UCB House Teams Are Serious About the Business of Comedy
BY SEAN EGAN | “Like a lot of the city, Chelsea has been changing from a collection of strange, dingy spaces to fancy new buildings. And where would you most like respite from that? In a grocery store. But what’s even better than a grocery store? That’s right, a basement. There’s something about a basement,” asserted Sue Galloway, a performer with The Law Firm at Chelsea’s Upright Citizen’s Brigade (UCB) Theatre, explaining the longevity of the venerable sketch and improv mecca adjacent to Gristedes. There, in the supermarket’s below-ground space, is where “people who barely qualify as adults, except in numerical assessment, pretend to be whatever they think is funny. Basements are inherently subversive.”
Connor Ratliff, of UCB’s The Stepfathers, was a tad more direct in his assessment: “NYC is expensive, and UCB does shows that are both high quality and super-cheap. … They will cost you a fraction of the price of even a single ticket to a Broadway show, and I bet you’ll like them 10 times better,” he claimed, highlighting the attractive $5–10 price tag. “It has kind of created its own ecosystem, because the audiences are great — in part, because of the low ticket price.”
It is exactly that winning combo of affordability and consistently subversive, high-quality performances that keep locals and out-of-towners coming back to UCB. The theater’s namesake group was founded in 1997 by comedy heavy-hitters Matt Besser, Amy Poehler, Ian Roberts and Matt Walsh (whose surreal sketch show ran on Comedy Central from 1998–2000), and since 1999, the UCB Theatre has become a reliable improv training ground and NYC comedy institution, with their weekend “house teams” being particular highlights of the jam-packed schedule. The Stepfathers and the Law Firm are two such teams, and perform weekly on Fridays.
The Stepfathers, as the longest running UCB show outside of their flagship “ASSSSCAT 3000,” have found longevity in pairing their distinctive comedic voice to longer-form improv. Each show is split into two halves, and each more or less focuses on one scenario, letting it marinate and grow over its extended running time, gradually getting weirder and funnier. At the last show this writer attended, the first half chronicled a twisty trip to Mexico; the second featured a woman dog sitting for her distressingly pooch-obsessed parents.
For Ratliff, a six-year veteran of the team, the key to the show’s success is the group’s willingness to slow things down, and dig into a situation. “There are great teams that play very fast,” he explained. “But I think there’s a patience, and knowing, in feeling comfortable taking time to do something.”
“I think that sometimes that’s a strength of the team, is the confidence to know that the funny thing doesn’t have to happen five seconds into the scene, that you can actually build to something slower,” he continued, highlighting the performers’ trust in one another, even if their end game isn’t immediately apparent. “For me, the beauty of it is the cooperative element; that you’re actually watching a team really work together to try to create the same thing.
Ratliff also prides The Stepfathers for allowing themselves to flirt with dark, weird material, and their ability to handle more emotional scenes well.
“The team is unafraid of going to very strange places,” he said. “I think the team sometimes relishes the danger of not knowing where something’s gonna go.”
“Comedy should have some danger to it,” Ratliff elaborated. “And I think The Stepfathers, even though we’re a veteran team, I think it’s still a dangerous team” — as the aforementioned show, which involved some prominently featured (hysterical) bestiality, can attest. Still, he went on, “You want to be dangerous in a smart way, not a stupid way. And you want to be stupid in a smart way too.”
In contrast to The Stepfathers’ long-form game style of improv, The Law Firm plays things much more “fast,” with performers switching between scenes quickly and effortlessly, as the situations increase in absurdity. One show can find the team spiral from telling the story of a childlike terminally ill man, to checking in with a pair of inebriated cops, to a singularly surreal porn parody prominently featuring Six Flags.
Galloway — performing with The Law Firm since 2008, associated with UCB since 2002, and whose other notable credits include “30 Rock” — accurately and succinctly describes their shows as “kind of crazy.”
“We like to ‘follow the fun.’ So if there’s something really fun that happens, or silly — this is kind of an improv term — we ‘blow it out’ as far as we can, because that’s fun for us; to heighten and make that one silly thing as ridiculous as we can,” revealed Galloway of the team’s methods. “We sort of take it to a bit of a further degree, and I think we just have a particular silliness,” Galloway said, citing her teammates’ versatility as both utility players and unique performers as a reason for the group’s infectious chemistry.
“When we see each other it’s just easy,” Galloway said. “It’s nice for us to kind of just, like, share our love for each other onstage.”
While the two groups have very distinct sensibilities, they both share the same livewire energy common to many UCB shows — which manages to keep things interesting for the audience, as well as performers who’ve been doing improv for years.
“There is something very much at stake every week when we step out, that we have to prove ourselves to the audience,” noted Ratliff. “That’s actually part of the beauty of the art form: No matter how good you get at it, there’s always the risk of failure.”
He also stressed that he’s still often surprised and “genuinely taken aback” by his teammates at times. “If they’re surprising to me, who’s in there week in and week out, they’re gonna be certainly surprising to an audience,” he asserted.
“The thing we say at UCB is, ‘Don’t think,’ ” said Galloway, describing the thrill of performing each week. “There will be times when you’re in the show and you’re so deep inside it that you’re not thinking, you’re just, I don’t know, it feels like something has taken you over and is making the connections for you.”
Ultimately, though, for UCB and the performers, their success comes down to producing an entertaining evening, and giving the audience a hilarious, unique experience.
“I think if I was a person visiting from out of town and I went to see a show at UCB, it would still feel a little bit like I was ‘discovering’ something cool,” posited Ratliff.
“It’s really the best place that I know [of] to find your comedy voice. One reason it’s been successful is that so many talented people are drawn to it and find success in the greater entertainment world. Then others, seeking the same, come to the cradle. … It’s like an ever-evolving, super-cheap graduate school in an easy to get to area,” said Galloway, noting that the communal spirit of the theater helps elevate the comedy. “Our work comes from a place of love and passion, interest in humans and our relationship to the world. But also, you know, farts.”
The Stepfathers perform Fridays at 9 p.m. The Law Firm performs Fridays at 10:30 p.m. At the Chelsea UCB Theatre (307 W. 26th St., btw. Eighth & Ninth Aves.). For tickets ($10 per show), visit ucbtheatre.com (standby is also available at the door). Facebook: facebook.com/ucbtny. Twitter: @ucbcomedy.