The improv masters talk comedy, their new book, and listening up.
In the early 1990s, the Upright Citizens Brigade improv group began performing at improv theaters in Chicago. In 1996, UCB members Matt Besser, Amy Poehler, Ian Roberts, and Matt Walsh moved to New York and brought their long-form improvisation structure, known as the "Harold," to the stage, and began offering a series of classes. In 1999, the UCB Theatre opened, and in 2006, they opened the first nationally accredited improv and sketch comedy school, The UCB Training Center. Since then, they've become wildly successful comedians and their school and stage have launched the careers of many of your favorite comedians today. This summer, they announced the arrival of The Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Improvisation Manual during the Del Close Marathon in NYC. We got to chat with two of the founders about their new book, the rules of improv, and what comes next.
What was the main motivation for writing the manual?
Matt Walsh: We’re proud that at the UCB we’ve created tangible tools and a course of action to approaching improvisation. Many of us have taken acting classes or various arts classes where you are indulged and told that you’re good. They make you feel good, but when you leave, you don’t necessarily feel like you have a plan of attack or you have tools to take with you as you further your career. We’re very proud of that, and we wanted to implement it in a book that kind of encompasses our entire philosophy and our approach. Also, since the school is accredited, we wanted a complement to that with a text book.
Matt Besser: It started out as an oral history, which turned out to not be as interesting as we thought. Then it became a textbook when we realized there are a lot of missing concepts - or concepts that needed to be labeled and discussed because improv has always been passed down in kind of an oral tradition from one teacher to the next, and never really has there been an all-encompassing text. We needed to come up with words for certain concepts that never had labels before.
What were some of the concepts that didn’t have names that you put into the manual?
Besser: For instance, when we’re doing the opening to a long-form, the purpose is to generate ideas that will eventually start scenes. But not everything generated is an idea, and we didn’t really have words for what that was. There are some things that aren’t quite an idea, but yet they point in the direction of maybe a full idea, so we called those “half ideas.” And then there’s some things that aren’t really ideas at all, and they just shouldn’t be focused on. We call that “chaff”—just like in the harvest, you’ve got your wheat that you can actually use, and then you have the rest—that’s chaff.
What do you think is the hardest concept to grasp when learning improv?
Besser: The hardest and easiest concept is listening. It took me two years to really listen, to get why and what is meant by listening. It’s so much easier if I just listen to that other person and take what’s funny between us and build that together rather than almost treating it like dueling banjos up here. Understanding listening is an epiphany moment for every improviser. At least for me it was. I’d been involved with stand-up before improv, so I already thought highly of myself as being a funny person. I never thought I wasn’t funny. If anything, I was judging the other person, thinking, “How come they’re not keeping up with me being funny?” And then this one day it just hit me, “Oh I’m so in my own head, and so in my own ego, and I’m not listening to the other guy and I’m treating this more like a Ping-Pong match.” Then I realized that wasn’t how it was supposed to be.
How would you describe the culture at the UCB - meaning the people who stand in line forever at UCB's long-running show ASSSSCAT 3000, as well as students and performers?
Walsh: I guess if I had to stereotype our audience I would say they’re younger and poor-ish, because we have many street shows during the week where you can show up and there’s regular performers on Saturday Night Live or stand-up comedians who’ve been on Fallon, Ferguson, or Conan. As far as the culture of the performers, how would I generalize that? I guess they’re sort of, I don’t know, slightly nerdy about comedy. They’re eager and sincere about becoming better performers and comedians, and they realize that repeated exposure to a live audience is a great way to get your chops and become a better performer. I think that’s why people are eager to get on a team, or wait in a long line to see a performance. There’s value not only because the audiences are generally pretty hip and accepting for new ideas or styles, but also because there’s a real wealth of talent that, for whatever reason, has been attracted to the theater on both coasts. It’s kind of exciting to get on stage with people who are funnier than you are, that inspire you, and challenge you. So, I think that’s why people stick around.
