Over the years, entertainment has been one of the driving forces of American culture. Movies, plays, music, television, games, and more have taken the world by storm, so much so that they have become an integral part of our lives. We worship actors and musicians like gods, believing they have some magical talent in them that makes them so perfect. What we tend to forget are the humble beginnings—the moments that gave these icons their skills and inspiration. These moments tend to differ vastly from person to person, but there is, in fact, one training center famed with the creation of and collaboration with such comedy greats as Amy Poehler from Saturday Night Live and Parks and Recreation, Bobby Moynihan and Kate McKinnon, also from SNL, Jack McBrayer, famous for his work on 30 Rock, rapper and comedian Donald Glover, and famous comedian Aziz Ansari. These legends are only the tip of the iceberg concerning the Upright Citizens Brigade’s decorated and long list of affiliates.
The Upright Citizens Brigade, often abbreviated as UCB, is an improvisational and sketch comedy group hailing from Chicago’s famous ImprovOlympic, or iO for short. Improvisational comedy, typically abbreviated as “improv,” is a form of comedy that is entirely created on the spot in sketch format with no script. Improv tends to encompass the topics of comedy, acting, and sketch writing all in one, for one is essentially writing and acting out a sketch from scratch in front of a crowd. The original members of UCB were a wildly talented bunch consisting of Matt Besser, Amy Poehler, Ian Roberts, and several other respected comedians. This group performed sketch after sketch, set after set in Chicago until they eventually relocated to New York City. They continued to perform and even offered improv training at Solo Arts Group, an arts organization based in the group’s newfound location. These lessons became so popular that they created their own theater at 161 West 22nd Street in Chelsea on February 4, 1999. On April 1, 2003, they moved to a new space at 307 West 26th Street. They also perform smaller shows in the East Village at UCB East.
UCB teaches performing and writing from the ground up, from 101 to 104 or higher. They also offer elective classes in skills like character forming to aid in improvisation, and teach their personal form of improvisation: “The Harold.” The format is performed as follows: the audience gives you a word, you tell a story that the word reminded you of, and your group makes several sketches pertaining to that story on the spot. UCB tends to hold many classes per year, and release new classes roughly every week. Their classes run for about eight weeks and contain one class a week. These eight-week classes at UCB always meet on the same day of the week for the entire duration of the course (save for the final day, which consists of an actual performance in front of a crowd). They also offer intensive courses for those who can’t stay in New York for too long that meet every day of the week (except Sunday) for one week. These cost more and don’t offer the best experience for beginners, as there is less time to take everything in. The school also requires you to purchase their manual, which offers many useful tips and lessons to benefit your improvisational techniques. You learn from real comedians with a group of real people that try to help each other grow. It’s no wonder that so many famous comedians came from this humble beginning.
Overall, UCB offers everything an aspiring or seasoned comedian could want whether they’re a sketch writer, strictly improv, or stand-up too. Improv is incredibly important to learn for any comedian, and one’s improv skills are often the driving force that gets them a spot on SNL or even on a talk show. Improv is comedy at its finest, witty and spontaneous. Some people make a career out of it, while others use it for stand-up. Have some wise guy heckling you from the back row? Improv deals with that. Slip up on your delivery? Improv deals with that too. Forget your lines altogether and risk bombing on stage? Improv even deals with that. It’s the quintessential point of comedy and should not be ignored, so why not learn it from the best around? Writers get treatment too, as they get the same levels of courses as improv students do—101, 102, etc. as I’ve mentioned—which allows them to learn what it takes to write sketches that are as funny as something SNL or their favorite comedians would put together. All things considered, it’s no wonder why UCB Theater is regarded as one of the best comedy schools in the nation.