Hereís another installment of my wildly popular interviews with the stars of comedy. This is another short-ish one, being the final printed product rather than a full transcription. I donít have the tape of this one anymore, though I wish I did, Ďcause there was quite a bit more.
This interview was with two of the four primary
members of the Upright Citizens Brigade, Matt Walsh and Amy Poehler. I
interviewed them separately, and them cobbled their answers together to
make is seem as one. Crafty!
"The Upright Citizens Brigade" ran for three seasons on Comedy Central, before being cast into the networks ever expanding dustbin of history (joining "The Vacant Lot," "Exit 57" and others). In my opinion, it was one of the most creative, if somewhat uneven, sketch comedy shows ever broadcast. You never know what to expect with the UCB, and the show was stronger for it. These days, the UCB run their own theater space in NYC, teaching long form improv comedy classes (in the manner of Chicagoís Second City and to a lesser extent, The Groundlings in L.A.), and doing live shows three or four nights a week starring themselves, their students (current and former), and some of their well-known comedy pals (David Cross, Janeane Garofalo, Will Ferrell, and loads more have been known to stop buy for a laugh). If you ever find yourself in the city and want to see some very original, very funny, and very cool comedy shows, look them up. And itís cheap, too; shows range between seven bucks and free. Really good stuff.
These days, Mr. Walsh is a regular correspondent and contributing writer on "The Daily Show" (prolly the best show on TV, currently), while Ms. Poehler has begun her first on-camera season at "Saturday Night Live" (which presents what should be a good one tomorrow night, hosted by Jack Black, and The Strokes doing their 'thang as musical guests). Ms. Poehler also had a part in the recent summer camp parody "Wet Hot American Summer", helmed by ex-members of another sketch comedy fatality, "The State." Itís out on video just this week, and itís really funny. Just brilliant. Fucking great. Get lit and watch it, now.
DS: Do you think of what you do as being "reaction-based" comedy?
MW: I think laughter is really the only reaction weíre after.
DS: But the UCB talks about creating chaos, about blurring the line between the performer and the audience, similar to what Andy Kaufman did.
AP: We do, thatís true. I would never compare ourselves to him, but we do like to make the audience feel a little uncomfortable, because then when they laugh, it feels a little more earned.
MW: Well, I guess thereís a renewed interest in different ways to approach comedy, maybe more artistically. You donít have to do it by rote. It doesnít have to be vaudeville and set-up/punchline style. I wonder if "interactive" is a better word than reaction. In a very mathematical sense, we like to build up tension and then release that tension by letting them in on the joke.
DS: Do you see a downside to relying on that tension too much?
AP: Definitely. I see it all the time in alternative comedy rooms, where people are just out to alienate the audience, without any joke. I becomes a way not to fail. They can walk away saying, "I didnít bomb, the audience just isnít smart enough," which is such bullshit.
DS: You both teach improv classes at your theater in New York. What are the expectations that most students have about improv coming in to the class?
MW: People think of it as something theyíve seen on TV, like "Whoís Line Is It, Anyway?" What we do is long-form improv, which is different. Thereís one basic, thematic suggestion from the audience, then we deconstruct what that means, and from that itís like word-jazz-riffing off of that topic. Actually, I can only speak in terrible analogies.
DS: Thatís fine.
MW: If you watched a basketball team doing passing drills or wind-sprints, thatís short form. With long form, you see a game. Itís all of those skills in what amounts to a one-act play. Our big push in the classes is to find the game of the scene, the silent, agreed upon dynamic that the people onstage will try to heighten and explore.
AP: Long form improv is so different. You sort of have to have an audience that is ready to sit through a forty five minute piece. Luckily here, New York in general and the people who come to our shows specifically are pretty open minded, and donít mind being a little confused.
DS: It seems that in a lot of improv shows, the performers tend to rush the situation towards a sexual end, because it will always get a laugh.
MW: Right, and the audience reinforces that way of thinking.
DS: Do you try and dissuade your students of this?
MW: No. All we teach is to get to the blowjob jokes right away. Get to a blowjob joke, get to a gay sex joke as quickly as you can. Why is there silence onstage when there are 500 blowjob jokes you havenít done? I demand my students come in with a full sheet of blowjob jokes.
DS: So, donít fight the blowjob.
MW: Right. A lot of kids are afraid to immerse themselves in a forty minute blowjob joke. Which is just a fear they need to get over. They could do film noir blowjob jokes, western blowjob jokes, action adventure blowjob jokes, Woody Allen blowjob jokes . . .
DS: So the UCB are the masters of the blowjob joke?
DS: So you guys would be the opposite of the ComedySportz franchise, where blue material is not even allowed.
MW: Yeah. They have a referee, right? And he blows a whistle? Like, how good can any show be with a guy in a referee shirt? A guy who constantly interrupts scenes and reminds you that you are watching a show? Theyíre not really trying to take you to a different reality, or go anywhere with you. Thatís why I think long form is better. Not to say that they canít be funny, because they can. But itís all entrenched in a lot of rules and regulations. Plus, thereís a guy in a referee shirt.
DS: Youíre entering your third season on television, but sketch comedy shows on Comedy Central seem to usually only last a single season. To what do you attribute your relative longevity?
AP: Maybe Comedy Central just forgets that weíre on.
MW: Uhhhh . . . I attribute our longevity to having a third season. Ot maybe itís because we get high a lot. I donít know. Weíre lucky. Weíre just lucky.
AP: Honestly, itís because a lot of shows are put together like all-star teams. Weíve worked together for like six or seven years. We try and be a little more communistic. We try and be like the Wu-Tang Clan.
DS: Do you ever have the urge to do a dramatic role?
MW: Yeah, sure. Even if just to see if itís as hard as doing comedy. Why, do you have a script?
DS: Yeah, Iím working on it.
MW: I hope itís a cop thing.
DS: Yeah, buddy cop.
MW: Then Iím in. I want an Asian partner if possible.
DS: Ok, a wacky Asian. Then what will you be.
MW: Iíll be a ComedySportz referee.