What are some real-life situations or problems that you’ve used improv to get through?
Besser: Ha! Well, I will say this: I know for a fact that however you want to put it, there are muscles in your brain that improv develops, and I just know I am a better listener than your average person. I don’t know if I can think of a problem it’s gotten me out of, but I do know those muscles, even despite my pot smoking, have a better short-term memory and recall than most other people’s brain muscles.
Walsh: Ha! You mean like beating a speeding ticket or something? Real-life situations… I wish I could say I improvised my wedding vows or something but I didn’t. I don’t know, I guess the simple answer is that in the interviews, when we do interviews, or when I do interviews, I think improv helps me answer questions better. I think in the audition room it helped me especially when they encouraged me to read from the page and take it a little further. I think it’s helped me in comedic auditions and maybe public speaking too. I can address questions from the audience and if I think of something that’s related to what I was intending to speak about, I can jump off and serve up something new.
Why should a regular guy take improv or care to learn it?
Besser: It makes you work with people better, just in general. And I don’t mean like work like at a job—just interact with people better. I keep going back to the same word “listening,” but it really is just that. For example, go to a cocktail party and there’s certain people there and you walk right into it and you’re like, “That guy was really annoying,” or “He might’ve been really smart but just came off so one way or another that he doesn’t get how annoying he’s being.” In improv, you’re faced with those problems you have—learning how to react to people quickly in social situations and learning how to generally work well with others.
Who are some new comedians you’re excited about?
Besser: The most honest answer would be the ones that I invite on my show, improv4humans, and the ones that I haven’t known for a while. Two that come to mind would be Lauren Lapkus and Betsy Sodaro. Those are two ladies I only recently started improvising with, and they do a great job on the show.
Walsh: There’s a rising pack of similar generation kids. I would call them kids because I’m old, but they are doing really well and consistently hitting it out of the park. People like Adam Pally, Aubrey Plaza, Ellie Kemper, and Bobby Moynihan. There’s also a bunch of writers like Charlie Sanders and Colton Dunn who happen to write on the Key & Peele show.
Where do you see the UCB in the next five years? Do you see there being more expansion or just continue doing what works?
Besser: It’s come to the point where we’ll need a second theater in L.A., so we’ll have that. And it’s come to the point where we’ll need a common school space in L.A., which New York has, but we’ve never had. And one of the great things happening in the comedy world right now is the ability to make your own stuff. So we’re going to have our own production space and just start making our own shows rather than just pitching them. It just seems like a natural thing for us to do.
Walsh: My guess is we’ll probably do a second draft of our book, just to respond to what people might want. I’d also like to see us produce some of the talent that comes out of our theater. There are so many people that come out of our theater that go on to have sketch shows or become successful stand-ups. I’d love to see us launch them very early in their career before they are discovered.
All of the original founders are busy with different projects. How often do you get to spend time at the theaters either in New York City or in L.A.?
Walsh: In Los Angeles, Besser and I do ASSSSCAT at least once a weekend. And then every year during the Del Close Marathon, the four of us get together and do four or five shows together. And that’s pretty much it. Amy’s obviously bi-coastal and takes her time off when she’s not filming her show. And Ian’s a film writer and a head writer on a TV show, so he’s completely swamped most of the time.
Why do you think improv is so popular?
Walsh: I think it’s a good place to start in theater and it’s an accessible art form for people who are curious about performing. Plus, it’s not as intimidating as performing Shakespeare or Arthur Miller plays because you can use your own words and your own experience, which everyone has. It’s a real baby step, and that’s probably why it’s exploded. And I think it’s quite a social art too. Improv is a tremendously friendly and accepting community, and I think the people you know starting in college maintained friendships throughout their lives because of their improv groups.
What’s your favorite thing to teach students?
Walsh: Get out of your head. Just get off the wall, don’t over-think it, and just get in there.
The Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Improvisation Manual is now available.