Life & Art Film Critic
The Upright Citizens Brigade doesn’t care if you think they’re funny. They have enough fans to keep their theater open every night in New York, and enough to give their canceled Comedy Central series cult hit status. The first season of their self-titled show is now out on DVD, and it’s worth picking up for fans of unique, cutting edge improv humor.
The UCB is a comedy troupe along the lines of Monty Python, Kids in the Hall, or Second City. They have their own theater in lower Manhattan, where various performers do improv comedy seven nights a week. The UCB features four members – Matt Besser, Amy Poehler, Ian Roberts, and Matt Walsh.
They’ve made themselves famous around New York City by pulling various pranks in the streets, such as sending obscene characters to try get interviewed by Al Roker on “The Today Show” and preaching Satanism in city parks.
Poehler’s now a “Saturday Night Live” cast member, where of course she’s become less funny, and Walsh was a correspondent for “The Daily Show” for a while. But they’ve all stayed together as the UCB, a group with writing and ideas so unconventional in style that they’re bound to alienate as many viewers as they delight.
The DVD has 10 episodes and some bonus features, the best of which is a commentary of the “Time Machine” episode done by the UCB with a live audience at their theater. They hang around afterwards to do a Q&A session that gives away more of what they’re really like than any interview could.
The episodes employ an improv technique called “The Harold,” in which several sketches converge at the end of a show into one big finale. The theater performances are likely more outlandish, since their show had to have some mainstream appeal. But even with Comedy Central’s quality lineup of original and inventive shows, “Upright Citizens Brigade” is probably still the weirdest one they’ve ever had, and also one of the brightest.
The shows can’t really be summarized into a certain style or genre. It’s easier to just list some of their ideas. One episode features a child who can’t say anything except, “Shut up,” which his parents try to accept but always end up responding to with violence.
Then there’s Little Donnie, a boy who has a blurred-out horse-sized penis, but doesn’t know it. His teacher calmly explains how the other children were afraid of him and so he gets to be in his own class (the other class at school now has 60 kids in it).
Finally, there’s the lazy Jewish guy who thinks that God told him he can do anything through a hole in a sheet, including smoking, eating pork, celebrating Christmas, eating bread during Passover, and committing murder.
These ideas are great ones, and the four members of the UCB are all definitely funny, but the show falls flat at certain points. Maybe this is just a problem with the first season, which would be expected from a group used to doing live productions. Some of the episodes on the DVD are hilarious, while others have some slow parts.
But they’ve all got enough laughs to make them worth watching, and it’s easy to see why the UCB theater has become so popular with the offbeat New York crowd, especially with $5 tickets on weeknights. Now if only Poehler could save SNL.
Shawn Wines can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.