Improv at UCB and Magnet Isn’t Awful
A dark-haired woman knelt down on her knees on the front of a dark stage with a spotlight on her, praying to God that her comedy show wouldn’t suck. To her surprise, a loud, booming voice resounding from the speakers responded to her prayers: “Don’t worry, you’ll do fine.”
Scared and confused, the woman asked, “Who are you? Where are you?”
The voice responded again, “I’m God. I’m everywhere.”
She hesitated and asked, “Are you in my pussy?”
“No, that is an unholy place,” said the voice.
This scene in comedian Andrea Rosen’s one-woman show “Ding Dong Meow,” which was performed on March 23, is an example of alternative comedy — comedy that uses edgy and experimental methods, subject matter and materials — in contrast to the more typical mainstream comedy stand-up routine.
New York City has several of these alternative comedy clubs, including the Magnet Theater and the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater.
The Magnet Theater is the club to go to for watching the comic process in action, while the UCB Theater showcases more professional and established productions.
The UCB Theater was created by the eponymous comedy group made up of comedians Matt Besser, Ian Roberts, Matt Walsh and former “Saturday Night Live” cast member and star of NBC’s “Parks and Recreation” Amy Poehler.
UCB came to New York from Chicago in 1996 and began a training program, eventually opening their first theater on February 4, 1999.
UCB hosts 25 unique shows each week, usually four different shows a night. Tickets are inexpensive, ranging from free to $10.
The UCB audience primarily includes hip 20- and 30-somethings, rowdy frat boys and lots of couples on dates.
The mood is very cool and casual, thanks to their lack of a drink minimum. Their house playlist caters to the hip crowd, playing hits from Sex Pistols and The Jam.
Rosen, known for her work with the stand-up trio Stella, is just one of the UCB’s bizarre comedians.
Some of UCB’s shows display irreverence for societal norms and history, including dramatizing famous rivalries between people like Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla, or even Fred Durst and Scott Stapp.
UCB comedian and breast cancer survivor Pam Murphy recently performed “The ‘C’ Word,” a one-woman sketch comedy show about cancer.
Thanks to references to her self-described post-op “franken-tits,” and claims of TV show characters from “Lost” and “Battlestar Galactica” having the cure for cancer, she managed to make the topic funny and silly without being too sentimental or bitter.
The atmosphere is a bit different at the Magnet Theater, which is located just a few blocks away from UCB.
While it isn’t as famous as UCB and doesn’t boast as many famous alumni, the Magnet Theater stresses its comedic improv teachings, based off founder Armando Diaz’s improvisation methods.
“People go to the UCB to get seen and known. People come here to learn the craft,” said Magnet Theater performer and improv instructor Ryan Nelson.
The Magnet Theater is both a comedy theater and improv school opened by Diaz, a Chicago improv teacher, in 2005. His teaching method is long-form improvisation, where a monologist shares personal stories that inspire later scenes.
His method was established in the ‘90s with “SNL” writer Adam McKay and “Anchorman” actor Dave Koechner back in Chicago at ImprovOlympic, or iO.
The Magnet Theater holds less than 50, which makes for a more intimate show. Magnet is also open to all ages, and serves beer and wine. They host shows every day, with up to five shows each night. Their tickets are also cheap — $10 at the most.
The crowd is a bit different from UCB’s audience, boasting more diversity. Nicely dressed middle-aged people and young hipsters can be seen. Magnet’s music playlist reflects such diversity, playing songs from a wide range of music, from David Bowie and The Pixies to Danzig.
Magnet casts a wide net for the type of acts they’ll book, including a musical improv series called “Musical Megawatt,” where different Magnet Musical Super Groups create and perform a completely improvised musical every Tuesday.
Chet Watkins, another Magnet improv group, recently celebrated their second anniversary with a show comprised of comedians Chris Camp, Laura Grey, Kelly Kreye, Christian Paluck, Lizzie Redner and Jana Schmieding.
Similar to Rosen, Chet Watkins’ cast members Redner, Grey and Kreye passed out homemade cookies, setting a more intimate feeling.
Rather than key word-based improv, the show started based on interactions with the audience while discussing a theme — the theme was vacations. Chet Watkins used the conversation as a springboard for the first sketch, transitioning fluidly from conversation to skit. Throughout the show, characters or situations from different sketches would interconnect and interact, similar to the style of other comedy groups Monty Python and The State.
The most outrageous characters were the three erotic man-eating wolves played by Grey, Redner and Schmieding. They circled chairs like a pack of wolves instead hungering “for some taint,” as Schmieding said.
Their rendering of Diaz’s method sometimes made their performance a bit stilted, more focused on getting a laugh rather than creating quality long-form improv.
The Magnet Theater is located at 254 W. 29 St., between Seventh and Eighth Avenues.
Upright Citizens Brigade Theater is located at 307 W. 26t St., between Eighth and Ninth Avenues.