[10 October 2007]
Before Matt Besser, Amy Poehler, Ian Roberts, and Matt Walsh started popping up all over the comedy scene, including stints on Saturday Night Live, The Daily Show with John Stewart, Reno 911, Arrested Development, and other television-comedy touchstones, they had their own weird little sketch show that ran for three short seasons Comedy Central. Upright Citizens Brigade (or UCB to the initiated) claimed to be about a quartet of extra-government individuals seeking to create chaos in ordinary situations. In reality, it was a series of loosely associated sketches with outlandish but hilarious premises.
Students of improvisational comedy will recognize the structure of a Upright Citizens Brigade episode as a “Harold”. A Harold is the name given to the general architecture of a certain kind of long-form improv show, where some characters or situations established early in the set are called back until they all finally converge at the end, building upon previous jokes for a big payoff. (A Harold is a trademark of Chicago’s Improv Olympic.)
Not affected by the limitations of a live improv performance, the Upright Citizens Brigade series pushes the structure of a Harold to its very limits. This includes using episodes early in the show’s run to plant the seeds for jokes that don’t appear until much later on. In the first season, there are sly references to a performance act called the Titté Brothers starting in the first episode. There was a shot of a Titté Brothers poster, a quick radio plug, or a mention by one of the characters. These build, connecting all the characters in the Upright Citizens Brigade universe, continued until the season’s final episode when the act is revealed to be something so utterly disgusting, it’s better not to describe it in print. The second season does something similar with “Supercool”, a drug that is mentioned throughout the season and is later revealed to be not dissimilar to a pixie stick. In both these instances, the comedy is heightened not only through the bizarre details of what is revealed but by calling to mind all the jokes surrounding every previous reference.
Even without using all the callbacks as points of comedic references, the Upright Citizens Brigade sketches are funny enough to stand on their own. Only the Upright Citizens Brigade could have dreamt up the “Little Donny Foundation,” a charity for a little boy that is trying to live a normal live despite having an “enormous penis of which he’s unaware.” (The episode’s “We Are the World”-style fundraising single is sidesplitting.) The second season opens with a spot-on Searching for Bobby Fischer parody with Matt Besser channeling an amazing Ben Kingsley, only set in the world of competitive dialect coaching. The winning dialect at the end-of-show’s big competition is…Martian.
Even material that didn’t make it into the show such as an in-character appearance on Comic Cabana included within the second season’s sparse bonus features is much stronger than your typical DVD extra. In it, the quartet describes the “future of comedy”, such as spit-takes that conserve water (sure to be a precious resource in the future) and prat-falls that can break through the ADD attention spans of those used to “MTV’s Three through Nine”.
It’s no wonder, then, that the Upright Citizens Brigade has inspired a lasting legacy, at least in New York, where it’s become the improv troupe that launched a thousand other improv troupes. Tons of aspiring comedians each year flock to the live Upright Citizens Brigade theater in New York City, presumably to take classes and learn the structure of a good sketch and how to pull off a Harold. (The theater has launched the careers of people like Best Week Ever‘s Paul Scheer and 30 Rock‘s genius Jack MacBrayer.) Hopefully, these students will pick up more from the Upright Citizens Brigade than their comedy techniques, including their tight executions, unfettered imaginations, and flair for the absurd. Then we can feel secure in the prospects for the next generation of comedy.