Upright Citizens Brigade, UCB
The Upright Citizens Brigade, aka UCB, is an improv and sketch comedy group that emerged from Chicago’s ImprovOlympic in 1990. The original incarnation of the group consisted of Matt Besser, Amy Poehler, Ian Roberts, and Matt Walsh, Adam McKay, Rick Roman, Horatio Sanz and Drew Franklin, whose picture is the UCB logo – featured image. Other early members included Neil Flynn, Armando Diaz, and Rich Fulcher.
The Upright Citizens Brigade began performing improv and sketch comedy at Kill the Poet in Chicago. Their first show was called Virtual Reality. The group followed with shows entitled UCBTV, Conference on the Future of Happiness, Thunderball, Bucket of Truth, Big Dirty Hands, The Real Real World, and Punch Your Friend in the Face.
In 1993, the Upright Citizens Brigade (Matt Besser, Ian Roberts, Adam McKay, Rick Roman, and Horatio Sanz) were regular guests on stage at the New Variety produced and hosted by R O’Donnell at the Chicago Improv comedy club, 504 N. Wells.
In 1996, the Upright Citizens Brigade relocated to New York and began performing shows and offering improv training at Solo Arts Group. These shows and classes were so popular that the UCB were able to open their own theater, The Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, at 161 W. 22nd Street in Chelsea on February 4, 1999, in a former nude dance club. On April 1, 2003, they moved to a new space at 307 W. 26th Street. In July 2005, the UCB opened at the Tamarind Theatre in Los Angeles at 5919 Franklin Ave (between Tamarind & North Bronson Ave). The Upright Citizens Brigade have also been a featured performance in the Comedy Tent at the annual Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Manchester, Tennessee, for the past three years.
Notable UCB Alumni
Amy Poehler, Adam McKay, Lennon Parham, Aziz Ansari, Ed Helms, Nick Kroll, Zach Woods, Donald Glover, Bobby Moynihan, Aubrey Plaza, Rob Riggle, Paul Scheer, Ellie Kemper, Horatio Sanz, Adam Pally, Jack McBrayer, Ben Schwartz, Rob Corddry, Kate McKinnon, Jason Mantzoukas, Kay Cannon, Rob Huebel, Chris Gethard, Seth Morris, Andrew Daly.
UCB Television Series
The group formed a television series dedicated to their sketch comedy on Comedy Central that aired for three seasons from 1998 to 2000. Each season contained 10 episodes, which included sketches inspired by their live shows and new material. Each episode was centered around a theme, to be tied together in some way by the end. The progression of each episode essentially followed an improv format known as the Harold, which was invented by Del Close, improv teacher and mentor to the UCB (who also contributed the voiceover in the show’s opening title sequence). Additionally, episodes in each season would make reference to a fictitious element within the show’s world and would culminate in a season finale that would focus exclusively on this element. The show avoided overused staples of sketch shows, and rarely used pop culture parodies or celebrity impersonations (with some notable exceptions: the Unabomber, Albert Einstein, Harry Truman, and Jesus).
The four main actors rarely appeared as themselves. They each took various roles throughout the sketches, which were linked by segments featuring Adair (Besser), Colby (Poehler), Antoine (Roberts), and Trotter (Walsh), the Upright Citizens Brigade.
The show centered on a group called ‘The Upright Citizens Brigade’, an underground organization “with no government ties and unlimited resources” dedicated to creating and monitoring chaos from their secure underground base. The sketches depict chaotic or bizarre events in the world, events which are shown to be often directly engineered by the UCB.
Another defining feature of the show was a series of real-world pranks, which tied in with the show’s theme. Usually run at the end of each episode, these hidden-camera pranks featured the cast (as either the central UCB characters or other characters from that day’s episode) interacting with strangers. These segments featured such concepts as attempts by UCB cast to buy the fictitious drug “supercool” (which resembled pixie sticks) from real drug dealers in shady dance clubs, a UCB mother trying to convince a real store clerk to let her put up flyers advertising “baby fights,” Roberts dressed as Santa Claus standing outside a department store offering free samples of his “Santa Liqueur”, and the UCB at a sidewalk stand attempting to sell “poo-sticks” (sticks with dog feces on one end) as defensive weapons to passersby.
In the Season 2 finale, the DEA invaded the UCB lair as part of a raid to find a Supercool smuggling ring. As a result, in the third and final season, the UCB had set up operation in a bakery delivery truck. The UCB characters also had less of a presence in the episodes, appearing frequently in cut scenes.
The show was not renewed by Comedy Central after the third season. Its players have since moved on to other projects while still performing in various combinations at their weekly improvised show, ASSSSCAT, which can be seen once on Saturday and Sunday nights in Los Angeles, and twice on Sunday nights in New York. In Los Angeles, the Sunday night show is free, as is the second show in New York. One of the show’s running jokes involves cast members explaining that “it’s free to get in, but you have to pay to leave.” A version of the show’s Bucket of Truth is passed around and donations are taken. Both Poehler and Sanz went on to perform on Saturday Night Live. Comedy Central released a DVD containing the episodes of the first season in 2003. The Season 2 DVD was released on September 18, 2007 in the United States. In the fall of 2005, Bravo showed a one-hour special of ASSSSCAT Improv with guest stars like Rachel Dratch, Tina Fey, and Andy Richter. Then in March 2007, a performance of ASSSSCAT was recorded at the LA Theatre with all four original members and also Chad Carter, Sean Conroy, Andrew Daly, Horatio Sanz, as well as guest monologists Will Arnett, Ed Helms, Jen Kirkman, Thomas Lennon, Paul F. Tompkins and Kate Walsh. This was released on DVD in March 2008 and features the full ASSSSCAT show and some bonus clips and interviews.
