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Mar 16, 2015

Class Clowns

LAST May, the creators and stars of Human Giant, a sketch comedy show in its first season on MTV, were approached with an unusual offer:

Would they be interested in doing a live, one-time, 24-hour program on the channel? They would have free run of the company's Times Square studios and full control over the show, as long as they promised not to say anything obscene.

If by the end of the marathon, they had logged a million hits on their Web site - and if each stayed awake for the full 24-hour time slot -Human Giant would be guaranteed a second season.

In less than two weeks, the show went on the air. From noon on May 18 until noon the following day, MTV's chaotic Midtown set was overrun with dozens of acclaimed guests - not top-flight celebrities like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, but up-and-coming comics like Rob Riggle, a correspondent on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, and Curtis Gwinn and John Gemberling, the creators of a Cartoon Network show called Fat Guy Stuck in Internet. What few viewers of the MTV comic marathon may have realized was that nearly all of these promising young comedians had honed their craft at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater, also known as U.C.B., a leaky, shabby and (usually) funny improv studio underneath a Gristedes supermarket in Chelsea. Its evolution into a farm system for television talent is remarkable for many reasons, not least of which is that the theater started its life in New York.

Granted, the city has never lacked for homegrown comics (cue awards-show montage of Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock and Woody Allen). But until recently, the funniest New Yorkers were the kind who committed their jokes to paper and then delivered them at comedy clubs, those venerable redoubts of the microphone, stool and $25 cover charge. The nation's improv hub, unquestionably, was Chicago, home of Second City, a 50-year-old theater that counts among its celebrated alumni Bill Murray, Steve Carell and about half the population of Canada.

The New York scene began to grow in 1999 after the opening of U.C.B.'s first theater and school in a former strip club on West 22nd Street. Many of the theater's students went on to star in shows at the U.C.B. and other theaters, performing under names that range from the absurdly specific (Twelve Thousand Dollars) and the nonsensical (Rogue Elephant) to the unprintable.

In many ways, New York's thriving improv culture resembles Chicago's, but with one critical difference: Here, amateur comics can reasonably hope that their next onstage impersonation of a hypochondriac hamster might land them a job on television. And as more and more of those hopes have been realized, thanks to New York-based shows like The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, Late Night With Conan O'Brien and Saturday Night Live, U.C.B. has sought to reinforce its position as a leading conservatory for the next generation of big-time comedians.

The Guru From Chicago

Over the past few years, U.C.B. has offered an increasing number of courses in sketch writing, a skill more conducive than improv to getting paid. "There are only about five people who make money doing improv," explained Jim Santangeli, a U.C.B. performer, "and they're all performing on a cruise somewhere." It was Manhattan's television industry that first attracted U.C.B.'s founders to the city. Calling themselves the Upright Citizens Brigade, Matt Besser, Matt Walsh, Ian Roberts and Amy Poehler (who is widely known as an anchor of the Weekend Update segment of Saturday Night Live) arrived in New York burning with a desire to get on TV. The dream came true in 1998 when Comedy Central ran the first episode of their three-season sketch show, Upright Citizens Brigade. The founders had come from - where else? - Chicago, where they had studied under Del Close, an improv guru who taught the likes of Mr. Colbert and John Belushi. By most accounts, Mr. Close, who died in 1999, was a brilliant comedian in his own right, as well as something of a tortured soul.

He developed an almost mystical theory of improv, one that students at the U.C.B. Theater in New York (and a newer branch in Los Angeles) continue to practice. By training, his charges listen closely to one another's words and trust one another's artistic choices - no small feat in a field not known for modest egos.

Since the U.C.B. arrived in Chelsea, other Close-style centers have opened in the neighborhood, among them the Peoples Improv Theater (or PIT) and the Magnet Theater, both on West 29th Street. But U.C.B., which currently has nearly 800 students, remains the city's largest improv establishment and, in the opinion of many, the funniest.

