The Top of Your Intelligence: My First Two Years at Upright Citizens Brigade

November 6th, 2013 by | Tags: , ,

This week was kind of a landmark for me. I got a notification that I’ve completed my Sketch Writing 301 class at UCB. This is big for me, as it means I’ve hit all the core curriculum classes at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater. There’s far more for me to do and I intend to do it, but for now, I’m pretty glad to have reached this goal.

Outside of their Comedy Central show from years back, I knew of UCB via a friend inviting me to a couple shows back when I was in college. At the time, I was going through some major depression and seeing ASSSSCAT (the main UCB show) took a lot off my mind. The show itself featured Amy Poehler, Jack McBrayer and Rob Riggle and was seriously hilarious. Someone brought up that they had their own improv comedy school, but that wasn’t happening for me. I didn’t have my shit figured out at the time. I was jobless and no way was I going to be able to be making regular journeys into New York City, let alone paying however much the classes were.

Time passed and while my financial situations got better, I totally forgot about my desire to do an improv class. Then my brother enrolled me into Improv 101 as a Christmas present back in 2011. My class would begin in February of 2012.

My teacher was Tim Martin, known these days as the voice of the dog from the Optimum Hotspot commercials. That took me aback when I first realized it because that’s his regular speaking voice and I didn’t pick up on it for a while. Kind of like how it took me forever to realize that Colin Ferguson was Roddy from Freakazoid. Anyway, Tim was a really cool guy and the class was completely laid back. There were 16 of us with 12 of them being ladies. I turned out to be the most eligible bachelor as the other three were either married, dating or gay. Not that it did me any good.

It was a lot of basics, mainly focusing on the idea of “yes and.” That’s the term for taking what somebody says and agreeing with it while building on it with another piece of information, like a verbal game of ping-pong. Agreement is the key here and it was rather funny how one woman in the class, Cintrella, just didn’t give a damn and did whatever she wanted, even if Tim had to interrupt. Like someone told her that her ankle was broken and she immediately said, “No it’s not. It’s totally fine.” She did whatever the hell she wanted, but she did it with such gusto that we kind of let it slide at times.

We’d get eight classes for three hours each, followed by a graduation show. At 30-years-old, this was my very first time performing on stage and I was nervous as hell. In the footage of the show itself, it’s blatantly obvious because I’m completely overwhelmed with desperation for the first few minutes. The way the show would work is that we’d get a word from the audience and someone would walk forward and do a monologue about that word. Some kind of story that it reminded them of. Then we’d do a series of improv scenes based loosely on that, someone else would step forward and we’d get another monologue. Rinse, repeat.

During that first monologue, I’m in the background, looking like I’m trying way too hard to come up with a concept. My scene turned out to be a fun opener, where I played a babysitter who was enraged with the mother after I found a taped football game in her closet, without the expressed written consent of the National Football League. It turned out well, but it also showed off my biggest weakness as a performer, which I’ll get to later. The whole show came out pretty good for a first show by a bunch of people who learned the basics.

Not too many of the class moved forward. Only seven of the sixteen, I think. I still keep in touch with a few of them and I definitely feel more connected to them for being the first people to work with. Two of them joined me in Improv 201 a little bit later, including Samantha, a girl who mainly took Improv 101 to help her get used to talking in front of people, since she was new to teaching. Last I heard, she finished off 401, so that’s pretty awesome that she kept at it.

I took Improv 201 with Lydia Hensler. That turned out to be the toughest class, mainly by design. 101 is about building you up while 201 is about breaking you down. Justification was the biggest thing about that class. You couldn’t just be wacky. You had to have a reason why you were being wacky. If you are playing a boxer getting ready to fight a bear, you have to have some kind of explanation as to why you think you’re going to be able to take out a bear. Lot of performance mistakes were made and a lot of notes were given, usually while interrupting the scenes themselves. What made it harder was that there were a lot of two-person exercises. That meant classes where you’d get to perform a couple times and spend the rest of it sitting through the performances of the other duos.

I did get to double-dip a lot when it came to classes when we had an odd number of people, with somebody needing to go twice. This meant having to do many scenes with a guy who I won’t name who I found very peculiar. He was a guy who asked lots of questions and wrote pages and pages of notes for scenes he wasn’t even in, but he all but refused to be in any scenes. It was crazy. He’d only step in when Lydia called him out on it and even then, he’d rein himself in and play it completely mild-mannered. That meant he’d always get up last for any exercise and I’d always volunteer to share the scene with him. It was a shame, since he was pretty funny when he tried, but who knows what was going on.

