Meeting good comedians is more adventurous than just seeing them entertain. Much like their performances, they are easy to get lost in, and the comedians that hail from the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York are no exception.
“I hope this article doesn’t get any sort of spin,” said Fran Gillespie, a member of the UCB Theatre Tour Company. “Recently there was an article that came out after one of our shows and it was very vague. It described one scene and said ‘Gillespie’s Renee Zellweger impression went on too long.’ ”
The rest of the company laughed but this is a promise to Gillespie this article won’t be spun.
Members of the UCB Tour Company all had their inspirations from the Blues Brothers to Airplane to Adam Sandler and Jerry Lewis, and their humble beginnings in high school and college, but the UCB Theatre in New York is what got them touring the country.
It wasn’t easy, but Johnny McNulty, another member of the UCB Tour Company, gave a standard model for how he got involved.
“I did some stuff in high school and then I saw a really cool show that was like a UCB showcase,” McNulty said. “I asked them how to get involved and they told me to go take classes. So pretty much, you go to the UCB in New York and start taking classes and you’re in.”
The Upright Citizens Brigade Tour Company for Wednesday’s performance consisted of John Fruscinate, Gillespie, McNulty and Ben Rameaka, all current residents of New York City belonging to the UCB Theatre.
Students eager for a free night of improv comedy formed a line half an hour before the doors were to open. The audience almost packed the Student Center Auditorium, a surprising feat considering Russell Brand was on campus the same night.
“The show was awesome and so funny,” audience member Devin Cushing said. “I thought it was pretty good. For a while, I thought it was something they had set up beforehand, but once they were getting texts from the audience, you realized they were just quick-witted.”
“This was my first experience with improv comedy and it was impressive,” said Leo Cartier Jr., another audience member. “My favorite parts were the genderless Swoop skits.”
The genderless Swoop, an example of a character improvised and fleshed out throughout the sketches, was created by the UCB troupe out of the audience’s inability to identify Swoop’s gender.
However, just because the troupe didn’t know Swoop didn’t mean they were unfamiliar with the surrounding Ypsilanti/Ann Arbor area.
“I visited Ann Arbor a bunch when I lived in Chicago,” Gillespie said. “It’s really fun and has good movie theatres. I love it here.” Frusciante exclaimed about his love of Zingerman’s Deli and the group clamored with agreement.
For the first part of the show, the Brigade picked a volunteer from the audience to be interviewed and built skits off of the details of her life.
“There are forms a lot less welcoming to uninitiated improv audiences,” Rameaka said. “People that normally don’t go see shows? This is a good way to get them on board. We take one of your own, take them up on stage, we show that we’re not a bunch of weirdos and we interview them.”
Kate, a nanny and self-proclaimed member of the hippie persuasion, was selected from the audience and sat facing Frusciante. The Brigade asked her about everything from her past EMU roommate troubles to her desire to be a midwife and even her Survivor tattoo, which she claims was related to the reality TV show and her obsession with Richard Hatch.
Some audience members thought the skits based off of Kate’s life were funny, but harsh. However, the Brigade had a different perspective on it.
“It wasn’t about her,” Gillespie said. “You just pull something that’s unusual and then you exaggerate it so really it has nothing to do with her. It’s just inspiration.”
“We take that information as jumping-off point and we spin it in our own comedic way,” Frusciante said “If anything, we’re sort of celebrating that person. The interview and the scenes we’re doing off of it are like a celebration of that person’s life and the details they give us. It’s a way of sort of lifting them up and showing them this fun light.”
“It establishes a connection with the audience so that you can see the source that we’re going off of,” Rameaka said. “So you see something on stage and say to yourself ‘oh, that reminds me of…’ and ‘I know where that came from, I know what they’re doing’ and the audience gets to see how we evolve it into something else.”
For the second act, the Brigade asked audience members to read out text messages from their phones. Once a text was selected the members would improvise skits based on the relevant details.
“Unusual texts are better than texts that people think are funny,” Rameaka said. “One of them tonight was like ‘I can’t flush the toilet.’ I know somebody would think that would be funny but you already know what’s going to happen and where it’s going to go, you have to develop that material a bit more.”
“When texts are kind of vague, you can ask what does that mean and you can put more of a spin on that, investigate it further and make it more surprising,” Frusciante said.
Such inspirations from Kate describing her desire to be a midwife, which mixed with text messages led to interesting results, all of which the audience loved.
“My favorite part of the show was all the imitated births,” Cushing said. “All the performers really got into it. They were hilarious.”
The four troupe members rotated throughout the night’s performance giving each a chance to imitate giving birth at least once. Sometimes Rameaka was screaming through the labor pains and other times he was sliding across the stage to catch an invisible, incoming baby.
At the end of the night, everyone left a little lighter than before. Laughter sometimes is the best medicine, apparently even for labor pains.