The sketch-comedy troupe Upright Citizens Brigade formed in Chicago in 1990. After several years of performing in various venues there, it moved to New York to pursue bigger and better things. Over the past several years, the UCB has developed a nationwide reputation as witty, irreverent, and conceptually ambitious, a reputation it helped solidify with an enormously well-received performance at this year's Aspen Comedy Festival. Its hotly anticipated TV show recently made its debut on Comedy Central, where it follows South Park. The Onion recently spoke with each member of the group—Matt Besser, Matt Walsh, Ian Roberts, and Amy Poehler—about following the most popular show on basic cable, their storied past, and the future of the Upright Citizens Brigade.
The Onion: How did the Upright Citizens Brigade form?
Matt Besser: We've been together since '90 or '91, and we all met in Chicago, where we put on this show called Virtual Reality. In the show, the premise was that the Upright Citizens Brigade had developed [the show] and the audience members were the first clients to be experimented on. We decided that we wanted to be kind of this underground, all-controlling group, and the Upright Citizens Brigade sounded like a good name. With every show after that, we decided to keep with the premise that this group was in control of our sketch group, and we've kind of expanded on it since then, by making it the group.
O: You all studied at Second City, didn't you?
MB: Mmm… Yeah. That has probably been the least influential part of our training, though. The other three in the group worked there for a while. I didn't; I was doing stand-up at the time. That was more of a place to make money. The place we really learned at was ImprovOlympic theater, with Del Close. He was the guru, really—the guy who brought us together and influenced us, and taught us the stuff.
O: Isn't Del Close the man who created "The Harold" [the style of long-form improv the Upright Citizens Brigade uses in its shows]?
MB: Yes, that's his baby.
O: What exactly attracted you to The Harold?
MB: We'd been improvising the entire time we'd been doing sketches, and for those many years, what we were improvising was The Harold. And it's just the coolest form, as far as long-form improv goes. You know, there's nothing cooler to do than to complete a circle, and that's what The Harold is: You start out with sketches that seem unrelated, and as the show progresses, you find out exactly how they are connected. If it's a really good Harold, it'll end with all three scenes coming together somehow. And being able to write the sketches, it's a little easier to make them connect. What we do is we get tons of material and tons of scenes, and we put them up on a board and see which pieces logically and organically connect with each other. So it's been fun writing that rather than improvising that.
O: Was it difficult determining what sketches from your stage show you were going to use for the television show?
MB: Oh, yeah. That's always hard, because you have people saying, "That scene's really funny," and, "But that scene's funny, too, and it works better." So we do have lots of scenes that we haven't used. We already know what's going to be in the season, and there are still lots of scenes that we think are really good, but that didn't make the season—even really, really good scenes that just didn't seem to fit into the show. But since we hope that our show works as a whole more than as just individual scenes, it doesn't really bum us out that much, and we hope to have at least another season, so those scenes will get in. There is plenty of material, since we've done this so long together.
O: A lot of the articles that are written about your show mention practical jokes you've perpetrated on your audiences. Of all the practical jokes you've done, which is your favorite?