I think it was 201 that led to one of my favorite stupid scenes. We were doing quick warm-up scenes and the suggestion was “picnic.” That led to two guys walking off the back line and one saying, “For my team I pick… the Knicks!” Then a bunch of guys came off the back line to enthusiastically jump up and down while the other dude in the scene was calling it unfair. It took a few minutes after it was over for some to realize that “pick Knicks” was a pun. I don’t know, I just love bad jokes.

As challenging as 201 was, I came out of it stronger and the graduation show went pretty well. We continued with the monologues, only the format was different. We’d get the suggestion, do three monologues one after the other, someone would “edit” on the last one (run across the stage to signify that it was over) and we’d start doing a bunch of scenes based on the ideas of the monologue stories. We would use “beats,” which means that scenes would be revisited by the same people later on and be escalated. For instance, I did a scene where my father (played by the brilliant Geoffrey) yelled at me for listening to Nickelback the same way a parent would yell at their child for doing drugs. Later, we did a scene about him as a parent yelling at me for seeing Twilight, again acting like it was the same as me taking a horrible drug.

One weird incident in that show was when we were doing the three opening monologues. The first two went fine, but the third guy was about fifteen seconds into his monologue and before he could even get to the funny part, a girl ran off the back line and ran around him, editing the monologue and forcing him to end it, much to his confusion and visible annoyance. On the YouTube video of the show, various people have questioned why she did that.

The 201 class refused my suggestion for a group hug, so I washed my hands of them.

My Improv 301 was taught by Doug Moe, who was also a delight. The class was based on learning the Harold, a style of improv that tends to be the go-to format for a lot of groups. It starts with an opening game, which could take many forms. For the class we were mainly taught “pattern game,” which was kind of like a group word association thing that would go on for a few minutes and would lead to us gradually coming up with (hopefully) funny concepts. For instance, let’s say the word is “baby.”

“Babysitter’s Club.”
“Wooden club.”
“A babysitter hired to keep an eye on a caveman.”
“No, Krug! You stay out of the ice cream!”
“Krug want stay up late!”
“You not boss of Krug!”
“Who’s the Boss?”
“Bad TV shows.”
“Barney the Dinosaur.”

And keep going with that a couple times. And that’s just one of many different opening games to contract ideas.

So you have your opening game, then three “first beats.” That’s followed by a group scene of three or more people. Afterwards, we have three more scenes that act as second beats to the original three, escalating the jokes. Then there’s another group scene. That’s when the third beats begin, which not only go faster and more ridiculous, but tend to bleed into each other. Characters from various scenes meet up and interact.

In other words, if the performed scenes were like comics, you’d read Batman #1, Superman #1, Wonder Woman #1, Teen Titans #1, Batman #2, Superman #2, Wonder Woman #2, Legion of Superheroes #1, Batman #3, Superman #3 which features a special appearance by Wonder Woman, then a crossover between Batman and the Teen Titans with the Legion of Superheroes popping in at the end. Then it’s over. Something like that.

There was definitely a better sense of chemistry by this point, since going through the trouble of taking 301 meant you probably had more quality to your style. Not that there weren’t one or two weaker players, but it definitely felt like this class was firing on more cylinders than the previous two.

I should note that other than your performance itself, there are two things you need to do to succeed in completing this courses. One, you have to see at least two improv shows at one of the two UCB theaters. Not the worst assignment, especially since we got passes to see any Monday-Thursday show for free. The other was to not miss more than two classes. Considering the several hundred bucks per each class and there being eight of them, it always struck me as bewildering why anyone would let it get away from them. I’ve missed two classes in all of my time at UCB and while I forget my reasoning for one of them, the other was because of jury duty and I was really pissed about it. Now, being more than 15 minutes late was also the same as being absent and they wouldn’t even let you remain in the class for the day. That meant in the eighth class, as we were in the middle of warming up, a girl tried to walk in despite being pretty late. This was also her third strike. I remember Doug silently shaking his head at her and the broken look on her face as she slowly closed the door. Man, that was hard to see.

