Last Tuesday, on somewhat of a whim, a friend and I decided to check out the Upright Citizens Brigade, making this my second trip to the famed New York Improv venue. As you may recall, I saw two partially scripted performances during my last visit, which played to a relatively empty theatre (probably owing to the weather). Well this time was a little different.
This time around, we came to see long form improv in a format known as The Harold. These are 30 minute continuous improv performances in which the eight or nine members of an improv troop alternate jumping into or redefining a scene. Once a handful of scenes or themes have been created, they shift somewhat randomly from scene to scene, elaborating on each one until the end of the show. In at least some cases, the scenes overlap or simply collide into each other with comical results.
Another major point that set this review apart from my first visit was the crowd. When we arrived a little before 8pm, the theatre was completely packed, even to the point where there was actually standing room only for parts of the show. The crowd was pretty much what you might expect it to be, which is young and energetic, and of course, ready to laugh.
We saw three groups perform, though I only recall for certain that two of them were Bastian and Tantrum. The improv they put on was fairly entertaining, but as I’ve discussed previously, improv isn’t an exact science and it can sometimes end up in a place that isn’t all that funny. For example, imaginary giant foam hotdog hats were very funny. Explaining that the greatest prank ever pulled was to build a second statue humping the main one in the schoolyard was very funny. Rape counseling wasn’t that funny.
This is the second time that I’ve encountered seriously taboo topics in a UCBT improv show, and both times I was less than amused. While I’m inclined to say that taboo subjects don’t have to be unfunny simply because they’re taboo, I do think that if you’re gonna go after them, you have to have a really great (and probably well thought out) angle. Unfortunately this is a fundamental weakness of improv, because it’s supposed to be spur of the moment, and at least in this case, the brilliant angle never really materialized. Sorry improv-ers, it’s just not working! Stick to the funny hats!
The Bottom Line
Despite some scenes that were of questionable comedic value, it’s still a hell of a show for just 5 bucks, and it goes on for over 2 hours, though you are by no means obligated to stay that long or even arrive on time for that matter. Just stake out your seats early and enjoy the energy and innovation of the improv Troops. The Harold shows happen every Tuesday night from now till forever as far as I can tell, so if you like long form improv you’re pretty much out of excuses to visit UCBT at least once.