Comic Chaos Reigns at the U.C.B. Chelsea’s Final Night
Just after 11 p.m. at the Upright Citizens Brigade’s Chelsea theater, 15 performers crowded the stage, the tone solemn and ceremonial. One man wore a garbage bag and no shoes; another, a black turtleneck and demonic eyeliner. A third held an unboxed bag of red wine above his head as his teammates chanted “the blood!” and writhed around him, begging until he poured the liquid all over them, himself, and the stage. The audience is riveted.
If one walked into U.C.B. Chelsea on Tuesday night, they might have thought you were entering a cult gathering, which was only partly true. The evening marked the last public show at the theater, which is being shuttered after a final, private event Wednesday. (The comedy institution is decamping to a new, less grungy space in midtown, closer to New York’s Theater District.) Coincidentally, it was also Harold Night, the U.C.B.’s weekly showcase of its signature long-form improv, imported from Chicago via U.C.B. founders Matt Walsh, Amy Poehler, Matt Besser, and Ian Roberts in the late 90s.
The U.C.B. settled into its second Chelsea base in 2003, after leaving its first home: a seedy former strip club that the fire department later be shut down. The move was an upgrade that nevertheless kept some of the punk-rock trashiness of the first venue, complete with obstructed views and buckets lining the ceiling to catch mysterious leaks that U.C.B. artistic director Shannon O’Neill calls “drainage from the meat department.” (A Gristedes supermarket is located upstairs.) Still, the space could accommodate 152 audience members—and enough talent, over the past 15 years, to transform a scrappy start-up into a dominant force in the comedy world. Its alumni have become ubiquitous on screens big and small, from sitcoms to Saturday Night Live and beyond; their ranks include everyone from Aubrey Plaza and Aziz Ansari to Ellie Kemper and Ed Helms.
“There is no hard out tonight,” O’Neill told the crowd, evoking squatters’ rights. “No breaks. No blackouts. If the show goes until 5 a.m. and I have to sleep in the back and lock up when it’s over, I will.”
All six of U.C.B.’s current Harold teams performed, as well as an advanced, experimental Harold class—called poHa, as in “post-Harold”—that set the tone for the chaos that would go on until 2:30 in the morning. Similar to the theater’s Del Close Marathon, in which shows play nonstop for an entire weekend, U.C.B. Chelsea’s last stand was more than six hours of unending improv.
It followed Sunday night’s final Asssscat show, a weekly event featuring improv heavy hitters. This time around, Matt Walsh, Rachel Dratch,Jason Mantzoukas, Anthony Atamanuik, and Chris Gethard all performed and shared fond memories of the space. Walsh remembered when the theater stayed open during the citywide blackout of August 2003, thanks to its backup generator; comics barked on the street: “Come in! We have A/C and lights!” Atamanuik, who developed his President Show Donald Trump impression at U.C.B., called Chelsea “an incredible incubator” in an interview after the show. Standing nearby, Mantzoukas added: “This place has been home for all of us, all the misfit toys.”
As the very last Chelsea performances began, a camera crew appeared, capturing what is normally an ephemeral art form. The fourth group of the night, Mermaids, asked everyone to rise for the national anthem; the audience acquiesced, as they would five or six more times before the night was over. During a kiss-cam bit, a female performer entered the audience by climbing on the armrests, Roberto Benigni-style. Another group, Fluffty, rolled onto the stage with cans of beer they made everyone shotgun.
Two hours into the show, about 20 people were still waiting outside, hoping to snag seats (or at least a spot on the floor) as others left. A few folded cardboard boxes were stacked there in anticipation of the move, which O’Neill said is necessary for the U.C.B. to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. (The Chelsea theater is not accessible.) There are other perks as well:
“The Hell’s Kitchen theater, as far as I know, doesn’t have any leaks,” O’Neill said in the greenroom before the show. While she hopes to recreate the intimacy of U.C.B. Chelsea uptown, she’s also excited about the new opportunities presented by the move: “We’re only going to grow artistically and push ourselves in new directions that we couldn’t here. But we’re still going to do the things that we do here; we’re just going to be more inclusive. It doesn’t mean we’re not going to be splattering fake blood everywhere.”
By midnight, it was last call at the bar, but the show went on. What began as a showcase for a structured form had become a free-for-all. More performers, students, and U.C.B. interns started taking the stage in groups. Someone made a McDonald’s run and performers were eating chicken nuggets onstage. A dance party broke out onstage to the strains of Beyoncé’s “Run the World (Girls),” signaling the start of a lady jam; eight women took the stage and started performing.
At 1 A.M., a group of 25 or more took the stage to re-create a Del Close Marathon show called “Jalapenbros,” in which every time a performer entered the scene, they were required to eat fresh jalapeños. There was some questionable milk onstage for relief, as well as a garbage can to puke in. The smell of peppers reached the third row; within minutes, three men had thrown up.
Eventually, O’Neill got on the mic from the control room and began directing the disorder. She instructed the hive to toss one of the improvisers into a large dumpster outside the theater. For the next 20 minutes, half a dozen people were carried upstairs to meet the same fate; the audience behind them. Then, the performers decided to do a Harold from inside the dumpster.
Just after 2 A.M., a group returned to the theater carrying a 6-foot-tall crucifix found in that same dumpster. The stage was littered with McDonald’s scraps, red wine, beer cans, and yards of paper towels—and there are more people onstage than there are in the audience. A piano was dragged onstage and a half dozen improvisers begin to do scenes based on Coldplay songs. The few remaining audience members waved around their phones, using them as makeshift lighters.
O’Neill declared the night almost over, as it devolved into a karaoke. A final song about the U.C.B. was improvised, full of inside jokes and callbacks, rewarding the intimate group that still lingered, not wanting the night to be over. Then, as everyone finally started to gather their things—and interns attempted to deal with the mess that remains—O’Neill grabbed a mic. It’s only fitting that she should have the last word: “We will see you in hell!”