I really wish the 301 class show was recorded because I thought it was really funny. It featured me doing the absolute worst impression of John Stamos. Two guys were doing a series of scenes about being two Nazis hiding out under the guise of the Olsen Twins and I decided to do a walk-on. I figured, “Who would know the Olsen Twins on a personal level?” So I walked on, declared myself as Stamos and said, “Have mercy!” Then I realized that other than like two other things, I didn’t know many specifics about the guy.

By this point, I was still hit with stage fright before each show. What I’d do a lot of was get to the theater an hour earlier than usual and watch another class show, a lot of time from a 101 or 201 class. That tended to take the edge off. Regardless, my stage fright would wash away seconds upon being on stage, so that was fine.

During the last few weeks of 301, I started taking Sketch Writing 101 at the school. I’d take these minutes apart every Wednesday for the sake of simplicity. After all, I had to sit through an hour-long bus ride to these classes, so taking them consecutively worked out on that front, while it helped me with keeping Wednesdays as my regular day off at work. Telling them, “Actually, now I’m going to be taking Thursdays off instead,” wouldn’t have gone over well.

For Sketch 101, I had Zack Poitras, a really laid back and supportive guy. The class itself was pretty mellow. You’d write a sketch for each week based on a theme, do a table read with your classmates, then talk over what worked and what didn’t. Then we’d watch clips from random sketch programs and go over the inner workings. It all came very natural to me and even from the first sketch written, Zack told me I had a great grasp on “the game,” the term given for whatever the humorous concept is for any sketch or improv scene.

Sketch classes have 10 students instead of 16 and one thing I’ve noticed is how it isn’t quite as warm as it is with improv. Students in your sketch class are more like coworkers that you get along with while improv students are people you form a real bond with a lot of the time. I think it’s more because in sketch classes, you feel like you’re either competing with each other or criticizing (constructive, mind you), while in improv, you’re building something together and working as partners.

The first two sketch classes don’t have graduation shows, but you know what does? Improv 401. In fact, it has three shows! Then again, by the time you hit 301, people stop appearing at your shows. It’s no longer special and they don’t feel as bad about passing.

For Improv 401, I had Kevin Hines, probably my favorite teacher. Funny story, a few weeks in he made some kind of comic reference and I told him that I too was a comic guy. His response was a dry, “Yeah, I know, Gavin. I’ve read your blog.” I was taken aback and sure enough, I found out that a year prior, he was commenting on a David Brothers article. That was pretty cool.

401 was an awesome class, but taking Sketch 101 really enunciated my main problem as an improviser: I was too into pre-writing my scenes. Rather than let the scene write itself, I had a habit of walking in with an idea of the beginning, middle and end and I would let my scene partner have little say in the matter. Here, I thought that taking the classes concurrently would make no difference, as they worked hand-in-hand, but it was actually hurting my comedy.

That 401 class was incredibly solid, though. Lots of amazing talent from all walks of life. Everyone from actors to stand-up comedians to an actual Miss America contestant. Unfortunately, our first class show was pretty bad. I mean, it’s to be expected that there would be stinkers in this setting, but that really did bring morale down, since everybody was off that day. Luckily, our second and third shows kicked ass. The second show featured one of my favorite moments, where upon having, “FIRE! FIRE!” screamed directly into my ear, I got shocked into doing a screaming, freaked-out, profanity-filled rant with my parents in the audience. I tend to be extremely mellow all the time, so it was a blast cutting loose like that.

There’s this one warm-up game done before classes and shows called Hot Spot. The idea is that someone stands in the middle of a circle and sings a song while everyone supports them, whether it means dancing, singing along or clapping. Once it seems they’re running low on gas and forgetting lyrics, someone has to tag them out and sing a song that’s somehow related to it, no matter how vaguely. 401 taught me a very important lesson and if you ever find yourself taking an improv course, it’s best to remember this: people fucking LOVE IT when you start singing the theme to Duck Tales. LOVE IT.

401 is the final core class and what follows is Advanced Studies. Even if you finish 401, you don’t automatically get thrust into advanced. You have to apply via essay and they get advice from your latest teacher over whether or not you’re ready. With 401 done, I knew I wasn’t going to be accepted, but tried for the hell of it anyway. I was rejected, as expected, but got some good advice from Kevin. He said that I was close, but I needed more experience performing and I needed to work on my emotional reactions to what was being said. I didn’t disagree with any of it.

