If you have been to a show at UCB, then you already have a pretty good sense of what The UCB Show, currently the flagship original offering of NBC’s new all-comedy streaming service, Seeso, is going to be. There will be sketches, standup, and characters (no improv – “we used only well-proven material,” says Seeso), all veering toward the experimental side; there will be a significant number of bad wigs. Some performers – Andy Daly, Scott Aukerman – will already be famous. Others won’t be, yet, but might be soon. Despite having no fixed ensemble and no narrative, The UCB Show follows an exceedingly consistent structure – recorded onstage at UCB Sunset in LA, each episode has five bits per episode, introduced by Amy Poehler, Matt Besser, Matt Walsh, and Ian Roberts, from various posts around the theater (“working” at the coffee bar, selling merch, peeking out from the sound booth) – with a remarkably unified voice. The show values absurdity, playfulness, and experimentation. Making sense isn’t necessarily a top priority, as long as there’s something approaching internal logic. In the grand tradition of sketch shows, some pieces work better than others. It is a comedy mezze platter: a little bit of everything, your favorites may vary.
According to executive producer Bart Coleman, the show is essentially a serialized, streaming version of “The Black DVD” – the recording the theater uses to “showcase talent for entertainment industry execs” – and the feeling that you’re watching a talent showcase never quite goes away. This isn’t a bad thing: there aren’t a lot of other ways to get a curated overview of the up-and-coming comedy landscape from your living room, and not everyone into comedy lives in New York or LA (or Chicago or Toronto or any number of other cities with vibrant comedy scenes). There is also the deep satisfaction that comes from seeing someone do something great (or even not that great) before they’re famous and then smugly citing the time you saw them for the rest of their sparkling career, which you will follow with irrational loyalty.
Considered this way – as a showcase – The UCB Show is a delightful grab bag of comedic stuff. Among the highlights so far: standup from Alice Wetterlund, Noël Wells and Echo Kellum as deranged (and highly acrobatic) American Apparel employees, Andy Daly in character as “Chip Gardner, Candidate for the Honorary Mayor of Hollywood,” and Eugene Cordero and Rene Gube as “The Balikbayan 8,” a traditional Filipino dance troupe that happens to be missing the other six of its members, who are currently stuck in traffic.
It’s when you try to look at it as standard TV that the show falters. “The goal,” Coleman says, “is to create a live UCB experience for viewers to feel like they’re in the audience.” And indeed, it does a very good job of replicating the trappings of that experience. The show captures the physical surroundings of the black box theater; the camera regularly zooms in on our surrogates in the actual live audience. The complication, though, is that the core of “the UCB experience” can’t easily be captured on film. Seeing the UCB experience, it turns out, isn’t the same as feeling it. Unlike television, live performance, and particularly the high-energy, low-budget kind that UCB is known for, is at heart a communal event: it depends on the chemistry between the audience and the performers. Whether a bit succeeds or fails – and part of the thrill of live performance is how thin and tenuous that line can be – we’re all in it together. Streaming, on the other hand, is live comedy’s opposite. You watch when you feel like it, possibly alone, without even the old-timey broadcast television assurance that everyone around you, in their separate houses, is tuning in, too.
Which is all to say that being at a UCB show is immediately fun in a way that watching The UCB Show is not, a phenomenon only emphasized by the presence of the show’s intensely reactive live audience. They’re part of something; we’re not. And the fact that we haven’t bought in with our presence sets the show’s bar even higher, as Karen Brill notes at Indiewire. Having invested essentially nothing, there’s “no compelling reason, except for quality of content, not to instantaneously abandon ship for something funnier,” she observes. But being uniformly hilarious is a tall order – most sketch shows aren’t. One of the ways that shows seem to get around this is by offering us something else to invest in, in addition to jokes: a plot, a fixed ensemble. Part of the joy of watching SNL, for example, is getting to see the same cast configure and reconfigure in endless combinations, like comic Duplos. By design, though, The UCB Show doesn’t offer those kinds of attachments. Aside from recurring interstitials from the UCB 4, it’s a revolving door of talent. And so, to weather the inevitable ups and downs of sketch comedy, it helps if you’re already at least somewhat invested in the idea of UCB.
But if The UCB Show is a show for comedy nerds, people who care about whether and why a sketch works with near-academic intensity, well, isn’t that one of the advantages of living in this, the platinum age of Peak TV? Watching what essentially amounts to well-produced video recordings of new, live comedy bits isn’t for everyone, but it also doesn’t need to be.