The improvisers

May 02 2019 | 12:21 PM

New York is live comedy heaven. Whatever you want to do – lighten your mood after a long day at work, hear a funny and creative twist on the latest news, have your mind blown by a provocative new voice or laugh at some faux Shakespeare – there is a club, performer or group that will meet your needs.

So, where does it all come from? How do comedians get their start? Most seem to come out of one of two places: stand-up or improv. Stand-up comedy has always been huge in New York, but improv has definitely grown in recent years. This can be explained in part by an influx of comedians from Chicago, where improv has been a central part of the comedy scene since the legendary Second City improv group was founded there in 1959.

But New York is more than holding its own these days, thanks to two top Manhattan troupes – the Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB) and the Magnet Theater. Both offer improv classes in addition to regular performances, and each has its own style and approach to the art form. Their improv “philosophies,” if you will, are quite different.

The UCB ApproachUCB was founded in 1999 by the UCB4 -- Amy Poehler, Matt Walsh, Matt Besser, & Ian Roberts. The theater started off as a place where performers could put on their own shows, but over time it became much more than that as they developed their own curriculum and began sharing their ideas about improv with students.

UCB has one core belief and that is to “follow the game.” Following the game (or just game, for short) means you must find what is funny or unusual about a scene, draw attention to it, and hit on it as much as you can. An example would be if you were in a scene with someone and they told you the only way they could fall asleep was by eating socks. That behavior would be called out and the scene would more or less become about that. It’s a very calculated way of being funny, and the best performers at the theater can mix this calculation with their own personal brand of humor.

In addition to the founders, many notable performers have come out of UCB. The list is long, and includes Donald Glover (“Atlanta”), Chris Gethard (“The Chris Gethard Show”) and Kate McKinnon of “Saturday Night Live,” to name a few.

Out of Their HeadsAs for more recent comedians, there are plenty of good ones, including Brandon Dzirko, a member of a UCB house team. (House teams are groups of regular performers who work together.) “I love the UCB play-style because anytime you’re on stage, it feels like you’re building something completely from scratch,” Dzirko said, when asked what drew him to UCB. “You and your scene partner are using the tools you learned in classes, including game, to communicate and navigate the scene. You’re taught to play in a way that gets you out of your head and into the scene, leading to fun discoveries and surprises.”

For Dzirko, and lots of others, UCB is much more than a stage and a place to be funny. “UCB has always provided me with an environment that pushes me to grow, while providing the tools and support network to make that possible,” he said. “The experience and community I’ve gained being a part of this school has meant so much to me. Improv is my favorite thing in the world, and I’m glad I chose UCB.”

A Dual MissionThat Dzirko, an established group member, still refers to UCB as a school, speaks to its dual mission – to entertain audiences and teach new performers the deceptively rigorous mental and physical skills required for success.

“UCB has a really strong, very focused idea of how improvisational comedy is done, as an art form,” said Harry Wood, a current UCB student. “What UCB has done that not many theaters have done is to clearly define the styles they support.” Before coming to UCB, Wood had only done montages, the most general and free-form style of improv. What drew him to UCB, he said, was the importance it puts on developing specific skills for a particular style of performance. “That razor focus and opportunity to train inside a clearly defined school of thought appealed to me,” Wood said.

UCB has the advantage of pedigree and name recognition that a lot of comedy theaters don’t, Wood notes, and he acknowledges that some people might be skeptical, or turned off by its stature. “What I’d say to that is this,” he said, “the people who are at the core of UCB are not just incredible performers, but they’re reasonable teachers and kind supporters. I’m not particularly interested in declaring one theater is better or worse than another–I think that every student should move from place to place to get a little style from each. But I do think that UCB has gathered a suite of teachers and performers that let it, on a regular basis, live up to its very high reputation.” The bottom line: for people interested in a more calculated approach to improv, UCB is the way to go.

The Magnet ApproachThe Magnet Theater, founded by Armando Diaz in 2005, has more of a Chicago-style approach to improv, with a greater focus on character and relationships. The Magnet, which has produced, and is home to, many top performers, including Charles Rogers (creator of “Search Party”), Jason Mantzoukas (“The League”) and the improv duo Trike, teaches students to work more off of their own emotions. So, if you enter a scene sad, you stay sad and you go through the scene as that sad character and interact with the other characters and the environment on stage. It’s a less calculated, more free flowing style.

‘Find the Most Fun Thing’ “Watching a Magnet show, you’re struck by a style somewhat looser than you might find at [UCB],” said former Magnet house team member, Collin Gossel, “but which ultimately highlights the ensemble and its camaraderie more than the clever ideas generated by individuals on the team. Performers at the Magnet are at all times building and playing together, searching for fun organically, with the easygoing atmosphere of professionals who know they don’t have to invent – they can find the most fun thing if they travel together for an honest moment.” It’s no surprise, Gossel added, that the same style has extended into the Magnet community at large, making it one of the friendliest places in the comedy community. Whether you want to become an improv star or just want to laugh with some new friends, he said, the Magnet “will help you get there.”

Current house team member, Rachel Robertson, who never took classes at Magnet, has a different perspective. “As someone who just came in as an outsider, hungry for stage time, I could not pinpoint one discernible performance style, and I love that,” she said. “What I mean is, considering that most of the performers were trained at the Magnet, it never seemed like anyone was working off of a ‘comedy template’ so to speak. The only trait that is shared show-to-show is the support and energy between performers.”

Don’t Forget the WeirdnessOf course, there’s also the weirdness. After all, this is comedy we’re talking about.

“When I joined my first Magnet sketch team, Raw Denim,” Robertson said, “I got the sense very quickly that we all had the freedom to get weird with each other and the audience, in the best possible way. And the more shows I see, the more teams I’m on, and the more performers I meet, I realize Magnet just promotes an environment of refreshing, creative weirdness. And it’s not pessimistic or bitter. It’s exploratory. Sometimes it flops, but mostly it’s good, pure comedy by performers who aren’t being paid. A lot of them never plan to be paid for comedy, and are doing all of this for the joy of it.”

If you’re looking to learn the art of improv, these two theaters are your best bets. If you’re unsure, go see a show. Whichever one you choose, you’ll be learning from some of the finest performers the city has to offer.

Joshua Nasser is a New York-based comedian.