06/21/2013 04:24 pm ET Updated Jun 21, 2013

Brian Raftery Talks 'High-Status Characters' And How UCB Changed Comedy

Mindy Tucker

It's impossible to ignore the effect that the Upright Citizens Brigade has had on the world of comedy. Like "The Simpsons" and "Saturday Night Live" before it, UCB has become an institution that has sent shockwaves through comedy that are nearly impossible to trace.

But that didn't stop Brian Raftery from trying. He recently penned an e-book about the history of UCB, High-Status Characters: How The Upright Citizens Brigade Stormed A City, Started A Scene, And Changed Comedy Forever. The book is a collection of interviews with nearly everyone involved directly or indirectly with UCB, telling the most conclusive story yet of how a Chicago improv troupe that eventually consisted of Amy Poehler, Matt Besser, Ian Roberts and Matt Walsh morphed into three theaters on two coasts, an accredited education program, a TV series and the closest thing to an epicenter of comedy that currently exists.

I spoke to Raftery about his book, how he sees UCB's place in the comedy world at large and the differences between generations of UCB students and performers. You can buy Raftery's e-book for $1.99 on the Nook or the Nook app.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

HuffPost Comedy: Tell me a little bit about why you decided to write about UCB now. Do you have a history with them?

Brian Raftery: I don't. Like a lot of people in the late '90s, I thought improv was the lamest thing in the world. It became like jam bands. I was not going to spend my life in New York City going to see a bunch of twentysomethings bringing each other in and out of scenes. I was very snobby about it. I think a lot of people were. And, obviously, I was totally wrong and totally stupid.

HPC: Do you remember when you first became aware of them?

BR: I became aware when a friend of mine co-wrote a show in the mid-00s with Anthony King, who was the artistic director there for a long time. He wrote a show called "Gutenberg." I knew the [UCB] TV show and I knew where the theater was. I was realizing more and more how many people were graduating from that theater into this comedy culture. I wound up taking some classes there myself about 3 or 4 years ago, and that's when I realized how popular it had become for people under the age of 30 in New York, and how this was a huge rite of passage for people in New York City: For young people to come out of college, come to New York and go take UCB classes and get immersed in this world.

HPC: Did you get the impression that any of the comedians you talked to for this book didn't set out to be professional performers, but they fell into it after signing up for these classes?

BR: Most were people who probably would've wound up as actors or in the writers room at "SNL" or done some sort of professional comedic thing. But I don't know if any of them really thought that this is something they'd be doing for life, or something that they were necessarily looking for. It does seem like there is this consensus among all the early UCB students that they didn't know what they were looking for, and stumbled upon this thing that worked for them. Amy [Poehler] getting on "SNL" was the point where everyone was like, "Oh, wait. You can make a living off of this." It kind of seemed like, "Wait, this is like a weird hobby we're obsessed with, that we're told was not lucrative, is something you actually can make money off of."

HPC: Your book started as a feature for New York magazine. At that time, people seemed to feel that it was inevitable that there would to be an "oral history of UCB" book. What was the process like? How did the book come into fruition?

BR: The oral history was in 2011, and that year, three of the biggest comedies on TV -- not the most watched comedies, but ones everyone cared about -- were "30 Rock," "Parks & Rec" and "Community." And if you look at those three shows, it's all staffed with various UCB alum. It had become this farm team, the way that Second City once had. It was also the 15th anniversary and no one had done this history yet. Once Amy Poehler said she'd do it, everyone else from the entire theatre's history said they would do it. I did like 50 or 60 interviews for that. And everyone was fantastic, but it was very hard to fit all that into a 5,500-6,000 word magazine piece. I was really happy with that piece, I always joked that when you looked at it all laid out, it looked like the Vietnam Memorial: Name, quote, name, quote. My whole plan was to put an e-book version out, or maybe just put it online a couple months after the magazine piece ran. I interviewed David Rakoff before he passed away, and Marc Maron and Tom Scharpling and I didn't -- some people in the UCB community would maybe be slightly offended to hear this -- I wasn't quite convinced that there was a full book. Like a Live From New York type book on UCB. I just don't think they've been around quite as long. I don't think you have a lot of backstage tension you had with, like, Bill Murray and Chevy Chase.

HPC: You spoke to people in various generations of UCB. How has the community changed over the years, based on your interviews?

