The Upright Citizens Brigade
3 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
Improvisational comedy is the equivalent of watching a blind man balance on a high wire greased with margarine with a group of famished lions waiting below. If you're not quick enough or smart enough, your ass belongs to the cats. That may not be how the Upright Citizens Brigade came up with "ASSSSCAT," the title for their latest DVD, but the same concept applies. The troupe performs skits suggested by members of the audience, a dangerous concept if your audience is primary college kids with tricked out bongs. Every line is made up on the spot, and as the ideas begin to flow, the comics move in and out of the sketches like wrestlers in a tag team match.
With as many as eight performers on stage, plus two �Monologists� (guest celebrities sweating out solo performances), there�s certainly enough mad cap ideas to go around. The troupe does occasionally walk the wire between mad cap and mad crap, but when the cats get their asssses in gear, �ASSSCAT� can be a real howl. (I love being able to use the title to be naughty.)
Founded in 1990, the Renegade Citizens Brigade is bi-coastal comedy troupe that performs in Hollywood and New York City. �ASSSSCAT� was shot in March 2007 at the Renegade Citizens Brigade Theater in Hollywood, featuring main jokesters Matt Besser, Amy Poehler, Ian Roberts and Matt Walsh. Of the four, Poehler is the most recognizable from her regular stint on �Saturday Night Live� and from her film roles in �Mr. Woodcock,� �Blades of Glory� and �Baby Mama,� the last flick shot with one of the improv�s most famous former members, Tina Fey. Featured members Chad Carter and Sean Conroy don�t leave much of an impression, but Andrew Daly and Horatio Sanz are deliriously funny and original.
The DVD also spotlights guest monologists Thomas Lennon and Kate Walsh, who do a pair of monologues designed to set up the skits that follow their lead. Listening to Lennon riff on a single idea, such as a tour in a cramped Mayan mine, you get the feeling he could do stand up for an entire night. Credit his experience as a screen writer (�The Pacifier,� �Night at the Museum,�) and his droll portrayal of Lieutenant Jim Dangle on Comedy Central�s �Reno 911,� (a show he helped create), with giving him an easy access stage presence. His stories are linear and build up to a punch line: �It�s been a while since I�ve smoke marijuana. It�s like ten Madi Gras in one!�
Kate Walsh (�Grey�s Anatomy,� �Private Practice�) tries hard, but apparently the deadpan humor of her �husband� Matt hasn�t rubbed off. (The Walsh�s aren�t related, but I had to spend a lot of time finding out, so I�m including it, thank you.) She�s a bit jumpy, as if sensing the audience is saying, �Hey, she�s an actress. Does she really think she�s funny?� Her first bit about wanting to dump a boyfriend then taking him on a skiing trip after he gives her a great gift peaks quickly (�It was like, maybe we should give this a second chance�), then crashes as it nears a predictable conclusion that borders on cruelty. The moral? Date Ms. Walsh at your own risk! Walsh�s second monologue about receiving a Christmas care package from her mother is more amusing because the actress relaxes: �She sent me tights that would be good for a seven year-old. She also sent a can of military gas, because it�s more effective than mace.�
As the only woman in the cast, you�d think Amy Poehler would have to endure a lot of sexist and derogatory comments. Sexist, yes. Derogatory, well�yes. But barbs bounce off of the petite prankster and she fires back insults like a gag-filled Gatling gun. Poehler occasionally gets caught up those �F me? F you!� circular screaming matches, but the audience seems to love it when she gets potty mouthed. When Poehler�s ex-wife character becomes the focus of an otherwise all male divorce party and the other comics start ganging up on her, Poehler fires back: �You...You ever have a girlfriend? You�Everybody knows you live with your mother! And Andy, everybody knows you�re gay!� Andrew Daly�s immediate reaction is one of the funniest sight gags on the tape.
Ian Roberts may look like the local pizza guy, but he delivers the laughs. Roberts is quick witted and self assured, plus he�s downright funny. Matt Walsh can be creative, but he�s a bit gun shy for an improv comedian and picks his spots. You want assertive, wacky? The other Matt, Matt Besser (any relation to Joe?) is the troupe�s most outrageous boundary breaker. Besser has a knack for creating and following up on the group�s most outlandish set ups. Picking up on Lennon�s Madi Gras gag, Besser adds:
Besser: (Smoking) this is like ten Madi Gras. However, the end of the joint is like Hitler�s birthday.
