Since news broke of the Upright Citizens Brigade’s last remaining New York theater closing its doors for good, many have taken to Twitter to ponder how it will be remembered. Over the last decade, UCB was best known to mainstream New York City audiences for its flagship weekend show ASSSSCAT 3000 where, if you showed up on the right night, you could see legendary improvisers like theater co-founder Amy Poehler. At times the theater was also best known as a place that drew criticism for not paying performers.
What’s often forgotten is that UCB was also a place where lesser-known performers could try out wonderfully weird and risky ideas in front of a wildly enthusiastic and supportive audience. In my short time as an active student and performer at UCB, I was thrilled to see big-name performers at the annual Del Close Marathon, but many of the best sketches I saw were totally bizarre, experimental, and written and performed by people the mainstream comedy world had never heard of.
Now that UCB’s New York stages are no more, it’s sad to think that there will be fewer spaces where this kind of creativity can percolate. But at the very least, we can remember and celebrate these under-the-radar gems and the laughs they offered. It would be impossible to list each and every hilarious bit that made UCB in New York so magical. So here are 20 of the funniest UCB shows, sketches, and characters you’ve probably never heard of.
Brand New Day (2011)
From the moment the lights go up on two long lines of performers dressed in matching khakis, side-stepping and snapping to the beat of Sting’s “Brand New Day,” it’s clear that the actors and writers of UCB house sketch team Fambly are committing to the bit. Instead of performing a typical monthly show, during which house teams would normally showcase a variety of loosely connected sketches, Fambly dedicates the next 37 minutes to relentlessly arguing that “Brand New Day” is a musical masterpiece.
The show is full of deranged gems, like a CNN political newsroom where the news has been canceled so a panel can discuss the merits of the hit song (3:24); an audition for a Sting-only a capella group, “No Stings Attached,” where everyone is trying (and failing) to nail the harmonica solo; and a man-on-the-street video of Arthur Meyer asking people in Union Square to listen to “Brand New Day” and react. Spoiler alert: Everyone loves it. And honestly, if you watch this show, you will too.
“New Car” (2013)
This isn’t so much a sketch as it is a short horror film performed live. Tim Martin plays a dad who is totally stoked about his new car, but his family isn’t quite on board. The actors sit in silence for over a minute before anyone speaks, and the rising tension is as creepy as it is hilarious. This is the kind of sketch that forces you to keep watching, and answers its own questions with more questions. Even the ending is a bizarrely funny inversion of what you’d normally expect to see.
“Same Clothes” (2014)
Natasha Rothwell’s best-known performance during her time on the UCB stage may be the sketch from UCB house team 212 where she’s a traumatized flight attendant delivering safety instructions. But equally brilliant is this diamond in the rough. Rothwell arrives at a meeting wearing the same clothes she wore last night and immediately launches into a tailspin monologue explaining away every possible thing her colleagues might be thinking.
“Girl in Choir” (2014)
As far as bits go, changing the words to a pop song — in this case Alicia Keys’s “Girl on Fire” — can feel overly simple. And as for characters, a choir teacher who announces his choir picks via song might also sound too broad for laughs. But good God is this premise delightful in Michael Hartney’s hands. Hartney bounces from delivering shining good news to heart-stomping rejection with the light-footed glee of a breakdancing butterfly. His beatbox breakdown at 2:45 destroys me every time. It’s one of the silliest, most satisfying sketches to ever grace the UCB stage.
“I’m Like a Bird” (2014)
Much like “Girl in Choir,” this sketch is nothing but retooled song lyrics. Except in this case, the setting is even simpler, which truly ups the stupidity, and for that matter, the joy factor. This time Hartney is joined by Dan Chamberlain for a duet where they riff on real bird facts, finally answering the question every pop fan wonders: “What if pop songs were way way way more literal?”
“Jock and Brock” (2015)
Some of the funniest and weirdest sketches at UCB were produced and performed by community members who formed their own indie sketch teams. One indie favorite is Girls With Brown Hair’s Through the Back Door, a children’s show for grown-ups filled with raunchy puns that prove women in comedy can be just as gross and horny as dudes. This musical number has a pleasing pivot. Just when we think this young man’s secret is that he’s gay for his best friend, he delivers a ballad about incest.
“The Leaning Susan” (2015)
When house sketch team Bellevue decided to write an entirely new episode of Seinfeld, they didn’t miss a beat. Especially Cathryn Mudon, whose striking Elaine impression is hauntingly good. Part of what makes the show so hilarious is Bellevue’s choice to skew the plot just weird enough that it doesn’t play as a spec script. George’s dead fiancée Susan has returned from beyond the grave, and the whole gang responds with their usual antics, but twisted. Bellevue went on to perform improvised episodes of Seinfeld at the theater later in 2015. The improvised episodes aren’t online, but this flawless original remains.
“The Middle Passage” (2015)
Astronomy Club was UCB’s first all-black improv team, and in 2015 they went on to create a hilarious black history–themed sketch show. In the opening sketch, they throw us straight into the bowels of a slave ship, where a chained Jerah Milligan does everything he can to woo Keisha Zollar (also chained) before gasping his last breaths. You may recognize this sketch from 2018, when, prior to getting their own Netflix show, Astronomy Club created a Comedy Central digital series. It is one of the darkest bits of humor you’ll ever watch, and it’s hilarious. (Note: This footage is from a performance at UCB Franklin in L.A., but this show originated on the UCBNY stages.)
