From UCB to ‘The House’ with Rob Huebel
Rob Huebel is maybe a quintessential “right place, right time” example for an aspiring comedian. The place was New York and the time was the late ‘90s, and Huebel was a 27-year-old “struggling wannabe comedian” who hadn’t quite found his specialty yet in the comedy world. That was until his roommate dragged him to some underground improv show — a form Huebel had never seen before — run by this new team from Chicago called the Upright Citizens Brigade. Once he had seen that show on that night, he knew exactly what he wanted to do and where his place in comedy would reside and evolve over the next two decades.
If not for his roommate’s persistence that day, and for being in the right theater, in the right city, in the right snapshot in time, who knows how Huebel’s life could have been different. What his career includes now is roles on TV in Transparent, Children’s Hospital, and The League, and in movies like I Love You, Man, The Other Guys, The Descendants, and The House, which opens today and stars Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler, one of the very people on the stage that fateful night.
Now Huebel isn’t just watching the people who helped shape his comedy brain — he’s performing right alongside them, as well as a bunch of other funny people who were also at the right place and right time.
You’ve known Amy Poehler for a long time, having been one of the first students at the UCB. What sort of early memories do you have of her from that time?
I was really lucky, I was one of those first people to see the original UCB four do a live comedy show in New York. My roommate at the time dragged me to a show and Adam McKay, Stephen Colbert, Tina Fey, Rachel Dratch, Jon Glaser were all there … It was all these comedy gods from Chicago and I remember watching the show and just being blown away and thinking to myself, “How do I get involved in this?” When Amy’s on stage, you’re just watching Amy. No one else is like her. She steals every scene and is so funny and so different. I remember watching her perform and going “Who is that?” and this was before she was famous. I was blown away by her. Then I heard that UCB would start teaching classes, so I signed up and just wanted to be a part of it.
How did your roommate know about UCB at that time?
My roommate was Mike Henry, who is now a writer and voice actor on Family Guy and created The Cleveland Show. Mike and I were just struggling New York wannabe comedians. He had heard about this comedy show that was happening. It was very underground back then, it was all very punk rock. They had just gotten there from Chicago and were doing shows in weird little theaters. I had never seen improv before. I saw that show with all of the original UCB members and all those other people from Chicago, and literally in that moment is when a door opened in my life and I was like “Oh, I want what you got. This is what I want to do.”
You had previously worked with Will Ferrell in The Other Guys, but was that your first time meeting him?
I think I had met Will way back at UCB, maybe in New York at some point. Maybe he was doing SNL at the time and he may have come by the UCB and someone introduced me to him. I didn’t know him very well. The Other Guys was probably the first time that I really met him, and I am always a little bit intimidated by Will because he’s one of those guys that’s just so funny to me, so specific, and he makes me laugh harder than anyone else. Everyone has that person and Will is that person to me. If I just talk to him on the telephone I start laughing — I just think he’s so funny and he’s just being himself. I don’t know if it’s voice or his body or his movements or his hair, he’s just a hilarious character to me. I had a tiny scene in The Other Guys where I’m a cop and Will’s car was stolen and I’m this policeman telling him how his car got fucked up. I told him “Oh we found your car, there was a group of homeless men living in the back of the car. They call that a soup kitchen.” I improvised a bunch of stuff and McKay told me to keep improvising, but Will is just the straight man in that scene, just listening to me, but I kept laughing. I could not get through the scene because Will was just looking at me and not doing anything funny. I couldn’t stop fucking laughing because I just think he’s the funniest person.
There are quite a few UCB people in The House.
There’s so many people in this movie that came from UCB. Jason Mantzoukas and I came up together and he’s just a fucking heavy hitter. That guy is so fucking funny. Lennon Parham, same thing, she’s just always cracking me up. Nick Kroll, same thing. It makes it very easy to improvise with people like that because we’ve known each other for so long. It’s not all UCB people, but it’s a lot of comedy people, and we’ve known each other for a long time and it makes it easier when we have a personal history together. You kinda automatically know how to be funny with that person.
What’s it like going from those early days of seeing your favorite performers to taking classes from them to finally working alongside of them? Is that still surreal to you?
It makes me really proud. Proud of where we all came from. Because there was no way to know. You can’t tell when you’re a poor actor in New York just scraping by — I mean I was poor forever and just working shitty jobs. Then you get a little bit of a leg up, a little bit of a break. I remember at first it was like someone would break through and then they would throw a ladder down to the next guy: “Let’s help them up the ladder.” Thankfully in my life the people ahead of me have tossed me down a ladder and helped me out a little bit. So if I’m ever able to do that for other people, I will. There’s no way to know at the time the level of success that all of those people from UCB would have. Little by little the UCB kinda just built this army; it’s either an army or a cult, we’ll figure it out one day. Maybe the mafia, it could’ve been the mafia. But as people kinda struggled, people would cast their friends. You wanna work with your friends so that’s what we do.
A lot of acting and sitcom jobs today seem to require a solid improv background. Are you surprised that what you were doing at the UCB back then has transformed into this skill that allows you more freedom as an actor today?
I should say upfront that I realize that we’re so lucky to be able to do something fun that we love and make a job out of it where you can pay your rent. That’s huge. Most people don’t get to do that. We are really lucky, and yeah, I’m always surprised by that. I guess it boils down to just trying to brand yourself and to figure out what’s funny about you specifically: “What do I do that’s funny?” And then go do that better than anyone else. Not that I do that every time, but I sort of know what’s funny about me or how I can make something funnier. When I get hired to do something, I assume that people bring me on to improvise stuff that I think is funny and to try and make it better. That’s what I try to do consistently and I’ve been lucky.
What do you most often get recognized from?
It’s not what you think. Strangely, I get recognized for The League. That show is on Netflix and I’ve only been on it like six times, but people who watch that show are obsessed with it. God bless them, I get recognized a lot for that. And I still get recognized from stuff I did a million years ago like really dumb VH1 stuff. Truthfully though, a lot of people think they know me but don’t know what they know me from so it becomes a long process of elimination. And I don’t want to be a jerk so I say I’m not sure, that I have a familiar face. Then eventually they’ll ask if I’m an actor and I’ll say that I do some acting and comedy. Then they go through a long list. Really I don’t know what people watch, so it’s hard for me to say. I think because I’m an average looking white guy a lot of people think they know me but don’t know how.
Tevin from I Love You, Man was a pretty memorable character you played that I’d assume some people know you from. How did that come together?
I was so excited because I love Paul Rudd and I think he’s so funny, and Jason Segel, and the director of that movie John Hamburg is just super funny. I had just moved to LA and that was the first movie I did and they wanted me to be like a spray tan douchebag and I had to be really, really orange. Then I had to get frosted tips in my hair. And since I was new to LA I didn’t know a lot of people. I’d go out at night, meet my friends at a bar, and I just looked like a fucking dick — spray tan, blonde highlights in my hair. Once they laid that on me, that character sort of congealed into the ultimate office asshole. I’m pretty good at that. I can do a good dickhead or asshole and I’m happy to do that, it’s how I pay my rent.
What would you say to anyone out there reading this who may be interested in a career in comedy and could just use that one piece of advice that may put them in the right direction?
What I tell everyone is move to New York. Move to New York and get on the stage as much as possible. Everyone for some reason seems to want to rush and move to Los Angeles, but I don’t see the point of that. Go to New York and perform and write as much comedy as possible. If it’s at UCB, great, but otherwise there are tons of places to perform comedy in New York. Get on stage as much as you can, write, put up sketches, do improv. But move to New York.
The House is now in theaters.
Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.