Last Friday night, comedy troupe The Upright Citizens Brigade Touring Company performed in front of a sold-out crowd in Memorial Chapel, tackling such campus issues such as The Skull and Key Society, the Zonker Harris name debacle, and the difficulties of keeping your hard-partying friends away from prefrosh and their parents. From the moment the four-person group took the stage, they made a pronounced effort to ground their show in Wesleyan-specific situations, providing a uniquely relatable experience for the enraptured audience.
The Upright Citizens Brigade is an improv comedy group based in LA and founded by comedic heavyweights Matt Besser, Amy Poehler, Ian Roberts, and Matt Walsh. They practice long-form improv comedy, in which the group makes up scenes as they go along to create a successful and amusing story, all stemming from a single audience suggestion. The UCB Touring Company is currently on a nationwide tour of college campuses and other venues.
Opening for the was Wesleyan student long-form improv group Gag Reflex. The six-person troupe started off the night with a short set that demonstrated the concept behind long-form improv. First, Peter Conforti ’14 built the audience suggestion of “umbrella” into a stand-up routine. Next, the group thought up situations and took turns trying to outdo each other as each reiteration took the joke behind it to the next level – a phrase that began with a kindergarten romance ended with the wooing of an egg by a sperm cell, for example. After Gag Reflex left the stage, the audience was primed for the Upright Citizens Brigade.
The UCB set was audience-driven from the beginning. The group took the stage and immediately led the crowd in a rendition of the Fight Song, whose lyrics they didn’t understand at all. They then asked the students in the audience to tell them about campus news, like the Beta scandal or the Matisyahu controversy. The members of the group riffed on the disjointed information they received from the crowd, wittily attempting to summarize the mood on campus without many of the proper details. (After trying to figure out the issue with Matisyahu, one group member posited, “Is this a very anti-Semitic campus?” Another replied, “You didn’t hear the lyrics to that fight song.”)
The formal show began when the group called up a volunteer from the audience, Jess Seward ’13, and proceeded to question her about her life. They asked about her major, her interests, her hometown, and more, providing fodder for their improvisational scenes. After the interview concluded, the group worked together to create short scenes based on the information from Seward’s life. They jumped from Michael Roth’s office, where he complained of criticism directed at his presidential style from “Garfield” comics, to a dorm room where a group of college students enjoy illicit dog-petting, to a Chuck E. Cheese that a father attempts to transform into Disney World to please his gullible daughter. Throughout it all, the group showed off their considerable talents at improvising humorous situations and snappy-one liners.
Generally, I thought the performance was thoroughly enjoyable. However, I somewhat lost the thread of the performance during the second half of the UCB’s set, when they moved from exploring the events of Seward’s life to making up their own scenes on the spot. I spent most of these scenes trying to figure out from where the initial idea had come and wondering if I had missed the audience suggestion upon which the improvisation was based, rather than enjoying the performance.
Still, I spent most of the show doubled over with laughter and found it to be an excellent way to kick off the weekend. As a relative newcomer to long-form improv comedy, I look forward to the next time a comedy group performs on campus.