The Privilege of The Upright Citizens Brigade

A group called “Whale Thief” recently produced a film called Consti2tion, where protagonist Jamie must rewrite the expired Constitution because she lives in Thomas Jefferson’s old apartment.  The most noteworthy part of the film is the amount of time it took to make from conception to premiere – twenty four hours.

Using their network of actors, writers, directors, editors, and crew at Upright Citizens Brigade, Whale Thief was able to organize a large group of performers and filmmakers to create a film in twenty four hours.

The Upright Citizens Brigade, a comedy theatre founded by Amy Poehler, Matt Walsh, Ian Roberts, and Matt Besser, provides comedy shows seven nights a week in multiple locations in New York City and Los Angeles. Many big names in comedy, such as Zach Woods of The Office, Chris Gethard, and Aziz Ansari, got their start at the Upright Citizens Brigade.

The motto of the Upright Citizens Brigade, which they said in their theme song of the television show in the late 90s, espouses many ideas found in bohemia. The motto reads:

From the dawn of civilization, they have existed in order to undermine it. Our only enemy is the status quo. Our only friend is chaos. They have no government ties and unlimited resources. If something goes wrong, we are the cause. Every corner of the earth is under their surveillance. If you do it, we see it. Always. We believe the powerful should be made less powerful. We have heard the voice of society, begging us to destabilize it. Antoine. Colby. Trotter. Adair. We are the Upright Citizens Brigade.

This is similar to the idea of the “flâneur,” a proto-bohemian of sorts, a young French man in the 19th century who would walk about and observe the city. While the Upright Citizens Brigade is slightly more aggressive in their mission statement, there are many more similarities between the genesis of bohemianism and this group of comedians than differences.

The only problem is that like the flâneurs of two centuries ago, many of the members of the Upright Citizens Brigade community are privileged people—a majority of them are white males in their twenties and thirties. The demographics of UCB become readily apparent in “Consti2tion” as white males occasionally fill in roles like Obama and Jamie, roles meant for African Americans and women.

When they were making “Consti2tion,” Whale Thief had not only hundreds of talented actors, writers, and filmmakers at their disposal, but also hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of cameras, lenses, lights, mics, and editing software at the tips of their fingers.

One major feature of UCB is that they do not pay their performers. Herein lies the problem; can this space be considered a bohemian space where comedians, performers, and entertainers can perfect their craft? Or is it a place where those elite level of performers who don’t need the money are able to hone their skills while everyone else resorts to substandard options?

Matt Besser, one of the founders of the theatre, argued in a New York Times piece, “We pay our performers, just not with money”—meaning UCB gives their performers a community to network with and stage time to hone their craft, which some people think is a valid form of payment. On the one hand, UCB gives a space for budding comedians to practice their craft and meet other performers. On the other hand, hardworking performers are not able to support themselves and a form of artistic expression is closed off to a group of people and becomes a privilege of the upper class.

It’s important to note that there is a high cost to learning and becoming a well-trained improviser. The core curriculum of the Upright Citizens Brigade Training Center consists of four classes, each eight weeks long and costing $400 each. Once an improv student goes through four classes and $1,600, they then can apply to the Advanced Study program where they can take more in depth courses. It is also a requirement to be in advanced study in order to apply for a house team at the theatre.

To be fair, UCB acknowledges its limited demographics and does offer a diversity scholarship for “race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender identification, age (over 35), and differently-abled performers,” (UCB Training Center). However, they only give out 180 scholarships throughout the year, which pales in comparison to the 8,000 students they teach each year.

Nevertheless, don’t think for a second that the four founders of UCB sat down and carefully crafted a plan to make one of the biggest comedy theatres in the nation and also make it full of white men. They set out to create a space in New York City that offered affordable live comedy shows everyday throughout the week and allow performers to hone their skill. It just so happens that in today’s day and age, those who have hopes and aspirations to become comedians and entertainers and are willing to practice and hone their talent for no pay and also have the economic privilege to live in New York City, one of the most expensive cities in the country, are typically young white men from privileged backgrounds.

 

Sources

Grimes, William. “And Now, a Movie Hours in the Making! Movie Cram II at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater.” New York Times 16 Nov. 2014, Arts sec. Web. <http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/17/movies/movie-cram-ii-at-the-upright-citizens-brigade-theater.html>.

“Upright Citizens Brigade Improvisation and Sketch Comedy Training Center.” UCB Training Center • New York. Web. <http://newyork.ucbtrainingcenter.com/>.

Zinoman, Jason. “Laughs Can Be Cheap at a Comedy Theater.” New York Times 19 Feb. 2013. Web. <http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/20/theater/upright-citizens-brigade-grows-by-not-paying-performers.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0>.

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