MB: I think there's a better way to put it, because I've read comparisons to Candid Camera-type stuff, and it's really not like that. In those types of shows, you're setting someone up, and they come into your trap, and you say, "Ha ha! You fell into our trap!" With us it's more… It isn't in the first episode as much as it is in later episodes, but we take our premises and put them out in the real world. People don't see the cameras, and we have our characters just be themselves. Sometimes they will try to directly interact with people, and sometimes they're just around them. What we've found is that it's really funny to see what real people's reactions are to either our absurd premises or our absurd characters. And I think that will play out throughout the season. We're trying to have the final 30 seconds of every show devoted to that kind of thing. But we also have a lot of full scenes shot with hidden cameras, where it'll take place in Washington Square or Times Square, or somewhere where people aren't aware that there's a scene going on. I think it's really cool to see what their reactions are. The other day, I came from one scene, and I was this guy who thought he was born of a jackal and a demon, and that Satan was the true master, so I'm on this soapbox preaching that. I got a crowd around me of, like, 30 to 40 people. And there's another character from another scene, and he's a Christian camp counselor who's gotten into such a state that he thinks he's Jesus, and he's martyring the world for his sins. He comes running down the street and he meets me. But in the meantime, all these people were just so outraged at the things we were saying. We've done this several times, but one time we did it, and I had two guys up on this little stage with me, and one guy's saying, "Jesus is number one! Satan can suck my motherfucking dick!" And then the other guy goes, "Here I am! Here I am, Satan! Do something!" These guys were both twice my size, and they're shoving me and pushing me, and I'm giving the signal for Ian, one of the other actors, to come in and cap off the scene. And for some reason, the signal's not going, or our camera's blocked or something. Ian doesn't come, so I'm up there for five minutes with these guys up on the stage with me, literally wanting to fight me, and one of them is just a total psycho, and I was like, "No. This is real." Now, I'm the victim of the joke.
O: Do you ever fear for your life in those sorts of situations?
MB: Yeah, he was shoving me at that point. That was kind of scary. But then Ian shows up and has no idea what's going on, so he pushes the guy even more. Moments like that you just can't do in a studio.
O: Your group has sort of a reputation for elaborate audience-participation bits. Are you at all concerned about not being able to translate that sort of stuff to television?
MB: I don't know, because, like that scene I just told you about, we blocked off 50th & Broadway with, at one point, 50 or 60 people. With just about every scene we've shot outside, at some point or another, we've shot it without people being aware. And I think that is the same sort of thing, but on TV. But we can't get our entire TV audience to follow us down the street, so, yes, that is true.
O: Unless you try really hard.
MB: Yeah, "Go to your windows! I can't take it anymore!" I guess we don't have that element, but we've found another way of fooling people and having them not know exactly what's going on. The TV audience will feel safe, but I think they'll appreciate the circumstances we're in. I think it is like Candid Camera where you can tell, "Oh, this isn't just a scene being shot with a bunch of extras." You can always tell that something is really happening. I think that's kind of exciting.
O: Are there going to be any recurring characters on the show?
MB: Yeah. But we won't recur them because we think they're funny or popular, or anything like that. We have recurred them just because they're organic or they seem to fit the scene. They'll never be the main character of the scene again, I can safely say. It'll be more that they organically fit another character's scene. So if one character was the star in episode one, they'll probably be a minor character that interacts with the star in episode four, or something like that. I think we have five to ten characters that do that throughout the season, and a few premises that recur.
O: Will the bucket of truth [a plot element in the first episode] be a recurring premise?
MB: The bucket of truth will not recur in season one. It's a one-time thing at this point. It will return in season four.
O: Have you encountered a lot of problems with censorship?
MB: Not really. Nothing that we've been too upset about or couldn't get around. It's just weird stuff like, "You can't say asshole, but you can say asswipe." Or, "You can have your heart explode, but the blood can't be red; it needs to be green." Just strange stuff.
O: There aren't any premises that you've had to tone down or anything?
MB: No. We even cut ourselves. Like going, "If people get that wrong, it will be bad." I know we haven't had a whole scene censored from up above. I think it helps that we're following South Park. It's the nasty slot.
O: The entire group teaches improvisation on the side. Do you think comedy is something that can be taught?
MB: Uh, no. Definitely not. But improvisation is something that can be taught. You can't make someone funny, but you can show them the structure within to do it, and how to listen, and how to work with other people better. But some people will take classes forever and not realize that you have to be funny, too. You can't just read all the books.
O: Who were your big influences as far as developing your style?
MB: I would say Monty Python and Kids In The Hall are our favorite sketch groups of all time. I'm a big fan of Andy Kaufman, and I'd also say we're influenced by groups like Devo or The Residents.
O: Those would seem to be groups that share a certain philosophy with you guys.
