Since opening in 2005, the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre has been the epicenter of comedic influence in Los Angeles. Some of the funniest comedians ranging from Sarah Silverman to Patton Oswalt are all regular perfomers there. UCB founders Matt Besser, Ian Roberts and Matt Walsh started their careers at the Improv Olympic Theatre in Chicago training under the late improv guru Del Close. Together with Amy Poehler, they created the cult hit TV series Upright Citizens Brigade that aired on Comedy Central for three seasons. Along the way, they formed a comedy theater and a long-form improv school in New York, later opening up a West Coast branch in L.A. Before their fifth anniversary show, LA Weekly caught up with the guys responsible for bringing so much laughter and joy to comedy geeks everywhere.
Where did the name Upright Citizens Brigade come from?
Matt Walsh: In Chicago there were concept shows where there would be a virtual reality road trip and one of the sponsors was an evil organization called the Upright Citizens Brigade. It eventually became the name for the sketch group.
Ian Roberts: Upright Citizens Brigade is the subsidiary of the fictional Russell Corporation. They were this uber-evil corporation and the Upright Citizens Brigade was an arm of it.
Did all the shows have a theme of virtual reality?
MW: Virtual reality was one. What were the other ones?
IR: Conference On The Future Of Happiness, UCBTV and Thunderball, which was a sport to replace baseball. We did an entire show about that.
What made all of you decide to move to New York instead of Los Angeles to start your TV show?
IR: The first experience we had going out to New York was trying to get someone who represented Matt Besser to represent the whole group. He had a bunch of people come to see us there. A week later they called asking to see us again. So we wanted to be in a place where we could be seen and have the shows running continuously. We set it up so that if industry wanted to see us, they could. It's easier to run a show and get an audience to attend in New York rather than out here.
Wouldn't L.A. be an easier city to mount a show for people in the industry to see?
MW: Not really, our impression back then was there were a lot of showcases that would happen in L.A. where we would perform for a night or a weekend then come back home. In New York it felt like we connected with theaters where we could do an entire run. New York was more of a theater town than L.A.
IR: We also hit the ground running in New York. We had a TV show within a year of moving out there. People would often ask us how we did that so fast. The thing was we've already been performing for six years in Chicago. We came out to New York with two shows, opened them up in two separate theaters, ran them, started a free improv show and did the open mike at the Luna Lounge. So it was four nights a week that you could see us somewhere in the city.
MW: We started performing at a place called Soho Arts where we first started doing ASSSSCAT.
IR: Our first theater was at a former strip club called the Harmony Club. We benefited from Mayor Giuliani who was cracking down on the strip clubs back then. He'd just nickel and dime them with violations till it wasn't worth staying open.
Is it fair to say that you guys introduced long-form improv to New York?
MW: I think we were the first group to really do long-form well that came to New York.
Describe the process of opening the West Coast branch. What were your main goals?
Matt Besser: The Tamarind Theatre here on Franklin happen to open up and it was during the same time that many of the performers from UCB New York were moving out here, so it was good timing that way. We started with more of a focus on improv in New York. In L.A. there was already improv, so we wanted it to start off with more of a balance between sketch and stand-up for the L.A. branch. That's one of the main differences between the two theaters. Immediately, we had Comedy Death Ray, which in my opinion, is the best stand-up show in town. We also have many shows that combine performers whether it be a game show or a story-type of show. That was always the aim of this theater.
IR: Another goal is to have a place that we wish existed when we first started. A place that is friendly to performers and doesn't charge people to do their shows.
MW: Even Luna in New York was a great comedy show but it was only on Monday nights, so if you went there on Wednesdays there would be a jam band playing. This is a theater that's known for doing one thing, which is good comedy.
What was the very first show in LA?
IR: It was the show where we had Andy Dick as the monologist for ASSSSCAT.
Was he drunk?
IR: He starts out reasonably enough, but the monologist position doesn't get as much attention as someone like Andy wants to have. So he came back stage and got high in between the two acts and said 'I want to improvise.' Andy was so loose with the show and the audience was so confused as to what was going on that one guy in the audience took it upon himself to come onstage and participate without being asked.
MB: As is the UCB code, we took him to the ground and held him down.
IR: He didn't get hurt but it's like how a guy grabs you by the the neck and goes 'No really, don't fuck with us.' It was like that.
MB: At the Lion King, I tried to do that and they took me in the alley and cut off one of my thumbs, so what we did was pretty mild.
IR: The name of the show ASSSCAT comes out of the fact that it's a pick-up improv show and we don't have to rehearse it. The whole nature of the show is very loose and so it was a perfect way to open the theater.
Why do you think such well-known comedians like Aziz Ansari, Maria Bamford and Patton Oswalt keep on coming back here to perform?
MB: When they come here, they feel more at home. You can do whatever you want and we're not going to judge the show.
IR: They know what is expected here. It's really a nice place to perform where they know that the audience is smart.
Can you guys recall any outrageous or amazing moments from the theater's five year history?
MB: Cale and James from our theater did a bit.
MW: It was the dirtiest sketch show, right?
MB: Yeah. In the sketch, the two had a bone marrow deficiency. They explained to each other that milk gives you calcium and both started chugging gallons of milk. There is this point where you can only have so much milk in your stomach before you have to throw up. They chugged until they started puking onstage. They were also holding martini glasses, puking into them and drinking each others vomit milk. They could feel their bones getting harder. So to test that out, they started punching each other in the face for real and slipping in their vomit milk.
IR: I want to bring up that we had to make sanctions against certain things after that show because it became so insane. I think people were later pissing; someone took a dump onstage; a carrot was put in someone's ass. I also hear people tend to wrestle at our New Year's Eve parties.
MW: Another cool moment was having Robin Williams pop in and do improv with new performers. The Night of 140 Tweets was also a good one when all these A-list celebrities would perform these 140 character bits. That was pretty amazing.
MB: The 12 hour Comedy Death Ray was another one.
What are your plans for the near future?
MW: We're trying to figure out a big L.A. event. New York has the Del Close Marathon, which is a crazy 72 hour marathon of comedy. We're trying to figure out a big festival day in L.A.
IR: We'll also protect the continued growth of ucbcomedy.com. We want to have what we teach here be a pipeline into that. We're teaching classes and forming teams that is just geared toward the website.
MW: Hopefully we'll finish our improv book soon. We've been working on it for at least four years now.
If Del Close were alive, what would he think of your success?
IR: He would love that there is a 72-hour improv marathon called the Del Close Marathon in New York. I think anyplace that had improv as part of what it did would make him very happy. At one time there was a debate about whether improv could be a performance form or a writing tool, so I'd think he'd be glad to see two theaters that has that as its base.
MW: Didn't he give us marching orders at his living funeral? I think you talked to him on the phone Matt.
MB: Basically he said spreading improv is a way of spreading love.
MW: Matt's smiling and he's affectionately hugging Ian as he's saying that.