The improv comedy world simultaneously celebrated and mourned this week, as Middleditch And Schwartz brought the first-ever longform improv specials to Netflix on the same day that the New York iteration of the Upright Citizens Brigade theater announced they would be shuttering their flagship Hell’s Kitchen performance space as well as their training center. The announcement came after a string of well-documented financial struggles that were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
With the move uptown from Chelsea to Hell’s Kitchen in December of 2017, UCB took a stab at coming out of the underground and trying to integrate its nightly shenanigans into the real New York City Theater-with-a-capital-T community.
“Hell’s Kitchen was an amazing opportunity to perform in a legit theatre on 42nd Street,” remembers Connor Ratliff, a longtime UCB alum who criss-crosses through The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel as a guest star. “Whenever I was doing a show there and it was going really well, I would sometimes think, ‘wow, this is like a $12 show and I bet right now there are people down the street who paid hundreds of dollars to see something that isn’t quite as good as this.'”
But for an organization founded on the principles of DIY ethics and punk rock comedy, the attempts to “legitimize” the space exposed vulnerabilities in the governing structures, most notably the fact that the theater’s performers were not paid and expected to perform — and earn revenue for the theater — for not much more than “the love of the craft.” The move to Hell’s Kitchen also signaled the organization officially biting off more than they could chew, subsequently launching UCB into a state of disarray and financial struggles that resulted in mass layoffs and the ultimate shuttering of the New York venture as a whole.
Much has been said about UCB as a breeding ground for comedy legends, and as one of the last semblances of the counter culture in New York City. With its first theater in the city located underneath a supermarket in a (slightly) remodeled strip club, going to UCB Chelsea really felt like you were part of something special and truly underground, in a city where it feels increasingly difficult to find such a thing. But as the organization continued to expand throughout the city, from Chelsea to the East Village, and ultimately to its own training center in a Midtown Manhattan office building and flagship theater in Hell’s Kitchen, UCB became more than just a hot spot for silly goofs and future celebrities.
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It created a community that made New York City a bit smaller, where most everyone that walked through the doors of the theater or training center was in search of something similar. At the training center, you could see people walking through the halls that you recognized from shows like Broad City, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, or even Stranger Things, and know that the playing field was, in a way, leveled. After all, you were both in the same place, at the same time, for a couple of hours of adult playtime.
“I learned more in my Improv 101 at UCB than I had learned in 5 years of acting training,” notes Ratliff, whose recent projects include the incredible Dead Eyes podcast, which follows Ratliff’s quest to figure out why Tom Hanks fired him from a guest role in 2001’s Band Of Brothers. “There is an image of an improv class being a bunch of people jumping around like idiots, but I learned how to be a more thoughtful performer and a more thoughtful person, generally. One of the best classes I ever had at UCB happened because an improv set went so horrifically off the rails that the teacher talked to us for 45 minutes about why it is important to think about why you’re even on stage as a performer, that you can’t just put pure nihilism onstage just because it’s shocking.”
Perhaps most importantly, however, UCB popularized a form of cognitive behavioral therapy delivered under the guise of comedy training. Students are forced out of their comfort zones and to conquer their social insecurities — if you can make a fool of yourself and make a room of strangers laugh, why not go ahead and voice your opinion in a work meeting, or stop thinking about the stain on your shirt at a party? The comedy in an improv scene doesn’t come from making jokes, but rather from just being a fucking weirdo. Rather than suppress your quirks in an attempt to fit in, UCB encouraged you to embrace your weird and exploit it, and that’s something that can never be forsaken, especially in light of the organizational struggles.
“No matter how you feel about UCB, you can agree that there was a strong community there,” notes Ian Abramson, creator, host, and full multi-character cast of Saturday Night Quarantine, which streams weekly on Twitch. Now, with Saturday Night Live starting to make a remote comeback, Abramson has elected to move his show to Sunday night, as to not compete. “I think that the most positive thing about comedy institutions is the community that they can help organize. [But] an institution owes it to its community to support the people in that community, in whatever way it can. I think the only way that you could ignore the community that you fostered in its time of need is with the philosophy of ‘don’t think.'”
Along with fundraising efforts like Mike Birbiglia’s ‘Tip Your Waitstaff’ livestream series, Saturday Night Quarantine is one of many ways that the community is taking matters into their own hands with these institutions closed or indefinitely on pause. “Creativity will take the shape of whatever it’s inside of,” Abramson explains.
In the case of Saturday Night Quarantine, the sketch show started out as a bit on Twitter, before evolving into a weekly sketch show written and performed, in full, by one person. As it turns out, this type of insanity is what people are flocking to in an attempt to shut out the true insanity awaiting them outside their home. Each week, a few hundred people tune in to watch Abramson perform for an hour. “We’re having a really great time trying to make this happen and I would love to keep doing it in some form or another, until it doesn’t make sense to.”
Despite the closures of all official UCB locations, the organization’s founders Amy Poehler, Matt Besser, Ian Roberts, and Matt Walsh (known as the UCB4) have declared in a lengthy letter to their staff that “UCB is not leaving New York City. The school and the theater will continue on in a pared-down form, which will be very similar to how we operated when we first started in NYC over 20 years ago.” As such, UCB-branded shows will still continue at venues such as SubCulture in Greenwich Village, while classes will be taught “at various locations across the city that we will rent on a per-class basis,” similar to upstart comedy ventures like the Brooklyn Comedy Collective.
Even so, the shuttering of UCB’s New York City theater and training center are a massive blow to the community, one that leaves a gaping hole begging to be filled. But instead of wallowing, let’s raise a glass to Two Trenchcoats In A Kid.