Tournament of Nerds featured in LA TimesMar 11, 2015
Tournament of Nerds at Meltdown and UCB Theatre
Wolverine's adamantium claws or the Terminator's metal endoskeleton? A telepathic Amazon with a magic lasso or a 1970s Ugandan dictator? Freddy Krueger or Gandalf the Grey?
Combine the greatest hypothetical battles into a March Madness-style bracket, invite movie and comic book nerds to make their case and you'll have the Tournament of Nerds, a debating competition that attempts to answer once and for all the most baffling existential dilemma facing humanity: Who is the greatest superhero of them all?
"Personally, I hope the Alien Queen eviscerates Pikachu. I want to see him get a mouthful of acid blood," says Hal Rudnick, one of the tourney's co-organizers.
Rudnick once worked as an entertainer at children's birthday parties, which included occasional stints playing Pikachu, an experience that was like "wearing a suit made of carpet while sticking your head in a giant fishbowl on the hottest day of the year in the Valley."
Rudnick's hatred for the cuddly Pokemon avatar is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the profound passions evoked by this debate.
"I've never been one to have these kind of arguments, but twice in the last week I've gotten into vicious debates about the best season of ' The Simpsons,' " tournament co-organizer Justin Donaldson says. "Season 8. Definitely. Not Season 4."
Teaming up with actress Linda Pine, who produces a monthly stand-up comedy show at Meltdown Comics, Rudnick and Donaldson created 16 improbable battles and recruited passionate fans to argue the merits of each character at the live events. Think of it as the ultimate crossover. Voltron will fight Thor, the Thing will fight the Cloverfield monster, the Borg will try to assimilate Battlestar Galactica's Starbuck.
A trio of celebrity judges culled from the overlapping worlds of comedy and comic books will judge the merits of the arguments, and the eight survivors will head to the finals a week later.
"All hell is going to break loose," Rudnick predicts. "I want to see nerds screaming, nerds crying and nerds laughing maniacally after victories."
Upright Citizens Brigade cover story in Back Stage WestMar 11, 2015
How the Upright Citizens Brigade made the move from Chicago to New York to L.A., bringing its twisted brand of comedy along for the ride.
An ordinary-looking bucket that contains all the secrets of the universe. A man who puts pennies in his rectum to build confidence. Cyborgs hiding everywhere, even the U.S. Senate. These were only some of the weird, wonderful creations of the Upright Citizens Brigade, the offbeat comedy troupe whose brand of humor often blended the seemingly sophomoric with the fiercely intelligent. Perhaps best known for its three seasons on Comedy Central, the group consisted of the multifaceted Matt Besser, Amy Poehler, Ian Roberts, and Matt Walsh. The four first met while studying at Improv Olympic in Chicago under Del Close. After five years of honing their unique style of comedy, the quartet moved to New York with the intention of pursuing a television show. In 1999, UCB opened a theatre in New York, and although the location has changed over the years, the success of the classes and shows has not.
The TV show ended in 2000, but the group's founders have continued to flourish. Poehler became a breakout sensation on Saturday Night Live and starred in such films as Blades of Glory and the recent Baby Mama. After a stint as a correspondent on The Daily Show, Walsh appeared in such films as Old School and Be Kind Rewind. Besser created the faux debate show Crossballs for Comedy Central and last year played bandmate to John C. Reilly in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. Roberts, perhaps best known for his scene-stealing turn as flamboyant choreographer Sparky Polastri in Bring It On, appeared in Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby and had a recurring role on Arrested Development as an overly literal doctor.
After Besser, Roberts, and Walsh relocated to Los Angeles, UCB opened a theatre on Franklin Avenue in Hollywood in 2005. Since then, it has become a hot spot where one can find solid laughs any night of the week at reasonable rates (prices range from free to $10). It's not uncommon to find a line around the block for its Sunday night flagship show, ASSSSCAT, which features long-form improvisation. A DVD of the ASSSSCAT show was released in March, loaded with extras overseen by the group. Much like its New York counterpart, the L.A. theatre also offers a variety of classes and opportunities for students. Besser, Roberts, and Walsh sat down with Back Stage to discuss New York versus L.A., common improv mistakes, and how what one person finds funny, another can find abusive.
