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Writing Upright Citizens Brigade book was anything but off-the-cuff
“The Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Improvisation Manual” isn’t the first book to emerge from the Chicago improv world, but it’s one of the heftiest.
Over 382 pages dense with explanations and examples, it spells out the ideas that Matt Besser, Matt Walsh, Ian Roberts and Amy Poehler learned in Chicago and then revised and taught at the UCB theaters in New York and later Los Angeles.
“It answers a lot of questions in a very consistent way and it espouses the UCB philosophy,” Walsh told the Sun-Times. “People speculate about what UCB believes or how we’re different or what are the rules, and it settles all those arguments.”
The three authors — Walsh, Besser and Roberts — are in town this weekend for sold-out performances at the Chicago Improv Festival and will discuss and sign the book at a free event from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m. Sunday at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont.
Seven years in the making, “The Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Improvisation Manual” at first was meant to be an oral history of the group, but when that proved unwieldy the trio decided a textbook would be easier. It was anything but,
“It felt like the most difficult thing I’ve done in my life,” Walsh said.
All are busy actors and writers — Walsh is on “Veep,” Roberts executive produces “Key & Peele” and Besser does an improv podcast — but they squeezed in early-morning writing sessions and found the techniques they’d been teaching for years weren’t easy to articulate.
“You talk about these rules that had been second nature to us,” Walsh said, “and then: ‘Let’s revisit this.’ ‘What does this mean?’ ‘Great.’ ‘Well, wait a minute, actually …’ ”
Besser compared the process to the Council of Nicea, when bishops decided the tenets of Christianity in 325 A.D. This would be the definitive declaration of how improv is best played, according to the UCB, and the terms had to be carefully thought out. At times, Walsh said, the authors would declare a rule and then far later spot an exception that required going back and rewriting the rule.
While valuable to students in Chicago, who can learn improv from a variety of schools, the book really is aimed at those who who can’t.
“We wrote it so that people who don’t have access to an improv community, which is most of the country, could maybe put together a little improv group in their town,” Walsh said. “We give you the rudimentary approach and what exercises to do and — if you can get a coach — what you should be looking for.”