MB: I like groups like Devo because they're a music group and they are a new-wave group, but they are always more than that. They were Devo, and they had de-evolution, and we're not just a sketch group; we're the Upright Citizens Brigade. You make the group more than just a name. I like that.
O: Are you at all intimidated by the buzz the show is receiving?
MB: I think it's cool. I don't know how people find out about things. I assume people will like it from watching many episodes, not from just watching one episode or reading about it in a newspaper or a magazine. I just assume that it will be from watching it a few times. The first time I watched a Kids In The Hall episode, I thought it sucked. I was like, "These guys are awful." But then they ended up being my favorite group around. I think a lot of people who are coming out of South Park might be big South Park fans, and they'll go, "This isn't like South Park. This sucks!" I think we'll get our audience as the year goes.
The Onion: The first episode aired recently. Was it a relief that it was finally before the public?
Matt Walsh: Yeah, I guess so. We're so busy that we haven't really had a chance to take in who likes it and who doesn't. It was a relief. It was nice to have it finally get on the air. But it was kind of sad that it's coming to a close.
O: Are you excited that you're following the most successful show on basic cable?
MW: Yes. I don't think I've lost sight of that fact.
O: Do you think the two shows are compatible?
MW: I don't know. Define compatible.
O: Shows that would have a similar sort of appeal, that would appeal to the same sort of audience.
MW: I think they're both funny. I don't know that we have the same style as they do. They have their own style, and we do, too, but I think they work well together. I don't know why.
O: Of all the stunts the group has pulled off over the years, which is your favorite?
MW: I think the scariest one for me was when we did the Unabomber bit [a bit in which, before the Unabomber was captured, Matt Besser dressed up like the Unabomber and mailed a parcel at the post office] and I was the driver. There were cops around, and it was a federal building. I don't know if the federal police have a good sense of humor. That was the scariest one for me. But as for the funniest one, we went down to the Today show and Ian got on as Steve Youngblood for this sport Thunderball. That was probably the coolest.
O: What was that?
MW: We have a fictitious sport called Thunderball that combines football, demolition derby, and baseball. It was four years ago, before BASEketball. And Ian went down to the Today show—two Super Bowls ago, when the Packers were playing the Patriots—with a big sign that said, "Patriots love Thunderball." So Al Roker came over and was very friendly, and said, "Hey, where's everybody from?" Everyone was from Green Bay, and Ian had a Patriots sign, so it was like, "Oh, a Patriots fan. Okay. Now, what's this Thunderball?" And Ian just went off: "We got roving dogs on the field, we got women in bikinis, we got a gun circle. There's a gun on the field that you're forbidden to use, but it's still on the field." That was the funniest to me. That was really cool.
O: I was looking at the website, and there is a whole section about the Titte Brothers, who are mentioned in the first show. Who are the Titte Brothers, and we will see them again?
MW: The Titte Brothers are going to be a season-long investment joke. The Titte Brothers are the biggest entertainers in the history of entertainment, so they appear in every episode as a reference. They're pervasive, and then finally, in the last episode, we finally get to see the Titte Brothers do their act. It's exciting.
O: Do you view the first 10 episodes as a cohesive unit?
MW: What's cohesive about them is that they carry out the Upright Citizens Brigade mission. They each have their own theme. One is business, another is children, one involves overly sweet, happy couples. In one, we attack prejudice and racism. But they each have a theme, so in that sense, they're cohesive.
O: In addition to the TV show, you also teach improvisation, do the free show on Sunday, and direct productions featuring your students. That seems like it would take up an enormous amount of energy.
MW: Yeah, we've actually taken kind of a break from it. We took almost two months off of it in the middle of the shooting. We kind of overlapped it so just as we started shooting, the teaching died down. We're going to start back up when filming is almost completely over. It does take a lot of energy. It really does. There's also the question of what's more important right now.
The Onion: The show just recently premiered. Have you received a lot of feedback from people?
Ian Roberts: Yeah, but mostly from friends. But enthusiastic feedback, and reviews which have been about 80 percent positive and about 20 percent negative.
