As Brooklyn is to the starving artist, Manhattan was to the hopeful (and perhaps desperate) comedian in the winter of 1999. That was when Amy Poehler and her comedy troupe called the Upright Citizens Brigade made the move from comedy’s then-primary home in Chicago to its up-and-coming epicenter in New York City. In search of the perfect place for what little money they had to build their own brand of comedy, Poehler and her cohorts—Matt Besser, Ian Roberts, and Matt Walsh—found a rather rundown building that epitomized the word “sketchy.” This treasure of the Bronx, “New Harmony” was a deserted (and truly filthy) strip club from which the foundation of the Upright Citizens Brigade’s hopes and dreams were constructed. When the building came under the troupe’s ownership, it was crawling with bed bugs that darted out of the fluff of the torn cushion chairs surrounding a well-worn stage, in the middle of which stood the prominent tall silvery pole (Raftery). The troupe could be found picking up the scattered pieces of bikini bottoms and bra tops, and Amy Poehler was lucky enough to have the job of digging more than one used condom from the deep passages of a grimy toilet bowl. They worked tirelessly, driven by pure ambition, to open the doors of what soon became a legendary starting point for beginner comedians and a palace for fun seekers. Renamed after the troupe, the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, or UCBT, grew so popular over the next four years that in 2003, the Brigade’s rapidly growing popularity called for a larger theater. The UCBT relocated to a larger basement in a minimalistic brick building at 307 West 26th Street, where began what is now the stuff of comedic legend. Thanks to the achievements and touches from its founders, this building—so nondescript that the name of the architect consequently has been lost in the shuffle of owners—has become a hugely significant icon for the recent movements of comedy in New York City, as well as an emblem of comedy’s success as an industry.
A lovechild of nightclubs and ancient Vaudeville acts, the comedy club was officially born in the 1970s—unique in that its sole purpose was to perform comedy (Mendrinos). Comedy clubs showcased promising new comedians and became a dwelling for New York City’s coarser crowd, though they were never seriously considered a business, for in the ‘70s it wasn’t unusual for comedians to perform without pay. Instead, they performed for the purposes of training and exposing their talents in the hopes of achieving recognition to kick-start their careers. In 1979, however, comedians led a strike that demanded payment, thereby legitimizing comedy as an industry and inspiring the development of clubs citywide (Bromley). Comics had commanded attention and in doing so, they popularized and commodified humor and “set the stage” for places like the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre to uniquely perform their own interpretation of that humor. And so the next decade, the 1980s, gave way to the rise of stand-up comedy. It became a type of art, and the number of comedy clubs and television shows featuring stand-up rapidly increased. Though as quickly as it climbed, it fell; by the early 1990s, stand-up had become overexposed. It had lost its appeal and had begun to fizzle out when “alternative comedy” was introduced (Raftery).
Alternative comedy is comedy featuring monologists and performance artists that incorporates aspects of both improvisation and prewritten sketches (Bromley). It was around the time that alternative comedy began to flourish that the Upright Citizens Brigade comedy troupe arrived in New York City. Comedy was a growing trend in the city, and several factors combined to catapult UCB’s success to its pinnacle. The theater drew the attention that was necessary to test whether different combinations of comedy or new movements of comedy would sink or swim, as well as drew the attention that was necessary for the success of its performers. The comedy troupe took these forms of alternative comedy and publicized them with their own original touch. Prior to the group’s arrival, organized comedy, such as scripted sketches or stand-up, was the norm. On television, Seinfeld and Friends were viewers’ main sources of funny, whereas Saturday Night Live struggled to stay afloat (Raftery). The UCB Four, Poehler, Besser, Roberts, and Walsh, unleashed a free, unscripted chaos on stage that loosened comedy’s collar, and enhanced the entertainment industry. The Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre grabbed the era of transformed comedy by its throat and took it in its stride. They packaged each movement of comedy including daring stand-up, obscene parody, and raunchy satire into one theater, creating a memento of recent history and a glimpse into future trends. The combination of past and emerging movements with the twist of personal touch from the UCB Four created a new type of comedy altogether. Their fame and financial success, specifically Amy Poehler’s enormous success, was and is still reflected in the building at 307 W. 26th Street. A shrine to Amy and the other founders is proudly presented right inside the door as one enters the building. Not only does it encase memories of the Brigade’s glory days, but it also highlights later performers who have since graced the stage. Publicity for the building derives from the comedic success stories and memorable performances, and it all began with Amy Poehler. So many current comedians have the UCBT to thank truly making the theater a legacy. Furthermore, the transformation of UCB’s physical home itself is representative of the growth of the time period. What began in the wreckage of a Chelsea strip club rose up to basement level in sub-par Manhattan, and then to the highly sought after television studios in NYC, and then across the nation, constructing an additional location in LA (“About Us”).
