The Upright Citizens Brigade theater at 26th & 8th is no 30 Rock. It's a simple and functional theater, a step up from a black box, 150 seats on three sides of an open rectangle of floor that serves as the stage. It's not what one would call a glamorous address — it's downstairs from a Gristede's and around the corner from a taco joint — and sometimes when it rains, brown water drips from the same spot in the ceiling, right above the front-left corner of the stage. There are no white lilies and chilled bottles of Cristal in the green room; think Dunkin' Donuts boxes, a fridge and a few very low, very well-used couches. Backstage — well, there isn't really a backstage, just a narrow and dark place for people to stand, single file, before coming out through one of the two doors or a curtain, just to mix it up. Not glam by anyone's standard, but no one goes there for glam — they go there because the UCB is the premier spot for improv in New York.
These days it's hard to mention UCB without mentioning SNL, because the two are now inextricably linked, thanks to UCB co-founder and SNL regular Amy Poehler. Poehler and her co-founders started the place as a locus for performance and instruction, and it now boasts a university's worth of comedy classes and a packed nightly performance schedule, including the signature all-star Sunday night improv show which often features Poehler and her SNL cohorts like Seth Meyers, Jason Sudeikis, Rachel Dratch, Tina Fey, and Horatio Sanz. It's where Bill Hader had his audition for the show, where Andy Samberg and Chris Parnell filmed some of "Lazy Sunday," and where on a Sunday night in August, Chevy Chase could be found in the green room, chillin'.
So, if you want to understand why virtually the entire cast and crew of SNL would put on a full-length live show in this modest little spot, working their asses off as much as they ever would in Studio 8H, that's why — which is precisely what they did last night. The show, which ran almost 2 hours — with no commercial breaks, obviously — was a benefit for the SNL crew members who were laid off because of the writer's strike (the SRO crowd paid $20 apiece to get in). As Poehler said at the show's open: "No one likes laying people off, no one likes getting laid off, but everyone likes getting laid." Poehler, who used the word "family" to describe her colleagues at SNL, also made a point of including NBC in that family, thanking the network "for allowing us to do this" (the show was made up of a mixture of old and new material, with unaired sketches and jokes that Poehler assured the crowd "were never going to make it on the air" — but still presumably belonged to NBC as work-for-hire material). Poehler further thanked SNL creator Lorne Michaels "for having nothing to do with this" (contrary to a report from the New York Post's "Page Six" yesterday which claimed that Michaels was producing the show). Michaels, who celebrated his 63rd birthday yesterday, lent his support from the audience (and even laughed, according to at least two eyewitnesses). Other notable audience members included John Krasinski of "The Office," Will Arnett, Poehler's husband and guest-host Michael Cera's costar on "Arrested Development," Jack McBreyer, taking the stage Monday at UCB with the cast of "30 Rock" (including John Lutz, who does double-duty as an SNL writer) Aziz Ansari and Paul Scheer of MTV's "Human Giant," multi-Grammy songstress Norah Jones, who provided key guest-vocals during the show, and several recognizable faces from the NYC comedy community.
For those of you who could not attend — and that's virtually all of you because this was the tightest ticket in the city, for press or hangers-on or the long line of hopefuls stretching down the block — ETP has prepared a synopsis for you, retelling the evening as best we can, from Cera's monologue to musical guest Yo La Tengo to Will Forte's golden-sheathed codpiece to what Norah Jones and Fred Armisen's naked ass have in common.
Click on "Read Whole Story" below for the recap....
Okay! Here's my best rendering of the show, as funny as the next-day blog version can be. First, a description of the theater: As with most big UCB shows, the crowd was SRO with people crowding into the space between the three banks of audience chairs and along the divider at the back. It wasn't as full as I've seen the place — sometimes it ekes into sardine territory, with people sitting cross-legged at the edge of the stage and stuffed into every available nook and cranny — but that was because the crowd was largely comprised of the cast, crew and friends of SNL, plus some UCB staff and performers (not all of whom could get in). The long line of hopefuls outside were SOL, and the crisp, clipboard-wielding organizers up on the sidewalk were matter-of-fact in letting them know. It was the first time I've ever seen a bouncer at the door of the UCB.
