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Mar 13, 2015

Strike or No Strike, for a Select Few, Saturday Night Was Live

Thirty minutes before showtime just about all the cast members of Saturday Night Live were gathered in a green room, going over their bits. "Fred, remember on the cold open, you wait for Darrell," Seth Meyers, one of the show's head writers, instructed Fred Armisen. Kenan Thompson ran his lines and brushed his teeth; Rachel Dratch adjusted her Debbie Downer wig; Kristen Wiig gathered her props. Norah Jones, a surprise guest, arrived and greeted the guest host, Michael Cera, the deadpan boy-hero of Superbad. "Nice suit," Mr. Cera told Mr. Armisen, who moments later doffed his pants and was standing spread-eagle, having clumps of fake hair applied to his buttocks. Mr. Cera read his cue cards a few feet away. Every few minutes Gena Rositano, a headsetted stage manager, called out the time. And then, at 11:37 p.m.:

"Live from New York, it's Saturday night!" Mr. Armisen announced from the stage. Then came the usual mix of topical and ludicrous sketches, videos and music. Yo La Tengo sang.

But this NBC show was not live from Studio 8H in Rockefeller Center. Nor were there any television cameras. The continuing writers' strike meant there could be no new broadcasts. Instead the cast, writers and a few key production staff members had gathered in a subterranean comedy theater in Chelsea to perform the show live on stage for an audience of less than 200, including a Who's Who of downtown comedy. The TV audience got a rerun of a Nov. 3 show, but at the Upright Citizens Brigade theater there was a rare event born of hammy necessity, unexpected availability and good vibes.

"We're like cranky trained monkeys if we don't get to perform," said Amy Poehler, who is also founder of the theater. "We all thought about what we're going to do during the strike, and because we have no other skills, we just scraped this together." She added: "We're treating this as an optimistic night. We're celebrating all the hard-working people who have been laid off." About a week in the making and less than a day in rehearsal, the show was a mix of the writers' favorite old sketches and never-before-seen but already written bits that had been rejected, for raunchiness, humor or time. The cast members did their own makeup and, with the Upright Citizens Brigade staff, found their own minimal props and costumes. Writers held the cue cards. Ms. Rositano's headset, it turned out, was a visual joke: It wasn't even plugged in.

"It gives you a new appreciation for the tech staff, because this is going to be pretty raw," Andrew Steele, a longtime head writer for the show, said beforehand.

Via text message Ms. Poehler had invited Mr. Cera, who had starred with her husband, Will Arnett, on the Fox series Arrested Development, less than a week before. He had never been on the show, so his opening bit blended the monologues of past hosts: Donald Trump ("There's nobody bigger than me!"), Paris Hilton ("That's hot"), Snoop Dogg ("I see the word shizzle," Mr. Cera said). Except for Maya Rudolph, a new mother, the entire cast performed, joined by ex-members like Horatio Sanz and Ms. Dratch. Darrell Hammond pulled names out of a bowl and ran with them (Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan ordering pizza; Bill Clinton and Sean Connery getting arrested).

At 1 a.m. Mr. Thompson appeared onstage and introduced "Showtime at the Apollo," the program that normally follows Saturday Night Live. Ms. Poehler interrupted: "We're just running a little long, could we have some more time?" With the extra sketches, some of which may eventually reach the small screen, the live SNL felt much like an amped-up TV SNL. Though not everything hit, and there was some scattered yawning in the audience, the final scene, with Will Forte as an unexpectedly forthright gold lama-clad street performer, killed. It dated from his time in the Groundlings the Los Angeles. comedy troupe. Though he had performed it for his SNL audition, it was way too dirty for television - a theme of the evening. Even the weeks-old "Weekend Update" jokes were racy.

Proceeds from the tickets were to go to SNL's production staff, most of whom had had been recently laid off; some were in the audience. But the performance was less about money than community. (A sold-out live version of 30 Rock, the Tina Fey comedy, is scheduled for 8 p.m. Monday at the theater.)

"Most comedy writers are jaded, but tonight we really pulled it together," Mr. Meyers said. "I've been here seven years, and I've never seen anything as awesome as this." His colleague Paula Pell, a 13-year veteran and another head writer, added: "It was uplifting. So much of what the strike is about is valuing the creative brain." Like the other writers Ms. Pell had been on the picket line; she and Ms. Dratch improvised some strike-oriented material for Debbie Downer, Ms. Dratch's sad-sack character. Strike talks are to resume on Nov. 26.

One sticking point is residual payments for online content, particularly relevant for this show, which has spawned several Internet triumphs. After flashing a card that read, "An SNL Digital Short," Andy Samberg and Mr. Armisen performed one, a gay-oriented rap by Mr. Samberg starring Mr. Armisen as the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. (Ms. Jones and the hairy rear cameoed.)

Lorne Michaels, the show's producer, watched and occasionally laughed from the audience, but Ms. Poehler noted that he was not involved, and he left immediately after. (It was his birthday.) Tickets for the show were going for as much as $300 each on Craigslist (officially the price was $20), but many in the standing-room crowd were comedy cognoscenti: writers from other late-night shows and actors like John Krasinski of The Office. "This is the show I would've been crushed if I'd heard about it the day after," said Samm Levine, an actor (Freaks and Geeks) from Los Angeles who performs at the Upright Citizens Brigade theater when he's in New York.

After the closing theme played, there was the usual raucous after-party. In the green room Mr. Sanz pulled out a cigar. Ms. Dratch and Mr. Krasinski hit the dance floor with dozens of others.

