The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 120,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)
The Upright Citizen's Brigade Theater has been talked about quite a bit this month, with escalating Facebook messages, responses from people working in every aspect of the comedy industry, and even an article in the New York Times all about whether or not the performers at the theaters should be paid. A weekly feature examining comedy TV history might seem like an unlikely place to discuss this controversy, this seems like the perfect time to look back into the UCB's past and reflect on the thing that has allowed the institution to survive and prevail after some 20-odd years: their comedy.
The members of the team known as the Upright Citizens Brigade have rotated over the years, including such comedy luminaries as Horatio Sanz, Rich Fulcher, and Adam McKay, but the last, and most well known lineup consists of Matt Besser, Ian Roberts, Amy Poehler, and Matt Walsh, commonly referred to as the UCB4. After meeting in Chicago, studying under improv guru Del Close, moving to New York, opening their own theater and training center, in 1998 they began their own television show, which aired on Comedy Central for three seasons. On November 8, 2007, the Paley Center in New York got these four together (sort of) to discuss with moderator and Onion writer/editor Todd Hanson their TV show, their comedy, their philosophies, and a bunch of stories from their long, fruitful careers.
In 2007 Amy Poehler was still working hard on Saturday Night Live each week, Ian Roberts was a regular cast member on Reno 911!, Matt Besser was working on a number of projects, including Wild Girls Gone, a movie featuring all four members of the UCB, and Matt Walsh… well, Matt looked pretty different. (In actuality, though no one on stage ever breaks out of the "scene," Walsh was apparently unable to make it to the panel discussion and was replaced by the late John Ward, "Agent Wimpy" of Improv Everywhere fame.)
The first topic that is brought up about their show is how intricately woven the strands of each episode are, with several characters appearing and reappearing throughout the show, only to come together in some spectacular conclusion in the show's final moments. The UCB explain that this is, in effect, an adapted version of the improv form they are most famous for: the Harold. In the Harold, as improv, you do three scenes, then a large group scene, followed by second "beats" of those original three scenes, another group scene, and finally the third "beats," in which you make connections and continuations of any of the ideas, characters, or moments from earlier in the show. While the TV show may not follow this structure as rigidly, the same concepts behind the framework are still present.
Besser describes the planning process for the show in which they would have the name of sixty or so scenes up on a corkboard and the group would analyze these scenes and work backwards, making connections between them, putting them into categories and determining which are the best scenes from each category. Roberts adds that they would use similar color-coded cards when actually pitching the show to networks to explain how each episode would fit together.
Along with the framework of each episode, the UCB also discuss their general comedy philosophy for improv and sketch, which they've been teaching at their training center for years, and have become a part of thousands of writers' and improvers' toolkits across the country. After Todd shows a clip of Ian Roberts boxing a horse, in a sketch that was a parody of Raging Bull, Besser explains how that scene serves as an example of the way they write. This sketch was an example of how the funny idea for the scene came to them before the logical reason for doing it came. "I'm pretty sure it'd be funny to have Ian boxing a horse." That's the game of the scene. Ian jumps in, "Heightening is doing more and more things with the horse; the coach tells him to think like a horse, eat like a horse, and put on a horse head." What comes next is the exploration of the scene, or determining the "logic and philosophy that pins that scene down. Both of these things come from asking if this is true, then what else is true?" If I had to fight a horse, then what? Then you might have a coach who makes you eat oats. If that's true, then why would that actually happen? Well, maybe it's because the Queen is making you do it, and you can't say no. And that's how you think about sketch when you're in the Upright Citizens Brigade.
A lot of time is spent in the talk discussing the controversial aspects of the show, such as how they were able to apply this logic and philosophy discussed above to sketches that were ostensibly 22-minute dick jokes. They explain that part of the reason that they were able to get away with so much is the same reason Amy Sedaris, Stephen Colbert, and Paul Dinello gave during their panel discussion: their producer, and future Comedy Central exec, Kent Alterman protected them, didn't give them a lot of notes, and just gave them the room they needed to be funny. However, that doesn't mean their controversial nature didn't land them in trouble.
For example, Besser tells a story from one of their pre-New York stage shows in which they convinced the audience to riot against City Hall, then brought the entire crowd outside with lit torches and fake guns, to protest. When the cops showed up they arrested Horatio Sanz who stayed in character, yelling "Fight the power!" as they put him the back of a cop car. Roberts tells the story of filming pranks on the streets of Chicago, only to accidentally record some drug dealers standing in the background of a shot. When they approached them, demanding the tape, they eventually managed to negotiate with them, and instead of giving them a tape full of an entire day's worth of filming, just record over the part they were in front of them.
The other major element of the evening's discussion was the UCB4 reminiscing about the inspiration and filming of many of their show's sketches. For example, the "Psychotonomy" sketch, in which Walsh portrays a clean cut recruiter for a science fiction based church that's really popular with celebrities, was originally performed at the theater naming Scientology, as well as Tom Cruise and John Travolta as celebrities that were cured of their homosexuality by the church. Obviously, pre-South Park, there was no way that Comedy Central would allow them to make fun of the litigious church so they were forced into a back and forth negotiation about the number of letters they had to change before they were eventually allowed to say "Jon Cruz" on television.
Other scenes that are discussed are some that have some personal connections for the members of the UCB, for example, "Jesus Camp," in which the counselors of a Christian summer camp attempt to get a confession from the camper who drank all the bug juice by physically punishing themselves. This sketch came out of an actual experience Matt Besser had when he was at a Christian summer camp and the counselor, who made it clear that he had a bad heart, told the campers that he was going to go run through town and wouldn't stop until the perpetrator confessed. This ultimately ended up going for several hours into the night and resulted in several people confessing to the crime.
Another sketch, in which Amy works at an ice cream parlor named Bradwick's and is forced to sing "happy birthday" to a bunch of punk teens, was also inspired by real life rage. This sketch is based on Amy's experiences working at an ice cream parlor in Massachusetts called Chadwick's and hating every moment of it. (Incidentally, Rachel Dratch worked at the same parlor several years later.) The "monkey dance" that employees of Bradwick's have to do when a couple celebrates their wedding anniversary, is inspired by a show from the theater in which contestants had to go up and act, and according to Poehler, if they "didn't commit really hard, you had to do the monkey dance. It's really the most humiliating thing you have to do."
You don't need me to tell you that the students of the Upright Citizens Brigade are everywhere in entertainment right now, and there is perhaps no better advertisement for the sense of humor and philosophy of comedy that the theater represents than that of the TV show Upright Citizens Brigade. Though it had a short life, the sensibility lives on in the many projects, theaters, shows, and movies that the nationwide comedic network branches into.
Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, the head writer of his website, a podcaster, and a guy on Twitter.