Judge Erich Asperschlager lives life according to the "Yes, And..." principle.
Our reviews of Upright Citizens Brigade: The Complete First Season (published December 11th, 2003) and Upright Citizens Brigade: The Complete Second Season (published September 26th, 2007) are also available.
"Asssscat! Asssscat! Asssscat!"
Though the Upright Citizens Brigade is most often associated with their now-defunct sketch comedy series on Comedy Central, fans of improv comedy know UCB do most of their work live on stage. They emerged on the Chicago scene in the early 1990s, where they studied (like many others) at the feet of legendary improv instructor Del Close. Many of their TV sketches, in fact, began as part of their stage show.
Though the Upright Citizens Brigade series has long since passed from TV to DVD, the group's stage career is booming. They opened their first Upright Citizens Brigade theater in New York City in the late '90s—where they continue to perform and teach, as well as host an annual weekend-long "Del Close Marathon" of improvised comedy—and another theater in Los Angeles, which opened just a few years ago.
It's on these stages that the Upright Citizens Brigade core group—Matt Besser, Amy Poehler, Ian Roberts, and Matt Walsh—perform a weekly show called "Asssscat" with a host of comedian friends and past UCB members. Until recently, if you wanted to experience Asssscat and didn't live in New York or L.A. you had to travel upwards of many miles to see the show. But now, thanks to the fine people at Shout! Factory, Asssscat can be enjoyed in the comfort of your living room, in DVD form, on the aptly named The Upright Citizens Brigade: Asssscat!.
Facts of the Case
The improv form of Asssscat is simple: An audience member shouts out a word that a guest monologist uses as inspiration to tell a story. The performers listen to the monologue and use it as the starting point for a series of improvised sketches. When they run out of ideas, the monologist comes back out and tells another story, usually based on what they've just seen, and the improv comics do it all over again.
In addition to Besser, Poehler, Roberts, and Walsh, this particular Asssscat performance (which originally aired as a special on Comedy Central) features guest monologists Tom Lennon (from The State) and Kate Walsh (from Grey's Anatomy), along with improv comics Chad Carter, Sean Conroy, Andrew Daly, and Horatio Sanz.
When your average American thinks of improv comedy, they probably think of Who's Line is it Anyway?, the short form, rapid-fire TV "game show" that made a huge splash here and in the U.K. That must piss off a lot of improv comics who believe that improvisation is about people working together to build a finished scene out of a random suggestion, and not about who can come up with the funniest joke the fastest. Del Close taught comedians as varied as Bill Murray, Tina Fey, and Stephen Colbert not only to think on their feet, but also how to think as a group. Like playing on a sports team with no particular weight or strength requirements, improv comics must work together to achieve their comedic goals.
Asssscat! is fast-paced and funny. If you don't like a particular concept, wait a couple of minutes. Though some of the sketches fall a little flat (a tour group that can only make their way through an Aztec pyramid by dancing), others are gut-bustingly hilarious (a man invites his wife to their divorce party; a restaurant offers deadly selections from a special "Black Diamond" menu). Similarly, certain performers are better than others: the UCB core group, Horatio Sanz (an early member of the troupe), and Tom Lennon, in particular, shine.
Though I recommend Asssscat! to comedy fans, I also recommend going into it with the right expectations: First, don't expect everything to be funny. Part of improv is seeing performers on the comedy equivalent of a high wire. The near misses make the eventual successes all the more impressive. Second, don't expect this DVD to be two hours long like the back of the case says it is. When the credits rolled after only an hour, I just assumed the disc contained two performances. Nope. Whereas most DVDs list the running time of the main feature, leaving the length of bonus material to the imagination, Asssscat! counts everything except the commentary towards its advertised 120 minutes.
Aside from the main program, there's also a "Bonus Round"—a half-hour collection of highlights from other Asssscat performances, featuring guest monologists like Will Arnett, Ed Helms, and Jen Kirkman. Though they've gathered some fine improv moments, part of the fun of Asssscat is watching the scenes develop. Seeing sketches out of context robs them of their full power.
The extras are almost all worth checking out. Though the interview with the UCB regulars is basically an excuse for them to make more %#$! up, the occasional half-truth slips in, and, well, they're really funny. "Monologous Interruptus," "We Love Our Audience," and "The Asssscat Theme" are pleasant diversions, but by far the best extra is the insightful and fascinating feature commentary by Besser, Roberts, and Walsh. After watching the interview, I expected the trio to treat the commentary lightly, but they don't. Instead, they snap into instructional mode, using the Asssscat performance as a teaching tool for a discussion of improvisational and comic theory. If you're interested in comedy, sketch comedy, or improv, this DVD is almost worth picking up for the commentary alone. It's that good. A bit basic for seasoned professionals, perhaps, but these guys know what they're doing, and they've worked with the best.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Running time discrepancies and hit-or-miss comedy aside, this disc falls flattest in the audiovisual department. Though the image quality is about what you'd expect of a live show filmed in a small, darkened theater, the audio set-up is just plain weird. For some reason, the audience laughter is presented in clear 5.1 surround, but the performers sound like they're coming through walkman speakers. While the paranoiac in me appreciates hearing people laugh behind my back, given the choice I'd rather the comics have been miked correctly.
A note of warning to people who may not have noticed the word "Ass" in the title: Both the main feature and the "bonus round" are laced with profanity, so anyone expecting the relatively wholesome antics of Whose Line should probably look elsewhere for their improv fix.
Unless you live in a major city that starts with "New," "Los," "San," or "Chi," chances are you don't have access to top-shelf live improv comedy. Though Asssscat! is only a taste of the genre, it features some of its best practitioners working today. Like the form itself, it's not perfect, and it's not always pretty, but no one ever laughed up a lung for "pretty."
Can I get a suggestion from the audience of a place where a judge and a "not guilty" verdict might meet?
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
• "ASSSSCAT Bonus Round"
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