It’s Upright Citizen’s Brigade! Co-founded by funny man Matt Besser this revolutionary improv troupe sustains a successful theater and a show on Comedy Central, but so far mainstream New York hasn’t noticed. Stand-up keeps the City in stitches, so why does the art of improv get no respect?
By Leight Flayton
It’s not for lack of trying, as a night at Upright Citizen’s Brigade theater can never be called routine. Take Betsy Stover…please. Stover, a UCB performer who plays an S&M wrestler name Whorey Whorey, recently enacted an unforgettable improv moment. She reached down a fellow actor’s pants and surprisingly retrieved his…mashed potatoes? What ensued can only be considered inspired. Stover jammed the mush into her mouth, then seductively licked the rest off her fingers before a squirming, yet hysterical audience. months later, she still cherishes the memory. “The best thing about improv is you can do anything you want,” she beams.
Thanks to those sometimes cleverly subversive moments, UCB is New York’s most famous and revolutionary improv group. But, more significantly, UCB has achieved the impossible–it’s landed Improvisational Theater its niche in the stand-up-centric world of New York comedy by cultivating its own theater, television show, and cult following. Much of that success is due to the efforts of Matt Besser, the surprisingly serious grandson of the fifth and final member of the Three Stooges, Joe Besser, and his cutup cronies on West 22nd Street, where they’ve turned a former burlesque house into the UCB Theater.
Since arriving in Manhattan from Chicago in 1991, UCB has become the closest thing New York has to Chicago’s celebrated Second City Theater, which, in its 40-year history, has spawned luminaries such as Nichols, May, Belushi, and Farley. But despite their still burgeoning success, UCB doesn’t have the cache or international acclaim of Second City or its equally distinguished sister group The Groundlings in Los Angeles. And for some reason New York, a city tha trarely defers to any other, doesn’t seem to care.
In a recent New York Times article, writer Jesse McKinley described Manhattan’s comedic Rebirth. “In many ways the city’s comedy circuit is in something of a renaissance after losing its talent to sitcoms and its audience to television.” Althought McKinley briefly mentioned UCB, not one reference was made to Improvisational Theater at large, thus perpetuating its status as the red-headed stepchild of comedy in the East.
Molly Small, however, associate producer of the Toyota Comedy Festival, won’t blame any right coast conspiracy. She thinks the City’s own comedians are part of the problem. “When you have the majesty of Second City and Groundlings, why would anyone look at New York? If you’re an improv person why wouldn’t you go to where the greats came from?”
Once upon a time the greats were in New York, where they emerged from the old schools of Vaudeville and Burlesque. This tradition paved the way for stand-up comedy, where the likes of Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, and Woddy Allen made their names working the circuit and honing their craft in Manhattan’s nightclubs. meanwhile, at the University of Chicago, students Mike Nichols and Elaine May, along with Ed Asner, Jerry Stiller, Anne Meara, and Alan Alda, were doing something new and all their own. They were improvising.
Opened on December 16, 1959, The Second City took its name from the titale of A.J. Liebling’s derisive profile of Chiacgo in The New Yorkers. their success was instantaneous. Time dubbed the theater, “A temple of satire,” and Clive Barnes wrote in The New York Times that “the entire recent tradition of American theatrical satire can be summed up in three words: ‘The Second City’.”
However, New York, and more specifically Saturday Night Live, is where the “chosen” graduates of Second City and the Groundlings usually wind up (with an eye on future film projects or television gigs). Household names like Ackroyd, Curtin, Belushi, and Radner were among the first contingents, and, more recently, Short, Myers, Ferrell, and Oteri came east in new waves of comedy immigration. As SNL is purely a sketch show, the majority of its performers hails from improv rather than stand-up. Why, then, hasn’t New York established a comedic breeding ground of its own?
It should be a no-brainer, as improvisers, like New Yorkers themselves, have to be ready for anything. Improvising is an interactive relationship and one that often results in hilarity. Besser remembers his first performance, when an audience member yelled out the word merkin. “I had no idea what it meant, but thankfully there were other people onstage to give me a hand.” That’s a unique part of improv–a fellow player can cut in an rescue another actor, while stand-ups and straight theatrical actors go it alone. A merkin, if you’re curious, is a pubic wig.
UCB, consequently, is the first real breakthrough group New York has known, and it’s considred successful by the City’s standards because it’s able to support a theater and school of its own. UCB shows continually sell out to lines around the block, and they have their own television series on Comedy Central, which debuted as the highest-rated original program ever to air on the cable network. Still, the group doesn’t receive the widespread attention it warrants. Performances are only accasionally listed in Time Out New York and The Vilalge Voice, and major publications like The New York Times and The New Yorker exclude improv listings altogether in favor of stand-up clubs and cabaret.
And to make mattes worse, an old foe has returned to impede improv’s recent Manhattan ascent–stand-up is making a comeback. There are currently about a dozen fulltime stand-up clubs operating in the City, whereas improv only boasts a few theaters, all of which also feature stand-ups and function as a school.
So while New York still resits embracing this kind of comedic impulsiveness, Chicago has wrapped her arms securely around it. According to Besser, “IIn Chicago, everyone goes to Second City. it’s a must do, like deep-dish pizza.” For the improvisers, consequently, there’s not much in Chicago after Second City.
The bulk of film and television work has always been in New York and Los Angeles. Two exceptions, the classics SCTV (Second City Television) and The Kids in the Hall, were produced in Canada. Once students do all they can with their group, it’s to to go, hence UCB’s defection to New York in 1991.
That move paid off. After years of performing anywhere in Manhattan they could, UCB became the undisputed hit of the 1998 Aspen Comedy Festival. Comedy Central rewarded them with their own show, and UCB enjoyed laudatory reviews in publications like Details, The New York Times, and New York magazine, which called the group “the reigning masters of New York City’s alternative comedy scene, since the four current members hooked up from (where else?) Chicago.”
Today, just two years later, the fate of New York improv feels contingent upon the show’s and theater’s success, and the desire is to strike while the iron’s hot. Besser and COmpany dream of a long-form television show, which, thanks to UCB’s enormous strides, just might happen, regardless of improv’s City reputation.
For 40 years the efforts and methods of The Second City have attracted, taught, and inspired improvisers everywhere. Today, that same majestry exists in New York, and it’s akin to the early days of Second City, when performances and aspirations smacked of comedic rebellion and revolution, and, as Jesser McKinley wrote this spring, a renaissance.
“Improvisers don’t have to go to Chicago or LA anymore,” sighs Stover. “Good people from Chicago are coming here now, and if UCB continues to prevail, New York will become Mecca.”