Courtesy of UCBtourCO
Chances are, when you flip on your favorite sitcom or sketch comedy show, the people you’re watching and the people behind the scenes have some kind of formal comedy training. That doesn’t necessarily mean sitting in college lecture halls deconstructing what makes a joke funny. Often, it means an education from any number of comedy troupes around the country.
One of the most famous theaters in this respect is the Upright Citizens Brigade, whose traveling improv artists performed four shows at the Harman Center for the Arts on Friday and Saturday.
UCB gained their fame in the ‘90s when they produced some of their most famous names — Amy Poehler, Matt Walsh, Horatio Sanz, Rob Corddry and Ed Helms are just a few. Since then, they’ve taught a countless amount of people the skills it takes to write and perform comedy. Their theaters put on popular shows that continue to push the limits of comedy, making it both an established name and the definition of cutting edge.
Improv is unpredictable and erratic by definition. A show can be good or bad simply because of an inconvenient audience suggestion. This is what makes the performers such a wonder. The four performers on Saturday were from both UCB theaters in New York City and Los Angeles, but they interacted as if they had been riffing on these topics for years. The four-person squad was made up of Neil Casey, Jonathan Gabrus, Brandon Garner and Fran Gillepsie, but despite the small group, a huge amount of imagination was packed into the short 80-minute show.
The show started with a volunteer from the audience offering up his wallet to the crew in order to search through it for clues to his life. While Casey interviewed the subject, the three others went through the wallet piece by piece. In just a few minutes they were able to put together a few mildly interesting facts about the target (he brews his own beer, has a fiancé who just graduated from law school, loves Xbox, etc.). After a bit of teasing about his various hobbies, they let the volunteer go back to his seat and began the first half of their set.
Using the bits of information they were able to collect, the team presented a rapid-fire showcase of outrageous and absurd situations, some only tangentially related to their subject while others mirrored his answers very closely. We were presented with an ignored husband, bitter about his wife’s disinterest in his brewing blog. There was a restaurant waiter who uses far too many references to “Anna Karenina” in his day-to-day life. And in a nice nod to the D.C. Metrorail, an extended riff on how dangerous it is to get home no matter what transportation you’re taking (“Didn’t you hear the news? Four trains collided this afternoon! I didn’t even know that was possible!”).
After a half-hour taking off from this subject, the troupe broke off into their second half. Asking the audience for a single word to play off of, “penguin” finally won out as the topic for the rest of the show. This was an especially excellent showcase for the group’s talents. Most people would consider an arctic bird a restriction. Instead, the scenes snowballed into more and more outrageous territory. A man whose cultural references are stuck in the ‘90s, according to his many T-shirts, is later brought back in a long-form joke about Eric Clapton’s baby. (Groans from the audience brought out one of the few fourth-wall breaks — Garner incredulously asked, “Too soon?”). Racism against super villains and pranking polar bears became the new norm, causing a relaxed audience to become completely sucked into the free-flowing ideas.
Both parts of the show highlighted all of the small things it takes to make a successful performance. The actors seemed to know exactly when to end each scene, with only a few awkward drops or prolonged silences. The audience lapped it up. The crowd was mostly in their late 20s to late 30s, and even on a snowy night the room was packed. The easy-going nature of the performers put everyone at ease, creating a small space that reflected a lot of warmth for the performers and the fans.
For any comedy fan, these few shows were not your only chance to see the group in action. Plans for monthly shows at the Harman have been established, giving anyone who might be interested in dipping their toes into the daunting world of improv a perfect opportunity to do so.