Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Upright Citizens Brigade- ASSSSCAT!

For over 10 years the Upright Citizens Brigade (Amy Poehler, Matt Besser, Ian Roberts and Mat Walsh) have been performing a long-form improv show titled ASSSSCAT. People might recognize the Upright Citizens Brigade from their fantastic sketch comedy show that ran on Comedy Central from 1998 to 2000. Even though the sketch show incorporated scenes from their improv or scenes they may have done at ASSSSCAT, fans of the sketch show should not expect this DVD to be a live version of the sketch show.

For those who have never seen or heard of ASSSSCAT before, it is basically a long form improv show performed live where they (members of the Upright Citizens Brigade joined by fellow improvisers) get a suggestion of a word or phrase from an audience member and the guest monologist will tell a true story based off that suggestion and the improvisers perform scenes inspired from that story. Improvisers joining the Upright Citizens Brigade on this disc are Horatio Sanz (SNL), Andrew Daly (MadTV), Chad Carter (Crossballs), and Sean Conroy (Crossballs). Guest monologists on the featured performance are Thomas Lennon (Reno 911, The State) and Kate Walsh (Grey's Anatomy).

In 2005 an ASSSSCAT performance was filmed for the Bravo network. It aired to mix results, but ultimately wasn't very good despite the immensely talented performers and monologists. The problem is capturing long-form improv on film is trickier than the jokey short-form game-prov people are used to thanks to Who's Line Is It Anyway? There's much more of a payoff with long-form, but it's really best experienced live and never seems to be successfully captured on film. Improv's lure and appeal is that it literally is a "you had to be there" kind of thing. The excitement of knowing it's being made on the spot and will never be seen again makes the live experience all the much more rewarding; it's just something you can't really catch on film. The editing of the performance is what makes it a bit jarring and disconnects it from the live feel for me even more, but by the second act scenes like “The Divorce Party” come close to capturing the feeling and energy of seeing it live.

Those craving more ASSSSCAT performances get a "bonus round" with guest monologists Jen Kirkman and Paul F. Tompkins (both great stand-ups who perform regularly on the UCB LA stage) as well as Will Arnett (Arrested Development and husband of UCB member Amy Poehler) and Ed Helms (The Office, The Daily Show).

Extras include the hilarious "Monologus Interruptus" where an audience member who stumbles on and behind the stage interrupts Paul F. Tompkins' monologue. The way the cast (especially Horatio Sanz) reacts and treats it is well worth the watch.

There's also an interview with the Upright Citizens Brigade where they explain the origin of ASSSSCAT and the differences between the weekly ASSSSCAT performances at their theatres in New York and LA.

For me, the best thing on this DVD is the commentary given by Matt Besser, Ian Roberts and Matt Walsh. Improvisers who are fans of ASSSSCAT and UCB will love this commentary, especially those who wish they would have been around when those three still taught courses at the UCB Theatre training center. The points they make about game, heightening, "if this than what else," and "yes and…" are extremely insightful, and it almost feels like you're sitting in on a class with them. Even if you're not an improviser and are just curious about the method behind the madness, the commentary is a good way to have it broken down and a light shined onto the structure and thought process to what is being done on stage.

I probably wouldn't recommend this DVD for those who aren't that familiar with the Upright Citizens Brigade or ASSSSCAT but for those in the know it is definitely worth the watch. Otherwise, regardless of your familiarity, ASSSSCAT! should definitely be experienced live if you ever get the chance. Kudos to Shout Factory for putting this out to the masses.