It was also the first time that the audience has been invited to drink at an SNL show (well, excepting the VIPs who watch from Lorne's 9th-floor glassed-in office. Lushes) — the staff seating the audience at Studio 8H is firm on the no food or drink policy, but at the UCB's little concession stand keeps the crowd well-watered with, well, water, soda, and a much-availed of $2 Pabst. (Update! Apparently it was the second time, the first being at the Mardi Gras show on Feb. 20, 1977. This show went slightly better. Thanks to comedy nerd Justin Purnell for the intel.) Not that the crowd needed to be drunk to enjoy the show (or had much time, owing to the on-time 11:30 start and no-commercial no-intermission set list, which began with as much military precision as if they were going on-air. Stage manager Gena Rositano, all business in her professional-looking headset, counted down to "air" as a writer dashed out with a stack of cue cards for sketches that didn't make the show ("Even at UCB, they got cut," he said, depositing them with a grateful audience member). The cast members did a mock-panic run across the stage, Jon Lutz chugged two beers, Gena counted down and suddenly it was go-time. For one second, silence, and then:
- Cold open! Fred Armisen, reprising his role as studio head Roger A. Travanti from two weeks ago, commenting on the "unspeakable hardship" that the execs were experiencing at the hands of the striking writers. "We are people too," he said, defensively. "We have children. We have housekeepers. We have children with our housekeepers." Armisen-as-Travanti offered the writers a deal: They could picket outside the studio of their choosing, the studios could pick whatever writers they wanted, put them in a room for 14 hours, and "if what you write is good, you will be paid." (The sympathies of the crowd were not hard to discern.) "Are there any shareholders in the audience?" asked Armisen. "No?...Good. We are not making any money on the internet! Seriously, zero dollars. Zero zero zero zero zero zero zero dollars....with a "1" in front of those zeroes." Armisen, who is awesome, brought it — right up 'til he shouted: "Live from New York, it's Saturday Night!" Cue crowd going nuts.
- Credits: First live-action credits in SNL history? As the theme music swelled, Darrell Hammond in a Yankees cap did a killer Don Pardo announcing the cast one by one as they took their turns crossing the stage, with a bewigged Fred Armisen standing in for an absent Maya Rudolph. In other news, Kirsten Wiig is a fox. Oh, come now, a woman notices these things.
- Monologue: Michael Cera, with maybe the most hilarious delivery of this line: "It's so great to be hosting Saturday Night Live!" (Looks around, trails off.) "I admit that I thought it would be nicer." The kid has an incredibly understated delivery. He really killed. Hopefully he'll "return" to host so the rest of the world can see him. (Interesting Five-Timers Club question, should it get that far!). Seth Meyers held the cue cards for Cera — turns out the writers were responsible for holding their own cue cards. Concept: Since there was a writer's strike, Cera would just use an old monologue from another host. Donald Trump: "Nobody's bigger than me!" Paris Hilton: "That's hot." Skinny little Cera in his red hoodie and Mama's Boy face utterly nailed it, as the crowd rolled. "We've got a great show...Yo La Tengo is here!" The pattern is so familiar that it was both the easiest part of the night to spoof and the glue that held it all together.
- Hip-Hop Whodunit: Samberg (I think), Wiig and Hader playing "Clue" — boring! Here's Kenan Thompson as a blinged-out Inspector Crumb promising a fun new update to that old version, with exciting murder locations like in front of the club, after the BET awards, behind the club, or outside Hot 97! Warned Kenan, grinning: "Don't get your ass shot!" Slight hiccup: Every murder is unsolved (Hader: "I don't understand how a roomful of eyewitnesses saw nothing!"). Solid opener, better concept than Maybelline for Men — but alas, apparently not destined for thes screen. Well, we liked it. Props to Kenan, too - he really sold it.
