The most exclusive basement in New York City might be the one below Gristedes grocery store on West 26th Street. There, you'll find the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, a lightning rod for an innovative community of improvisers and writers who are vying to be the next big thing in comedy. Their ranks have included names such as Amy Poehler, Rob Riggle, Kate McKinnon and Ed Helms.
With two New York locations and an outpost in Los Angeles, UCB presents comedy seven nights a week, plus year-round classes and workshops. UCB TourCo, the company's traveling arm, deploys its best players to theaters and colleges across the country. Their Carolina Theatre show at 8 p.m. on March 21 is a full-circle moment for cast member Josh Sharp, a UNC-Chapel Hill graduate.
"One of the first big improv shows I saw as a freshman was the UCB TourCo," remembers Sharp. "They did a show as a part of what was then called the Dirty South Improv Festival, now the North Carolina Comedy Arts Festival. I remember seeing that and being blown away." Inspired, Sharp pursued improv with CHiPs, UNC's campus improv group, and with DSI. After graduation, it was straight to New York.
Since 2009, Sharp has been steadily climbing the ranks in a very competitive atmosphere. "That's why UCB has been so good," says Sharp. He estimates that the last time open auditions were held, only about 10 of more than 500 people that tried out were cast. Intense competition aside, Sharp calls the community very cooperative as they produce sketches and put up new shows.
"A lot of how this gig works is that you've just got to be doing your thing and making a name for yourself," Sharp says, "because when bookings come, they're random and you don't really have a lot of control. You might as well be doing things that are fun in the meantime, and TourCo's one of those things."
What makes TourCo fun, other than the chance for the cast to hang out on the road, is its format. Players interview an audience volunteer for a few minutes and then create two 30-minute sets inspired by their answers. The long-form style, as opposed to the short-form games made famous by TV's Whose Line is it Anyway?, allows players to create a vast world of characters and locations. The comedy is in the callbacks to earlier scenes; in the layers that emerge when two characters from different threads connect unexpectedly.
For Sharp, performing in North Carolina is its own kind of callback. With his brothers enrolled at UNC, and his father and many friends living nearby, it's a chance to show off his chops where he began. Besides, he says, "any chance I can get to pick up some Allen & Son is always a pretty good opportunity."