Soon after moving to L.A. in early 2002, Matt Besser did what most New York comedy transplants do: He went to an open mic at a coffee shop.
“The woman running the night recognized me from my Comedy Central show, but when I asked to sign up, she said, 'Oh, you've got to give me a tape and I'll get back to you,'?” he recalls. “I became so spoiled by having my own theater in New York that it was a bummer.”
Besser, with his cohorts Amy Poehler, Ian Roberts and Matt Walsh, aka the Upright Citizens Brigade, had rewritten the rules of sketch and improv both on their self-titled cable TV series and at their theater and school back East.
After being dissed at the coffee shop, Besser walked over to his Chicago comedy alma mater's L.A. stage, iO West. But they just didn't play the same way that UCB did. IO's long-form improv focuses more on character motivation, while UCB practices a “game” philosophy that entails improvisers discovering a unique idea in a scene, and heightening it to hilarious extremes.
Such impediments prompted Besser and co. to open UCB's West Coast outpost on July 2, 2005, 10 years ago this week. (Classes and occasional shows began that day; the official opening was Sept. 1). Many comedy venues pander to an industry crowd's sense of humor, but UCB became a fresh standard for millennial vaudeville with its more experimental acts, many of whom have gone on to film and TV fame.
Initially, when Roberts and Walsh joined Besser to look for a space, they considered a North Hollywood location, but managing director Susan Hale felt more of their audience lived closer to the urban environment of Hollywood. UCB member Andy Daly suggested the 85-seat Tamarind Theatre, whose 2004 swan song was an ambitious version of Hamlet with a $300,000 advertising budget. Legend has it that during the 1920s, in the theater's place stood horse stables and a car garage for patrons across the street at Château Élysée (the original name of the building that is now the Church of Scientology Celebrity Centre).
The 5919 Franklin Ave. location ultimately drew lines down the block, and it created a halo effect for neighboring restaurants (La Poubelle, Birds) and small businesses on its strip, many of which became hangouts for UCB performers. Frequent sellouts and the UCB founders' desire to create more of a campus atmosphere led the opening of a second facility last November at 5419 W. Sunset Blvd., which includes a podcast studio, cafe and classrooms.
To mark 10 years of UCB in Los Angeles, L.A. Weekly asked regulars to recall their most memorable moments:
During the first year at the space, before YouTube, Matt Besser and Walsh hosted the midnight show F'ed Up and Illegal Videos as two backwoods hicks who served up the raunchiest and most bizarre clips, e.g., a Japanese woman sticking eels in her vagina. “There was a guy who frequented the show who thought we were into bestiality. I had to remind him, 'You know we're all amused by this stuff, we're not into this stuff,'?” Besser says.
His earliest memories also include more bodily fluids on the L.A. stage than in New York. “At The Dirtiest Sketch Show in New York, we would make versions of bodily fluids out of apple juice, but there was actually the time when a guy during the Los Angeles version of the show whipped out his dick and put it in a catfish,” he says. Another image that Besser can't shake: “Neil Campbell tying a red ribbon to Paul Rust's penis and leading him around stage.”
Adam Pally first attended UCB shows with his parents in New York and ultimately cut his teeth as an intern, light tech and sketch writer. After moving to L.A. for his role on ABC's Happy Endings, one of his favorite take-away bits occurred during Rob Huebel and Paul Scheer's show Crash Test, in which Pally appeared onstage as Bernie Madoff's son. “I came onstage in a yuppie Burberry jacket and said, 'I want to apologize for everything my father has done, and I'd love to make it up right now for those who've been hurt by him, by passing around this hat. Contribute what you can, and we'll make sure it gets back to those who've been harmed.' I wound up collecting $250. I said to the crowd, 'Thank you very much, you're the dumbest people I've ever seen in my life.'
“When I went backstage, the crowd starting booing and screaming for their money. Huebel said, 'You have to give it back to them!' and I'm like, 'No, dude, that's the whole joke.' Scheer goes onstage and says, 'I'm sorry, I didn't know this was going to happen.' He starts going through his wallet and he only has $50. One guy stands up and screams, 'I put a $100 bill in there!' I went back out and gave the guy his $100 back but kept the rest of the cash. I bought frozen yogurt for all the comics backstage, plus had an extra $60 when I went home. The bit ended with Paul delivering the punch line: 'Why would you ever trust a Madoff with your money?!'?”
