The sketch-comedy troupe Upright Citizens Brigade formed in Chicago in 1990. After several years of performing in various venues there, it moved to New York to pursue bigger and better things. Over the past several years, the UCB has developed a nationwide reputation as witty, irreverent, and conceptually ambitious, a reputation it helped solidify with an enormously well-received performance at this year’s Aspen Comedy Festival. Its hotly anticipated TV show recently made its debut on Comedy Central, where it follows South Park. The Onion recently spoke with each member of the group—Matt Besser, Matt Walsh, Ian Roberts, and Amy Poehler—about following the most popular show on basic cable, their storied past, and the future of the Upright Citizens Brigade.
The Onion: You do free shows every Sunday. Do you think you’ll ever be too big to do stuff like that?
Amy Poehler: No, I don’t think so. The show that we do on Sundays… We’ve been improvising for eight or nine years, and it’s been an incredible tool for our scenes and our shows, because we take ideas and improvise them and write them. The good thing about the show that we do for free is that we just show up and do it. We don’t really have to put any time into it. It’s really laid-back. We kept it free because we wanted that vibe; we wanted it to be an event rather than something we could make money off of. But we’re trying to move into a new space here in New York because our crowds have become too big. We’re trying to get our own space and our own theater.
O: The entire group moved from Chicago to New York a couple of years ago. What was behind the move?
AP: We wanted to get our sketch show on TV. In the interim, we wanted to perform our live sketch shows that we had written in Chicago: We had written two, one we had performed on a stage at Second City and another that we had performed around Chicago in the ImprovOlympics. We brought both those shows out to New York, so while we were doing those shows, we were pitching ideas to different networks and stuff. Chicago is an amazing place to perform, and it’s incredibly supportive and filled with great stuff, but if you want to get a sketch show on television, you have to move to New York or L.A.
O: What would you say are the main differences between Chicago and New York?
AP: I think the improv community in Chicago is so dense that the audiences are often fellow improvisers, whereas that’s not really the case in New York. I also think that in Chicago, shows seem to run a bit longer in the same theaters. In New York, things change a lot quicker. It’s easier to find a space in Chicago and to put a show up that isn’t all the way done, because there’s a little less pressure. But I also found that New York audiences are really enthusiastic: They know what they like, and if they like it, they tell people, and people come again and again.
O: You don’t think Chicago audiences are the same way?
AP: Yeah, I think so. But when I was in Chicago, I was dealing with improvisers and sketch people who were my friends for the most part filling up my audiences. In New York, I was in a city filled with pretty much nobody I knew. People weren’t coming to see the show because we had done a show together before or something.
O: How do you think the Upright Citizens Brigade has changed over the last eight years?
AP: Eight years ago, there were a few more members that aren’t in it now, like Adam McKay, who is the head writer for Saturday Night Live. And Horatio Sanz, who just got on [SNL], and Armando Diaz, who is now an improv teacher in New York. In that sense it’s changed. And I also think that we’ve gotten really focused over the last couple of years and worked really, really hard, because we were really focused on coming to New York and setting these goals for ourselves. Creatively, I don’t know how much has changed. We’ve had the same kind of tone and style forever. I don’t think that has changed much. The shows themselves have maybe taken on different forms, but I don’t think it’s changed too much creatively, and certainly with the sketch show that we’re doing on TV, there’s no big change creatively, which is really nice.
O: So there’s been no giant shift in tone or anything.
AP: No, not at all. And again, that was really important to us. We’ve learned from past experiences with friends of ours who have had to work on things that were their own—whether it be sketch or whatever—that when they compromise and change, and things don’t work out, they’re constantly regretting the fact that they didn’t do it their way. They’re thinking that if only they had kept it their way, with their voice, maybe it would have worked, but if it didn’t, at least they tried. We’ve seen examples of that not happening and people being really disappointed by it.
O: What do you think is the state of sketch comedy today?
AP: I think it’s being revitalized. I don’t know. I’ve never believed that it was dead or anything, I think Mr. Show is a fantastic show. We were all big Monty Python fans, obviously, and Kids In The Hall fans. I loved The Ben Stiller Show when it was on. I’ve never really felt it’s disappeared, but people like to say it has.