UCB: Inside The Comedy Theater Churning Out All The Female Talent

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slide3Photo: Courtesy of UCB.
On a Monday night in August, Ruby Karp, a 13-year-old comedian, took the stage at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theatre to talk about the first time she saw a boner. She was at a performing-arts summer camp, and as she sat on the lap of a boy as part of a performance, she felt it poking at her. The audience laughed, easily relating to the uncomfortable tweenage moment that is realizing the presence and purpose of a penis for the first time.

It’s rare to see such a young lady taken seriously as a comic. There are not many clubs that would host a teenaged girl comedian. But, Karp is a prime example of how UCB has become a special home for the funnywomen of New York.

When Amy Poehler and Matt Besser moved to the city in 1996, they had no intention of opening up a comedy theater. They were just trying to get their sketch show picked up by a network. But, when they got here, they saw a deflated comedy scene.

They craved the sense of community they felt back in Chicago, and thought they’d try to introduce that same feeling here in NYC. They opened up their own training center in 1999, and got their own theater space — UCB on West 22nd Street — that same year.

Fifteen years later, the theater that wasn’t ever intended to be has become a farm for the biggest comedy outlets in the country, including Saturday Night Live, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, The Late Show With David Letterman, The Ellen Degeneres Show, 30 Rock, and major motion pictures. Most recently, the theater’s encouraged talent like Sasheer Zamata, SNL’s latest hire, and Abby and Ilana of Broad City.

New Yorkers interested in taking a class at UCB will tell you it’s nearly impossible to sign up. Classes are announced just a day before registration opens. Spots fill up within minutes. Still, those dedicated to joining up eventually find a place in the theater’s training program. Students must start with level-one classes, work their way through the outlined coursework, and hope to emerge on the other side as part of a house performing team. Besser says this tight curriculum and methodology carries over into the sketch and solo acts — the very performances that land comics big-time gigs.

Though the pressure of such a legacy can be intimidating, artistic director Shannon O’Neill insists UCB is a welcoming, nurturing environment.

“My approach to teaching is making sure everyone is having fun and learning,” O’Neill says. She encourages her students to embrace their failures. “You get more out of failure than success. Success reminds you that you can do it. Failure reminds you that you can be better.”
slide2Photo: Courtesy of NBC.
Besser humbly describes UCB as an “organic comedy collective.” Except, it’s not so natural an existence. For years, comedy has been a white-washed, male-centric community.

“When I started doing improv in the early ‘90s in Chicago, it was generally a boys’ club — one girl for every eight guys,” Besser says.

He says there’s a concentrated effort in New York to get more women involved in comedy. Since UCB has Poehler’s name behind it — not to mention frequent collaborations with Tina Fey and Rachel Dratch — the ladies tend to flock.

But, what is it specifically about the way UCB functions that makes it such a nurturing environment for women and non-white jokesters? Jo Firestone, who runs the popular installments The Incredible Game Show Showcase, Punderdome, and Friends of Single People, says the upper brass have a lot to do with it.

“Both the previous artistic director, Nate Dern, and the current artistic director, Shannon O'Neill, seem to have made an explicit effort to involve more female comedians and comedians of color in the house teams and on the monthly shows,” Firestone says. “It's a great move because it's important for younger generations to see performers that look like them onstage and to see that there's space for them to be themselves. It takes being very comfortable with yourself to do really great comedy. UCB also has some really strong, hilarious female teachers when you're coming up through the classes, and some of the strongest, most influential women in comedy today have come from the UCB. I think that encourages more women to come out of the woodwork and try classes and feel comfortable being themselves on shows.”

Karp agrees: “I'm a feminist. I'm growing up in a time where gender and ability are not separate things. And, I think UCB empowers everyone, regardless of gender, to be a part of the community. I don't feel like, 'Oh there's that girl,' when I walk into UCB. It's more like, 'There's Ruby, what is she going to do tonight?'”

Though Firestone and Karp have pegged UCB with an intangible quality that keeps women empowered, not all performers and students are so quick to call it a feminist establishment.

“UCB happens to be a wonderfully supportive place, and I say that as a comedian who just so happens to be a woman,” says Natasha Rothwell, who was shortlisted for SNL last season. “UCB is a nurturing place for all people — funny, talented, dedicated, and hardworking people.”

Joanna Bradley, another UCB performer, has similar views: “I'm not sure that UCB is any more nurturing for women than any other comedy community. I think wherever there's a critical mass of funny women who refuse to ask permission to be funny at all costs — that's good for everyone.”

She does think having a female artistic director helps. “Shannon is obviously a fabulous role model — and that's great,” says Bradley.

But, for all its progress and success, UCB continues to be an anomaly in a predominantly male industry. Bradley thinks women still have a long way to go.

“For all of the funny, brilliant, confident women at the theater, there are still plenty of us second-guessing ourselves in ways that men don't. There are still tentative considerations about whether an improv move or a sketch is too sexy, too gross, too dumb, too pedantic.”
slide1Photo: Courtesy of Comedy Central.
No matter your views on the extent to which UCB promotes female comedy, it remains the bar against which other New York comedy theaters are measured.

In fact, for many serious comedians, UCB is the only choice.

“I knew that performing at the UCB would open doors for me and give me the opportunity to take my career to the next level. So, coming to UCB was not only inevitable but necessary,” says Rothwell.

Bradley, too, considers UCB “top dog” in NYC, one that separates the amateurs from the professionals.

“It has the most impressive list of alumni, the most rigorous curriculum, the highest standards for getting on a team, the most attention from press and industry,” says Bradley, who notes the artistic directors over the years have maintained high standards for both writers and performers. “There's a lot of support, but not a lot of coddling. UCB takes being funny very seriously. There's a lot of structure at this theater. I like structure — it tends to weed out the dabblers and the wusses.”