Behind the scenes, the UCB Four were shaping the future of comedy out of their past. They taught the latest generation a newfangled wit by hosting classes that had originated simply to pay the rent. These classes welcomed any mildly qualified comedian and focused on basic yet crucial rules of performing improv and group sketches. For example, rule number one: don’t be nervous or the crowd will be nervous for you, and that’s just uncomfortable. The classes served as opportunities to distribute the Four’s own unique combinations of sketch comedy and improvisation that had proved so effective and ended up expanding UCBT’s brand of comedy across the market, even nationwide as UCBT’s style became prominent on television (Raftery).
As comedy spread to television, the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre played a significant hand in building the trade and creating a new branch of revenue: Brian Raftery estimated in New York Entertainment Magazine that “half of the funny people on TV” get their start at UCBT. Many students and alumni performers have gone on to write or even perform on some of the most popular shows on television including The Ellen DeGeneres Show, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Late night with Conan O’Brien, and several others (About Us). Numerous shows with UCBT roots are also chart toppers, proving the theater’s strength and success in the industry. For example, at the beginning of 2013, TV Guide listed 30 Rock as the forty-fourth most popular show on television. Saturday Night Live and The Office ranked at numbers 77 and 92 respectively. Moreover, many of the “big names” who have already made appearances on TV currently perform improv at the theater. In the “About Us” section on UCBT’s webpage, Robin Williams, Mike Meyers, Will Ferrell, Alec Baldwin, and Tina Fey are listed as recurrent guest comedians. The Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre is a perfect exemplification of how popular comedy has become, and the club itself has been a great vehicle for expanding the business of comedy. In Brian Raftery’s estimation, nearly half of the comedy shows on television can attribute their current success and popularity to the UCBT. The financial legitimization of the industry in 1979 began the process of enlarging the trade, and the UCBT continues to do so by frequently turning out noteworthy names, and by representing past, present, and future trends in comedy.
The development and current status of UCBT envelops pivotal moments in the history of comedy and encapsulates every future trend. The theater on 26th Street is a shining example of the era of comedic flourishing and is supported by some of today’s most well known comedians, making it one of the most important and popular clubs to date. Its creators established a fresh new industry out of an exhausted one that demonstrates the growth of improvisation and reflects the perhaps cruder humor of the modern day. Its success is clear given that it has produced many if not most of today’s star comedians as well as created an entirely new branch of entertainment. The Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre is a remarkable symbol for American comedy’s most recent history and a crucial part of the growth and the success of the business of comedy.
“About Us.” Ucbtheatre.com. Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, n.d. Web. 9 Apr. 2013.
Bromley, Patrick. “History of Stand-up Comedy in The 1970s.” About.com. About.com Comedians, n.d. Web. 10 Apr. 2013.
Raftery, Brian. “And…Scene.” Entertainment sec. Nymag.com New York Magazine . 25 Sept. 2011. Web. 11 Apr. 2013.
“TV Guide Most Popular TV Shows.” Chart. TV Guide. Web. 11 Apr. 2013.