Dallas — Just go. That’s great advice whenever a top-flight improvisational comedy group comes through town. Even if you’ve never watched a national improv ensemble before. Even if the only improv you’ve seen is based on games and contests. Just go. You’ll laugh a lot and come away astounded by the skill. Who knows, maybe you’ll like it so much you’ll check out local improv at Dallas Comedy House, Alternative Comedy Theater, and a passel of independent groups.
The Second City comes most to mind, with their roadshows of polished sketches, often musical, interspersed with some comedy improv. But the touring company of Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB) shows the bones of where sketches like that originate: improvisational interplay between comedians. They performed at Dallas City Performance Hall last Saturday at part of AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Off Broadway on Flora Series.
With most performances, the audience is presented an end result created after extended composition and rehearsal. In improv, you witness the creative process instead. Pretty nerve-wracking to have someone watch you work. It takes a confident, skilled and nimble performer. In 90 minutes UCB spun dozens of sketches, making them all up on the fly, weaving them together into sort of a storyline, yet doing it so smoothly the audience can forget there's no script.
This UCB touring company, from the Los Angeles theater, stayed to the four-person format (usually one woman and three men) of the original UCB group that founded the New York City theater in the ‘90s: Amy Poehler, Matt Besser, Ian Roberts, and Matt Walsh. A few years ago UCB opened a third outlet, UCBeast, in New York City's East Village. The skills performers learn doing improv are so muscular and creative that UCBs now essentially function as farm teams for sit-coms and Saturday Night Live.
UCB presents long-form improv, where source material generated by the audience becomes sketches on the spot. Some use as little as one word. In the style that UCB practiced, a member interviewed an audience volunteer. On this night UCB found a winner: a pregnant Hispanic woman who was having great fun with her hormonal roller coaster. It was like overhearing a pair of office pals getting wacky about pregnancy—from mood swings and leaking boobs, bladders and bowels, all the way to worrying if the kid will grow up to be a jerk—while dishing the best gossip ever. Dogs, a-hole brothers, husbands on the lam, and the joys of AT&T marketing also factored in.
Then in two sets of about 30 minutes, the four performers, who remained unnamed, repurposed all that material with hilarious results. Dog park hecklers that wield ridicule, judgment and shame were a sharply funny continuing theme. So were threaded vignettes on working through the levels of doggie day care, which begins at warehouse level evidently.
Another story arc traced a marketing team whose grand idea was to save AT&T money by dropping the “&” from their name. Ultimately the company was reduced to TT. In a tale of a pregnant customer and grocery clerk with troubling sexual tastes, a male UCB member played the female role and the female played a male. References to the conjectured Real Housewives of Fort Worth got a lot of laughs. And that was just the first half.
You don’t go to improv for familiar punchlines to quote, but for the unfamiliar, a show never been seen before and never to be seen again, making it truly something special. It’s beyond impressive to witness how much stuff the UCBers have to hold in their heads and the speed they must retrieve it. The performers meshed seamlessly into the improv group mind, with no pauses or second-guessing, no breaking of the fourth wall to cover stumbles, and no props or set to depend on except four bareback chairs.
The female UCB member was exceptionally top-flight funny. The three men were right there with her and being very physically different from each other made it easy to track their characters. A splendid experience of watching four top-of-their-game improv comedians displaying massive chops.
UCB has been in Dallas before at Dallas Comedy House and the University of Texas at Dallas. But a casual audience applause poll by performers indicated some had seen the group live, but most seemed to connect to them through their television and online activities. The podcasts reside at a special website, along with videos of sketch comedy, man-on-the-street interviews, and highly produced spoofs. UCB just signed a first-look production deal with Universal Cable Productions.