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What Happened to UCB?

The owners will probably get around to it eventually.

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Seth Simons

Jan 13 2022

6 mins read

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One of the interesting things happening in comedy right now is the disappearance of the Upright Citizens Brigade. A shadow of the training center is still up and running, with a small battalion of teachers in its employment and a catalog of online classes for people who, I guess, have not lost hope in the future of the Harold. But the theatre and its accompanying brand—as one of the most important institutions in the recent history of comedy—is nowhere to be found.

I touched on this in my end-of-year newsletter, but here's a quick recap anyhow. At the beginning of the pandemic, UCB laid off almost all of its workforce. A month later it took out two massive PPP loans—relief funding intended to help businesses retain workers—and said it would treat them “generally” as low-interest loans to help pay outstanding expenses. (The loans were mostly forgiven.) It closed its New York venues and later sold one of its two Los Angeles venues. In the summer of 2020, like many businesses that purport to be progressive, it took heated criticism for its various structural inequalities (as it had many times over the years, to little effect). In response, the owners announced their intention to work with Project Rethink, “a think tank for positive change comprised of BIPOC/LGBTQ+/disabled individuals” in the UCB community, to restructure the organization from the top down, converting both the theater and the school into nonprofits. That was in September 2020; the owners have not made a peep since December 2020, when they announced the sale of the Sunset Boulevard space. 

What happened? Where did they go? Nowhere, really. They’re still just living their lives. Matt Besser is doing his little improv podcast. Amy Poehler is making Making It and Baking It, the reality competition shows that audiences love and definitely aren’t cynical cash grabs, with her manager and friend Dave Becky. Ian Roberts produced Reno 911: The Hunt for QAnon, out a few weeks ago on Paramount Plus. Matt Walsh did an episode of the new season of Curb Your Enthusiasm, among other recent acting gigs, and is hosting a Veep rewatch podcast with Timothy Simons. UCB’s business entities are still active; while it’s totally plausible they’ve received nonprofit status and haven’t yet filed any public disclosures, somehow I think they’d at least announce the milestone. Meanwhile, the Second City, the Groundlings, the Annoyance, the Magnet, and the Peoples Improv Theater have all awakened in some capacity from their pandemic slumbers, whether virtually or in person. The UCB 4 appear to have followed through on their June 2020 promise to relinquish operational control of the training center, but none of their many other promises. 

To state the obvious, I believe UCB has long been a corrosive force in comedy. The art form and industry are better off without it. The fact that the UCB 4 must go, however, does not absolve them of their responsibility to go out the right way. These people—one of them fabulously wealthy—built their careers running an exploitative comedy theater that was so successful it set the norm for exploitative comedy theaters worldwide. There are small, promising changes happening in the system UCB helped create, like the formation of two cooperative theaters in LA and Boston. Still, an incremental crawl toward equity cannot possibly outpace the economic forces making it impossible for normal people to pursue a life in the arts, with all the unpaid and underpaid labor that pursuit entails. The circumstances call for transformative change; they call for an accounting. The people who fucked it up for everyone else need to say so, and then they need to use their ample resources to help fix it. 

The UCB 4 can still make things right—if they care to. Ironically, the exploitative nature of their business puts them in the perfect position to empower their successors. It’s the UCB pitch, after all: the theater served as a launchpad for comedy’s biggest stars. It would be very straightforward for Amy Poehler and her colleagues to leverage their alumni networks to raise substantial funding for the next generation of improv theaters, which ideally would be structured more democratically than UCB. (Yes, this is roughly my proposal for comedy clubs too. There are a lot of comedians who can afford to part with ten to fifty thousand bucks!) Then there are their extended professional networks, which include massive talent agencies, management firms, production shops, and regular old multimillionaire movie stars. It’s cliché by now to call UCB a pyramid scheme, but… that is pretty much the shape of what they created. And it would be well within their power to turn the pyramid upside down.

The hitch, of course, is that they think they already paid forward their success just by creating UCB. What my proposal presupposes is: what if they were pressured to do the right thing?



Elsewhere,

-This week the Pope and Steve Harvey denounced cancel culture, Fox announced a new sitcom starring DL Hughley and executive produced by Dave Becky, Netflix announced a new special from Aziz Ansari, and Joe Rogan called the vaccine “gene therapy” on Tim Dillon’s podcast. In other words, everything’s chugging along as usual.

-Last week Kenan Thompson told Jimmy Fallon it was not Lorne Michaels who decided to send the SNL cast and crew home amid the omicron surge last month, but NBC. Which can only mean that Lorne’s decision was to…

-When NBC made that call, on December 18th, there were 10,319 new cases in New York with a 7-day average of 13,153 cases. Yesterday those figures were 49,410 and 73,546, respectively. So obviously SNL is off this weekend, right? Wrong, idiot: Ariana DeBose is set to host with musical guest Bleachers; the originally scheduled musical guest, Roddy Rich, just dropped out due to a Covid exposure.

-Sorry to be crass, but does nobody give a shit about this????

-I loved this new poem by Natalie Shapero:

-There's a funny bit in this interview with Second City’s new leadership team where the interviewer tries to absolve the theater of all that racism stuff: “It sounds like, from your standpoint, it was less of an institutional racism problem and more of a dysfunctional management-structure problem… It wasn’t that people were inherently racist, there just weren’t diverse perspectives, and that leads to blind spots.” Yeah man, sounds like the institution was racist!

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a modest proposal