"It's a magnet for talent," said Lou Wallach, senior vice president of original programming and development at Comedy Central. "It's become the kind of place where people know they'll get a great audience and have a great experience, and perhaps be seen by people like me." Despite the commercial success of its progeny, U.C.B.'s black-box theater cultivates the aura of a 1970s East Village rock club. About 150 drab-brown seats are clustered around a stage roughly the height of a flip-flop. Beleaguered strips of industrial carpet line the low-slung risers. Tickets rarely cost more than the going price of a movie, and $2 cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon are sold (abundantly) at a jerry-built concession stand.

"The theater is what New York is," said Ms. Poehler, the Upright Citizens Brigade co-founder. "It's hectic, it's a little dirty, it's filled with a lot of different types of shows and people, it needs a little bit of repair. It's also a little dangerous, and exciting." 

Axl Rose and Dr. Zizmor

Last year, to accommodate its growing student body, the U.C.B. opened a new training center in a loft building on West 30th Street near Seventh Avenue. In a classroom referred to as the writing room, pictures of celebrities are displayed for inspiration. On one wall is a poster of Guns N' Roses; predictably, a Groucho mustache has been affixed to Axl Rose's face. On another wall is a subway ad featuring the ubiquitous Dr. Jonathan Zizmor, New York's most recognizable dermatologist.

One recent Sunday, eight students assembled under those famous faces for the second-to-last session of Sketch Writing 201. With businesslike efficiency, they opened their laptops and notebooks, and began reading through scripts about irritating mimes, evil twins and that linchpin of the comedy discipline, the lecherous camel.

Their teacher, Michael Delaney, is an actor and former writer for the Onion News Network, a cousin of the satirical newspaper The Onion. After the class read through a three-minute script about a lawyer who switches between psychotic rage and decorous courtroom behavior depending on whether he is speaking on or off the record, Mr. Delaney gently encouraged the writer to play up the character's abusiveness.

"Injustice is funnier than justice," he said, peering wisely through his wire-rim glasses. "It just is." In large part, Mr. Delaney's comments revolved around something called "game" - Del Close-ese for the central point of humor in a given scene. In the opinion of one performer, defining game is like defining art; it's impossible to find three people who agree on what the term means. Nevertheless, a singular preoccupation with game is widely considered U.C.B.'s main contribution to the pedagogy of improv.

An analysis of game played out in Mr. Delaney's classroom after the students read through a script about a relentlessly peppy office worker who insists on seeing the bright side of life, however horrible her experiences. "When I was 10," she says, "my father took my ear, held it to a stove and burned it. He died in a car wreck later, but joke's on him because I turned out awesome!"

The scene's game was not the woman's suffering, but her absurd refusal to acknowledge her unhappiness. The script seemed to run into trouble, however, when the woman revealed that she had been raped; the problem, Mr. Delaney said, was that the revelation came in the midst of a series of jokes. "I don't think we can treat that as a joke," he said, "or the audience will resent you."

U.C.B. regulars often contemplate the challenge of navigating the occasional foray into seriousness. One recent evening, a U.C.B. mainstay named Nate Lang discussed the matter in the maintenance corridor where performers congregate after their shows to analyze their stage work. Still sweaty from his vigorous portrayal of a scientist assailed by "sand people," Mr. Lang said: "If you slip on a banana peel five times in a minute, then you're done. But if you slip on a banana peel, then talk about your divorce for a minute and then slip on another banana peel - bingo!"

Doing the Harold

Every night, after the backstage commotion dies down, the performers and their friends stream into Peter McManus Cafe at 19th Street and Seventh Avenue, a pub as beloved for its old mahogany bar and lead-paned windows as for its tolerant treatment of customers who fall asleep in its booths.

On a recent night, a mix of students and more seasoned comics were packed in a corner booth, drawing phallic images on the table's scalloped paper place mats. This is the sort of thing that passes for mentorship in the world of improv comedy.

"When you were starting out," said Paul Scheer, a creator of Human Giant and a U.C.B. grad, "you could look over at a table, and there would be people like Will Ferrell and Horatio Sanz and all those guys from 'S.N.L.'" Mr. Scheer's most significant memory of the bar, he added, was simply "being there every single night, five nights a week, for three years."