BR: The era that really fascinates me the most, the one that I would most want to go back in time and watch firsthand would be the early '90s Chicago formation, because that's when you have Matt Besser, Adam McKay, Amy Poehler, Horatio Sanz... To call it comedy punk, Tom Scharpling says this in the book, makes him a little queasy and I feel the same way. But it was the closest the UCB comes to a true counterculture. Adam McKay was a very smart, very politically astute, very angry young man. He says in the book, "We were all kind of assholes." Those pranks those guys pulled, whether it was Adam McKay faking his death from a building or getting in very confrontational moments with their audience. I love that stuff. I think it's very, very different than what the modern UCB students, who I think might not have that kind of righteous anger. It does seem like today is a lot more competitive than that early generation, because they obviously know they can make a living off this. It's still very collaborative, but not rooted in a "we want to take on the corporate comedy of the world" attitude. Because the comedy culture now is UCB culture. Those guys in the early '90s were fighting against this comedy culture and this comedy machine and these 3 or 4 networks. And now their offspring are running the shows on these networks.

HPC: It seems like UCB's two main legacies will be its philosophy of camaraderie and the community that it fostered, as well as the individual performers. Which of those two things do you think is more significant? Could you even separate those two things?

BR: That's a good question. I don't know. It's certainly easier to quantify or say the first one, only because the second one we don't even know yet. There's already a huge amount of people have popped out of UCB, but it's kind of like "Saturday Night Live," this three or four decade enterprise that people look to instantly for new talent. Which, I think from an industry standpoint that's probably what's most interesting. But I do think that collaborative nature is probably going to be UCB's defining legacy, because all these people are still working with one another. I mean, Ed Helms doesn't need to do "Children's Hospital," you know? And Rob Corddry probably doesn't have to do it financially, but these guys all do these things they love with one another. Whereas "The Three Amigos" was not made because, like, Chevy Chase, Steve Martin and Martin Short were like, "Hey, we'll take a pay cut and do this fun thing for 6 months." It seemed like it was a different sort of spirit of comedy and I think some of the work that you see now is a little less cynical because of that.

HPC: Were you still working on the book when the hubbub about UCB not paying stand-up comics?

BR: Yeah. It was hard to figure out where to fit that controversy in, because it's clearly an important part of UCB history. When I spoke to Matt Besser, I think it was the first time that anyone had really seen anyone challenge their DIY philosophy. I mean, UCB has had people who walk away from it frustrated. And everyone knows that. Some people feel like they don't belong there or aren't getting enough stage time and they leave. I've never seen, as far as I can remember, I can't remember any sort of major black eye for the theater, publically until that. I did talk to some of the comedians who had had problems and I talked to Matt Besser and the artistic director, Nate Dern, and a couple of the current and former artistic directors. But it was hard to make that, in a way it's still sort of an ongoing story. The people in that theater took that story very seriously, and whether they agree with it or not, I think they were shocked to see what they thought was a minor theater issue reported as something bigger.

HPC: What do you believe are some misconceptions about oral histories?

BR: I know some people are like, "Oh, what do you do? You just interview people and put it together?" And they're really not. They're actually really, really hard to do. And they're rewarding, but this one was really fun. This was a particularly great group of people to interview. And I'm not saying great, because we're all buddies, but there's a real good, wealth of stories. And I do hope people who are interested in comedy, whether you think UCB is a cult, whether you think it's exclusionary, whether you think it's the greatest thing in the world, I do think it has had this major contribution, this major effect on the kind of comedy we consume now. And I do think, I would love to see more comedy kind of in the spirit of what they were all doing in the early '90s especially. Because that is the most fun stuff for me to write about -- the early Chicago pranks and stuff. I would love people to look at movies like "Anchorman" and "Step Brothers" and be able to draw a connection between the kind of comedy at UCB incubated into what the comedy people are obsessing about now and making animated GIFs of. There's 5 million Amy Poehler GIFs any day.

HPC: I know, you're telling me.

BR: Yeah, you must track that stuff much closer. But, good lord. A lot of that stuff that grew out of those early days at UCB, whether people realize it or not, that's become the new mode of how comedy works and by proxy, how the Internet works and how comedy on the Internet works. What's really fascinating for me is watching "Kroll Show." Which I think is this weird combination of UCB style comedy, but also this Tim & Eric post-modern, mash-up, crazy stuff. And I think Tim & Eric is probably going to end up being the Monty Python for this generation in some ways. But "Kroll Show" to me is the upstanding spirit in the collaboration, and you can also see this completely gonzo style. That's such a better option than when I was 14 and was trying to write dumb sketches with my friends and stuff like that. It's such a better ecosystem now.



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