- Steve Baxter, Hollywood Gynecologist: Hey, why wouldn't this make air? I don't actually have any notes for this because I was laughing too hard, but I'll give it a stab: Amy Poehler, legs in the air; Andy Samberg, in a white lab coat and holding a videocamera; Jason Sudeikis, dressed as a sleazy lounge singer and crooning the jingle for a TV commercial for "Steve Baxter, Hollywood Gynecologist." Er, maybe "giving it a stab" was a poor choice of words. Sorry about having no notes, all I can remember is Andy and Jason singing the word "pie."
- Debbie Downer! This one gets an exclamation point — man, did the crowd go nuts when Rachel Dratch walked onstage. "Let's not forget the real reason we're here," she said, pointing out how the writers' strike had ruined television. (Yes, but that's what YouTube is for!) Wah-wah.
- I Ran, Redux: One of the two Lonely Island guys who aren't Samberg (i.e. Jorma Taccone and Akiva Shaffer) walked out with a cue card that read "An SNL Digital Short": A live version of "I Ran So Far" with Andy Samberg at the mic, Fred Armisen decked out in his best Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, beard, plain suit et al, and super-special guest NORAH JONES on the chorus — awesome! Not like the crowd needed anything else at this point, but on the line "with your sleepy brown eyes, butter pecan thighs, and your hairy butt..." well, Armisen didn't show the audience his thighs. Wow, he must climb a lot of stairs! The stick-on fur was a nice touch, too. It's the little things. (Update: A reader claims this was not as clear as me simply writing "Armisen pulled down his pants and mooned the audience, showing fur taped to his ass." Fuller description from a guy who saw it from the front here.)
- Virginia Horsen's Hot-Air Balloon: Kristen Wiig is beginning to develop a trademark style: Weird, slightly creepy female characters. Michelle Dison the Sapphic local news correspondent, Penelope the one-upper, as a weird kid with Seth Rogen. Here in a two-part commercial, she's Virginia Horsen of "Virginia Horsen's Hot-Air Balloon Rides" — yeah, hard to explain. Suffice to say that it's Wiig with a giant Pippi Longstocking braid, signature weird affect and a hot-air balloon. Extra-weird moment comes with Wiig as Horsen side by side with Wiig as Horsen as captain (?) in the balloon, both eyeing each other suggestively. Totally weird. But hilarious, and squeaky-clean - not sure why that would have been dinged.
- Darrell Hammond, master impressionist: He really is. The Elder Statesman of SNL and, in his 13th season, its longest-running cast member. He stood at the mike, patiently, while Seth Meyers passed around a bowl of folded-up slips of paper on which were listed some of Hammond's impressions, randomly selected by random audience members. Hammond did Dr. Phil, Jimmy Carter (not a whole lotta audience reaction there, I'll say - young crowd), Ronald Reagan, Jay Leno ("any Leno joke, they're all the same"), and, for as the pièce de resistance, at Meyers' request, Bill Clinton and Sean Connery getting pulled over by the cops. Bill Clinton: "There is nothing wrong with hashish...that cannot be fixed...but what is right with hashish." Sean Connery: "Suck it, Copper!" Enough said. Bring back Celebrity Jeopardy!
- Jeff Montgomery, Sex Offender (On Hallowe'en): A recent sketch, cut from dress for the Brian Williams/Feist ep on Nov. 3rd. Seth Meyers stands in for BriWi here as Bob Peterson, friendly neighbor, who questions the grown man on his doorstep asking for candy on Hallowe'en and claiming to be "Jeff Montgomery, Sex Offender...on Hallowe'en" ("as part of my costume, would you mind just signing these papers...?") Humorous variants on non-denials of sex-offender status; Forte in creepy mustache. Confirmed later in the green room: Forte's little orange pumpkin trick or treat bucket had a few stray candies in there. God is in the details.
- TV Funhouse - Airline Safety: Wow. Robert Smigel's brain is sharp to the point of discomfort. Meyers introduced a video that had apparently been insta-rejected in the script stage — but Smigel shot it anyway, out of his own pocket. It starts off as a fairly standard airline safety video — please make sure your tray tables are stowed etc. — with happy-looking families and a soothing voice-over instructing them to use the seat cushion as a floatation device, fit their oxygen masks over themselves before their children, and not to blow up the plane. Sorry, that last one was just for the Arab passenger suddenly shown on screen, followed by instructions apparently tailored to a pair of Latinos on how to correctly carry drugs in your rectum. Then things go all "Airplane!" with a different narrator breaking in on behalf of a black family and insisting that they get off the plane because of the Arab. Wow, I wonder why the censors didn't go for it?
