30 Rocks’ Tina Fey and Parks and Recreations’ Amy Poehler will be hosting the Golden Globes this Sunday. I was fortunate enough to witness both of them perform multiple times in a 75 seat black box theater in Chelsea ten years ago.
My friend had a bachelor party in September of 2001—exactly one week before 9/11. Someone decided that we should attend an improv comedy show at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. It was a former strip club and sat at a little black box theatre on 22nd Street, just east of Seventh Avenue.
What I witnessed that evening would forever change how I looked at comedy.
The UCB started in Chicago in the 1993. The most recent incarnation includes Poehler, Matt Besser, Ian Roberts and Matt Walsh. They moved to New York in 1996 to perform and opened up the theater mentioned above in 1999. They moved to a larger theater in 2003 and expanded to L.A. in 2005.
They also had a TV show that lasted for three seasons on Comedy Central from 1998-2000.
Long-form improv typically begins when a member of the improv group member asks the audience to shout out the first word that comes to mind.
For example, if someone shouts, “Ice cream!” two or three players would form a scene based on ice cream. An improv rule is a player responds “Yes and..” to all lines. One should never reject or a say “no”. If the scene circles back to “ice cream”, then it has reached “The Harold” which was invented by the improv godfather, Del Close. There are also no props used in long form improv as opposed to short form improv, which was popularized in the show Who’s Line is it Anyway?
Tina Fey started as a writer at SNL in 1997, moved up to head writer in 1999, and anchored Weekend Update with Jimmy Fallon in 2000. 30 Rock premiered in 2006.
Fey was like an improv ninja. The scene would carry on for a good four or five minutes (in my estimation) without her participating or saying a word. When the right moment came, she would utter a few lines, bring the house down, and the scene was over.
While Amy Poehler was performing on stage and screen for the UCB, she became a regular on Late Night with Conan O’Brien. One of her most popular bits at the time was playing Andy Richter’s hyperactive little sister.
Her manic energy carried over to her live performances. When she was on stage with the other founding members, their scenes were so seamless and fluid that it was shocking to realize that none of it was scripted.
During the writer’s strike in 2008, Fey spearheaded a live performance of 30 Rock at the UCB Theatre.
The UCB continues to thrive today. For five bucks, there really isn’t a better bargain in town.