A gregarious 31-year-old, Mr. Scheer said he saw his first U.C.B. performance a decade ago at a 25-seat theater in a walkup on West 17th Street. At the time, he was a sophomore at N.Y.U. and a performer in Chicago City Limits, an Off Broadway improv show that featured the kinds of brisk, breezy routines you would see on the television show Whose Line Is It Anyway? The U.C.B. specialty, by contrast, was a Del Close innovation called the Harold (named after no one in particular), a flexible form in which actors use a single audience suggestion - "pickles," "fear," "Westchester," "lawyer," "Ping-Pong" - as a springboard for flights of improvisation that can last up to half an hour. The duration of the Harold lets actors inflect their performances with sincere emotion, a U.C.B. trademark.

Mr. Scheer signed up for classes and soon joined Respecto Montalban, a U.C.B. "house team" that performed in a weekly engagement called Harold Night. There, he worked with a future colleague at MTV named Rob Huebel. A few hours before Mr. Scheer appeared in his first Harold show, he accepted his diploma from New York University. That night, instead of going to a graduation party, he headed to McManus for Rheingolds with his comedy buddies.

The Lesson of 'Yes And'

Several years ago, Mr. Scheer and Mr. Huebel acquired a new comedy buddy in Aziz Ansari, a 22-year-old who had performed standup at the Chelsea theater. With Jason Woliner, a video director, they made a short movie about a pair of ruthless, foul-mouthed talent agents who work with child actors, much to the detriment of the actors.

When the piece was screened at the U.C.B., an MTV development person happened to be in the crowd. It was the sort of happy convergence that the U.C.B. founders had anticipated when they had come to New York from Chicago. In early 2006, MTV invited the four friends to create the series that would be titled Human Giant. The first season proved more than successful, and the 24-hour marathon was ultimately credited with a triumphant 1.2 million Web hits. A month ago, the Human Giant creators met with two consultants, friends from U.C.B., to punch up scripts for the second season.

The team's writing room occupies the corner of an MTV office overlooking lower Broadway. On a bulletin board, multicolored index cards display the titles of possible sketches: "Nightmare Lawyer," "Diarrhea," "Rob's Dad," "Abusive Car," "Osama bin Diesel." That afternoon, hardly an idea was proposed that didn't prompt an utterance of "yeah, or," "yes, and what if," or "yeah, yeah, yeah!" The endless "yeahs!" were unmistakable echoes of the expression "yes and," a phrase that U.C.B. teachers often invoke to teach students that they should always accept one another's ideas ("yes!") and should propel those ideas forward ("and {hellip}").

"I think it would be good to get into your emotions," Jon Daly, one of the consultants, told Mr. Scheer in reference to a trailer-park character who enters a gasoline-guzzling contest held by a publicity-mongering oilman.

"Yeah!" Mr. Scheer replied, shooting forward on the couch. "Like, my family and I never take a vacation, and I really want to take them to Busch Gardens." Referring again to Mr. Scheer's character, Mr. Daly inquired: "Could he puke projectile vomit and breathe fire over the whole crowd?" Mr. Huebel, dressed for no particular reason in gold-colored leg armor from the wardrobe department, beamed at his consultant. "That would be awesome," he replied.
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ROB LATHAN is Time Out New York Approved!

Mar 13, 2015

The Comedian Stars In His own Theater of the Absurd
This is the third in a series profiling comics who'll appear Nov 9 in the New York Comedy Festival showcase Time Out New York Approved.

The humor in Rob Lathan's bits-bits, because they aren't really characters or sketches-can be garnered from their titles: "Angry guy brushes teeth to Rage Against the Machine," "Half-assed suicide-cult member," "John Kerryoke." His work is top-heavy, based on instantly funny concepts that are then executed with brazen simplicity.

Lathan, who performs Monday 5 at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, his home base, recalls a conversation he had with frequent collaborator Will Hines. "I told him I had an idea to do the Electric Slide on stilts. He goes, 'Anything else?' And I was like, 'Nope, that's it.'" 