While I hadn’t performed too much outside of the school, I did take some practice groups with my 201 classmates back in the day for a couple months. A practice group is where you rent out studio space, hire a coach and basically do your own bootleg version of the class. Like taking a tutor as a group. With 401 done, I joined up some of my more current classmates to do the same. It was there that my good friend, the wonderful Caitlin, coined her catchphrase, “FUCK YOU, GAVIN!” I promise, it was used lovingly.

I went into Sketch Writing 201, taught by Melinda Taub. That one lacked the energy of Sketch 101, mainly because people dropped like flies. The class started with 10 people and by the end, we had 6 at most left. This one had more of an emphasis on rewriting your work. Not much to talk about here, although it was really funny how much extra class time we had, what with all the time saved from having so few scripts to read.

I took up Improv 401 once again. Normally, I would have gone with a different teacher for the sake of variety, but Kevin Hines was teaching a class that was right after my Sketch 201, so I went with what was more simple. Besides, Kevin knew my strengths and weaknesses and going Groundhog Day would probably work out for the better.

While I definitely improved on my style, I did run into another failing. I’ve become too dependent on namedropping pop-culture, doing things like mentioning Groundhog Day for no reason. I kept at it and worked on my problems and felt more confident about my improvising abilities than ever. All three of our class shows went very well, especially the final one where I got to play a bear on heroin. Truly, my finest hour. At this point, I felt that being accepted into Advanced Studies would be a lock. I had this!

Then I woke up one day to an email on my phone that I was rejected again. Shit. Not going to lie, this one kind of stung. Especially because this time it lacked a paragraph telling me what I needed to work on. While it didn’t make me want to call it in and quit, it did make me decide that I probably needed to take a sabbatical. I’d take a break from improv in general until maybe January 2014. Besides, my wallet could use the breather.

I have a feeling Kevin realized I was a bit affected by it as when I was at the UCB Training Center to take part in Sketch Writing 301, we shot the shit for a moment and he segued into making sure to give me advice not to give up and just to keep at it. My drawback right now is that I’m not natural enough and I need more on-stage experience to hit that next level. Fair enough, although that’s the hardest part for me to work on, just for the travel and time management. At the very least, I do intend to hit more practice groups and probably take 401 again. But that will have to wait. Especially now that I have a second job.

For Sketch 301, I had Matt Klinman. Klinman was great and it showed from the first week. I had to bring in a sketch and I pulled out something about gunslingers that I wasn’t especially proud of. He looked at it, talked up what worked and told me that it was worth improving on. After a couple rewrites, it became one of my most solid sketches for that class.

One of the most memorable experiences from that class was this one girl Meghan. She had a writing style that was just plain weird. Like, she’d come up with a ton of ideas and rather than trim them down, she’d use them all. Her sketches tended to feature a recurring character named Jupiter, who was an overly-friendly Australian who ran a sex shop for dogs. That’s the most lucid concept she had. Doing table reads of her stuff was a complete blast because you had no idea what the fuck.

Then we had this assignment where we had to write a “Fuck UCB” sketch. A sketch that goes against the structure that we’ve been taught since the beginning. For me, that was the hardest sketch to write because the structure they taught us was all I knew and it made too much sense in terms of comedic storytelling to mess with. I came up with something good and that was fine. Meghan, though? She never really adhered to the structure to begin with, so telling her to stray even further away? Holy shit. She ended up rewriting it a couple times, but no matter what she changed, the whole thing was this Dadaist nightmare about fetuses jerking off onto each other, getting high and killing themselves in the name of America. I don’t even…

With Sketch 301, we got to do a show. Unlike the improv stuff, it wasn’t up to us to perform. Instead, we had a group of actors do our stuff. At first, we had 13 sketches on tap with ten of us in the class. That meant three of us got two sketches used and I was one of them. Sweet! I knew that one of them wasn’t going to work so well due to technical reasons, so I could see the writing on the wall when Matt said that there were likely going to be some cuts. Then Matt sent an email saying that some sketches had to be cut for time restrictions. He was being polite, as 13 sketches became 12. Heh.

The lead up to the show was kind of crazy. We were to have a tech rehearsal a few days before the show and Matt couldn’t make it due to a personal situation. We had a sub (my 101 teacher Zack, who was glad to see I was burning through the classes) and we weren’t aware going in that our rehearsal was two hours instead of the three we all assumed. We didn’t find this out until the two hours were up and we were still rehearsing, so of all the writers, I was maybe the only one who still had any optimism for the show.

