Los Angeles, California – Quick! Someone in the audience give me a place and a thing! The Upright Citizen’s Brigade theater and stand-up and improv comedy, you say? How appropriate!
See what bad improv that was? But for the opposite of bad comedy, if you find yourself in LA, even if you find yourself homeless in LA, you should check out the Upright Citizen’s Brigade theater.
Recently I had a guest in town – my first, actually, since moving to LA — which was mortifying, in a way, because I wasn’t sure what to do with him, save for driving by the Hollywood sign to point and say, “There.” That doesn’t take that long. And while there’s no shortage of things to do in LA, there is when one is short on cash. Furthermore, a nightly cross-city connect-the-dots restaurant tour can wear thin (and, again, on the wallet too).
But LA is also a celebrity safari, especially for visitors. People bus up and down shoddy city blocks on double-decker buses painted in bright colors in hopes of getting a glimpse of TMZ the live show. But LA is not an enclosure, and celebrities, for that matter, aren’t animals — not most of them, anyway. So this whole prospect is iffy on several levels.
Then you remember some of your favorite celebs started somewhere and that, in a focus point of talent like LA, a comedien that might run you 30 bucks to see in Ohio is suddenly…gasp! Free?!
This is what makes UCB so great. Those that know comedy know UCB. But for those that care about more important things mayhaps, the Upright Citizens Brigade started in 1990 in Chicago as an improv comedy group that gained in popularity until they opened their own theater, started teaching classes and then opened branches in New York and, in 2005, LA. While UCB is relatively young, it has already produced its sure of success names like Amy Poehler and Adam McKay being chief amongst them. Poehler you should recognize as the SNL alum who now anchors NBC’s great Parks and Recreation. Adam McKay is an SNL alumn as well, and is now a collaborator with Will Ferrell on everything from Anchorman to Step Brothers. And while these are the names you’ll find on Wikipedia for UCB alumnus, the theaters also play host to names not as big but genuinely hilarious, including people like I saw: Doug Benson, Nick Thune and that Asian broad that was on The Office in that episode where Michael couldn’t tell the Asian broads apart.
One of the coolest things about UCB is that the shows are either free or no more than five dollars. We have a winner already. Second off, you get to see these cool, funny people do their thing in a special environment. “Special” not like short-buses — this is good comedy, but it’s comfortable comedy. The theater itself isn’t that large, so during a show, you feel as if you’re just hanging out with the people on stage. You seem to get a real sense of them and that, against your TMZ safari instincts, these are just real people doing the thing they do. The other cool thing about UCB is it’s a place where they’re either honing it or displaying what they’ve already accomplished, so it’s cheaper than going to the swankiest sushi place, but just as insightful as sitting at the sushi bar watching the chef do his thing with the knife, if not more so.
If the craft of comedy fascinates you, then at the UCB theater, you will be fascinated. If the thought of a cheap, one-night-stand laughathon with little commitment is your thing, at UCB, you will be entertained.
So in the week that my buddy was in town, we ended up going to two shows. On Sunday evening we caught Jeff Garlin’s Combo Platter. Jeff Garlin wasn’t actually there, but the concept was a great one. Four comedians took the stage, and someone in the audience gave them a word — in this case “cantaloupe,” and then for an hour, the four comics took turns doing an improv set that started on this word but ended somewhere with baseball and pizza. So it’s really an all-American exercise, but fascinating because stand-up is usually thought to be a meticulously plotted thing. To see some people wing it, even when sometimes falling flat, was refreshing and a good spelunking into the comic mind. And it only cost a big fat dollar.
Then Tuesday crept up on us. What would we do? After thinking through some options, we were drawn back, mosquito to bug-light, to the UCB for a free (!) live recording of Doug Benson’s I Love Movies podcast. For what it’s worth, I love Doug Benson. Dude is something of a pot icon, though I don’t know him for that (I promise) but from his great work on VH1′s Best Week Ever, which used to be better when Doug had more contributions to it, and I guess when it was still on the air (it’s not right now).
The I Love Movies podcast is basically what it sounds like. Doug hosts three guests in a chat of the latest movie-dom; they play movie title and trivia games, and fun is had by all. At our taping, we got Doug (natch), up and coming stand-up Nick Thune, and fairer-sex comedy duo Garfunkle and Oats. They did a crazy great song based on Precious called something like “Run with the Chicken.” I’ll let you fill it in from there. Contributing to the laid-back and cohesive atmosphere, when we entered the theater, Thune actually asked us to save a seat for a buddy of his. Good luck having Seinfeld ask you to save a seat for someone from his entourage at whatever theater palace you can catch him at. That’s not to disparage Seinfeld — he’s great. It’s just UCB affords you the chance to catch these performers before they’re on that great a level.
Before the show, my dude and I got pizza at a next-door pizza joint, and there was Benson before his show grabbing a beer. This isn’t so much the celebrity safari as a realization that we’re all sharing the same jungle. What makes us take to these funny folk is not just that they’re funny, or even folksy, but that they have somehow, whether by wit or a lack of fear or dignity, crossed the plane from seat to stage. For anyone that’s ever had a thought of doing the same thing, a few evenings at UCB will make it seem attainable.
That’s where the money comes in. Improv classes are available at the theater but at 300 smacks a unit…which is still cheaper than college — and clown college, for that matter. But still.
For those looking purely to be entertained, though, a glance at the UCB LA calendar reveals upcoming names like Paul Scheer, The Whitest Kids You Know, Charlyne Yi and even Bob Saget. With the exception of Saget, this line-up shows that UCB is kind of like the indie music scene of comedy — those funny people whose names most people might not know but whose faces and writing make just about every funny thing nowadays funny. And they’re all just right there.
I think I’m already planning to go back for Facebook one of these Wednesdays. It’s this brilliant-sounding show where the comedians at hand select two people from the audience and do a whole set based on their Facebook pages. Pictures, messages, links, wall-writes — that’s fresh and part of the mi casa es su casa feel of the theater. It’s five bucks.
I can hear a homeless guy playing a saxophone outside my window. He’s pretty good. Maybe he can scrounge up the dimes, nickels and quarters necessary for us to attend. Think he has a Facebook?
Check out UCB for yourself here.