It's been almost 10 years since their show went on television last century, but their weirdness is utterly timeless. With no laugh track or live audience and a minimal soundtrack, the Upright Citizens Brigade had a half-hour television show mixing real-life pranks with filmed sketches and for three years managed to sustain a straight-faced run of inspired surreality. Yesterday, four years after the release of the first season, the Powers that Be finally saw fit to release the second season on DVD.
The Upright Citizens Brigade gained their greatest fame as a television act, but they make their bread and butter as an improv institution. They have opened their own clubs in New York and L.A., training new improv and sketch comedians, including the troupe Human Giant. And, since the cancellation of their own show, the UCB cast members have all stayed in comedy, Amy Poehler on SNL, Matt Walsh on The Daily Show and Man Bites Dog, Matt Besser on Crossballs, and Ian Roberts on an extended guest run on Arrested Development. (Poehler, whom I've written about before, was hilarious on the Upright Citizens Brigade show as a writer and performer in a way she's never able to be on Saturday Night Live, though she gets far greater exposure on NBC.) Whatever their current project, their great collective legacy remains the television show, as subversive and bizarre as consistent hilarity has ever gotten on television. It really hasn't aged a day.
The format of sketch comedy has exploded on television in recent years, while televised improvisational comedy has stagnated in the family-friendly format of Whose Line Is It Anyway? But sketch and improv comedy are closely related, and often cross-pollinate each other's formats, jokes, and cast members. More than Monty Python's BBC-style British absurdism, the original cast of Saturday Night Live set the standard for the genre in North America. It was closely followed by SCTV and Kids in the Hall in Canada. SCTV was from the Toronto outpost of Chicago's Second City improv troupe, the Tabernacle in the Salt Lake City of improv, and Second City supplied numbers of members to both SNL and SCTV. The members of the Upright Citizens Brigade all started out at the ImprovOlympic, the second-most venerable improv club in Chicago. When they got the gig on Comedy Central, they moved from improv to sketch comedy for the half-hour format. Though they haven't been on TV together since the new millenium started, through their show and their theaters, they're one of the pillars of modern comedy.
So what is sketch comedy? Short answer: it's what they do on Saturday Night Live. Long answer: unlike improv, where jokes are made up on the fly, generally from an audience prompt, sketch comedy groups perform short written skits, often making liberal use of impressions, funny voices, bad language, and parodies. (Full disclosure: I was in a sketch comedy group in college with Nick Antosca and this guy, among other future leaders of the free world, and committed all the above indiscretions.)
The Upright Citizens Brigade stage shows are legendary, but even on cable television they shy away from nothing, no matter how violent, crude, silly, or utterly bizarre. The high-concept premise of the show casts the group as a subversive underground organization dedicated to subverting the status quo. Their most famous sketch, "Ass Pennies," comes from the first season episode "Power Marketing." Two businessmen, brothers, are playing golf. The older, wealthier one confides the secret of his success: sticking 30 dollars worth of pennies in his ass every day and then spending them. Over the years, he explains, because so many people have handled his ass pennies, he has a mental edge over them. His younger brother ends up running away in horror after noticing that he has a few pennies in his pocket. The sketch ends with the older brother shouting defiantly at the audience and at the Brigade who are watching him on a screen, "Your pennies have been in my ass!"
Comedy is a delicate profession: when done well, there's nothing that feels better to witness or create. But when done badly there's nothing more deadly. Comedy can break through the walls of political correctness, uncover the uncomfortable truth, heal all wounds, and express thoughts and emotions that wouldn't otherwise be acceptable. And it can make you bust a gut and giggle yourself silly at private moments of downtime in a cubicle farm. The Upright Citizens Brigade are comedy at its best. See them on stage if you can. Enjoy them on TV. Watch your quality of life improve.