In the end, the show went great. My sketch was performed by Rebecca Gold and Ashley Brooks Roberts and they nailed it. While it was recorded, I have no idea if it’ll ever find its way onto the internet. I hope it does, though. I’m very proud of it.

That’s been enough for this year. I’ll get back on the UCB horse once January comes. It’s brought me a lot of people I’m proud to call friends, I’ve had a lot of laughs and I’ve had an absolute great time in all of my trials. I intend to keep pushing forward as long as I can and see where it brings me.

In the meantime, here’s a list of all the sketches I wrote since starting in 101.

Familiar Date: A guy is getting ready to meet a girl he met online, but then starts seeing her face everywhere, from newspaper articles to the FBI’s Most Wanted List.

News Pops: A lengthy commercial for a breakfast cereal where the back of the box has the daily news. Buy a new box every day to be up to date!

Casablanca: You know how Victor from Casablanca was the perfect guy and Ilsa was reluctant to stay with him? Here, he’s far from perfect, making her far more reluctant.

Grammys Memo: A topical sketch, Taylor Swift has to hear about all the things she’s not allowed to wear at the Grammys, which gets more outlandishly risqué. Like how she’s not allowed to walk around pantless while holding a potted plant.

Lantern Trailer: Another topical sketch, Hal Jordan discovers the dying body of the Pope, who bestows to him his magic ring and recruits him into the Vatican Corps.

Jack Blaster: An Ultimate Warrior homage tries to make the adjustment of going from being a wrestler to being the world’s most intense pro golfer.

Rip Van Winkle: After sleeping decades, Rip Van Winkle has the world’s most severe case of morning wood.

Phantom Baby: The Royal Family discover that Kate was never pregnant. She was just very fat. Turns out a half-digested pot roast looks a lot like a fetus when you look at the ultrasound.

Bring Your Daughter: The awkward situation where you’re doing Bring Your Daughter to Work Day and you’re performing a major drug deal.

Get It Straight: In an assignment where I had to ape Saturday Night Live’s style, a gameshow where the normal people are aghast that a conspiracy nut is awarded all the points for his febrile answers.

Chip Braxton: Time Traveler: A man travels to save Abe Lincoln and then freezes up because he totally forgot about why he came over in the first place.

Thaddeus Himble: The fiscal battle portrayed in the board game Monopoly had ended ten years ago and the winner, a giant thimble, is now a broken, hollow, alcoholic mess.

The Avenging Dragon: A martial arts movie where the trope of the big bad fighting off four henchmen at once as a training exercise goes horribly wrong and reaches its natural conclusion.

The Last Breakfast: The morning after the Last Supper, Jesus and his followers are totally hung over and it just doesn’t feel as important.

Trevor Tragedy: A news story about how the world is shocked at the sudden death of a beloved musician/glass-eating enthusiast.

Sinister Alliance: A group of supervillains don’t quite like their latest member, who insists on being naked at all times because public nudity is against the law.

Camp Crystal Lake: A sad, lonely montage of what Jason Voorhees does during summers when there’s nobody around to slaughter.

Frankenstein: Dr. Frankenstein creates a monster for the sole reason of having a fifth guy for poker night. This leads to the creature getting violently addicted to gambling.

Gun Duel: During the pre-duel dramatic staredown, we hear the thoughts of two gunslingers who keep losing their train of thought despite the dangerous life-and-death situation they find themselves in.

Limited Commercial Interruption: Based on a true story, two ladies try to watch Whose Line is it Anyway online, only to be bombarded by the most depressing commercials, each sadder and more outlandish than the last, making it really hard to keep up the enthusiasm. This is the one that got used for the show.

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2 comments to “The Top of Your Intelligence: My First Two Years at Upright Citizens Brigade”

  1. Sounds fun

  2. I did want to say something about this, but I haven’t been sure exactly what I want to say.

    But I will say that I think it’s pretty great that you’re following your dream, or at least your “hey they would be really cool if I could get good at it job”.

    So for now I’ll congratulate you on getting this far, and I’ll be rooting for you to continue to go farther. Even if I’m not exactly the biggest fan of improv. Well, besides Who’s Line. Both versions.