O: In a lot of the articles that have been written about the group, there are semi-mythic stories about the group doing things like getting the audience stoned or leading the audience out into the street and then abandoning them. Are any of these stories not true?
IR: No, they're all true. Sometimes they screw up things. I can't give you specifics, but they'll screw up some detail or something. But in general, we told them it, and it's all true.
O: Of all those stunts, which are you most proud of?
IR: There was this night we did a suicide. One guy in the group made up these flyers with this big, smiling headshot that he hated, so he basically ended up basing the whole thing upon that. He made up these signs that said, "On such and such a date, this man will kill himself. This is not a joke." And we did this show, and then we took everyone out on the street and set up with a guy across from the theater with a sixth-floor apartment, and who was going to throw a dummy off of it. So we took everyone out, and he yelled down from the roof—this was Adam McKay, who used to be in our group—"You want this? You think this is a joke? Man, this is fucking hell, and you came here for entertainment," and then he backed up and threw the dummy off the building. Man, that was just beautiful. That's a high point for all those concerned. I mean, how crazy is it to go to a theater show and see a guy jump off a building?
O: Do you think there are people who were genuinely traumatized by seeing such things?
IR: I don't know if people have been traumatized, but we've had people have real nice idiot reactions. We did one were Matt Besser got onstage as this character, the hapless garden nymph, and he says he'll grant you any wish you want, but when you ask for things, he ignores your wish and all he'll offer you is shrubs and flowers and what have you. So it got to a point where he came to me and I said—because this whole time he had a banana in his pocket—"Give me the banana." And he says, "No, but I can give you this," and I said, "No! C'mon. Give me the banana!" So I'm acting like a bonehead, and I get all the other boneheads in the audience behind me to scream, "Give him the banana! C'mon, you said you could fucking do anything! Give him the fucking banana!" So that didn't traumatize anyone, but sometimes you get nice, angry reactions from people who don't get that it's a bit. That's always nice.
O: That would seem to be the sort of thing that would be really difficult to translate to television.
IR: Yeah, we can't do stuff exactly like that. We do have some pranks, though. You get a little bit of a reaction, but you can't do quite as much; so much of it depends on your whole audience believing it for a second. On television, I'd compare it more to ventriloquism or magic, where people first did it on TV, but then people said, "So what?" But we do that sort of thing on the show. The show usually closes on a prank. They go pretty well, but I think that when you're watching TV, you know that you're watching other people get fooled. It's different. Whereas live, you're a participant; you're also being fooled. This kind of laugh is once removed, whereas before, there's the tension of believing in something for a second and then you laugh. I think you lose a little of the tension.
O: What would you consider to be the ultimate goal of the Upright Citizens Brigade?
IR: I don't know. It's kind of nice just to be doing what we're doing. If we could make a movie that would be true to what we do, that would be nice. But beyond that, I'd just like to do a few more seasons, if we could. Just get a big body of work out there, because I'm really proud of this first season, and I'd be really satisfied if we could pump out a few more as good as that so there would be this bunch of stuff that people would like. Like with Monty Python, people still rent videos of it and catch it in reruns. That, to me, would be great.
O: As a performer, how does the experience of performing live compare to doing the television show?
IR: I feel like doing the television show feels more like a day's work. Well, of course, it is; it's five to ten times as long. It's more like work. When you're on stage, it feels more like play, because to go from beginning to end, you can kind of run on inspiration. You're just getting through and then, boom, you're done. But with this, it's work. You're doing things out of sequence, and there's no stroke from the audience—you know, where every time they laugh, you go, "Oh, there we go!" It's kind of fun; it's like an athletic event. And when you do it here, it's more like work in that the fun really is in the final product. That's where the real satisfaction comes from. By the end of the day, sometimes you hate it. Still, it's the best friggin' job in the world. But it is work.
O: Why film the television show without a live studio audience?
