Some of the best comedy in this city can be found in back of a McDonald’s on 8th Avenue and West 26th Street. The Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theater, or “UCB,” started small, taking over a small strip club, and is now known as one of the finest improv theaters, with shows every night of the week featuring some of the funniest and most talented comic performers in the city.
UCB was founded in New York City in 1999 by improv actors Matt Besser, Amy Poehler, Ian Roberts, and Matt Walsh. Some performers are likely to be found on national television, others are just starting out, but all are trained in the signature UCB style and are excellent improvisers.
As well as being founded by some big names, some of the most famous comedians have also performed on the theater’s stages including Tina Fey, Conan O’Brien, Alec Baldwin, Will Ferrell, and Mike Myers, among others.
Despite its celebrity clientele, the theater is far from luxurious. When the original actors moved to New York from Chicago, they found themselves in need of a theater on a limited budget. After some searching, they happened upon the New Harmony on West 22nd, a strip club that reported to be “seedier than seedy,” which was closing its doors. Eventually, the theater outgrew its former home, and moved to its current location on West 26th Street.
As well as growing out of a strip club, “There are tunnels behind the green room at UCB that McDonald’s uses to throw away trash,” said Abra Tabak, a performer at the UCB we sat down to interview. “That’s where we go to warm up and receive notes.”
The theater also functions as a school, at which all of the performers are trained. The teachings are modeled after the style of Del Close, an actor, writer, and teacher instrumental in establishing improv as we know it. He developed the “Harold Structure”, used in long-form theatrical improvisation, which usually focuses on a key word or phrase as the subject for a subsequent improvised skit. It is now performed by improv actors throughout the world.
Every year, UCB hosts a “Del Close Marathon” which commemorates the late actor with a long form improv marathon performed at various venues throughout the city.
“My favorite thing about the theater is the people,” said Tabak . “New York is obviously such a big city and it’s very special to have a home like the theater.”
Tabak started taking classes at the UCB in 2006, when she first moved to New York after college, and hasn’t left the theater since. She performs weekly in the shows Grandma’s Ashes: We Won’t Tell, ASSSSCAT 3000, and Take It Personal.
The UCB offers a variety of shows that will suit any taste. There is straight up improv in shows like ASSSSCAT 3000 on Sunday nights, as well as more varied performances like Gentrify on Fridays that bring in a mixture of talents and styles, as well as standup, and shows with a specific hook, like Take It Personal, the hip hop improv show. One of Tabak’s favorites is Lady Jam, an improv jam at midnight once per month, where only women sign up to perform.
Perhaps what makes the theater most unique, apart from the talent, is the care that goes into each performance. The setting is warm, the performers engage the audience, and people are there because they want to be. At each show, there is a palpable energy in the room, a sense of shared experience that larger venues can sometimes lack. The actors care that you had fun.
“We truly treasure hearing you enjoyed the show,” said Tabak. “No one at UCB doesn’t appreciate hearing that we made you laugh.”