Looking Back at The Upright Citizens Brigade

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The Upright Citizens Brigade began around 1990 as a live sketch group at the ImprovOlympic (now iO) Theater in Chicago. The iO was founded by improv legend Del Close, who mentored the group and provided the voiceover narration on their Comedy Central show’s title sequence. Although almost all modern sketch comedy is indebted to Close and the Chicago improv scene, UCB bares the closest connection to the long form improv tradition. Many of their episodes (especially the early ones) are more or less modified Harolds, the canonical long form improv structure developed by Close. On a very basic level the Harold consists of three different scenarios that play out in three improvised scenes each, with the last set of scenes frequently being intertwined together. The show’s first episode, with its Bucket of Truth, Bong Boy and Unabomber sketches that all come together at the end fits the structure almost exactly.

This is the first sketch show since SCTV to have an overarching narrative to it. As the opening narrative explains the Upright Citizens Brigade is a underground organization determined to cause chaos in the world. “From the dawn of civilization, they have existed in order to undermine it. Our only enemy is the status quo. Our only friend is chaos. They have no government ties and unlimited resources. If something goes wrong, we are the cause. Every corner of the earth is under their surveillance. If you do it, we see it. Always. We believe the powerful should be made less powerful. We have heard the voice of society, begging us to destabilize it.”

In practical terms, this means the UCB is secretly responsible for instigating many of the ridiculous situations the show features, but it also hints at the show’s prankster mentality. Before the group was on TV they were famous for staging pranks and stunts in public, similar to what Improv Everywhere does today, but with a decidedly darker tone (like staging a public suicide). These types of real life pranks were featured in the show, but typically only under the credits or in short clips. However, even though the TV show featured less pranks than the group’s stage incarnation, the prank mentality is still readily apparent. Almost all sketch groups make use of the straight man for comedic effect, but UCB employs it more than most, helping to establish a scripted prank vibe to many of their segments, like this one about poo sticks.

This isn’t the only time the poo sticks show up. By UCB’s third season the show had developed quite a detailed world of products and characters, all of which were frequently referenced and call backed. The show manages to dodge many of the pitfalls of reoccurring characters that other sketch shows suffer from by avoiding catch phrases and allowing their characters some room to breathe. It only makes sense that sleazy creator of “Power Marketing” Duke Thompson would own one of the Pro Thunderball teams, but knowing the “Power Marketing” sketch isn’t necessary for him to be hilarious in the other sketch, nor does he have a single tic or phrase he repeats ad nauseam. Sure he’s one dimensional, but he’s not in your face about it, unlike Stuart from MADtv, for example.

As the show progressed, they began to move away from the prankish sketches and focus more on extended bits revolving these aspects of the UCB universe, such as the drug Supercool, which appears to be nothing more than Pixie Stix, or Pro Thunderball, the sport that’s baseball, but with murder. Although many of their episodes revolved around themes like medicine or sex, the later episodes with the singular focus on something like Pro Thunderball demonstrates a new phase of the show that made it unlike any other sketch show on air. Sadly, the show was cancelled at the end of its third season, so it’s hard to predict if they would have done more shows focused on just one topic. It’s a shame, as they were innovating new common ground between sketch and anthology shows.

Ridiculously, the show’s third season is not available on DVD, but the UCB’s legacy lives on in the two theaters the group set up in New York and Los Angeles. The UCB theaters have become hotbeds of young comedic talent and one of the top places in the country for improv and comedy training. The cast (Matt Besser, Amy Poehler, Ian Roberts and Matt Walsh) has each gone on to comedy careers of their own, most notably Poehler. Hopefully, the third season will be released on DVD with the first and second, but until that day, my supply of Supercool will keep me happy.

Carleton Atwater lives in Boston. He also writes about beer at Beeriety.com.