Back Stage: What brought you all to Los Angeles?
Matt Besser: I think I took Southwest.
Matt Walsh: Not bad! I think it was career opportunities. I'd done everything I wanted to do in New York.
Besser: Oh really? Everything? You'd done Broadway?
Walsh: I'm not a singer; I would never get a Broadway musical.
Besser: I'm at least big enough to admit I didn't do everything I wanted to do in New York.
Back Stage: And was the intention always to open a theatre in L.A.?
Walsh: Yes, we wanted to make sure we were all here. It's a huge undertaking to open a theatre and program it.
Ian Roberts: We wanted to make sure we all taught at the beginning, so you start getting your philosophy to those first people. That's the way the New York theatre is: It gets passed down. Even though I may never work with those people, it's still our stuff being taught.
Besser: That's something we take pride in and think is very important: keeping both our theatres in New York and L.A. on the same page. We came up with a curriculum where we make sure every level is the same across the board. Because we did go through that confusion in Chicago of taking so many years to understand concepts that shouldn't take that long.
Back Stage: Have you noticed any differences between audiences on each coast?
Walsh: I think when we first came to L.A., we were a new thing and we had to show people what it was. We're willing to go anywhere, any subject matter, and I think in L.A. it takes a while for people to go along for the ride. Now, our audiences, anything goes. I think we had to teach them what was going to happen.
Roberts: You get them giving in to you easier. Now 50 percent of the audiences return, so they're on board right away.
Back Stage: What do you think set Del's teaching apart? Did you ever study anywhere else?
Besser: I studied at every single school in Chicago: Second City, Annoyance, Players Workshop. I went through just about the entire program at them all. And the big lesson it took me years to understand was that not everybody's on the same page. I think for beginning improv students, that's something they don't get. They kind of assume it's a finite thing, like math. All math teachers agree how to do addition and multiplication, but it's not like that.
Roberts: But it should be like math. In that analogy, the other people are teaching you crazy fucking math that doesn't work. Because when he says not everyone is on the same page, it doesn't mean 'To each their own; there's all these different approaches.' Just like with acting classes, something I did as a young guy in my early 20s, I look back now and say, 'What a stupid - that person didn't know how to teach acting.'
Besser: Sometimes there can be something like a very important phrase, like 'Yes, and' or 'Agreement' or 'Heighten and explore' - these phrases that are used in improv that are explained to students but in completely different ways.
Roberts: Again: right and wrong. Because 'Yes, and' means something very specific, and some people teach it as 'You have to say yes to everything a character says in a scene.' Which is crazy. 'Jump off a building?' That would kill a scene. You have to be realistic and act like a human being. 'Yes, and' means to agree with what the improviser wants, not what the character wants, and it gets completely mistaught.
Back Stage: I was taught you couldn't deny anything in a scene; you have to agree with everything.
Roberts: That is true. But denial means don't deny what the improviser says. If he says you're a doctor, you're a doctor. Otherwise, it would be crazy. It would never happen in life that you would sit down in a doctor's office where there are degrees on the wall and he would say, 'I'm not a doctor; I'm a butcher.' But you can absolutely say no.
Besser: That's a great example. Your teacher was too simplistic; he didn't explain that denial doesn't mean saying yes or no. That's a very simplistic way of teaching it. But that's how I started out in Chicago. I took different guys and kept thinking, 'I'm not getting it.' The thing is, they weren't getting it.
Back Stage: So what would you do in a scene if your partner tells you to jump off a building?
Walsh: You can just play it to the top of your intelligence, which means realistically you wouldn't do it. You'd go, 'What's wrong? What are you upset about?'
Besser: That's another phrase: top of your intelligence. A lot of people think it means say trivial facts and act really smart. But it doesn't; it means to act the way you are in real life. Bad improv is when people are both goofballs onstage and there's no straight man. Think of real comedy: a straight man's not going to go, 'Okay, I will jump off a building.' If you just keep saying yes, it's a silly scene. And the reason a lot of people don't like improv is they see those scenes and it's like watching children play. It might be delightful for a second, but it's not a show; it's not real comedy. We like to do improv that most closely resembles a written sketch. That's the goal.
