It is a brutally sticky day in Long Island City, and a young woman in her bra and a guy on a cell phone look out from their apartment windows bewildered as twenty shirtless young men rage in the street, shrieking and hurling orange cones at one another. “Cut,” yells an assistant director from a stepladder. He looks back at the show’s producer and director, who are both grinning triumphantly by the monitor. “I’ve never seen white guys riot like that,” the AD calls out admiringly. “We must be out of cheese or something. No more Gouda!”
The faux riot will be background for a skit about Bong Boy, a Teva-wearing, acne-plagued stoner who regularly turns up at scenes of human tragedy because “he likes the way the combination of drama and weed create a heightened reality,” as Kent Alterman, vice-president of development for Comedy Central, explains. The pot-and-chaos enthusiast is one of the countless characters dreamed up by the Upright Citizens Brigade, the reigning masters of New York City’s alternative-comedy scene, and the chosen few to have actually landed a show on Comedy Central. Unlike most of the network’s other gambles – new programs destined for short, quiet lives, tucked away between any of its less remarkable offerings – this one has got what is arguably the best position for a comedy in all of cable: the time slot following South Park.
It is a singular opportunity for a comedy troupe that traffics in the peculiar and the provocative: “Comedy Central has done so well with South Park that now they’re sort of like, ‘Wahoo! Be raunchy, be risqué – whatever!’ ” says UCB member Amy Poehler, a 26-year-old blonde whose T-shirt reads, MY DADDY DRIVES AN OLD EIGHTEEN-WHEELER. Indeed, their show would likely have seemed too subversive even for cable before the words “They killed Kenny” entered the American vernacular.
Since the four current members of the UCB – Poehler, Matt Besser, Matt Walsh, and Ian Roberts – hooked up in (where else?) Chicago eight years ago, they have always had a strong distaste for anything sweet or safe in comedy (as Roberts puts it, “Jay Leno makes me nauseous”). Their oeuvre includes “Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl: Unexpurgated,” a sketch that touches on “the sexual disclosures that Anne’s father refused to reveal,” and their short film The Little Donny Foundation, a mockumentary about a boy who has, to the befuddlement of modern science, grown a horse-size penis. “We want to be to comedy what hard core and punk have been to music,” says the Arkansas-born Besser (a.k.a. Bong Boy). “Something harder and less accessible than people are used to.”
After they arrived in New York City in March 1996, it didn’t take them long to establish local cult-star status. The UCB do admit to having resorted to guerrilla tactics to gain attention at the very beginning, however. “At first, we did all sorts of things to try to get people to come to our shows,” remembers Roberts, a quintessential straight man with the calm, authoritative speech pattern of a gym teacher. “Like running around Washington Square Park with megaphones yelling stupid things.”
“Your things were stupid,” Walsh interjects. “Mine were good.”
This self-described “bunch of white people from the Midwest” have spent the intervening years polishing their act and picking up money elsewhere: Walsh sold heavy machinery for his dad’s contracting company; Roberts worked on a grounds crew; Besser was a substitute teacher; and Poehler, his girlfriend and roommate, got “sick as hell” of waitressing. Their first mass-media break came when they landed a recurring gig on Conan O’Brien’s show. “Whenever we have a sketch where we think ‘This is a funny idea and we really want it to work, but it could be done wrong nine times out of ten,’ we call a UCB member,” says O’Brien.
In their own show, which airs August 19, the foursome play members of an underground intelligence agency whose stated goal is an “ongoing mission to proliferate chaos,” in response to “the voice of society begging us to destabilize it.” The episodes flip back and forth between surreal sketches of life in the America they imagine and shots of the sci-fi four monitoring these scenes on a wall of televisions in the “inner sanctum.” Their top-secret surveillance center is equipped with spy gadgets like the “ass-cam,” which displays intelligence footage on Walsh’s behind. “It’s a play on all this millennial anxiety and conspiracy theory,” he says. It’s as if the Simpsons became human, threw Mulder and Scully into outer space, and took over the X-Files.
No fewer than nineteen crestfallen twenty- through thirtysomethings are turned away from the door at Solo Arts Group in Chelsea at one of the UCB’s weekly Sunday-night gigs in the cramped, un-air-conditioned performance space. “But we’ve been waiting here forever!” wails a young lady with a nose pierce and a Mr. Bubble T-shirt patched with sweat.
Their live comedy has a kind of frenetic, inspired goofiness and an infectious energy that spills over to their audience. The UCB depend heavily on the Harold, a method they learned from their mentor Del Close at the Improv Olympic in Chicago, in which characters and themes are revisited throughout a sequence of increasingly complex improv sketches to form a somehow cohesive overall performance. If it sounds complicated, it is. “You have to have a certain kind of logical mind to do the Harold,” says Manhattan comedian Ahna Tessler. “It’s as frustrating as trigonometry.”
Despite the challenge of following their free-form humor, the shows are, quite simply, a blast. They “feel like San Francisco in the sixties,” says a fan who would have been around 4 at the time. “I’m always skeptical about improv,” says Conan O’Brien. “They just nail it, though. They never think, ‘Oh, is this too much?’ They just go wild.”
But there is no known equation for converting the spirit of their live work into a successful prerecorded show. “It’s really ambitious because it’s unlike anything else on TV,” says Kent Alterman. “Ultimately, it leaves us with the potential for two realities: Either it’s going to be great, or it’s going to be a disaster.”
“Not all of our work is supposed to be funny,” Poehler explains. “Some of it is about being interesting and leaving the audience a little confused, maybe a little nervous, and then offering them a laugh that’s a real relief.”
Following in the deadpan tradition of The Larry Sanders Show, the group will forgo a laugh track. “Bad comedy digs itself and says, ‘Look, we’re kidding!’ ” says Walsh. “Our conceit is that this is really happening.”
In fact, they’re most pleased when farce and reality merge. “We once staged a fake protest that turned into an actual riot,” Poehler recalls. “And there’s this footage of an old UCB member being driven away in a cop car, saying, ‘Fight the power!’ To get arrested would be so cool,” she says wistfully. “I’d love to get taken in just once – for disturbing the peace.”