Improv in Your Ear: How the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater Has Influenced Podcasting
Podcasts are bigger than ever these days. And a lot of today’s funniest podcasts are hosted by performers from the Upright Citizens Brigade Theaters. These New York City and Los Angeles improv theaters with their adjoining schools trained and fostered a generation of actors, comedians, TV writers and producers with their brand of comedy improvisation, until they closed during the pandemic. Those improv skills naturally translate to the quick thinking world of audio podcasts. Let’s look at the UCB alumni who have flourished in podcasts.
Led by Matt Besser, an original member of the UCB, this show could be called the most official unofficial podcast of the UCB Theater. Each week since 2011, Besser (who founded the UCB Theater along with comedy disrupters Amy Poehler, Ian Roberts, and Matt Walsh) gathers three other UCB improvisers to practice their craft in the audio format. The improv guests are a who’s who of UCB talent and the most reliable place to hear brilliant UCB-style improv comedy scenes on a weekly feed.
UCB Theatre Podcast
The UCB NY Theater had an official podcast simply titled UCB Theatre Podcast hosted by UCB instructors Will Hines and John Frusciante (not of RHCP fame) where they interviewed notable UCB performers about their life in improv. It was informative and fascinating, especially for improv students and devotees.
This long-running, mainstay of comedy podcasts is hosted by LA comedian and Mr. Show writer Scott Aukerman. While Aukerman is not a UCB alum, since 2009 he has largely culled his funny guests from the Los Angeles UCB theater (including many NY UCB transplants), where he hosted a variety show with the same name for many years that specialized in character comedians. Comedy Bang Bang (CBB) has featured and given national exposure to shloads of improv-trained comedians who do funny characters. For the last 13 years, the show has built it’s own complex and insanely hilarious mythos of recurring characters performed by UCB luminaries such as Matt Besser (natch!), Andy Daly (character comedian par excellence), Nick Kroll (master character improviser), Jon Daly (who’s hosted his own shows: Rafflecast, Deliberately Wasting Your Time), Seth Morris (who as Scott’s ex-stepdad Bob Ducca, has contributed to many of the best episodes), Jessica St. Clair and Jon Gabrus (the show’s horrible “interns”), and more. All of these performers have started their own quality spin-off podcasts on the same Earwolf Podcast Network.
Andy Daly has more hilarious characters than he knows what to do with. Daly was trained at UCB NY and is a founding member of the legendary house improv team The Swarm. Early on, he moved to LA (years before the great migration of NY UCB performers in the mid-to-late aughts) and got work in TV and movies on Mad TV, Semi-Pro, Eastbound and Down, and many more. He’s also a relentless creator of funny characters such as Hotdog, the Sha Na Na–obsessed water skier, and Don DiMello, the horribly funny human trafficker/theatrical director. Luckily, CBB was a fantastic showcase for his talents. And eventually, Daly started his own shows where he could stretch out his many, many characters like Dalton Wilcox, the poet laureate of the west (who has a unshakeable fixation on vampires). There was one special anniversary episode of CBB, where Daly deftly performed around 10 of his CBB characters that culminated in an epic battle where the forces of goodness confronted the purveyors of evil. Understandably, his characters needed more room to breathe and rightfully got their own shows, such as The Andy Daly Podcast Project and Bonanas For Bonanza.
Another NY UCB alum who made the move out west to pursue comedy and acting, Scheer has found much work on TV (30 Rock, Adult Swim, The League, Black Monday). And he’s also become something of a podcast magnate. His incredibly popular podcast about bad movies How Did This Get Made? is cohosted with fellow UCB performer Jason Manzoukas and June Diane Raphael (who is Scheer wife who he met at UCB NY). That show’s fanbase is big enough where they often sell out big theaters when they do the show live shows. Later on, Scheer teamed up with legit film critic Amy Nicholson delve into the other side of the cinematic coin … good movies with the podcast Unspooled. Each week the two discuss critically acclaimed films (sometimes going back to the silent film era). He’s also started the Twitch channel Friendzone, where Scheer and longtime UCB cohort Rob Huebel can be seen shooting the shit.
