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An Oral History of UCB Theater Partying and ‘Awkward Sexuality’

Upright Citizens Brigade
UCB Theater co-founders Matt Walsh, Matt Besser, Ian Roberts and Amy Poehler outside the original 22nd location Photo: Upright Citizens Brigade

When the members of the Upright Citizens Brigade — Amy Poehler, Matt Besser, Ian Roberts, and Matt Walsh – moved from Chicago to New York in 1996, they had one goal in mind: getting their own TV show. “We were just a sketch group,” Besser remembers. “The idea of starting a theater and a school — that was very far from our minds.” Over the next few years, though, the UCB Four would not only land their own cable series, they’d also become the unlikely instigators of a new wave of comedy. Within months of arriving in New York, they were teaching improv classes and putting on daring, cheaply priced live shows like “ASSSSCAT 3000,” which often featured drop-ins by old Chicago friends now working on SNL or Late Night With Conan O’Brien.

Over the years, their students — who included Rob Corddry, Ed Helms, Aubrey Plaza, Paul Scheer, and Nick Kroll — would all be schooled in UCB’s highly collaborative performance method, yielding a comedic sensibility that was grounded in realism, yet amplified by absurdity. And for many of its young students, UCB was also like a funnier, drunker version of high school, full of make-out sessions, breakups, and the occasional ecstasy experiment. In this exclusive excerpt from the new oral history High-Status Characters: How the Upright Citizens Brigade Stormed a City, Started a Scene, and Changed Comedy Forever — which is available now for smartphones and tablets through Barnes & Noble’s Nook app (and is an expansion of a 2011 New York magazine story) — Brian Raftery chronicles the extended UCB family’s party-hearty heyday, starting at the theater’s unofficial hangout: Peter McManus Café, a Chelsea-area bar that, on any given night, was filled with cops, firefighters, and improvisers.

HORATIO SANZ (Saturday Night Live): No one really had a big enough apartment in New York to have a party, so everyone at UCB adopted the local bar, which is McManus. We tried other bars, but they weren’t very nice to us.

AMY POEHLER: There was something about McManus — the green placemats, the bright lights – that reminded us of places in Chicago. We drank there every night after shows, because when you do an improv show, you get kind of wired, and you want to go and talk about it with the people you perform with. But those times all blend into one big, long 48-hour McManus night.

JESSICA ST. CLAIR (Best Friends Forever, Veep): Nobody had babies, and no one had to drive home, so we’d all stay there and act like assholes.

JAKE FOGELNEST (podcast host, The Fogelnest Files): We made that place millions of dollars.

ROB CORDDRY (Childrens Hospital): I met my wife through one of my friends who improvised, and she was like, “This is a completely foreign world to me.” Her friends called McManus get-togethers “funny-people parties.” They hated going to funny-people parties.

JULIE KLAUSNER (podcast host, How Was Your Week?; Vulture contributor): You’re asking about my twenties, which is a Venn diagram of bad decisions and decisions made at McManus. Which were generally the same thing. So you’d have all of the disappointing hook-ups and everything that goes with them.

JACKIE CLARKE (writer, Happy Endings): I don’t think I can talk about my favorite McManus memory, because it involves someone having cum on their pants, and no one would care about it but five people. But it was fun to see under-attractive improvisers making out in the booth next to you.

ED HELMS (The Office): A comedy community is comprised of a lot of people who have not thrived in conventional social circles. And that just makes for a giant pool of awkward sexuality.

ANDY RICHTER (Conan): I can tell you, having been in other improv groups, everybody does end up sleeping with everybody. You’re just kinda churning in this broth, and it just kinda happens. It’s part of the “openness” [of improv]: You’re not there because you like to follow rules and deny yourself; you’re there because you say: “I don’t really fit in out there. I don’t really see myself sitting in a cubicle. I’m gonna take some risks and I’m gonna take some chances.” That doesn’t keep your pants on, you know? That’s thinking that goes along with getting fucked up and getting laid.

PAUL SCHEER (The League): There were a lot of couples at UCB, but there was a real sense of fear in it. You didn’t want to shit where you eat, and there was a lot of secrecy about who was dating who. If you were dating someone, you’d be like “Okay, see you tomorrow,” when you left the group. But you’d arrange to meet around the block so no one knew.

JAMIE DENBO (Ronna & Beverly): Offstage, I was not half the rock star I felt like I was onstage. I was not into the indie-music scene, so I automatically didn’t fit in with three-quarters of the people at the theater. I was a semi-educated musical-theater nerd who came from working at Disney World. So while I could make shit happen onstage, people would ask me out on a date and go, “Wow. She likes Alanis Morissette. I’m not interested.”

