“Whatever kind of college has their classes all over town?”
That's the question Upright Citizens Brigade co-founder Matt Besser had been asking for years while scouting the perfect location for UCB's West Coast training center. Unlike UCB comedy shows, which are all held at the oft-sold-out blackbox theater on Franklin Avenue at the bottom of the Hollywood Hills, the improv and sketch comedy classes are scattered “at a dozen different places” — including MetaTheatre on Melrose and the Lyric Hyperion in Silver Lake — “and that's why it's such a nightmare,” he says.
Besser hopes that nightmare will finally end when Upright Citizens Brigade opens its first official training center in East Hollywood on November 1. The new compound at 5419 W. Sunset Blvd., a mile away from the existing theater, boasts the Inner Sanctum Cafe, offering Stumptown Coffee and an open mic-style performance space, plus an 85-seat theater (referred to as “UCB Theatre Sunset”), 14 classrooms (three of which are dedicated to sketch writing) and various lounges to lend the place the kind of collaborative atmosphere that's been sorely lacking at the tiny Franklin theater. “We want a place where comedians feel like they have a home,” says Besser.
UCB was formed as a Chicago improv troupe in the early '90s, featuring Besser and co-founders Amy Poehler, Ian Roberts and Matt Walsh. It grew a cult following when they created a Comedy Central sketch show that ran from 1998-2000 and established a theater and training center in New York in the late '90s and the early aughts. (The main branch is in Chelsea, and a satellite space opened across town in the East Village in 2011).
Ever since launching the L.A. theater in 2005, UCB has long billed itself as the only comedy theater and training center with stages and operations on both coasts. So why'd it take UCB nearly a decade after opening its L.A. stage to open a space for that training center?
Besser says it was important to keep the training center in Hollywood, and finding a building already zoned and permitted as a school was a nearly-impossible task. At one point he even tried to convince Poehler, Roberts and Walsh (known collectively as the UCB Four) to open the school in Besser's North Hollywood neighborhood, but he was “outvoted by people who didn't want to come to this area of town to take classes,” he tells L.A. Weekly. “Psychologically it seems like it's a long way away.”
Ironically, the East Hollywood building that the UCB4 eventually scored was the former home of a theater company that was out-priced in Hollywood and moved its operations to the more rent-friendly North Hollywood. Now that their loss is UCB's gain, Besser hopes the larger space and desirable Hollywood locale will feel more like a place where comedians can actually experiment and collaborate.
“What we're excited about, which is the whole philosophy of the theater, is that we're a comedy collective and we want to be the perfect place for comedians to gather and collaborate. Without a central place, that was hard,” Besser says. “[The Franklin Avenue theater] is a great theater, but there's not much social space around it: You're either in the green room or in the audience or on stage.”
That all will change at the new UCB Training Center, whose lounges are furnished with art and sculptures from the modern art collection of Besser's parents, Diane and Sandy Besser. The place resembles a cross between a laid-back college dormitory and an upscale museum cafeteria, and there's even talk of a UCB student union that will preside over the new campus.
If this all sounds a bit like a college experience, that's entirely by design. “People don't think of it that way, but we are an accredited school,” Besser says, and acquiring one central campus was always the main goal. The old space, now known as the Franklin Theater, will continue hosting its wildly-popular shows such as Shitty Jobs, Facebook and ASSSSCAT, the long-running Saturday night improv show starring Besser and UCB co-founders Roberts and Walsh.
Besser says the possibilities presented by the new Hollywood space remind him of what it was like to open up the first UCB theater in New York in 1999. “At first, it was just the four UCB people. We had our ASSSSCAT show and our sketch show, then we had a Harold night, and the teams got really good and at one point it was like, we need to fill out the week. And it was just a bunch of crazy shows, and a lot of stuff was ridiculous and a lot of stuff was really inspired,” he says. “Now [at the theater on Franklin] there's so many more people and less space that the artistic director [Mike Still] had to be relatively conservative as far as what shows made it to the stage.”
With the new training center, the aim is to do away with that conservativeness and usher in “a new generation” of comedians who might have an easier time signing up for one of UCB's improv classes, which have a reputation for selling out almost immediately after they're posted online. At least now, when classes inevitably still sell out, comedians will have a place to go to hang out with other comedians — regardless of whether they're in a class or a show together. That lobby adorned with the Besser family's art collection might breed the next generation of ASSSSCAT stars.
Jennifer Swann on Twitter:
Public Spectacle, L.A. Weekly's arts & culture blog, on