22 September 2010


I finally got around to watching Upright Citizens Brigade: ASSSSCAT! (2007) tonight, and I figured I would share a few of my thoughts after viewing it.

Upright Citizens Brigade
The comedy troupe known as the Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB) is probably best known for their TV show of the same name, though readers of this blog may also recall me briefly mentioning it with regards to Dog Bites Man. I was first introduced to the group through the television show as well, ranking it just after Mr. Show in my list of favourite sketch comedy shows. (For those who are curious, Kids in the Hall and Monty Python vie with each other for third place.)

However, the actual original origins of the troupe was as an improv group at Chicago's ImprovOlympic. Although ASSSSCAT! was done after the television show, it harkens back to the old days in many ways. A live, improv performance from the group was recorded and released as an hour-long TV special. The cast includes the four members from the show (Matt Besser, Amy Poehler, Ian Roberts, and Matt Walsh) joined by Horatio Sanz (part of the original improv troupe line-up) and Chad Carter, Sean Conroy, and Andrew Daly.

How it works
The resulting special is less a "film" than simply a recording of a live show. The purpose is, essentially, to give viewers at home a chance to see how ASSSSCAT! works without having to visit Los Angeles or New York.

The basic format goes like this: Members in the audience will shout out suggestions. These can be anything. The troupe will then have a celebrity guest act as "monologist," which basically means that they tell a story based on the suggested topic. The troupe then plays off ideas from the story to do improv sketches. After a while, they have the monologist tell a different story that is in some way related to their first one (though not necessarily the original audience suggestion), and they troupe will elaborate on those ideas again.

The difficulty in discussing improv
Ultimately, in the end, I'm somewhat at an impasse here. There's no real plot or characters to discuss. I could run through what the topics where and highlights from some of the sketches, but you might as just watch it yourself, then. Part of the fun of improv is not knowing what they're going to go with an idea.

I guess, really, I can only talk about how much I enjoyed it in a more general sense. Obviously, things are somewhat hit and miss with improv. However, UCB seemed to be pretty good at it, and when an idea just wasn't working and they could tell the audience wasn't really feeling it, they'd quickly switch out and start on a new trend. When they had something that was working, they would stick to it and flesh out the humour.

Successful improv comedy hinges on two things. First is, obviously, creativity. There needs to be a mind at work that will take a concept and draw from it something very unexpected. If you've worked at all in the retail business, you're probably aware that a lot of people have the same "spontaneous" idea for a joke given a situation. I can't tell you how many times I heard, "Hey, this is missing a price tag. Does that mean it's free? Hyuk hyuk hyuk!" I think a lot of people, if presented with, say, a banana, would pick it up and use it as a phone. Or if they're feeling lewd, hold it in front of their nether regions. UCB doesn't really use props, but I'm just illustrating something. Good comedy often involves surprise. It often makes us look at a situation in a new light, in a way we've never thought of before.

However, for improv troupes to work, they also need to be able to mesh together. There needs to be a similar sense of humour, and the group has to be able to read what the other members are getting at and follow it or change it in new and interesting ways. They also need to be able to see when their fellow members need them to step in to help, by either providing a new character in the situation or by switching out the scene altogether.

I would say that UCB is fairly competent in this regard, and the result is certainly entertaining. Again, it lulls at a few parts and at others it sores majestically, and I think that's just sort of part of how improv works.

All and all, ASSSSCAT! provides and interesting look at the roots of Upright Citizens Brigade and into the creative minds of its members. It's worth checking out if you're into improv or sketch comedy, as is the television series.

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