The Austin Chronicle


Local Arts Reviews

Reviewed by J. C. Shakespeare, August 4, 2000, Arts

Upright Citizens Brigade: Group Alchemy

Bad Dog Comedy Theater,

July 28

One of those crusty old Greeks defined comedy as something that happens when two mundane and seemingly unrelated threads are joined together in an unexpected way that somehow evokes laughter. But neither Aristotle nor Plato could have envisioned the comedic tapestry put together by the four quirky minds that make up the Upright Citizens Brigade.

Aristophanes, maybe.

Having seen the UCB's work on television, I had high expectations for the live show. And from the moment the sketch comedy group took the stage (following an excellent opening set by comic Justin Sanders and a nice -- albeit brief -- set by Monks' Night Out), it was clear that the Brigade members were delighted to be playing on the road. Group chemistry is essential to sketch comedy, but what the UCB has is more like group alchemy. When four versatile performers are fully in the moment and completely engaged, there is almost a sense of danger in the air, and the feeling that anything could happen keeps the audience riveted.

The UCB structured its 75-minute performance in the form of a panel-style talk show called That's F***ed Up! -- imagine The View hosted by four loony dysfunctionals rather than four chatty women. This format allowed the group to play out a series of seemingly random sketches held together by a common narrative. By satirizing a daytime talk show, they were also able to skewer a wide range of cultural targets.

The key to the UCB's humor is a combination of subtly clever intellectual comedy and slapstick nonsense that packs a powerful punch. A sketch on the incompetence of teachers in public education featured principal Ian Roberts haranguing three droolingly delusional teachers played by Matt Walsh, Matt Besser, and Amy Poehler. History teacher Besser answered every simple question with an elaborate theory about Atlantis, volcanoes, and the Crab People. Math professor Walsh answered questions by consulting a "time machine" on his wrist. The huge punch came when Poehler, a petite blond with the irresistible charm of Jodie Foster and the loopy energy of Sarah Jessica Parker, tried to hide her ignorance by answering a grammar question with, "Crab people!" She then danced sideways off the stage, her hands frantically clawing the air over her head. The exit got such a huge laugh that Walsh used his "time machine" to rewind the scene and make her repeat the exit five more times, at which point the audience was screaming.

The show was full of such hysterical moments as the troupe tackled everything from gun control to frivolous litigation to the hype of virtual reality. My favorite sketch featured Besser and Poehler spoofing the Little Rascals showing off their gun safety "invinshuns." Their manic mugging as Buckwheat and Froggy had the room howling as they demonstrated the carrot in the gun barrel and the tennis ball over the end of a pistol "so the bullets goes round and round."

The UCB got a well-deserved standing ovation from the crowd. This is exactly the type of exceptional comedy that the Bad Dog promised to bring to Austin, and the UCB delivered in spades. My only complaint is the sound in the theatre; sitting in the back, I often had to strain to hear the performers -- a problem that could be corrected with the addition of some speakers in the back of the room. It's hard to hear when 300 people are wracked with belly laughs, but that's a good problem to have.

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