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The second season of UCB's late 1990s TV show found them injecting even more of the Harold form of improvisation into their episodes

In the second season of the Upright Citizens Brigade’s Comedy Central series, being released on DVD on September 18 (to purchase, click here), the group shifted from just presenting sketches to capturing the feel of Harold long-form improv, only if the Harold was done with full sets, costumes and makeup.

This became much more the case in the second season, with the group’s actual UCB characters (Adair, Antoine, Colby and Trotter) serving less like an introduction to sketches than the actual animating force of a Harold made flesh. The bits in each second season episode seem more spontaneous than written and characters end up entering each other’s worlds and tying together at the ends of episodes more than they had in the first season.

In “Invested With Friars,” all the threads tie together exceptionally well -- at a theme restaurant with an overzealous manager, a trio of teenagers also seen in the episode -- where one repeatedly fakes his own kidnapping to beat curfew -- appears to harass a waitress, and a swarm of Friars Club-style comedians arrive and overrun the place like an epidemic.

The UCB members -- Matt Walsh, Matt Besser, Amy Poehler and Ian Roberts -- all follow improv logic of assenting to the premise that is set in these different subplots. In the restaurant, Walsh makes Poehler’s beleaguered waitress and Roberts’ exasperated trainee go through every step of simple customer service tasks, and they follow like it’s perfectly normal to a point. Then the group takes up through what happens when the teenagers (also played by Walsh, Besser and Roberts) give Poehler as the same waitress a hard time.

All four performers would play different characters in episodes, sometimes in the same scenes thanks to the magic of editing -- but it’s done to mirror how performers would present different characters in a Harold improv. The group went even further in the second season tying together characters in the same scenes through editing, as evident in “Friars” in others. And just as in a well-done Harold, Poehler makes a great discovery in the end of the episode, figuring out how to save the restaurant from being overrun by the Friars.

The DVD release comes with generous extras, including commentary recorded live at the UCB Theater for one of the episodes. In particular, a segment where the group’s members appeared on a show called “Comedy Cabana,” apparently from before they began their own show in 1998, and did a minimal sketch about comedy cliches -- reined in from doing anything resembling improvisation, demonstrates how much comedy has changed since then, thanks in large part to their own show.

Although the Upright Citizens Brigade series was not long-running, on seeing how they pushed the improvisational envelope with this second season, one has to give them credit for their influence in pushing comedy in new directions by making long-form improv popular and a recognized skill and art form. This second season shows how ground-breaking they were in doing just that.

The four original members of the UCB will appear at the Paley Center for Media in New York on November 8 for a talk on their work. For more information, click here. 

   

     

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