Wednesday, August 31st, 2011

Some Things I Learned As the Artistic Director of the UCB Theatre

It’s almost impossible these days to watch a comedy movie or TV sitcom that doesn’t feature a comedian from the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre either on screen or behind the scenes. From SNL and NBC’s Thursday night line-up to shows on ABC, FOX, MTV, HBO, Adult Swim, Comedy Central and huge films like Bridesmaids, The Hangover(s), I Love You Man, The Other Guys, and many, many more — UCB has taken over.

In my role as Artistic Director of the UCB Theatre in New York City, I was lucky enough to be at ground zero of the UCB Comedy Boom (I’m also happy to say that I too am joining the takeover — this fall I’ll be writing for a midseason NBC sitcom created by UCBT mainstays Lennon Parham and Jessica St. Clair). And while I can’t claim credit for the explosion of success enjoyed by so many UCBT writers and performers during the last six-and-a-half years, I can share a few lessons I’ve learned that might be useful to someone hoping to follow a similar path.

1. Stop trying to get an agent.

If show business is war, agents have the guns. It’s your job to make ammunition. So while it’s great that you wrote that sketch show or have five tight minutes of stand-up or that you finally finished your Modern Family spec script — you have to make more. The guys with the guns may gawk at your one shiny bullet, but they’re not going to start firing unless they know there’s more where that came from. Because, well, war is hell and no one knows what they’re shooting at. So stop worrying about getting a gun you’re not ready to use and focus on making more bullets. Trust me — the guys with the guns need good ammunition. When you’re ready — they’ll find you.

2. Don’t be bitter. Be better.

Too many people seem to think that really wanting something is actually a reason they should get it.  It’s not.  As Steve Martin once said, the key for any aspiring comedian is, “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” So sure, you could make a hundred excuses for why you’re not as successful as you want to be. And some of them may even be true. But the comedians who make it are the ones who keep pushing themselves and take advantage of every opportunity. The gatekeeper who rejects you may indeed be an idiot, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be better.

3. Be nice.

That intern taking out the garbage may be on SNL one day. And that guy in your improv class who you don’t think is funny may end up working in development at a studio. But more importantly this business is filled with rejection and it’s a lot less lonely if you’ve got a community of like-minded, supportive people around you who understand what you’re going through. Another person’s success is not your failure.

Of course there are plenty of other great lessons I could share, like “Making your show a musical is not a license for it to SUCK” or “Your tap-dancing black-face Hitler character is probably not funny and you should think about never doing it again.” But I can’t give it all away for free! What if I get a book deal!?!?

So I’ll just leave you with this: No one really knows what they’re talking about. No one really knows what they want. Make what you think is funny, do everything you can to find an audience that also thinks it’s funny, and never stop. The rest will take care of itself.

Anthony King is an Emmy-nominated writer, director, and performer currently living in New York City. He co-wrote the Off-Broadway show, GUTENBERG! THE MUSICAL!, developed television shows for CBS and A&E, and has written for shows on Comedy Central and NBC. He writes frequently for GQ and he co-created the "Songs In The Key of Craigslist" series for Details.com. Anthony was the Artistic Director of the UCB Theatre in NYC from 2005-2011.

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  • Ari Scott@twitter

    This is great. For the record, I've been a writer/performer at UCB since 2005 and I've always admired Anthony for his candor and ability to instinctively know what works. I'm certain great things will continue to happen for him.

    "Too many people seem to think that really wanting something is actually a reason they should get it. It’s not." THANK YOU.

  • Caroline Anderson

    "Your tap-dancing black-face Hitler character is probably not funny and you should think about never doing it again."

    I was listening to The Anytime Show recently and Dom and Adam Pally were discussing a character Brett Gelman did that sounds quite similar to that. I wonder if he is who is being referenced…..

  • Megh Wright

    This is great! Short and simple. Be nice to the garbage-taker-outers, people!

  • http://www.twitter.com/mattvisconage Matt Visconage

    As a UCB student I am always surprised by how nice, helpful, and down to earth everyone is. I loved watching Anthony on the Curfew and Reuben Williams and wish you all the best in LA

  • Nick S

    You forgot the most important tip for anyone hoping to make an impression in the UCB community: always have a good rape story in your back pocket.

  • peej4real

    i moonlight as a TV lit assistant at an agency in my non-UCB life and i've been trying to drive point 1 home to all my comedy friends who are just in disbelief that agents need talent just as much if not more so than we need agents. the gun/ammunition analogy is perfect.

  • Colin Perkins

    I had the pleasure of taking a week-long intensive improv class taught by Anthony back in 2005 and he was an incredible teacher and a ridiculously nice guy. Glad to hear that big things continue to happen to him.

  • Jon Friedman@twitter


  • http://jonaspolsky.tumblr.com/ Jonas Polsky

    I don't make my own luck.

    I make luck and sell it to other people.

  • mono

    Wait, the tap dancing black-face Hitler guy was also naked, right? I saw that forever ago at some show Owen Burke hosted.

  • rcmia

    Uh oh… UCB taking over. Sounds like the illuminati, with out the world domination thingy

  • Eric Sun@twitter

    Doesn't this article refute the Comedian Personality Disorder article, as King says that he found his success like many of those in other careers did, through being a self-motivating, positive, amicable and persistent person?

  • Alice

    So glad for Anthony King! I've never had the pleasure of taking one of his classes, but I started UCB improv training there in 2009 and have loved every minute of it. What he says here is right: you never know who is going to come back to you in your life. It's a good code to a) be nice to everyone and b) be supportive…but it's also good form to take criticism and critical support equally well. I think there's a great balance of both at UCB. I've loved learning from these great teachers and from my talented classmates, and from those I've seen perform. I think Eric has a point…comedians are often moody, depressed people, but I think he's mixing up the stereotype of "sad clown" with those of standups, who often tend to be more miserable and seek comedy as their outlet. Improv people are slightly different: there's a fair share of crazies, but we all need a support network to survive, and in turn we need to be the support network for others. It's a very different breed of comedy, and a much less lonely one.