The show’s motto was “Don’t think.”
The show opened with this narration, voiced by improv legend and UCB guru Del Close: “From the dawn of civilization, they have existed in order to undermine it. Our only enemy is the status quo. Our only friend is chaos. They have no government ties and unlimited resources. If something goes wrong, we are the cause. Every corner of the earth is under their surveillance. If you do it, we see it. Always. We believe the powerful should be made less powerful. We have heard the voice of society, begging us to destabilize it. Antoine. Colby. Trotter. Adair. We are the Upright Citizens Brigade.”
The Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Improvisation Manual
In 2013, Besser, Roberts and Walsh wrote The Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Improvisation Manual.
The Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Improvisation Manual is a comprehensive guide to the UCB style of long form comedy improvisation. Written by UCB founding members Matt Besser, Ian Roberts, and Matt Walsh, the manual covers everything from the basics of two person scene work (with a heavy emphasis on finding “the game” of the scene), to the complexities of working within an ensemble to perform long form structures, such as “The Harold” and “The Movie”. A practical “how to” book, the guide provides exercises throughout to help the reader master each new concept and technique introduced. While the manual is written to be understood by beginners with no previous exposure to improvisational comedy, experienced improvisors will find it to be an excellent resource for honing their skills, clarifying concepts, and generally taking their work to a higher level.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre?
The Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre is a 152-seat theatre in New York City that provides a performance home for hundreds of comedians.
The Upright Citizens Brigade (Matt Besser, Amy Poehler, Ian Roberts, and Matt Walsh) came to New York, from Chicago, in 1996. Noticing an absence of “Chicago-style” long form improv in the city, the four members of the UCB soon began their training program in 1997. The UCBT quickly became the place for great, cutting-edge, comedy. Casting directors, agents, festival producers, and journalists all began to flock to the theater to see the best comic talent in the city. And as buzz for the theater grew, the training program expanded even more with hundreds of students learning the art of improvised theater. Our theater at 307 West 26th Street continues to offer the best and most innovative improv, sketch, and stand-up comedy in the city every day of the week. In addition to our performance space, UCBT is home to an intensive Improv Guerilla Training Center where students learn the art of improvisational and written comedy. In 2005, the UCB Theatre LA opened to make the UCB Theatre the only bi-coastal sketch, improv, and comedy theatre in the country.
What is longform improvisation?
Longform improvisation was pioneered by Del Close in Chicago at the Improv Olympic and was brought to New York City by the Upright Citizens Brigade. In longform improvisation, performers create an entire show consisting of interconnected scenes, characters, and ideas completely made-up on the spot with no pre-planning or pre-writing.
Can I perform improv at the UCBT?
Yes! Our improv performers are all trained by the UCBT Longform Improvisation Training Center. Every level of class includes at least one performance on the UCBT stage. Upon completion of a Level 400 class, students are eligible to audition for a place on one of our performance teams that perform on Harold Night. Class completion does not guarantee placement on a team, and auditions are held as-needed (approximately 2-3 times per year).
I don’t want to take classes! Can I perform improv at UCBT anyway?
No. We do not typically produce improv shows created by improvisers who were not trained by our training center in the UCB-style of longform improvisation. We also do not place improvisers on house teams who were not trained by us.
Can I perform sketch at the UCBT?
Yes! The UCBT also offers classes in sketch writing. Upon completion of a Sketch 201 class, you are eligible to be part of one of our writing and performance teams that create shows for Maude Night. We also offer many performance opportunities open to all sketch writers/performers. Liquid Courage (Friday nights at midnight) is open to anyone who would like to perform sketch. School Night (Wednesday nights at 11:00pm) is a variety show that often books sketch groups. At UCBEast we have B.Y.O.T. every Sunday at 10pm. If you are interested in performing at either of these shows, you should attend the show and talk to the host about performing at a later date.
I don’t want to take class! Can my sketch group perform at UCBT?
It’s a really good idea to take a class because you’ll learn the UCBT style and approach to sketch comedy. However, if you or your sketch group has a completed show you’d like to have considered for a run at the UCB Theatre, you should apply for a slot at SPANK (see below).
Can I perform stand-up at the UCBT?
Yes! We offer a few performance opportunities for stand-up comedians. At UCBT East we have open-mic’s on Thursday Night. Check the schedule for more information.
How do I apply for SPANK?
A Spank is our way of auditioning written shows for potential runs at the theatre. Each Spank show is 25-30 Minutes (It is not allowed to exceed 30 Minutes).
For More information on how this works, email SpanksUCBNY@ucbcomedy.com
Upright Citizens Brigade Locations and Contact Information
5919 Franklin Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90028
5419 W Sunset Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90027
307 W. 26th St.
New York, NY 10001
NY EAST VILLAGE
153 East 3rd St.
New York, NY 10009