New York Times No. 1 bestseller “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking” profiles a comedy team called Mother, one of many teams today creating long form improv — a style in which the actors make up, on the spot, a string of scenes that run “as smoothly as if the actors had rehearsed for days.”
Entertainment execs have begun to understand the power of thinking without thinking — zeroing in on Mother’s home base, the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in Gotham. It’s a fertile breeding ground for comic talent.
- Last fall, the theater inked a first-look deal with NBC, giving the net rights to acts performed at the theater.
- Bravo just filmed a special version of “ASSSSCAT,” the theater’s Sunday night improv show, which the troupe hopes will become a series.
- This season, Rob Riggle joined the cast of “Saturday Night Live,” becoming the first UCB alum to reach the holy grail of comedy (Amy Poehler, another “SNL” cast member, co-founded the UCB Theater but trained in Chicago).
The comedy troupe of Poehler, Ian Roberts, Matt Walsh and Matt Besser established the UCB Theater in 1999, naming it after their Comedy Central sketch show of the same name.
The Second City and Groundlings troupes are known for performing scripted sketches. By contrast, the UCB Theater stages 25 shows a week — such as sketch shows, solos and film presentations — but specializes in long form, a style that the original foursome brought to New York after learning it at the ImprovOlympic Theater in Chicago.
In long form, teams of eight or so members take a single suggestion from the audience — a word, perhaps — and then use it as inspiration for a string of interconnected scenes that they make up on the spot. After a scene hits its peak or appears to be sputtering, an actor will walk in front of the action to signal the end of the scene and beginning of a new one, or will take the place of another actor in the scene by tapping him on the shoulder.
The comedy is heightened when characters recur and evolve, and when the dialogue refers back to previous scenes.
UCB’s classes have introduced long form to thousands, the best of whom have joined improv teams, found agents and jumped to the big and small screen.
Scot Armstrong, a member of Mother, penned pics “Starsky & Hutch” and “Old School.”
Ed Helms and Rob Corddry of “The Daily Show” are UCB alums. Lauren Corrao, Comedy Central’s senior VP of original programming, says 30 to 40 people involved with the net’s shows hail from UCB.
“Late Night With Conan O’Brien” regularly casts UCB-ers in sketches.
“We have in some regards become a casting agency,” says Anthony King, the theater’s artistic director, who regularly fields calls from casting directors looking to fill roles.
Cable has helped the improv ethos trickle into popular culture, with semi-improvised shows such as “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “Da Ali G Show.”
But even the networks might be catching on, especially now that the traditional sitcom seems to be declining.
“Arrested Development” has a quick, improv-like quality. UCB’s Walsh is starring in a semi-improvised NBC pilot from “Ali G” exec producer Dan Mazer that features fake newscasters interacting with real people.Overall, UCB hopes to capitalize on this trend.Says King, of improv, “It’s been on the fringe and it’s starting to come to the forefront. I think it’s only going to get bigger.”