IR: Well, we filmed a pilot with a studio audience, and it just didn't feel right. It just didn't mesh with the concept of the show, which is that the Upright Citizens Brigade is doing surveillance on the world. And if it's surveillance, then why are they pausing, and why are they playing out, and why are they doing all this? It just didn't fit. And plus, it's just not cool. It was distracting. Even with a live studio audience, it felt like a laugh track. It's like you're being told to laugh. It's once removed, again. I mean, if you are actually in the audience, then you're laughing along with everyone, but when you're at home, you're like, "You know what? I'll decide if I want to laugh!" It just feels annoying. So that's why we went that way.
The Onion: You do free shows every Sunday. Do you think you'll ever be too big to do stuff like that?
Amy Poehler: No, I don't think so. The show that we do on Sundays… We've been improvising for eight or nine years, and it's been an incredible tool for our scenes and our shows, because we take ideas and improvise them and write them. The good thing about the show that we do for free is that we just show up and do it. We don't really have to put any time into it. It's really laid-back. We kept it free because we wanted that vibe; we wanted it to be an event rather than something we could make money off of. But we're trying to move into a new space here in New York because our crowds have become too big. We're trying to get our own space and our own theater.
O: The entire group moved from Chicago to New York a couple of years ago. What was behind the move?
AP: We wanted to get our sketch show on TV. In the interim, we wanted to perform our live sketch shows that we had written in Chicago: We had written two, one we had performed on a stage at Second City and another that we had performed around Chicago in the ImprovOlympics. We brought both those shows out to New York, so while we were doing those shows, we were pitching ideas to different networks and stuff. Chicago is an amazing place to perform, and it's incredibly supportive and filled with great stuff, but if you want to get a sketch show on television, you have to move to New York or L.A.
O: What would you say are the main differences between Chicago and New York?
AP: I think the improv community in Chicago is so dense that the audiences are often fellow improvisers, whereas that's not really the case in New York. I also think that in Chicago, shows seem to run a bit longer in the same theaters. In New York, things change a lot quicker. It's easier to find a space in Chicago and to put a show up that isn't all the way done, because there's a little less pressure. But I also found that New York audiences are really enthusiastic: They know what they like, and if they like it, they tell people, and people come again and again.
O: You don't think Chicago audiences are the same way?
AP: Yeah, I think so. But when I was in Chicago, I was dealing with improvisers and sketch people who were my friends for the most part filling up my audiences. In New York, I was in a city filled with pretty much nobody I knew. People weren't coming to see the show because we had done a show together before or something.
O: How do you think the Upright Citizens Brigade has changed over the last eight years?
AP: Eight years ago, there were a few more members that aren't in it now, like Adam McKay, who is the head writer for Saturday Night Live. And Horatio Sanz, who just got on [SNL], and Armando Diaz, who is now an imrov teacher in New York. In that sense it's changed. And I also think that we've gotten really focused over the last couple of years and worked really, really hard, because we were really focused on coming to New York and setting these goals for ourselves. Creatively, I don't know how much has changed. We've had the same kind of tone and style forever. I don't think that has changed much. The shows themselves have maybe taken on different forms, but I don't think it's changed too much creatively, and certainly with the sketch show that we're doing on TV, there's no big change creatively, which is really nice.
O: So there's been no giant shift in tone or anything.
AP: No, not at all. And again, that was really important to us. We've learned from past experiences with friends of ours who have had to work on things that were their own—whether it be sketch or whatever—that when they compromise and change, and things don't work out, they're constantly regretting the fact that they didn't do it their way. They're thinking that if only they had kept it their way, with their voice, maybe it would have worked, but if it didn't, at least they tried. We've seen examples of that not happening and people being really disappointed by it.
O: What do you think is the state of sketch comedy today?
AP: I think it's being revitalized. I don't know. I've never believed that it was dead or anything, I think Mr. Show is a fantastic show. We were all big Monty Python fans, obviously, and Kids In The Hall fans. I loved The Ben Stiller Show when it was on. I've never really felt it's disappeared, but people like to say it has.