Amazing Earth (2016)
This show from musical comedy group Pop Roulette is an irreverent roundup of all the ridiculous things humans do set to an intergalactic backdrop and, of course, song. Highlights include “I’m a Metrosexual,” a song about coming out as someone who likes gay things but isn’t gay, and “Big and Beautiful,” a body-positive ballad for women who are sizes 6 through 10 and a warning to skinny women everywhere.
“Just Maintain” (2016)
OSFUG is an indie sketch known for delivering fast-paced, short sketches that deliver a one-two punch like “Coffee Ballet.” In “Just Maintain,” Becky Chicoine and Sudi Green play workout instructors who encourage students to do nothing but the bare minimum. The way the performers embody this sketch is a wonderful example of how dumb fun physical comedy at UCB could get. You can see OSFUG’s entire “Best Of” playlist here.
“Late Secret Santa” (2016)
This sketch featuring Glo Tavarez as an office manager out for blood is an absolute treat. The first passive-aggressive greeting between office manager Carol and happy-go-lucky Brenda shows that even a name can be a punchline. What follows is a masterpiece of escalating tension and a catharsis for anyone who’s ever lived through the hell of a delinquent Secret Santa. If you want more Glo, check out this fantastic sketch where she calmly explains to her freaked-out friends that she’s fat.
“Angel, Devil, Todd” (2016)
This sketch explores the old trope of the little angel and devil on our shoulders and reveals a third element: Todd! A guy who’s not quite good, not quite bad, and has very very tempting ideas. From the moment Jay Malsky, who plays Todd, squeals, “Let’s order Thai!” you know you’re in for a fun little ride.
“Rice Rap” (2017)
In 2016, Azn Pop, a spoof of girl-pop groups, put on a hilarious half-hour sketch show at UCB. The show lives on today at various other comedy venues around the city, but the original songs performed on the UCB stage remain some of their funniest. In “Rice Rap,” a super silly song about, you guessed it, rice, everyone is having a great time until Angel Yau interrupts to remind us of the Rape of Nanking.
“Charades But Wrong” (2017)
If you love game nights with friends, this sketch is for you. If you hate game nights, this sketch is also for you! Tim Dunn steals the scene as a person who is terrible at charades but incredible at memorizing and performing complicated iconic dance choreography. The only thing more enjoyable than watching him perform these moves for his baffled friends is watching him break them down so he can furiously explain why his moves made perfect sense.
“Toasted Corn Muffin” (2017)
This gem also stars Tim Dunn, this time as an inexplicably nervous waiter. When a woman places an order for a toasted corn muffin, Dunn goes into overdrive to make sure he doesn’t screw it up. I can’t tell if this sketch works because it’s about the absurd theater of being waited on or because it points to the reality that all requests start to seem insane when you’re working in the service industry. But I can tell you that it is unequivocally one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. Watching Dunn punctuate every single line of dialogue with reassuring words that always come out scrambled or poorly timed is like watching an elephant nail a series of triple axels.
Power Hour (2017)
One of the absolute strangest and funniest shows to Spank and get a run at UCB was Kelley Quinn and Amanda Giobbi’s half hour of music videos. (For those outside of UCB, a Spank is a one-off performance that was often required before getting a run at the theater.) Power Hour opens with a sexy dance about not being able to take your too-hot sandwich out of a toaster oven. But the crown jewel of this show is the final dance number, which starts at the 23:28 mark, a cautionary queer love story about what happens when two women order “one black coffee” at the exact same moment.
“Gateway Black Friend” (2018)
Part of what makes this sketch so brilliant is that from the jump it roasts UCB for being, like much of mainstream comedy, a largely white institution. Performer Tessa Claire Hersh is a spokesperson advertising the “services” of a black friend who will make you blacker, but not so black that you’ll lose any of your whiteness. The escalating options for black and brown friends are a perfect takedown of colorism and the realities of what it’s like to be tokenized in predominantly white spaces.
“Kids Birthday Princess Has an Accident” (2019)
Natasha Vaynblat absolutely kills as this character. Literally. She’s a costumed performer at a child’s birthday party who has just had a very scary car accident. She’s committed to smiling through it, until she realizes one little girl is missing from the birthday party. The darkly funny final reveal of who she actually hit, and Vaynblat’s celebratory reaction, are pure gold.
“First Female President of the United States” (2020)
Characters Welcome is a corner of UCB that has flourished in recent years, thanks in no small part to performers like Sarah Smallwood Parsons, who consistently delivers memorable characters like Natasha Lyonne, Your Fairy Fucking Godmother. In this recent performance, the joke is on all of us because we’re not getting a female president until the year 3025 — and even then, it’s only because all of the men have mysteriously disappeared! Parsons assures her nation that “We’re working to figure it out, kind of.” The highlight of the monologue, however, is a pause for a moving tribute to “the good ones.”
“Gang Member Loves Astrology” (2020)
Plenty of people think astrology is a joke. But these days, for every skeptic there is someone out there who is deeply obsessed with their birth chart. Corin Wells portrays a stone-cold gangster who is ready for revenge, but keeps getting sucked in by her rival’s astrological chart. As the monologue progresses, Wells jumps from love languages to Myers-Briggs tests, simultaneously roasting and celebrating our obsession with knowing ourselves. Wells also delivers one of the creepiest monologues you’ve ever seen as a twin who brings her sister’s head to prom.