PART II: BUILDING
The UCB Four began teaching and holding shows at Solo Arts, a 40-seat, un-air-conditioned space in Chelsea. Students were versed in a philosophy known as “Yes, and …, ” in which one performer builds upon another’s idea, and learned a complex form of interconnected scenes called “the Harold.” Within a few years, members of Harold teams like the Swarm, Mother, and Respecto Montalban became small-stage celebrities.
SETH MORRIS, writer, FunnyOrDie.com: That first wave of classes was a real eye-opener. Everyone there was used to being the funniest person from wherever they came from.
DANIELLE SCHNEIDER, performer: There weren’t so many people then, so if you could stand up straight, you’d get on a team.
CHRIS GETHARD, performer-teacher: It was the island of misfit toys, man.
POEHLER: When you move to New York, you’re always looking for your tribe.
JACKIE CLARKE, performer-teacher: Early on, it was mostly men, maybe 70-30. The first class I took with a female teacher was with Amy Poehler, and I remember being like, “Oh, she laughs at different things. She gets it when I make a Judy Blume reference.” LENNON PARHAM, performer: A lot of women, we have this deference. Once that was out of me, I was attacking the stage.
In 1999, the group found its first permanent space, in the former Harmony burlesque club, a storefront on West 22nd Street with mirrored walls and a runway.
MORRIS: I found out years later the way it worked: Women would rent stage time that served as advertisement for their services. There was a house boom box, and each would play her own mix tape. The ladies would bring dudes up from the back and take the fire escape to the apartment directly above the theater, which had mattresses on the floor.
SCOT ARMSTRONG, writer, The Hangover Part II: We’d be performing, and old fat guys would walk in, confused and looking for naked girls.
DANNAH PHIRMAN, performer-teacher: I shouldn’t say this, because I’m Jewish and I don’t want to give us a bad rap, but a lot of them were married Hasidic Jews.
SCHEER: There were all these crazy, experimental shows going up. Matt Walsh did [one] called “Robot TV” that was for robots, by robots; we were only activated by the word “Landau,” like Martin Landau. There was a Halloween show called “Killgore,” where we would wrap the entire theater in clear plastic wrap and put on, like, the bloodiest comedy show ever.
ROB HUEBEL, Childrens Hospital; co-founder, Human Giant: We would go down to Union Square or Washington Square Park and stand there putting flyers in people’s hands. Once, around Christmastime, we had one of our guys, Owen Burke, dress up as Santa Claus. We were yelling to pedestrians, “Step right up, and take a swing at Santa Claus,” and then handing people a roll of wrapping paper. But in New York, that’s a terrible idea, because people just wanted to beat the shit out of Santa Claus.
OWEN BURKE, FunnyOrDie.com: You don’t think it’s going to hurt, but when you have the paper on there, and a kid whips it against your neck, you’re like, “God damn!”
BRETT GELMAN, The Other Guys: There was this trapdoor in the box office, and you’d go down to a sandy floor underneath the theater, where we’d all be drinking Jack Daniel’s and smoking weed.
JULIE KLAUSNER, author, I Don’t Care About Your Band: So much pot. More than you could ever understand. I tried improv stoned once, and I had a panic attack and a fight with my boyfriend after. It did not go well. Never do it.
RICHTER: People don’t take improv classes just to get onstage and be funny; it’s to get fucked up with funny people. You gotta have openness in your schedule. And all this openness is going to keep you open to things like, “Drink this. Smoke this. Try this pill.”
JAKE FOGELNEST, host, Squirt TV: To sign up for classes, you would drop off a $25 deposit. So there were all these deposits that never got put in the bank—just a bunch of checks and cash and shit, in a box in the basement. It was really disorganized.
ROBERTS: The “business” was me keeping track [of payments] on the fridge.
WALSH: The classes have always paid the rent. And the shows were a loss, frankly, for the first few years.
The UCB Four started to make a little money with a (non-improvised) TV sketch show, Upright Citizens Brigade, which aired on Comedy Central from 1998 to 2000. As it was being shot, Besser and Poehler broke up, and the group struggled with the responsibilities of being a collective and the lure of individual stardom.