New York magazine, which gets my vote for best magazine in the world, has a great oral history of the Upright Citizens Brigade online.
I knew the UCB Theater (UCBT) would someday get this royal treatment, because it really has changed comedy, and the larger world of entertainment. And by extension the world. All in just 15 short years.
From 2000 through 2003 I spent probably at least two nights a week, virtually every week, at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater, back when it was at its location on 22nd street, in a black box theater that I loved from the word go.
I took classes, many, performed, a lot, formed teams, two, and saw so many, many funny people and performances. I don't think I have ever laughed that much, that consistently for so many years in a row. For that alone, those are three of the best years of my life.
But it got even better. Because it was not just a theatrical experience, but a totally social one. Being (relatively) young, I was 28 when I started with classes, I had a lot of time to hang out, drinking, eating french fries, going to shows too, with a whole new cast of characters and friends. It was a big, open, friendly scene. There were no real stars in it, yet, and the entire thing had the vibe of a party waiting to happen. All you had to do was put yourself out there, just a bit. Be a little braver maybe than you were used to. Commit to practices, be there, on time, be ready to support the other improvisers, make them look good.
It made total sense to me.
And of course I got to see so many people perform so much, before they became stars. The list could be endless, but I will name a few: Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Rob Riggle, Paul Scheer (who was in like every show I saw for two years it seemed), Ed Helms, Jack McBrayer (who was, possibly, my favorite improviser), Rob Corddry, many writers for Conan, SNL and the other great NYC TV shows, Ian Roberts, Matt Walsh, Matt Besser, Horatio Sanz, Jerry Minor.
Of course, it was hard at the time to see who would emerge to become a star, in some cases. But in some cases it was very easy. From the moment I first saw Amy Poehler on stage, pretty much dominating an entire roomfull of very tall Catholic and not-so-tall Jewish comedy nerds, I was waiting for her to get picked up by SNL. Which happened about one year later. Jack McBrayer was another no brainer, as he was that funny, that charismatic on stage. I never saw him have a bad performance, or even a bad scene or line. At least to me, he could do no wrong.
But those are just the names we know now. The entire scene had a vibrant sense to it.
Growing up I had read so many stories about the glory days of NYC rock, CBGB's in the late 70s, the Village in the '60s. This, the UCBT in the early '00s was my scene, my time to be there for history as it was being made.
And the thing was, we all knew history was being made, even if the world at large did not yet. I would come out of shows that were so great, so energizing, so fun, it was impossible for me to not feel that this would simply continue to grow and grow. NYC needed it, and what NYC needs the world soon needs.
So it was special, and it was happening, and we knew it was happening, as it happened. Isn't that the definition of time well spent?
Better still, unlike with rock, improv was so easy to get into. You had classes that would open the door for you to become involved. As far as I remember CBGB didn't have any classes. In these classes you would learn how to do improv, which was its entire own language. Impossible to describe, you could only learn to breathe at that altitude by repeated exposure. It had to become your life a little in order for you to even begin to hang on stage and feel at all confident. At the same time it was just as much fun for a newbie as for someone with more experience, although for different reasons.
So, in a place as wild and huge as NYC, I had my people, all of a sudden. I had a reason to go to the Lower East Side on a Thursday night and party. I had shows to do, and friends to support, and an entire world that was being created right before me.
I met my future wife through improv, as if it didn't give me enough.
Like so many scenes and passions improv was fun, energizing and ultimately something I could not make into a life. By about 2003 or 2004 it started to get a lot more competitive. And, by then, I was starting to realize that I may have not been a great fit for show business, as much as I enjoyed so many aspects of improv itself.
It began to get more of a networking thing, I felt, as it became quite apparent that careers could result from getting on a team at the UCBT. If you got on a team you had, in a sense, been officially recognized as someone with potential. People who mattered in show business could very likely see you. If you didn't get on a team it was a lot like being the baseball player who never gets out of the minors. After a while you either move on, or you keep playing out of the love of the game, not caring about the world. I admire people who can soldier on like that.
I was not a great fit for the competitive aspect of it. I blew every single audition I had to be on an official UCBT team, all three of them. Six scenes in total, maybe half of two were good. This probably told me, more than many other things, that I may not have had the makeup for a high pressure career in show business. I never even got a call back. And didn't deserve one, really.
And although I loved being at the theater, and performing I think twice a week was my absolute limit. I don't know why, but after that it began to seem more like work, and the returns on my time investment would start to yield inversely less fun. And the entire point was to have fun. Once the fun part of it is gone, it's over, no matter who you are.
I remember dragging myself once to my third practice in a week,and realizing that I didn't want to really go. But those who are in show business now through the UCBT did that and more.
So I drifted off, which was the natural way of things. But I love my memories of the improv I saw, the people I met, and the improv, better still, I got to do. I hope I get to do it again some day. I was pretty good, way back when, when my improv fastball was working. Maybe not a rock star, but then again I didn't have to be. I was there to say "yes and" in order to make my partner look better.
It was a great time, for which I will always be happy and thankful.
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