The Legend And Legacy Of The Upright Citizens Brigade

How one small NYC improv theatre holds the largest impact on today’s comedy world.

By Josh Tuper

The Upright Citizens Brigade sounds like a group of superheroes like The Justice League, or The Avengers, or some other nerdy reference. But with founding members such as Amy Poehler, Ian Roberts, Matt Walsh, and Matt Besser, comedy fans near and far would definitely view them as such. The Upright Citizens Brigade is, at the core, an improv and sketch comedy group and theatre. But really it’s so much more, including an inspiration for most of what we laugh at on TV and movies today.

In the 1980’s and 90’s, Chicago was the place to be for improvisational comedy. Several of today’s humor greats got their start there at theaters and training centers such as Second City and ImprovOlympic. Some of these names include Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert, and the list could go on and on. One group of future comedic bigwigs named The Upright Citizens Brigade were performing around Chicago since 1990 and had other great members including Neil Flynn (Scrubs, whatever ABC show he’s on now), Horatio Sanz (SNL) and Adam McKay (Funny Or Die, director of Anchorman and other awesome movies, Will Ferrell’s BFF). Then, in 1996, the founding fathers (and mother) Poehler, Roberts, Walsh, and Besser (known as the UCB 4) took a gamble at the time, and headed for New York City.

With New York what it is today regarding comedy, it’s hard to think that it was a risk for them to relocate there. But at the time, besides Saturday Night Live being the king, there wasn’t much New York sketch or improv. But, this all changed when UCB hit the streets and their brand of funny was welcomed with open arms.  More alternative styles of comedy were becoming quite big and the UCB gang was no different. It was almost a punk rock style of comedy, very underground, and the big apple ate it up. The crew did shows all over the city until they opened the first Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre on W . 22nd Street in Chelsea, a former strip club. Besides doing several shows a week, they were also able to offer improv training classes, becoming a staple for UCB’s legacy. In 1998, the original four developed a sketch comedy show for Comedy Central airing for three seasons, appropriately titled, Upright Citizens Brigade. In 2003, the theatre moved a few blocks to it’s permanent home on W. 26th street, and opened a new training center where they hold improv and sketch classes almost every day all year. Also, they have since opened a theatre and training center in Los Angeles, and most recently a brand new second New York theatre called UCB East.

So why does this matter to you? Well, if you like comedy than the impact this theatre and group has had is tremendous. If you search the original members, you’ll find they have all had countless appearances in great TV shows and movies. Not to mention Amy Poehler’s incredible career that flourished since, including SNL and the wonderful Parks and Recreation. The list of actors and comedians whose beginnings were with UCB is magnificent. It includes, Aziz Ansari (Parks and Rec, Human Giant), Donald Glover (Community, your girlfriend’s new favorite rapper), Aubrey Plaza (Parks and Rec), Paul Scheer (The League, NTSF:SD:SUV), Nick Kroll (The League), Rob Huebel (Children’s Hospital), Ben Schwartz (Parks and Rec), Adam Pally (Happy Endings), Rob Riggle (That Hangover, The Daily Show), about half the current cast of SNL, and oh so many more that my general laziness prevents me to type. Not to mention countless amount of writers on some of the best TV shows on the air.

Needless to say, the history and legacy that The Upright Citizens Brigade has is exponentially amazing. It’s the hot spot for comedy whether you just want to watch, or if you want to train and learn. I highly suggest checking out a show if you are ever in the New York City or Los Angeles area. They’re very cheap (usually about five dollars, sometimes free) and beyond worth it as your entire body will hurt from laughing. Plus, you’ll never know what recognizable people you’ll catch performing. I also highly recommend the classes if you want to make a career out of being funny, whether writing or performing. Finally, I swear they are not paying me to write this. Although I will accept any payment or reward from those in charge.

For more information on shows or classes in either NY or LA, check out http://www.ucbtheatre.com/.

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