- Yo La Tengo: They didn't play "Here Comes My Baby" which means I didn't know what the hell they were playing, though my foot was tapping, anyway. Thanks to attendee Brian Palmer, who gave us the full-frontal recap of Armisen's trou-drop on the 'A Special Thing' comedy site, we have this report: "Yo La Tengo played Mr. Tough and Little Honda. Will Arnett, who appeared fairly quiet throughout a lot of the show, was bouncing up and down and totally rocking out during their performances. Krasinski was also seriously enjoying himself as well. They were both wearing their hats down low paparazzi style and it was funny to look over and see their two baseball caps bopping away." So now you know.
- Weekend Update: Funny immediately with Amy in a tie; funnier once they started because the jokes were all leftovers from the past year, most rejected for being too blue (which the crowd — and Seth and Amy — obviously loved). Alas, my notes here suck: Seth on a gay priest who had stepped down, claiming he had fought biology by "praying for God to end his homosexual urges...unfortunately, God responded by instead introducing him to hotter and hotter guys"; Amy on World AIDS Day ("In our family, we open our presents on AIDS Eve") and Seth on a man arrested for animal cruelty after having sex with the family pet ("Oddly, it was makeup sex"). Seth also had a Mark Foley joke (remember him?) about the younger guy who replaced him as congressman (paraphrasing, but it was something like "Foley said he preferred to have his opening filled by someone younger") (Seth's runner up: "Foley said he usually prefers to have someone younger on his staff." Ha, we like that one better.) Three special guests: Kenan as a French hip-hop artist which was actually hilarious, with his frequent exclamations of "Zut alors!", trash-talking the Belgians, and dissin' someone's ride: "A Citroën ain't nothin' but a Fiat with a sunroof." Heh.
- Next was special guest star Horatio Sanz (crowd: bonkers) as "Boom Box Barry" walking in a sweatsuit and sweatband with a giant boombox on his shoulder and exhoring kids to come talk to him about the teen pregnancy, the teen drug problems, the teen alcohol abuse etc. The crowd loved it (and Amy was losing it) but it was the first time you understood why something didn't make it to air: You could see this cracking the cast up hysterically but just missing the mark with Americans in their living room, earnestly in character though Sanz was (when Jimmy Fallon's not around, he keeps it together). Finally, Armisen brings back Nicholas Fein, political comic (he makes you "think" with his "witty" reactions to newspaper headlines, which is actually Armisen stringing together an impressive collection of segues). Best part, I think: Seeing Amy and Seth crack up. The smashing of the fourth wall can be a wonderful thing.
- LeBron James And The Motivational Speaker He Met In The Dentist's Office: Presumably cut from the LeBron James-hosted season premiere. How to explain. Head writer Paula Pell came out to introduce this and said it had been cut for being too funny (I guess it kept cracking them up?). Amy Poehler in an old-lady wig and funny voice, giving a motivational pep-talk to LeBron James, played by Michael Cera, who is perhaps not as tall. Cera's had some great comedic moments delivering lines clearly meant for others. Somehow it's revealed that Amy's character assaulted Oprah, though apparently she could have sworn she heard Oprah say "High-Five me!" and obviously thought Oprah meant "High-Five me in the face - twice!" Then she jumps on Michael Cera's back, and they head to Chicago. Fin.
- The Best Best Man: Sudeikis as a drunk, expansive, crass, emotional best man ("Here's a quick shrooms story for you"). Sudeikis has this semi-belligerent lowbrow manic energy that is fatastically fun (evinced in the second iPod sketch, cut from the BriWi ep, as a guy who likes punching cops). Props to Wiig's teary bridesmaid.
- Debbie Downer II: I think she actually came on for three, but in any case: Debbie Downer is back, reminding us all to celebrate the history behind Thanksgiving: "The Indians gave us the gift of corn, we gave them the gift of genocide." Then she asked Michael Cera how "Arrested Development" was going.