NICK KROLL (The League): There are people you have crushes on because they’re physically attractive, and there are people you just have comedy crushes on, and they’re constantly intersecting. I had comedy crushes on men and women at that theater. And I think it’s fair to say that everyone who meets Amy has a crush on her.

KATE SPENCER (VH1 writer-producer): People are so dynamic when they perform. It’s such a high-status thing, and it’s easy to get sucked into crushing on people. There were people you’d watch onstage and think, “I am in love with them.” And then later, you’re like, “Ugh. No.”

CHARLIE TODD (founder, Improv Everywhere): I remember joining UCB and thinking, “Oh, this will be a cool way to meet people, and maybe meet some girls.” And I show up on day one of class, and it was thirteen dudes and two girls.

LENNON PARHAM (Best Friends Forever): Any time there was a real pretty girl, all the guys were like, “Who’s that? She’s an improv girl and she’s beautiful!” We were like, “Thanks a lot! What are we, chopped liver?”

CASEY WILSON (Happy Endings): Right off the bat, my first instinct after arriving at UCB was, “Look at all these guys who are comedy-hot.” I felt like I was in comedy-hot heaven.

TARA COPELAND (The Dictator): That’s the way it is: You can be a fugly dude who’s hilarious, and hot women want to sleep with you, but being funny as a woman does not make people want to sleep with you. And that always felt very unfair.

Though the UCB originally started teaching at a former strip club on W. 22nd Street, it was later forced to relocate to a (relatively) more pristine space on 26th Street, right underneath a Gristedes supermarket. In addition to hosting classes and shows, both theaters occasionally served as impromptu party pads.

BILLY MERRITT (Newsreaders): We were all experimenting. At the West 22nd Street theater, there was always — what’s the gas? Nitrous? — there was a nitrous room, a keg room, and a weed room.

MATT WALSH: The keg room was the “Hot Chicks Room.” The weed room was probably the basement — people would go down there to get high. I don’t think we ever had a dedicated nitrous room.

MATT BESSER: The great thing was, we didn’t have a heroin room.

ERIC APPEL (director, Happy Endings): I had a key to the 26th Street theater, because I did tech for shows. So we’d be drinking at a bar at three o’clock in the morning, and be like, “Hey, let’s go over to UCB and unlock the theater and have a dance party,” and 30 people would come over from the bar. You’d unlock the theater, put on a bunch of party lights, play a bunch of music, and drink.

CHARLIE TODD: We used to have a lot of Saturday Night Live after-parties there.

SETH MORRIS (Go On): One night, Creed had been the musical guest, and everybody was annoyed they were there. At a certain point, people were looking over, and Creed is onstage with their shirts off, rocking out, playing air-guitar to “Sweet Home Alabama,” not knowing at all that people did not think they were fucking cool. And they killed the keg. Just trashy.

ADAM PALLY (Happy Endings): I went to a big-time party school. But to comedy nerds — people who’d spent a lot of their time rolling dice in a basement — UCB was the craziest thing they’d ever seen.

BRETT GELMAN (Go On): I remember one New Year’s party where we were all on Ecstasy.

CURTIS GWINN (producer, The Walking Dead): Improvisers are guys who didn’t get enough sex earlier in life. So when they’re on Ecstasy, they become very sexual — a gross pile of flannel and cargo shorts.

ANDY RICHTER: People don’t take improv classes just to get onstage and be funny; it’s to get fucked up with funny people. You gotta have openness in your schedule — the kind that keeps you from having a real job or a real life — and all this openness is going to keep you open to things like, “Drink this. Smoke this. Try this pill.” It can be destructive for some people. But for a lot of others, it’s just really, really fun.

AUBREY PLAZA (Parks and Recreation): They used to do drunken [shows] on St. Patrick’s Day, where they hand-picked two teams to perform. They don’t do it anymore, I think because it got kind of dangerous. But I was picked one year. The only rule was that you had to be legally drunk to perform onstage, and you had to blow into a breathalyzer.

I was on a team with Ellie Kemper, and we all pre-gamed. At some point during our pre-gaming, we went from “We have to be legally drunk” to “We will be the drunkest.” I can’t say I remember much from that show. It became a crazy performance-art piece, where there were no scenes. It was just drunk people walking around a stage, interacting with one another and the audience. At one point, I was screaming at the mic stand, though there was no mic there. And I’m pretty sure Ellie and I made out onstage. I kind of wish I had been in the audience for that show.

AMY POEHLER: To this day, UCB is part high school, part rehab, part training camp, part substitute family, part junior college for life. And you have to figure out how to manage this high school without anybody blowing it up.

An Oral History of UCB Theater Partying