The camaraderie-for-a-cause mentality gave all the actors an unexpected earnestness. "Everybody's in that weird performance ecstasy where they're like hugging and rubbing each other's hair," Ms. Poehler said in the green room as Mr. Arnett looked on.

At 4 a.m. Mr. Samberg was onstage, in the middle of a circle, doing a complicated and not altogether legitimate dance move. If the strike did not conclude, what would he do next Saturday night?

"Probably just watch a video of this," he said, "and call everyone and be like: 'Remember last Saturday? We so did not get paid for that.'"
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GRAVID WATER in Time Out New York

Mar 13, 2015

What's My Line?
A theatrical experiment comes of age.

Finally, someone has found a way to bridge the gap between New York's comedy and Broadway scenes that doesn't involve writing campy lyrics to Andrew Lloyd Webber tunes. The monthly show Gravid Water-the next installment is Thursday 20 at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre-pairs serious actors with improvisational comedians to perform scenes from straight plays. Here's the catch: The actor memorizes his or her lines and sticks to book, while the comedian has never seen or read the play.

"A lot of modern acting theory is improvisational, because real human interaction is too nuanced to plan out in advance," says creator Stephen Ruddy, who conceived the show in 2004 after noticing similarities between his studies at the UCBT and at the Atlantic Theater Company. "I thought, If you put these two things together, there'd be a lot less conflict than one would guess." The result is hilarious-and not due to audience schadenfreude from watching performers stumble and fail. Instead, you get the joyous laughter that comes from discovery. In a scene from After Ashley by Gina Gionfriddo, actor Kate Hess mentioned the art she'd brought home. Improviser Anthony King responded by labeling Hess's character a kindergarten teacher and the art nonsensical finger-painting by her students. Unbeknownst to him, her next line of dialogue was, "I'm a terrible artist," which led to a huge laugh when King said, "Wait-those pictures are yours?!?" Suddenly, the mother in this scene was struggling with more than just her marriage.

"Even if the improvisers are familiar with the play, it doesn't matter," explains Ruddy. "It so quickly becomes a different scene." By virtue of its location, Gravid Water-which Ruddy named after a phrase he liked in a Flann O'Brien book-first took root in the comedy community. In the past three years, the show has slowly grown in notoriety; now it regularly sells out and features the city's top improv talents, including Dan Bakkedahl, Christina Gausas, Michael Delaney and Tara Copeland.

Recently, though, the little-show-that-could has also garnered attention from the Great White Way. Through word of mouth, Ruddy started receiving calls and e-mails from noteworthy Broadway stars-excluding this month's performance, he's moved the show to Mondays to accommodate their schedules.

"I don't want the actors to just be straight men," Ruddy says of the project's appeal to scripted performers. "The hope is that the show will inject some of the immediacy of improv into their performances." The November installment featured Sarah Saltzberg and Jared Gertner (both in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee), Joel Karie (The Lion King) and Tony Award nominee Jonathan Kaplan (Falsettos). Superstar Marc Kudisch (Thoroughly Modern Millie, Assassins. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) is slated to appear in January.

As in a certain classic commercial, the performers get peanut butter in each other's chocolate and vice versa, exploring ground they never could have in pieces strictly scripted or made up. The more unpredictable the marriage, the funnier. During a scene from William Inge's The Mall, Peter Gwinn, as the improviser, mimed fiddling with something on the wall. Then he turned to Ruddy, the actor, and asked, "Can I trade you a new dollar for this old one? The jukebox won't take it." Accustomed to working with props, Ruddy pulled out his wallet and handed Gwinn a real bill. Unnable to suppress a smile, Gwinn exchanged the buck for his imaginary one, saying, "Okay! And here's yours!"
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JEN & ANGIE on Page Six

Mar 13, 2015

Jen & Angie in Plane Crash!

OMG! Have you heard? Jennifer Aniston and Angelina Jolie somehow ended up on a plane together and while they were flying over the Pacific Ocean the plane crashed! No one knows if they're OK or even alive... except!

Relax everyone; the Jen and Angie in question aren't the real stars, but two actresses from the Upright Citizens Brigade who are starring in a new show that asks the question: What would happen if Jennifer and Angelina were stranded on a deserted island? Talk about a brilliant season of Survivor!

Jen & Angie stars Sara Chase as America's favorite Friend and Christina Casa as the hottie homewrecker. The ladies stepping into these stars' shoes sat down with to talk about getting into character, their love of Jen and Angelina and what they would do if Brad Pitt came to a performance.

Working Jolie-style shades and pouty lips, Christina credits repeated viewings of Tomb Raider for her dead-on portrayal. Sara's preparation to play Jen starts on a deeper level. 'I go to an angry, bitter place,' she says.

The difference between the two A-listers hasn't escaped anyone's attention, especially Christina's. 'They're so easy to make fun of. For Angelina, everything is exaggerated: lips, breasts, voice,' she says. 'Angelina has no insecurities whatsoever, whereas Jen is a pool of insecurity.' And Sara adds that it's easy to dip a toe in those waters considering everything about Jennifer's divorce was so incredibly public.

There's a lot to love about these ladies though, Sara says. And while they do have similarities ('They both have the body fat of a third-world child') their differences are what makes telling this particular story so much fun.

But would Brad see the humor since his doppelganger, a dummy, spends the entire show sitting at the foot of the stage unconscious? 'I have dreams about Brad coming to the show,' Christina says. 'I would love it if any of them came.' Get your own ticket to the show to find out who is victorious in this battle of the babes.
NY Shows

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