- No Cheap Shoes! Haaa. This one was great. Writer Steve Higgins introduced this one, promising that it wasn't really anti-Semitic. Good to know! Armisen and Wiig, dressed as Arabs complete with taped-on unibrows (yikes), shilled for the family business in a commercial for "Shoe Emporium" where the slogan was "No Cheap Shoes!" Except due to their accents, they pronounced the "Sh" in "Shoes" like a "J." Riiiight. You got it. Sons Samberg, Sudeikis and Forte also hated the cheap shoes! God, if that had made it to air...yeah, right.
- Almost Pizza: I know, can you believe this show? There were about a zillion sketches. This was another fake commercial - for "Almost Pizza" — it looks like pizza, it tastes like pizza, it smells like pizza — but we never find out what it actually is, or why there's a need to find a substitute for pizza. All we know is that when it falls on the floor it sounds like shattering glass, but, not to worry, "it's still alive." Well, what exactly are you expecting them to come up with at 5 am in the writer's room? Comedians. They have demons.
- Showtime At The Apollo: This was really cute. Kenan came on blinged out in a glittery t-shirt welcoming the aud to "Showtime at the Apollo," the 1 am SNL chaser. Amy then came out and implored him to wait a bit longer, they had a few sketches more still to do. Not something you can do on network television, which which is why a lot of this material exists: It was cut at the last minute. Afterward, Poehler told me that they they had really intended to keep the show to time, but they just couldn't cut it down. "I have new respect for Lorne," she said.
- Christmas Letter From A Dead Cat: If this doesn't make it to air, it's a crime, though not the type of crime Jeff Montgomery was convicted of. Wiig as elderly woman in a Christmas sweater, dictating the family Christmas letter to her beleaguered husband, played by Will Forte at the laptop (also in a red sweater, and specs). She's dictating in a voice that sounded sort of like the Target lady, if the Target lady was the dead family cat (Forte's discomfort with "ghostwriting for a ghost cat" was quietly hilarious). Discomfort further ratcheted up at mention of other dead pets in the neighborhood; special props for attention to detail ("That's 'Claus' with a 'w'" "I'm way ahead of you" and "Happy Neu-ter Year"). There is no way to write this as funny as it was. A highlight.
- O'Doul's Non-Alcoholic Beer And Other Products: Sudeikis in an O'Doul's commercial for other products: O'Doul's Non-Pain Relieving Aspiring ("They're round...and they come in a bottle!"), O'Doul's Headless Hammers, O'Doul's Screenless Televisions, O'Doul's Seatless Chairs. (My favorite was O'Doul's Headless Hammers - he actually held one up. ) Pretty funny concept. Again, wondering why it was rejected out of hand. Offensive to alcoholics?
- Botox Mystery Theater: Will Forte, Amy Poehler and Kristen Wiig fail to look scared and/or otherwise react to a series of murders. Cameo by longtime writer Charlie Grandy as a hanging, bloody corpse. Funfact about Charlie Grandy: He's the son of Fred Grandy, aka former congressman Fred Grandy...or, for those of you old enough to play a little shuffleboard on the Lido Deck, aka Gopher from the Love Boat.
- Fifty-Zillion Words For 'Snow': Good God, that last sketch just reminded me of one I missed in there somewhere. Wow, I really didn't think this whole "recap" thing through. Concept: PBS show hosted by Hammond as Hugh Downs with guest Poehler as translator of terrible Eskimo playwright, who referred to subtle variations on "snow" frequently. Premise sufficient to sustain presence of Poehler, Hammond, Hader, Wiig, Samberg, Forte and Cera. Many references to 'snow.' I think this might be close to being over.
- The $14-Million Bachelor: Infomercial featuring Poehler as mother of charming 45-year old bachelor Hader, who just won $14 million in the lottery, would any young lady like to meet him? Hader fishes dried pickle spear out of couch. No? No takers? $14 million? Honestly, I might consider it. I'm just kidding, but if any of you have $14 million and have actually read this far, call me!
