While you might not recognize the names of the individual performers in the Upright Citizens Brigade Touring Company, there’s a good chance that you soon will. The Upright Citizens Brigade began as a small improv troupe in Chicago before relocating to New York City to start their own theater and improv school. UCB has consistently grown since, adding a theater in LA, a second in NYC, and expanding its class offerings.
Big-league improv troupes like UCB, Chicago’s Second City, and LA’s Groundlings are, in ways, the foundation of the national comedy scene. These theaters are talent incubators that serves as pipelines to Saturday Night Live, Comedy Central, and network comedies like 30 Rock and The Office. The Upright Citizens Brigade has been a major player in both the alternative and mainstream comedy worlds, with many members eventually becoming household names. Amy Poehler (an original member), Aziz Ansari, Ed Helms, Patton Oswalt, Horatio Sanz, Paul Scheer, Rob Huebel, and Bobby Moynihan have all done time with UCB (and some still do).
It should be clear from all the name-dropping that this is going to be funny, but an important question still lingers - why is UCB stopping through Calvin? Reformed Calvinism, and Christianity in general, isn’t usually known for its ability to inspire laughter. Its relationship to comedy has more typically been adversarial - drawing lines in the sand by determining what is and isn’t “appropriate” to draw humor from. Even at an institution with a rich history of cultural discernment, it seems that we haven’t developed a clear language to discuss what makes good comedy, finding it much easier to talk about the Tree of Life than Bridesmaids. This isn’t to say that Christians won’t touch comedy with a 10 foot pole, but the relationship has always been a little awkward (a kind of watching-a-sex-scene-with-your-parents awkward).
All people live within a set of codes. Depending on what religion or cultural group one belongs to, there are certain things that are not permissible to do or say. This has a serious impact for the way that we view an art form that prides itself on pushing boundaries. The typical reaction from Christians has been to either run away from comedy because it’s too risky (a seemingly inherent characteristic of comedy), or to create our own version of it. The “Christian comedy” that has developed defines itself simply by not using swear words and focusing on positive, non-controversial subjects (i.e. men and women are different - hahaha!). Unfortunately, we miss out on a lot of brave, insightful comedic material when we avoid the medium or try to control it.
One vital role that good comedy can play is that it has a prophetic ability to point out contradictions and absurdities in the world and encourages us to laugh at them. Yes, when we identify the corrupt and the ridiculous in our politics, working to reform the political system should be a primary response. But isn’t laughter a true, vital, human response as well? And can’t the very act of uncovering the problem lead us into action? In a culture in which we tend to believe in our own power over the elements, it’s also a reaction that accepts that the world is a crazy place in which we can’t always control the circumstances of our lives completely.
An incident that happened last summer at an Upright Citizens Brigade improv show provides a good illustration of what comedy, and specifically live comedy, can do for a healthy public discourse. In her account of, and mediation on the incident, Halle Kieffer of Splitsider said this,
"I honestly believe that we as comedians are philosophers and poets and therapists, in addition to being normal screwed-up human beings. Even when we are telling butthole jokes, it’s a way to bring to the surface all the dark garbage floating around inside our humanity and expose it to the light."
Live comedy presents us with real people “thinking out loud.” What they’re doing is part performance (giving them the license to explore the uncomfortable), but it isn’t just acting - the best comedy seems to be tied to real experiences. The controversial incident at hand happened at the the popular UCB show ASSSSCAT, a format in which a celebrity guest or a guest from the audience tells a real-life comedic story and then the performers use the setup to craft improv sketches.
At this particular show, a member from the audience was given the microphone and proceeded to give a monologue about how he took a girl home and had sex with her without consent. There were gasps of horror from the audience, but the monologist continued as if their gasps were simply due to a difference in taste, as if the audience just “didn’t get it.” Right up there in the spotlight, the performers were forced to react to a date rape story. Members of UCB didn’t immediately cut him off or throw him out of the venue, but used the subsequent sketches to reveal the truly unfunny and ugly nature of the story. Several times the performers explicitly reminded the man that what he described was, in fact, the criminal act of rape, but also crafted sketches that addressed how a funny anecdote to some might be a horror story to others.
Now I understand that this kind of “teachable moment” isn’t the norm for a comedy show, but it showcases the unique way in which comedy can open up a dialogue about serious issues. The take away from this wasn’t just “rape = bad,” but highlighted the very real ways in which injustices against women can be discussed as jokes by seemingly normal men.
So enjoy the Upright Citizens Brigade show, get some good laughs, let yourself be entertained - but understand that if you let it, comedy can do much more.
- Dan Hofman