As the NY UCB Improv School administrator, Will Hines ran the previously mentioned in-house UCB podcast. Eventually he moved to LA and made many more niche podcasts. He paired up with once-UCB BY artistic director Anthony King to cohost Don’t Get Me Started, where the two hosts would interview a friend about their current obsession. Later on, he created Screw It, We’re Just Gonna Talk About the Beatles which featured a rotating panel of Beatles fans mainly from LA UCB scene. He followed that up with Screw It, We’re Just Gonna Talk About Comics, where he and his brother Kevin (also a UCB guy) celebrate classic comic books. I Will Write Your Book is a show where Hines and UCB cohort Pam Murphy employ their mighty improv chops.
Hosts Mike Mitchell and Nick Wiger met at UCB LA, and created the biggest comedy/food podcast ever. Each week the Boys along with a guest (who run the gamut from lesser known UCB friends to big names such as Rob Lowe and Phil Rosenthal) evaluate a different chain restaurant, often fast food. The fun of the show is derived from their insights into the food as well as the silly frenemy dynamic between the hosts. The show packs theaters across the US and Canada and offers a second show each week behind a patreon paywall for their rabid legend of fans.
Jessica St. Clair
Another NY UCBer who migrated to LA and flourished in podcasts, beginning with creating the unforgettable quixotic CBB intern Marissa Wompler, whose firebrand appearances on the show have expanded the CBB mythos as much as anyone. And she brought along many UCB alumnus such Lennon Parham (whose many TV creates include cocreating and costarring in two TV sitcoms with St. Clair, and now being a regular on HBO’s Minx) as Wompler’s guidance counselor/mentor/best friend/ex. Navy SEAL, Lissler. Old UCB pals Brian Huskey and Jason Mantzoukas have appeared many times as Marissa’s stepdad and on-and-off-again crush, respectively. All of Wompler’s madness carried over into her own podcast, costarring Parham, called Womp It Up!, where we would meet more old ball people from the Wompler-verse, often played by, you guessed it, UCB people! She currently cohosts the non-improv podcast Deep Dive with HDTGM’s June Diane Raphael where they let it all hang out.
Another NYC UCB to LA transplant, Gabrus, simply put, has the gift of gab. This Long Island maniac has found some TV work (Guy Code, Wild ‘N Out). But he truly has found his “voice” in podcasting. High and Mighty is his interview show where whether he and the guest stay on their chosen topic or not, it mostly results in captivating conversation. On the patreon ‘cast Action Boyz, Gabrus teams with UCB friends Ben Rodgers and Ryan Stanger to talk about one of their loves, action movies of the ’80s and ’90s. With the The Gino Lombardo Show, Gabrus gets to hilariously flesh out his CBB breakout character. He also hosts a live Spotify show where he goes over the big movies releases of the week. And soon, he’ll be hosting a travel TV show on Tru.
Three members of sketch group The Birthday Boys (who formed at the LA UCB), Mike Hanford, Tim Kalpakis, and Jeff Dutton formed a jokey rock band with a partying manifesto. The band has lots of original songs about lighthearted partying and drinking and naturally they found themselves in a podcast about cocktails. Each week the Boys tackle a well-known alcoholic libation and, believe it or not, stick to the topic and dutifully discuss the drink, it’s history, and then mix it and evaluate it. It’s the booziest and funniest show you can find!
The Phony & Call-y Show
This show by UCB alums has a different origin. Yes, the hosts/best friends (Anthony Atamanuik and John Gemberling) are from UCB NY, but one of them moved to LA. So they decided to monetize their cross country phone calls … to comedy and therapeutic gold! Each episode consists of the best friends’ conversation which often gets contentious and nasty, a clever and filthy improv scene (that’s not for timid souls), and an interview with another friend often from the UCB scene. You know what they say about friends, you can’t live with them, but you can improvise with them over the phone.
And there are many more. I bet the UCB4, when they founded their improv theater in the ’90s, had no idea that their work would so influence podcasting, a medium wouldn’t exist until a few years later. Well, the podcast world is better and funnier for it.