article thumbnail

UCBT IN THE NY POST: "The Improv Institution"

Mar 17, 2015

THE IMPROV INSTITUTION
HOW 'ASSSSCAT' AND THE UPRIGHT CITIZENS BRIGADE REINVENTED NEW YORK COMEDY


LEAKY pipes and a crumbling theater are the sort of mid-show calamities that would spell disaster for most performers. But for the comedy warriors of the Upright Citizens Brigade, they're just inspiration.

'We had some leakage problems in our theater, and we put garbage bags around these pipes to collect the water,' UCB co-founder Matt Besser tells The Post. 'As time went on, the garbage bags filled up with dirty water, and there was one bag we forgot.'

That bag, hanging over the seats at the troupe's UCB Theater, exploded in the middle of a Sunday night 'Asssscat' show, drenching a fan.

'On Broadway, they would evacuate the place,' says Besser. 'But it became a rainstorm in our improv, and we pulled the audience member into the scene.'

That unpredictability, that willingness to take a moment and run with it no matter how bizarre or unforeseen, is why 'Asssscat,' which celebrates it's 10th anniversary Tuesday at Irving Plaza, is the most highly regarded, and funniest, showcase for long-form improv in the comedy world.

'Asssscat,' a name derived from a troupe member shouting out the nonsense word from the side of the stage during a particularly crazy night, goes on twice every Sunday at the Upright Citizen's Brigade Theater, and once each Saturday and Sunday at the theater it opened last year in Los Angeles.

The show began as a way for the core troupe - Besser, Ian Roberts, Matt Walsh and Amy Poehler - to polish their improv chops while working on sketch-comedy shows. During an 'Asssscat,' a random audience suggestion inspires a real-life tale from a guest monologuist. The improvisers then create scenes based on the story.

Despite the UCBers, ascension in the comedy world - Poehler's on the Weekend Update desk at Saturday Night Live, Walsh stars in Comedy Central's Dog Bites Man, Besser creates TV shows in Los Angeles, and Roberts appears in films such as Anchorman - their commitment to 'Asssscat' has never waned. All but Poehler now live in L.A., so the average weekend finds her performing here while the other brigadiers hold court West Coast-style.

While the ensemble is a primary attraction, 'Asssscat' is just as revered for its many special guests. Jack Black, David Cross, Sarah Silverman, Janeane Garofalo and Andy Richter, to name just a few, have all lent tales of woe to the monologue. Guest improvisers have included Mike Myers, Will Ferrell, Robin Williams, Tina Fey, Rachel Dratch and Horatio Sanz - who helped found the troupe when it was still in Chicago.

'I think UCB attracts the best people - no-nonsense, no-bulls--t people who really care about the work,' says Sanz, one of the most frequent 'Asssscat' guests and slated to perform Tuesday. 'People wanna be around the funniest people, and I think our theater has a core who cares about what's funny a little more than if they're gonna be famous.'

Meanwhile, 'Asssscat' has developed a Rocky Horror-like cult, with fans who've seen it hundreds of times - the difference being that every 'Asssscat' is completely new. Lines form outside the tiny theater hours in advance, as fans make sure they'll get a seat. They speak of the show in magical, secretive terms, as if they're privy to comedy's greatest hidden treasure.

UCB student Justin Purnell has seen close to 300 'Asssscat' per-formances, rarely missing a Sunday night. For Purnell, the performers are this generation's enter-tainment royalty.

'There's a comedy boom, and comedians are like rock stars,' says Purnell. ''Asssscat' is a chance to see these stars jam. If in the '60s, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones and The Beatles played a show - we see that every Sunday.'

While the show's hard-core followers are mostly twentysomethings, they are by no means exclusively young. Fifty-two-year-old Ben Dasaro estimates he's been to more than 200 'Asssscat' nights, and he speaks of it in equally glowing terms.

'You're in an intimate theater, you've got some of the top improvising minds in the country, and you feel like they've created this little show exclusively for you,' says Dasaro.

When that gift includes celebrities who are rarely seen in such intimate settings, all the better.

'We have always had a young, enthusiastic audience,' says Poehler, 'And they're there because one night Alec Baldwin's doing a monologue, and the next night Conan is there. Henry Winkler came in recently and told about landing the role of Fonzie. It's always an amazing journey as to what's coming out of people's mouths.'

It's easy to believe that, were Poehler not one of the show's driving forces, she would be a ravenous fan. Despite her hectic day job, Poehler never misses an 'Asssscat,' calling it her 'comedy church' and inspiration for her SNL work.

'When I have to pitch ideas on Monday, 'Asssscat' loosens me up,' she says. 'It's a constantly changing animal, there's a sense of danger, and the group mind, to me, is really exciting.'

One of the odd side effects of that 'group mind' - that is, improvising a completely fluid show on the fly, as a team - is that the performers are so in the moment that afterward, they forget what happened. Asked for their favorite 'Asssscat' moment after performing it for 10 years, both Poehler and Walsh drew blanks.

'I don't journal anything after the show, so it's just gone,' says Walsh. 'It's a very temporary art form. You're paying attention to what's in the moment, and then you go to the bar.'

Adding to the cult sensibility, fans claim that the show's strongest moments have a 'you just had to be there' aura. It moves so fast and furious, so bereft of anything resembling traditional plot or logic, that the hilarity is as fleeting as it constant.

'Everyone is so engaged in what's happening that you don't take notes,' says Purnell. 'It's a great feeling, but to try to remember and quote it, it doesn't translate. You're never able to explain it to your friends.'

But, as enraptured devotees, that doesn't stop them from trying.

'There was one where Amy Poehler was supposed to be getting high,' Dasaro says, 'and decided he would be the special effect. So he picked her up and carried her, as if she was floating around the room, having a trip. It was one of the most hysterical things I'd ever seen.'

