Published on July 30th, 2009 | by Sharilyn Johnson


JFL Comedy Conference, Day 3, Part 2: Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre


Moderator: Paul Provenza

Panelists: Matt Besser, Ian Roberts, Matt Walsh, Neil Campbell, Andy Daly, Lennon Parham, Horatio Sanz

Good turnout for this one, presumably from nerds like myself who enjoy anything and anything to do with the UCBT. Paul Provenza was absolutely the best choice possible to moderate this panel. He does standup at their Los Angeles theatre, and is incredibly passionate about sharing good comedy with people.

From L: Sanz, Roberts, Parham, Daly

From L: Sanz, Roberts, Parham, Daly

If you’ve ever attended the Press Conference that kicks off the annual Del Close Marathon at the UCB’s New York location, you’ll have a good idea of what was discussed in this panel. Lots of history of the theatre, the history of the UCB itself, and the general philosophy that they learned from Del Close and continue to teach today.

Provenza asked how they had the confidence to enter the teaching marketplace back in the late 90s, and Matt Walsh pointed out that nobody was doing longform in New York back then, never mind teaching it.

“I went through the Players Workshop in Chicago, for a year, and realized ‘oh, these guys don’t know what they’re talking about’,” said Matt Besser.

Ian Roberts noted that “we’re not a bilking organization” with endless levels of classes like a “9th Eagle level” or a “Silver Bear level”.

The discussion turned to the concept of the “game of the scene” which is the UCB’s focus above all else and sets them apart from other schools. Besser noted that this comes in very helpful for actors who are instructed to improvise with a script. They’ve been trained to immediately identify the “game” within the written scene and build upon it, which generally will improve a writer’s idea rather than take it in a completely different direction.

Provenza pointed out the unique business model of the theatre: nobody pays to do a show there, and nobody gets paid. Roberts confirmed that “the theatre, if you took away the classes, isn’t a money maker.”

“We have a really low [ticket] price and that’s a decision we made way back,” Roberts continued, saying that that goal was to be seen by as many people as possible, and keeping the price low accomplishes that. They would rather have a lot of people paying a little, than have half the number of people paying more.

Neil Campbell, Artistic Director of the UCBT-LA, said that there was no real place to do sketch in LA until UCBT opened its second location there in 2005. It was easy to gain a following in LA because everyone was “so happy to have a place to do it”.

Besser recalled opening their original theatre on 22nd St. in New York, a former porn theatre where they had to scrape condoms off the floor and throw bricks at the mirrors on the wall because they couldn’t get them down any other way.

He then mentioned going through a similar process (sans condoms) currently for their secondary New York location in the East Village, which will be opening in November of this year (“I think that’s news”). The new venue will feature mostly standup and sketch shows, while the main location on 26th street will continue to focus on improv.

Lennon Parham remembered her first time going to a show at the old space on 22nd, and feeling like an outcast because everyone seemed to know each other (of course, she became a part of the community, and is LA-bound for her role in the new CBS series Accidentally On Purpose).

She also spoke about the common vocabulary UCB performers have, so everyone knows how to play with each other. Also, “there are so many UCB people in the world, it’s inevitable you’re going to work with them,” she said.

An audience member asked about bailing on scenes that aren’t working. Andy Daly said that the back line can almost always bail you out, and Roberts said that “sometimes the only way to play a scene real is to walk off the stage, but it’s up to your scene partner to keep you there.” The don’t-kill-your-scene-partner lesson followed.

Daly confirmed that for a short period, the theatre experienced a “mild Robin Williams infestation.” When he would drop in for Asssscat, he would naturally start a scene at the very front of the stage, making it hard for the others to interact with him.

“Once he realized we were going to make whatever choice he made funny, he relaxed,” said Parham.

Horatio Sanz noted that despite the difference in styles, “he’s like the Pope. If he shows up, you have to invite him into your house.”

From L: Besser, Campbell, Walsh, Provenza, Sanz, Roberts, Parham, Daly

From L: Besser, Campbell, Walsh, Provenza, Sanz, Roberts, Parham, Daly

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About the Author

is the author of the book Bears & Balls: The Colbert Report A-Z. Called "one of the city’s most discriminating comedy critics” by NOW Magazine, Sharilyn has been covering comedy for longer than she cares to admit. She served as the comedy reporter for Winnipeg's Uptown Magazine for five years, and was the host of the radio show Laugh Tracks for three seasons. Her work has also appeared in the Toronto Star, the Winnipeg Free Press, The Apiary, and on CBC Radio's national comedy programs LOL and Definitely Not the Opera.

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