In 1995, McKay moved to New York to take a writing job on Saturday Night Live. Rather than disband, the UCB brought in Amy Poehler, who’d performed with Chicago’s Second City troupe with Tina Fey and Rachel Dratch. Within a year, the UCB group also felt the pull of New York, where they hoped to find a bigger audience and showbiz visibility.
AMY POEHLER: I moved to Chicago right after I graduated from college, in 1993. Just to set the scene for you, Chicago, like a lot of cities, was in an early-nineties depression. A lot of flannel, a lot of good music, a lot of bad politics.
BESSER: Right away, everybody saw how talented she was.
SETH MEYERS, SNL: They were all sort of exceptional. Besser was doing stuff that was aggressive and unique—he was a guy that everybody talked about in reverent tones. Ian is one of the purest improvisers, as far as never being out of the scene. Whereas Walsh always seemed a little out of the scene, in a way that let the audience know how much fun he was having. And Poehler was probably the most feminine and most masculine performer. Masculinity—that’s probably not the right word. She’s an alpha performer. I think that’s ingrained in her, but it got trained very well, being with those other three guys.
RICHTER: In the comedy world, a woman that strong and funny is worth ten funny guys.
POEHLER: Besser has been, in many ways, the captain that pulled us along. He always had really big thoughts of what UCB could become, long before any of us actually did.
IAN ROBERTS: We wanted to get a TV show, and I remember the artistic director at Second City saying, “You’re making a big mistake. You’ve got a future here.” And we said, “Well, we’re gonna roll the dice. See ya.”
MATT WALSH: We knew we had to go to either New York or L.A. We had a little sit-down at [Chicago’s] Salt & Pepper Diner and decided New York was the better town to get a following.
POEHLER: [By then] Besser and I were dating, so it was easier for me and my boyfriend to go. But Ian had just gotten married, and Walsh was leaving his hometown. It felt very scary.
RACHEL DRATCH, SNL: I was like, “How could you leave? Are you crazy?” And then they [came] here, and took over the whole joint.
PART I: NEW YORK
The UCB Four arrived in New York in 1996 and quickly began putting up small shows at venues like Rebar and Luna Lounge, where the weekly show “Eating It” was becoming the city’s must-see comedy showcase.
DAVE BECKY, co-founder, “Eating It”: There was this room in L.A., the Un-Cabaret, where all the brilliant comedians used to go up and not do their acts—they’d go and tell stories and try new stuff. And there was nothing like that in New York.
PETER PRINCIPATO, UCB agent, 1996–97: [Comics] were still making development deals for seven minutes of stand-up, because [networks] were still trying to re-create the Roseanne–Tim Allen–Bill Cosby sort of thing. Nobody knew how to put together, or label, or sell, alternative comedy.
POEHLER: I [recently found] a running order from the Luna Lounge in 1996: Janeane Garofalo, the State, UCB, Marc Maron, and Louis C.K. I remember being so excited every week to do our bit.
JANEANE GAROFALO, actress: I met Amy shortly after they moved here—through a book club, believe it or not. I liked her immediately but also remember thinking she was a kid—she’s very tiny and looks very young. I thought she was just a very mature high-school student. I’m serious.
MICHAEL DELANEY, performer-teacher: It was a struggle for those guys at first. [They’d be] out on the street with a bullhorn all the time, creating some kind of ruckus.
ROBERTS: We had nights when we had four people in the audience. And those four people were people we’d handed flyers to in the park.
Within a few months, UCB had four regular shows running, including “ASSSSCAT 3000,” in which a guest would tell off-the-cuff stories that would then be used to create scenes. Early monologuists included Garofalo, Richter, and David Rakoff.
CONAN O’BRIEN: Improv had been really important in Chicago, and it had a toehold in Los Angeles, where you had Pee-wee Herman, Phil Hartman, Lisa Kudrow—all coming out of the Groundlings. But in New York in the early nineties, nobody was talking about improv.
DELANEY: There’s always been a stigma against it, because it’s so damn goofy. I mean, 90 percent of all art sucks, and 95 percent of all improv sucks.
PAUL SCHEER, co-founder, Human Giant: I was at NYU, doing short-form, Wayne Brady–style improv. I didn’t know there was anything else. And then, one weekend, my friend was like, “Dude, you gotta go check out this group.”
ROB CORDDRY, The Daily Show; Childrens Hospital: In 90 minutes, they changed how I felt and thought about comedy. It was punk rock—super dirty and loose.
ED HELMS, The Daily Show; The Hangover: They had the thing that drew me to comedy in the first place: that energy when somebody’s putting it all out there, acting like a massive jackass, with no reservations. It was something that scared the shit out of me, and therefore I had to try it.
O’BRIEN: One night they asked me to do the [“ASSSSCAT”] monologue, and I said, “What happens?” Because I’m a guy who likes to prepare. And they said, “Don’t prepare—just take a word from the audience, start talking, and see what happens.” So someone shouted out “Dog!” and I started telling this story about a night that I pissed my dad off because I refused to take the dog out, and how he blew up—how I could hear him running down the stairs to get me. I told it in this comedic way, and people were really laughing, but I realized that I had, like, a sense memory of this big conflict I’d had with my dad in 1979. It was actually therapeutic.