While witnessing this dance performance-perhaps when he appeared on America's Got Talent to the utter bewilderment of Regis Philbin-there's a moment when you yourself realize, Nope, that's it: He's really just going to do the Electric Slide on stilts. That's when his work transcends awkward into the realm of brilliant.

"When you watch him," says UCBT artistic director Anthony King, "you're thinking, This is the stupidest thing I've ever seen. And also, This guy's a genius!" His most requested bit is "Speed Eater," which Lathan, 31, has performed on Best Week Ever, during VH1's election coverage and on MTV's Human Giant marathon. He brings out a table loaded with food (jugs of milk, buckets of chicken, multiple bags of chips and cookies, etc.), announces that he'll eat it all in one minute and then earnestly tries to. After failing, he says, with despondent sincerity, "I guess I couldn't do it." Then, after a long pause, he adds, as if he'd just thought of it, "I wish I had more time."

"My whole life I've been perceived as dim-witted or out of it," says Lathan. "So playing that character comes naturally." Indeed, he speaks slowly, has an awkward stage presence and displays the kind of unswerving optimism typical of the slightly insane. It all works to his advantage, allowing him to manipulate the crowd's preconceptions. "Rob somehow makes himself simultaneously smarter and dumber than his audience," King says.

It's hard to tell when Lathan's in character: The line between the person and the performer is blurry at best. This can confuse his friends; Lathan thrives on the bewilderment surrounding his persona. He doesn't correct people who mispronounce or write his name as "Latham," and has even taken to signing e-mails and flyers with the misnomer, leaving many in the comedy scene unsure what his name really is.

Once, at Fenway Park, he left his seat for the concession stand and accidentally reentered the wrong corridor. When his friends noticed him looking for them in the wrong section, they screamed his name. Lathan pretended he couldn't hear them, exited and reentered through a different hallway. They screamed again; he played dumb again. The pattern repeated until his friends finally got wise.

After hearing about the prank, local scene-makers Improv Everywhere staged it as a large-scale stunt in Yankee Stadium. This resulted in entire sections of the stands screaming "Rob!" in an effort to lead him home. Some groups even started a chant: "Where is Rob? Rob's retarded!" After a recent performance, one of his friends remarked that everyone thought Lathan was funny in college. "He was just weird and goofy," she says, "but now I'm wondering if that was all part of a joke." Rob Lathan performs Mon 5 in Crash Test and Nov 9 in Time Out New York Approved (stay tuned for details).
NY General

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Mar 13, 2015

Kaplan, Gertner and Saltzberg to Be Part of Upright Citizens Brigade's Improv Evening
Broadway performers will share the stage with improvisers from 'The Daily Show,' 'Late Night with Conan O'Brien' and 'The Colbert Report' Nov. 26 at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre.

The long-running monthly series, entitled Gravid Water, will feature Broadway actors Jonathan Kaplan (Falsettos), Jared Gertner and Sarah Saltzberg (The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee) and Joel Karie (The Lion King).

Also participating in the evening of improv will be Dan Bakkedahl (The Daily Show), Peter Gwinn (The Colbert Report), Christina Gausas (Late Night with Conan O'Brien), Tara Copeland (Don't Quit Your Night Job), Anthony King (co-author of Gutenberg! The Musical) and Kate Hess (Upright Citizens Brigade). Show time is 8 PM.

Stephen Ruddy, the director and creator of Gravid Water, told that 'the actors memorize and rehearse their scenes much as they would for a regular play. The scenes are drawn from established plays, and the actors will not stray from the letter of the script. The improvisers have no prior knowledge of the scenes - they will be seeing them for the first time, along with the audience.

'The scenes generally come from contemporary drama - though we occasionally do something ancient, or a musical - and we do five scenes a show. The improvisers make strong choices - they might be the same choices the author made, and they might not. Either way, the actor's job is to deliver his lines in a way appropriate to the new situation. The improvisers and actors each justify the others' choices.'

The Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre is located in Manhattan at 307 West 26th Street, between Eighth and Ninth Avenues.
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