The initial mystique of 'Asssscat' stemmed partly from UCB's pioneer status in 1996. Troupe members had been trained in Chicago by comedy guru Del Close at Chicago's ImprovOlympic. When they moved to New York, they brought the city a gift.

New York is the capital of stand-up comedy, but we didn't have a serious forum for long-form improvisation. While groups like the Groundlings in Los Angeles and Second City in Chicago had long been farm teams for SNL and sitcoms, New York didn't have an organized source of talent other than clubs like Caroline's and the Comic Strip.

'We had no plan to open up a school and theater,' says Besser, 'but when we moved to New York, long-form improv wasn't being done here. Word spread because of its uniqueness, and people wanted to learn it.'

The four rented space to teach classes and perform, eventually opening their own theater on West 22nd Street in 1999, and moving it to West 26th Street in 2003.

Since then, UCB alumni such as Rob Corddry, Paul Scheer, and Ed Helms get laughs on VH1's Best Week Ever and Conan O'Brien frequently taps UCBregulars for skits.

Producers see the UCB as 'an important, vibrant outlet for comedians,' says Sanz, who thinks the theater's only weakness is that it doesn't stress acting. 'But a lot of the talent that's come out, you see them on VH1 and stuff, and it's easy to throw guys into things like The Daily Show because it's less -oriented, and more about funny guys saying funny things.'

Corddry is one of those 'funny guys.' He credits the theater with changing the whole notion of improv.

'In the past, improv just provided a forum for people in the industry to see people perform,' Corddry says. 'But UCB took it to a different, more interesting level, because they changed comedy, making it more realistic.' Nowadays, UCB's brand of long-form improv is a comedy staple, and 'Asssscat' is its premiere showcase. After 10 years, both the troupe and its fans are ecstatic that success and familiarity haven't tamed their passion.

'The magic of any house is the family that lives in it, and the spirit of UCB is due to the people who perform there,' says Poehler. ''Asssscat' took on its own magic a long time ago, and we've just been along for the ride.'
NY General

article thumbnail

UCBT IN THE NY POST: "Citizens Reign"

Mar 17, 2015

CITIZENS REIGN

WANT proof of Upright Citizens Brigade's dominance in the comedy world? Start by turning on your TV. While the most visible UCB success to date is SNL star and Weekend Update co-anchor Amy Poehler, the theater/training group is making its mark throughout the entertainment landscape, starting with that other beloved comedy institution, The Daily Show.

Rob Corddry and Ed Helms, veteran Daily Show correspondents, both spent years training at the theater and honing their craft on the UCB stage. Corddry, who will star in the Fox sitcom The Winner later this year, performed there with the highly acclaimed sketch group Naked Babies, and Helms played on the improv team the Syndicate.

All evidence shows that Poehler, Corddry and Helms are just the tip of the iceberg for UCB. Slowly but surely, UCB vets are popping up both onscreen and behind the scenes, littering the entertainment universe with UCB stars in the making.

Former Marine Rob Riggle spent a season as a cast member on SNL, and Dannah Feinglass and Andrew Daly both held slots on MAD TV.

Rob Huebel - who won an Emmy producing segments for The Awful Truth with Michael Moore - has been a frequent chatting head on VH1's Best Week Ever, but you've probably seen even more of him while settling down for a flick, as Inconsiderate Cellphone Man. Paul Scheer and Danielle Schneider are also BWE regulars, and Scheer will soon be seen in School for Scoundrels with Billy Bob Thornton and Trainwreck: My Life as an Idiot with Sean William Scott.

Original troupe member Adam McKay served as head writer for SNL and has since written and directed Anchorman and Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby.

UCB vet and School for Scoundrels screenwriter Scot Armstrong has not only found success, but also dedicated himself to bringing UCB buddies into the big time. Armstrong, who still performs every Saturday night with his troupe Mother, co-wrote the films Road Trip, Old School and Starsky & Hutch. His production company has given UCB talent development deals.

UCB vets Jason Mantzoukas, Brian Huskey and Huebel work with Armstrong, as do Joe Ventura, who wrote for UCB's Comedy Central show, and Demetri Martin, who stages Obie-winning shows at the theater.

Armstrong has cast UCB vets cast in School for Scoundrels, include Horatio Sanz, Scheer, Daly, Jon Glaser and Aziz Ansari. Also cast in the film is Matt Walsh, UCB co-founder and co-star of Comedy Central's Dog Bites Man.

He has not only been cast in every one of Armstrong's films, but is always given the same character name: Walsh.
NY General

article thumbnail

THE SWARM - Together for One Week Only!

Mar 17, 2015

This is your chance to catch THE SWARM, the UCBT NY's legendary improv group.

The Swarm: Slow Waltz Around Rage Mountain


This legendary improv team has inspired legions of comedy fans and played to more sold-out audiences than Ghandi, Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy combined. See them before they meet the same fate.

Starring: Dave Blumenfeld, Sean Conroy, Andrew Daly, Michael Delaney, Billy Merrit, Katie Roberts and Andrew Secunda.

Directed by Kevin Mullaney

'Perhaps NYC's finest practitioner of long-form improv, The Swarm spontaneously creates novel scenes with singular wit and precision. But you'll be too busy laughing to notice its humble artistry.' - Time Out New York

'The keen performance can be attributed not only to what the group did and said, but also of their noticeable respect for the forms they presented, the scenes they established, and for each other. The performers rarely deviated from their perceived mission of creating fun, fascinating scenes, and held the audience enrapt even when they weren't in stitches.'
- Jeff Catanese, improvreview.com


8:00pm
$8


NY Shows

Newer Entries » « Older Entries