Walsh: And if it's almost believable. Usually a good sketch has an absurd premise, but if it seems like they're playing it as realistically as possible, the audience will go along with you.
Roberts: You need everything else to be in contrast. You got the game, what's funny about the scene, but it has no stakes unless everything else is realistic. If it's an absurd premise in a crazy world, so what? There's no ramifications to it; it doesn't mean anything. Things are funny when they break the pattern we know.
Back Stage: What are some common bad habits you see?
Walsh: In class, I've seen playing unbelievable, super-broad characters. I'm not saying you can't play characters, but if someone is really broad from the start, it starts in a weird place.
Roberts: Or when someone starts a scene like: 'Here we are. Camping. Out in the woods.' A lot of people do that. They want to set the scene, and nobody would ever say that in real life. You would just be in the woods. It's 'Show, don't tell.' You do something that would sound like dialogue if you were camping. 'Hey, you mind setting the tent while I get the fire started?'
Back Stage: Can you teach a person to be funny?
Walsh: You can teach people to improvise. I don't know if you can teach people to be funny.
Roberts: I can teach people to be funny.
Walsh: I always give the example of you can have 100 people read the same line on stage and the fat guy will probably get the most laughs. It's just what people want to laugh at.
Besser: I say the same thing, except it's 200 people.
Roberts: I disagree a little bit. I do think you can teach people to be funny, because I've seen people get funnier because they start to understand that if I just keep adhering to a pattern of behavior, that's what being funny is.
Walsh: But if they don't understand it intuitively - you can mathematically teach someone to be funny, like Dat Phan, a comic who is mathematically a solid comic. But I don't know if he intuitively understands comedy.
Besser: Some people can competently make people laugh, but you can identify everything they're doing. It seems soulless.
Walsh: Maybe they're imitating and they don't have a voice. I don't know.
Back Stage: Were there any comics you particularly admired or who inspired you?
Besser: I would say the Kids in the Hall, even though they're very close generationally to us.
Walsh: They were ahead of us in the way they were seniors when we were freshmen. I feel like they were established on television, and they were always interesting and always good.
Besser: And they showed us we could do it ourselves. And there weren't a lot of groups that did it themselves; you had to join SNL or something else.
Roberts: We made a very strong choice not to do that. We made a contract with each other that you wouldn't audition for anything that would take you away from the group. So you could go do a day on something or shoot a commercial, but we told our agents and managers, 'Don't even send us stuff for a sitcom or a three-month movie shoot.'
Back Stage: And you made the decision to move to New York together and pursue a TV show.
Besser: Yes. On Comedy Central.
Roberts: People were surprised how quickly we got things going, but that was because we had done all our goofing around and kids stuff. We came out with two sketch shows, set them up at two different theatres, started an improv show, and went and did the big open mike at Luna Lounge. So we had four nights a week you could see us in New York. Kent Alterman, an executive at Comedy Central, really liked us right away. He was kind of our patron.
Walsh: I think we got something within a year, a Tompkins Square special or something. We got a TV show in 1998, and within a year we started our own theatre in New York. We'd already been doing probably three nights a week of shows, and by 1997 we were all teaching classes, and that connected us with an audience that wanted to learn improv, which fed our shows at other theatres.
Roberts: We realized we were paying the rent, between renting class space from the theatre and all the shows we did there ourselves and all the shows that were there because of us.
Walsh: And if we're paying the rent, we should pay our own rent. So we started our own theatre. Also, Ian didn't like the improvised nude-dancing shows that were at that theatre.
Roberts: With enough distance, I can admit I was just jealous that they didn't ask me to participate.
Back Stage: How does it work in a group when you're writing sketches? What is the process?
Besser: The process comes from wherever. It can be your own idea or something that starts when you're joking around. Our second and third season, 50 percent came from ASSSSCAT, our improv show - from scenes that went pretty well and we would go off and rewrite.
Back Stage: Do you ever have to kill sketches or shoot down one another's ideas? How do you handle those disagreements?
Roberts: I remember one I thought was funny: It was something that came from my life, and it was so awkward because I couldn't see it, but they said it seemed like child abuse. My dad would go crazy if you didn't eat your food. He dumped water on my brother's head one time. My dad would also go crazy when the dog stole something: He'd fight him under the chair. So I took those two things and wrote a sketch about a kid who wouldn't eat his pickle, and the dad went nuts and got him under the table and started yelling at him. They said, 'It's not funny, man; it just seems abusive.' That's the one that always sticks in my mind because I thought it was so funny. They had to tell me it wasn't.
