heating up, Plaza still considers herself a student of the form.

She spent the 2004-05 season interning on the set of "Saturday Night Live," being a wallflower while quietly observing the pros in action. "People on 'SNL' remarked how quiet I was and were shocked to learn that I was in comedy," she reports.

And although she studied improv with the Upright Citizens Brigade, Plaza decided to branch into standup after landing the role of Seth Rogen's girlfriend in "Funny People." Director Judd Apatow wanted an actual standup for the part, so Plaza made a point to film herself onstage at a comedy club in Queens.

Plaza's early material has been dark and rebellious, reminiscent of those grunge comediennes who came before her, such as Janeane Garofalo and Sarah Silverman (in fact, she does a killer impression of the latter's potty-mouthed persona).

"My sense of humor is a little strange," Plaza admits. "I have to remind myself that if I think it's funny, then I shouldn't worry about others getting it."

P.O.V.

"My purse is so heavy that when I put it on the passenger seat of the car while I am driving, the airbag light goes on because it thinks there's a person there."