Conroy: You didn�t leave me a lot.
Besser: C�mon, man. There�s like three Madi Gras left.
The comment sends the cast off on a hilarious jag in which Conroy takes one toke too many and Roberts bravely assays a �sensitive� Hitler who�s upset because no one will sing �Happy Birthday� to him. The subject matter pushes the boundaries of good taste, but comedy does that sometimes, especially when it�s spontaneous, so be prepared to suppress your racial/societal/political/sexual hang-ups when you hit the play button.
The wild card is pudgy, sleepy-eyed Horatio Sanz, who looks like a Hispanic John Belushi. Sanz�s ideas are completely left of center. When Besser starts off a sketch about a staff meeting in which he complains about a problem with buzzards, the sketch goes nowhere until Sanz steps forward and deadpans: �Have you checked to see if there are any dead cowboys in the basement?�
Cast members confronted by Sanz�s off the cuff lunacy sometimes find themselves perplexed for a response. Even the unflappable Besser has to stop to ask Sanz, �What the **!! was that about?� But when Sanz�s disconnected gags work, they�re among the funniest in the show. He breaks up the audience and his fellow comedians with a single line (�Toilet scissors�) that�s so successful, astute jokers Besser and Roberts carry it into the next sketch as �pizza scissors� and believe me, you don�t want these guys cutting up your pie. In the extras, when a lubricated member of the audience makes himself part of a sketch by wandering across the stage to get to the bathroom, Sanz re-enters moments later, claiming he was kidnapped by bathroom boy, then takes his spot in the audience.
Andrew Daly is one of those unassuming Wally Cox types you�d automatically dismiss as humorless because he wears glasses and looks like he ought to be doing your taxes instead of cracking wise. He�s one of the funniest members of the cast and is an expert at starting sketches off with bizarre one liners and then topping himself, and I�m not just saying that because he once lived in my hometown of Mount Kisco, New York:
Daly: I�ll be glad to look after your boy for the weekend, but I�ll warn you, we have an anything goes household.
Sanz: Well, usually that�s okay. But I don�t want him seeing any pornographic movies.
Daly: That�s probably going to happen.
Not all of the routines reach their intended goal of maxing out your funny bone. �The Kodiak Grill� has the interesting premise of a talking moose head that can read the inner thoughts of philandering husbands. Poehler naturally plays the betrayed wife, and Chad Carter�s analytical Bullwinkle comes up with a few funny lines (�I see myself as the moose of honesty�), but as the sketch drags on he can�t follow up, even when Matt Walsh attempts to rescue things by counseling the moose: �You�re bringing everybody down!� Another thin idea puts Roberts at a wedding as a Seventh Day Adventist who refuses to toast the bride and groom. Besser and Walsh give him a hard time and eventually pummel Roberts for refusing to drink. Sanz comes up with another bizarre interlude that raises a smile (�You ever see Deer Hunter? Guy spills wine on himself and he ends up with no feet�NO FEET!�), but the idea amounts to an interminable hangover.
More ASSSS For You Cats�The Extras
The extra footage answers the nagging question �What the heck is an ASSSCAT?� I�m not giving much away if I tell you that Horatio Sanz figures in the explanation. Other entries include commentary by the Upright Citizens Brigade, the ASSSSCAT Theme, �We Love Our Audience,� �Monologous Interruptus� and an interview with main cats Proehler, Walsh, Besser and Roberts. Their comments prove that being a member of the Upright Citizens Brigade means blissfully checking your sanity at the stage door. The quartet takes the audience through the Brigade�s origins, best known ASSCATS, how the act�s format developed (yes alcohol and illegal substances did play a part), and their favorite memories. Besser recalls an amusing moment when Sanz came out with a tray of Buffalo Wings and punted them into the audience. �We�ve paid for a lot of cleaning bills,� he comments.
Joining the Upright Citizens Brigade doesn�t require a secret handshake or password, just an open mind and a desire to laugh. Will you have fun with their latest DVD? You bet your ASSSSCAT.