Walsh: It was actually written. He brought us the scene.
Back Stage: How did you break the news?
Walsh: We just said, 'It's not funny; it's abusive.' Or we say, 'People will probably see it as child abuse. I think they might be offended.' You talk like the networks.
Back Stage: Is there anything you wouldn't do for comedy?
Roberts: There's nothing that I wouldn't do if it's in the right context. There's nothing taboo; you can joke about anything. But you have to be sure you're taking the right side. It's fine to have a racist in the scene if you're making the point the racist is an idiot. You talk about mistakes we see, and one we see is the virus of ASSSSCAT enter our students -
Walsh: We do a lot of off-color stuff, but I think generally we get across that we're kind of intelligent people and we're not espousing this point of view, we're making fun of it. But I think people see it and say, 'Oh, I just have to say awful things and I'm a comedian.'
Roberts: I remember in a sketch class once saying to a student, 'This would play at a KKK rally. I know you assume this is all ironic. But you're not making a comment. It just is what it is.'
Besser: And he books KKK rallies, so he knows what plays there.
Back Stage: What do you think sets UCB apart from other improv/sketch theatres?
Besser: We don't have a main company. We have 300 different, unique performers on stage every week. We don't have a ladder that lasts several years of auditions or stuff.
Walsh: There's no guarantee if you take classes you'll be in a certain show. This is what you'll learn, and you're learning with the best teachers. And we have a big variety. We have standup, improv, and sketch shows.
Besser: And we've launched UCBComedy.com. It's our third stage that we're very proud of and provides another place for our performers to be seen in filmed segments.
Roberts: We have some stuff that's right from the shows, some stuff lifted from shows that we see can stand alone as a filmed bit. The hope was to make a place where you know it's all comedy and to hopefully guarantee a little higher quality. We provide editors to people. We run a writers room where we have people come in and pitch ideas and we work the sketches up. If we produce them, we put a little bit of money into them.
Besser: Our long-term goal is if a piece does really well, to make it a series or something bigger like our ASSSSCAT show. We made a DVD of that live show last year that we just put out. Not everybody lives in New York or L.A., so it's pretty exciting for improv fans in the middle of the country - and also for improv students, because we did a serious commentary track on it where we break down scenes.
Roberts: People say it's like taking class with us.
Back Stage: Are there any current comics you particularly enjoy?
Walsh: I love everyone. Especially people who can hire me.
Besser: I love those guys who make movies.
The only sketch Comedy Central ever cut from the show was a commercial for a glue called Highland Epoxy. Explains Roberts, 'It was a commercial warning against sniffing glue, but the warnings clearly sounded great: 'Don't do it, because you'll dance all night. People will find you more entertaining.''
UCB often used undercover cameras to film various pranks. According to Walsh, the strangest one involved the troupe hitchhiking in the New Jersey meadowlands with a girl wearing a rain barrel. Says Walsh, 'I kept thinking, 'What pervert would pick up two guys with a semiconscious girl?' Nobody said anything. That was kind of dangerous, in retrospect.'
Besser, who played the Unabomber in the first episode of the series, once pulled a prank in which he went into a post office dressed as the Unabomber. Notes Besser, 'This was before he was caught. He was just a drawing, a guy on a poster. I walked in, looking all shifty.' Adds Roberts, 'He looked exactly like the photograph, which of course they have up in post offices. And nobody said anything.'
To see a video with UCB, go to the homepage on Backstage.com and scroll down to our video player.
Watch Fat Guy Stuck in Internet on Adult SwimMar 11, 2015
Watch the hit new Adult Swim show Fat Guy Stuck In Internet Mondays on the Cartoon Network.
Fat Guy was created by and stars UCBT performers Curtis Gwinn and John Gemberling (Death By Roo Roo) and features many UCBT performers, alums and friends including Neil Casey (Death By Roo Roo), Liz Cackowski (The Jeannie Tate Show), Paul Scheer (Human Giant), and more!