Casey Wilson started out performing a two-woman show with June Diane Raphael at UCB New York, and would go on to star in Saturday Night Live and Happy Endings. Once while she was at the L.A. theater, “I remember Besser grabbing me for five seconds and saying, 'Listen, we're doing this show about drugs and we need you as a plant in the audience as someone who has tried whip-it[s]. You then freak out and pass out.' So I'm thinking out how to play the scene. Do I play it nonchalant? I became so committed to it, I forgot to pass out. Then I asked myself, 'Did I pass out?' Here I am using my acting talents at 1 a.m.”
In addition to performing her solo effort God Hates Figs and other shows, Emily Maya Mills is UCB Franklin's former theater manager. She was present during many of the times when Robin Williams would drop by and join an improv group. She played his child in one scene: “He was a frenetic fireball, and it was like getting on a train that was very much his train. In the scene, I got on my knees with my scene partner to establish that we were the kids to Robin's father. Robin took us by the hand and led us around onstage and we entered a hospital, at which point Robin yelled to the nurse, 'Dear God, help me! These people lost their legs!'”
Quite often the two ruling sketch groups, the Birthday Boys and A Kiss From Daddy, would team up for a combined show, culminating with a final sketch starring both teams. Tim Kalpakis of the Birthday Boys, who got their own IFC show, recalls a story about the late Harris Wittels, a member of Daddy and a writer for Parks and Recreation. “We had this Hollywood stage duck that we used in a sketch as a hard-ass drill sergeant. The final sketch, 'Corn Gibbons,' had a Thanksgiving theme where everyone brings corn to dinner. Mike Hanford of the Birthday Boys enters with the duck in his arms onstage. The next guy to enter was Harris. He always had a calm, confident presence onstage. But in this case, he entered, said his line to Mike, saw the duck, got scared and jolted backstage.”
Paul Rust and Neil Campbell got their own show, Neil and Paul: Growing Up Is Tough, and hosted the Friday night open-mic sketch show Not Too Shabby. Rust, now co-creator and star of Netflix's upcoming Love, remembers, “There was a Daddy sketch where Neil plays a guy who can't sink a golf ball and gets frustrated. The lights go up, Neil comes out and hits the ball in the hole. At that time, our brain went, 'How can we fix this?' And in the next 10 seconds we realize, there's zero way out of this sketch. After a moment of silence, we all went over and shook his hand.” The sketch was promptly retired from the Daddy canon.
UCB New Yorker Nick Kroll's first time on the L.A. stage was as his character Fabrice Fabrice in a satirical show that took the audience behind the scenes of R. Kelly's “Trapped in the Closet” video. Kroll's funniest memory? “A Birthday Boys sketch where two of them were walking through the crowd totally naked, covering their units and bending over. I remember watching them and thinking — it takes such commitment.”
Ben Schwartz, another UCB New Yorker who's best known as Jean-Ralphio from Parks and Rec, recalls coming to the Franklin Avenue locale in May 2008. “Convoy was this amazing, ruling team at Cage Match” — a show pitting two troupes against each other — “having won 55 times in a row. My friend Eric Appel had a two-man improv team, Capisce, and we went up against Convoy. We beat them. It was such a mythical entrance for my first show at the theater. I didn't come back for months.”
Campbell was at one point UCB's L.A. artistic director. A favorite moment for him occurred during The Not Inappropriate Show, which features sketches aimed at the whole family. “I did a character monologue where I play this guy who thinks he's really evil, and who overestimates how scary he is. He would say, 'You know what my favorite holiday is? Halloween! Do you know what my favorite meal is? Bugs!' Well, during the second show, the kids yelled back at me, screaming, 'You're not scary! You're not scary!' When I asked them, 'Do you know what my favorite book is?' One of them yelled back, Twilight!' I looked offstage to the others on my sketch team, and it was as though the show went off the rails.”
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