Training ground, launchpad, nexus, philosophy and maybe a little bit of a cult, the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater recently brought its Del Close Marathon, for the first time, to Los Angeles.
Named for the man who taught theater founders Amy Poehler, Matt Besser, Matt Walsh and Ian Roberts the art of improvisation — and which the UCB teaches in turn — the event had been staged in New York for the last 20 years. Over the weekend it occupied the group’s two L.A. locations: the compact original on a busy stretch of Franklin Avenue and a bigger complex on Sunset Boulevard. For 55 hours, a bounty of “long-form” improvisational comedy came to life from not quite nothing, based on a word, a text message or something that once happened to an audience member.
There were stars on the docket, names or anyway faces you would know if you spent much time watching television, including D’Arcy Carden, Manny Jacinto and Eugene Cordero from “The Good Place,” Rachel Bloom of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” Neil Flynn from “The Middle,” plus Rob Corddry, Clea DuVall, Rob Huebel, Dave Koechner, Thomas Middleditch, Paul F. Tompkins and Tim Meadows. But there were dozens whose fame was more local. Some may one day become widely familiar — the UCB has long been seen as a step to bigger if not better things. But what mattered there and then was the here and now.
Fifty-five hours of anything is bound to produce higher and lower points. You can see quickly who’s good at it, who’s better at it, who plays well with others, whose thinking has an interesting sideways slant. It’s comedy speed-dating.
I dipped in to this stream three times. At the Sunset location, I saw three Friday night shows: “Goat: Improv With Celebrities,” which featured no celebrities but did include a personal web favorite, Glenn Boozan; “Last Day of School: The Text Message Show”; and a reunion of the New York team Mother, whose members include Jason Mantzoukas and Jon Daly. The improv ran all night long there.
I returned early Sunday morning for a sampling. And that night I took in one of the three “Asssscat” performances — the UCB signature set, and brilliantly done — featuring founders Besser, Walsh and Roberts alongside two different sets of improvisers. (Though advertised, Poehler was in New York, ironically.)
The evening shows were sold out, and there was what seemed to me a pretty good crowd for 7 a.m. on a Sunday. Audiences were young and evidently dedicated: When Besser asked a Sunday night audience who was at the theater for the first time, only a hand or two went up.
Most of the early-hour sets ran 10 minutes — the least of them had the advantage of not overstaying their welcome. Each that I saw pushed a concept: In “FitBit Show” the performers, to get their steps in, were constantly in motion; it was notable, as one might guess, for its energy than its subtlety. “Classic Space Work With Classical Music” was all pantomime, sometimes hard to read but not uninteresting. “Hosts Takes! Does the Rant for 10 Minute” (“No scenes, no debates, just opinions”) was a sort of round-robin stand-up performance, in which Rachel Van Nes took the most intriguing contrary angles; “All Press Conferences” took the form of, yes, a press conference, with most of the cast seated in the audience, throwing out questions.
Some performers leaned forward, others laid back. The old pros, by dint of having breathed this air for so long (and literally written the book on it, “Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Improvisation Manual”) were superbly comfortable and conversational. The better players never seemed lost for a thought but ambled easily from one idea to another, and the best of them were funny when they didn’t seem to be doing much at all. Logical objections to impossible situations also consistently provided laughs. In the Mother set, Mantzoukas got big laughs with a simple “I don’t think that’s true” lobbed in from the corner.
Improv has often been styled as a game, a sport, though a sport that is all cooperation, as if basketball players passed the ball not so much to score but to make cool patterns on the court. But it is also jazz, and a little like magic: Give us a word and we’ll turn it into half an hour of comedy.
A performance can seem to progress like a dream, or an adventure game in which the choices are infinite. A security alarm (in the “Text Message” show) becomes a bird becomes a grandparent who has been trained to work as a (birdlike) alarm. An improvised hymn, “Jesus’ Name Is Jesus,” early on in the “Assscat” first set, later inspires a scene supposedly cut from “Rocketman,” the Elton John biopic.
Though it may not be obvious — and shouldn’t be obvious — there is a structure to these performances, a learned practice, a sort of internal armature that gives direction and cohesiveness and a grounding in reality, even if that reality involves a wormhole between the Yukon and an Applebee’s restaurant (in Friday’s Mother show) where the gazpacho is hot and the chili is cold. At the “Asssscat” show, Besser set a scene: “You’re students at a mutant high school.” That produced Roberts’ wonderful invention, a kid whose superpower was that he could shrink from 6-foot-2 to 6 feet tall. (It was simple but hilarious in the execution.)
Other scenarios seemed to set themselves, sometimes from just a look or a shrug or a player (Tara Copeland of Mother) saying that she used cottage cheese instead of ricotta in the lasagna. (Before long, we were on to a story of poisoning.) Mantzoukas throwing a chair — four wooden chairs are the theater’s only props — is what opened up that Yukon wormhole, which in turn led to Daly creating a character named Wormhole Wally, and some low sex jokes. (The humor could go low. Much of the second half of the “Asssscat” show proceeded from Mary Holland’s early claim of uncontrollable flatulence — which is not to say it lacked sophistication.)
Failing (and recovery) was a feature, not a bug, of the system. There were scenes that seemed to reach a natural ending but were carried along on some performer’s desire to keep the rally going. Sometimes audience applause appeared to let the actors know when they’d got to the finish. (The shorter shows all ended with a blackout when their time was up.) A good exit line that managed to put the proceedings in perspective was as satisfying as a stuck landing in gymnastics, but it was not the goal. Whatever was happening, as it happened, that was the point.