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Upright Citizens Brigade Spins Chaos Into Comedy

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

What’s this, another sketch comedy show on Comedy Central?

From the cable network that has brought you “Kids in the Hall,” “The Vacant Lot,” “Limboland,” “Whose Line Is It, Anyway?” (the British version) and reruns from countless seasons of “Saturday Night Live” comes “Upright Citizens Brigade,” a four-person comedy troupe from Chicago that has been given an enviable time slot--10:30 p.m. Wednesdays following the breakout hit “South Park.”

But don’t let the pairing fool you--”Upright Citizens Brigade” has grander comedic ambitions than its crass but funny cartoon lead-in.

There’s something darkly ingenuous, in fact, going on here, and it’s not just the “bucket of truth” that appears in the pilot episode, reducing anyone who peers inside it to emotional Jell-O. For unlike most sketch shows, “Upright Citizens Brigade” doesn’t live bit-to-bit but builds over the course of its half hour in ever-more-bizarre increments, a combination of HBO’s inspired “Mr. Show” and a “Twilight Zone” rerun.

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In the pilot episode, for instance, a Realtor is showing a house to a yuppie couple and their daughter; soon, the husband has disappeared into the “hot chicks” room, the daughter has wandered next door and befriended the Unabomber and the increasingly frantic wife, despite warnings, is on the verge of looking into that bucket of truth over there by the window.

What connects these three ideas? The Upright Citizens Brigade, a clandestine group of social engineers who, in the words of troupe member Amy Poehler, “cause chaos, because out of that comes something more interesting than contentment.”

In other words, they mess with ordinary people’s lives in slightly sinister ways and then observe the fallout from a remote location.

Putting a comedy troupe on television doesn’t exactly amount to bold new programming (L.A.’s Groundlings enter the field Sept. 7 when “Instant Comedy With the Groundlings” debuts at 10 p.m. on FX).

But “UCB” can’t simply be compared to sketch-show cousins “Saturday Night Live” and “Mad TV.” That’s because their show is a filmed version of a long-form improv approach known as the “Harold,” in which a comedic idea is introduced and dragged through a series of seemingly unrelated sketches.

“Doing a sketch comedy show that just lives and dies by how funny each sketch is is ultimately unnecessary, I think, because there’s such a glut of them,” says Kent Alterman, the Comedy Central vice president of programming who brought “UCB” to the network’s attention. “This show is a good reflection of their sensibility, which is unyielding and darkly comic.”

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The UCB--which includes Poehler, Matt Besser, Matt Walsh and Ian Roberts--formed in 1990, having met in Chicago as students of Del Close at ImprovOlympic (two former members are now a part of “Saturday Night Live”: Adam McKay, an “SNL” writer, and Horatio Sanz, named last week as a new cast member).

In live shows under the various titles of “Virtual Reality,” “Conferences on the Future of Happiness” and “Saigon Suicide Squad,” UCB quickly gained a reputation in Chicago and later New York as an out-there theater troupe stretching sketch comedy into performance art. Troupe members would plant themselves in the audience as incensed theater critics or drunken racists and disrupt their own shows.

Self-styled public pranks were also a specialty. During the Major League Baseball strike of 1994, the troupe invented a sport, Thunderball, and then fooled “Today” show personality Al Roker into interviewing a real-live Thunderball “fan.”

That sort of guerrilla comedy is best experienced live, when you’re not sure how things are going to develop. Besser is well aware of the difficulties in translating live improv into television. The pilot, he says, was originally shot before a studio audience, “but it was awkward pausing for [people] to laugh.”

Instead, “Upright Citizens Brigade” episodes are shot on film, with no laugh track--a creative compromise, Besser says, with which the troupe can live.

“When you watch most sketch shows, you’re watching from the front, like an audience member. But [on film] it’s like you’re really peeking in on all sides of the show.”

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For now, Besser and his three compatriots are simply happy that they’ve stuck together for seven years and arrived intact on television. That’s no small feat--just ask the Groundlings or Chicago’s Second City, de facto farm systems for “Mad TV” and “SNL.”

“People get recruited from sketch groups and put on ‘Mad TV’ and ‘SNL,’ but those aren’t ensembles, they’re all-star teams,” Besser says. “Through the years we’ve been offered things but turned it down because we wanted to stay together.”

Their fate and their comedy have something in common: Where they go from here is anybody’s guess.

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* “Upright Citizens Brigade” premieres at 10:30 tonight on Comedy Central.

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