- Yo La Tengo, No Lo Se: I'm gather from the above that this song was called "Little Honda," but honestly, I can't be sure.
- Are You My Adopted Chinese Baby? Yuppie couple Poehler and Sudeikis can't tell which of the adopted Chinese babies on the playground is theirs. Awkward!
- 80s Movie: Poehler and Sudeikis, both in redhed wigs, sharing an awkward kiss as the music swells. Suddenly there's Cera, also in a red wig - but they're all friends. They then run through every 80's movie cliche to the appropriate music. Amy looked like Little Orphan Annie; Sudeikis had a bandanna tied around his thigh (who ever thought that was a good idea, anyway?); Cera had a sax. At the end of the night, this made much more sense than I am right now.
- "Dollars Make Me Move": What a great final sketch. (YES! THE FINAL SKETCH!) Will Forte comes out in full gold regalia as a street performer — sparkly top hat, face and body paint, gold glasses, tight gold lamé pants with obvious packing (or, if not, well, hel-lo, Will Forte!), gold flippers over yellow socks. Clearly not thrown together at the last minute (in fact, according to the NYT, this was Forte's long-ago SNL audition piece). With a box in front of him and a sign that said "Dollars Make Me Move," Forte is doing a brisk business — then Sudeikis approaches. He waves his hands in front of Forte's face, tries to make him blink. Nothing. He takes off Forte's glasses — no reaction. He bends them, slowly, then crumples them into bits and stomps on them. Recall how we earlier mentioned his barely-contained aggressive energy (think: trash-talking LeBron). Forte, meanwhile, has no reaction. So Sudeikis reaches into his dollar box, takes the money, and scoots — leaving Forte alone on his pedestal, frozen, trapped. Someone wanders over, pops a dollar in his box — anf Forte leaps off the pedestal and dashes backstage. To no avail — he trudges back on, disconsolate. Back up on his pedestal; a Cera as a little boy asks "Daddy, why is the statue sad?" The dad (Seth?) says something to the effect of, "If I give him a dollar, maybe he'll smile...if I give him TWO dollars, maybe he'll tell you in song." The music strikes up, and Forte begins to sing...about how he sucks cock for face paint. Don't shoot the messenger, he must have sung the line "Suckin' cock for my fa-a-ace paint!" about twenty times, all while dancing awkwardly while that damn bulge caught the light. Most impressive. Also, great sketch.
- GOODNIGHTS! And that's it! Suddenly the cast poured out on stage, and there was Michael Cera thanking Yo La Tengo, and Horatio Sanz, and Rachel Dratch, and saying goodnight — and the crowd was 100% on its feet in a standing ovation, and I don't think anyone in that theater was not smiling as the credits rolled — and the writers filed in in alphabetical order, carrying signs bearing their names which may have been the best moment of the night. The applause continued as onstage, the hugging proceeded as per usual and everyone pretty much beamed. One hell of a show.
You'd think that would be it, right? (PLEASE GOD LET THIS WRITE-UP BE OVER!) Actually, it's not, and wasn't, because in addition to being a great spot for an impromptu live staging of a legendary 32-year old television show, the UCB is also a pretty damn sweet spot for a party. And that is precisely what everybody did.
`Saturday Night Live' Staged Amid Strike [AP]
With The Writers Strike Still On, It Was 'Satuday Night Dive' [NYT]
Striking Comedy By SNL [NYPost]**
Live From New York, One Last Time For Who Knows How Long [ETP]
Doug Abeles, James Anderson, Alex Baze, Jim Downey, Charlie Grandy, Steve Higgins, Colin Jost, Erik Kenward, Rob Klein, John Lutz, Seth Meyers, Lorne Michaels, Paula Pell, Simon Rich, Marika Sawyer, Akiva Schaffer, Robert Smigel, John Solomon, Emily Spivey, Andrew Steele, Kent Sublette, Jorma Taccone, Bryan Tucker. (Plus the cast.)
*Pics shamelessly pilfered by the NYT.
**We are pretty sure the NYP writers here did not actually attend, since their quotes are all from Kenan and the only sketches they mention were Kenan's sketches. But still. We link because we love!