The Upright Citizens Brigade quickly became a well-respected improv group when its first theater opened in 1996. Since then, we have founders Matt Walsh, Ian Roberts, Matt Besser and Amy Poehler to thank for producing some of the funniest people in comedy today.
Boston University’s own students may have caught a glimpse of some rising stars Friday, with a
performance by four current members — Lindsay Calleran, Jenny St. Angelo, Marshall Stratton and Mike Kelton — of the Upright Citizens Brigade’s New York location.
Along with “Saturday Night Live” veteran and “Parks and Recreation” soul Poehler, many of those who trained at UCB were launched into successful careers in comedy and television. Past students of UCB — including Andrew Daly of “Review,” Aziz Ansari of “Master of None,” Rob Corddry of “Children’s Hospital” and Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer of “Broad City” — dominate funny television today as stars of their own shows.
As a stop on its tour, the UCB group performed improv at the George Sherman Union’s Metcalf Hall following BU junior Andrew Giustino’s standup act. The performance began by interviewing a volunteer from the crowd about her life, without providing any information as to why. At first, when all four members pulled up chairs and questioned College of Communication sophomore Emma about her life at BU, the crowd was confused and silent — the UCB troupe interviewed her for more than 10 minutes without much joking.
Soon, the reason for the interview became clear, however, as the group began its performance. Each of the many skits took stories from Emma’s life and used them as the stories for each bit.
Overall, this tactic proved to be effective at getting big laughs from a packed crowd of students. Using information as general as, “We have a new sushi restaurant on campus,” to more personal, random stories of Emma’s experiences with a student who tried to predict the future, the audience got to laugh along with jokes that felt utterly present, but based on a shared experience.
More than anything, this clear setup of the performers as outsiders putting their own spin on BU campus life exemplified the teaching techniques of UCB, spelled out in “The Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Improvisation Manual.” In the manual authored by all founders except Poehler, the comedians write, “In reality, no matter how much fun they are having onstage, great improvisers are working together while adhering to a clear set of guidelines.”
When the book was released in 2014, The New York Times pointed out its surprising strictness, stating the following: “The manual also has many prohibitions: Don’t talk about the past or the future, for instance, and don’t talk about people who aren’t there. While it says that sometimes you can break rules, the manual’s ethos, telegraphed on almost every page, encourages otherwise.”
Through bits created from an interview seen only minutes before, Friday’s improvisers stuck to the present and to the rules, working together to produce a show that was, in a way, more scripted than improvisational, for better or for worse. Taking the advice of the manual along with Friday’s performance, it seemed UCB played it strictly by-the-book.