He Wrote the Book About One of the Most Influential Comedy Groups Ever

The Thin Reads Interview with Brian Raftery, author of "High-Status Characters"

Conan O’Brien.  Amy Poehler.  Horatio Sanz.  Andy Richter.  Seth Meyers.  Adam McKay.  Rachel Dratch.  Aziz Ansari. Jack McBrayer.  These are just some of the top comedy talent who have been members of the Upright Comedy Brigade, a sketch-and-improv collective birthed in Chicago two decades ago and then relocated to New York.  Journalist Brian Raftery interviewed dozens of cast members over the span of two years and turned it into a comprehensive and vastly entertaining oral history (and e-book single), “High-Status Characters:  How the Upright Citizens Brigade Stormed a City, Started a  Scene and Changed Comedy Forever.”  Thin Reads wanted to know more about the gestation of the book so we caught up with Raftery and conducted this email interview. 

Thin Reads: This is one of the most ambitious e-book singles we've ever read. You wrote an oral history of the Upright Comedy Brigade (UCB) for New York  in 2011. So did that give you the idea to do a deeper dive into the subject?  Did you want this to be a long-form book?

Most reporters have to deal with a pretty common occupational bummer: You spend months on a piece, culling as much lively material as possible, only to wind up tossing out ninety percent of your reporting. Most of the time, those leftovers will go forever unseen, usually with good reason. When I die, I will leave behinds thousands hours of meandering, mealy-mouthed interviews I’ve conducted over the past 15 years or so.

But in the case of the UCB story, the outtakes were too good to simply stuff into a drawer. There were tons of great anecdotes and twists that I couldn’t fit into the original magazine piece—moments that made the story deeper and funnier. And there were some interviewees I’d had to cut from the New York piece altogether, due to space reasons. I wanted to make sure their voices were heard.

So I always knew I’d wind up expanding the UCB story; I just didn’t know how. The magazine story hadn’t been long enough, but at the same time, I couldn’t quite see it as a traditional, long-form book. I needed something in-between, which is when my agent and I started kicking around the idea of an e-book. So for the last year, whenever I had a lull in my usual workload, I’d re-read the original transcripts and start re-building the entire story from scratch. In the process of doing so, I found I still had several unanswered questions, which is why I wound up doing another dozen or so interviews. I basically kept talking to people until everyone—my agent, my wife, possibly my own spectral id—told me to stop.

Thin Reads:  How many interviews did you conduct?  And who drew the short straw and got to transcribe all those recordings...unless there's a free app that transcribes audio recordings with a click of a button that we don't know about.

In all, I spoke with about 80 people. And while I usually do all of my own transcribing, I was lucky to have a small group of very trusted freelancers handle the UCB interviews. The volume was simply too much for one person to handle. Without them, I never would have gotten it finished.

Thin Reads:  What full-length books about comedy and the back stage business of comedy and comedians do you admire or inspire you?

“Live From New York,” by Tom Shales and Andrew James Miller, is the shadow-casting, competition-stomping, maddeningly perfect mechazilla that anyone writing about modern comedy must read and re-read with near-Talmudic zeal. It’s not just a detailed survey of the sprawling, hazardous, and way over-populated pop-culture planet that is “Saturday Night Live”; it’s also expertly balances juicy, detail-riddled gossip with detailed explanations of behind-the-scenes showbiz mechanics. I’ll often pick it up to read some random passage, and then get sucked in for the rest of the afternoon. It came out ten years ago, and my hope is that it’ll be updated every decade or so.

There really aren’t too many other comedy-specific works that come to mind. Nick Tosches’ “Dino” is probably my all-time favorite biography, but while it does get into Martin and Lewis’ tortured relationship, it’s not really about the comedy business. And obviously, Bill Carter’s “The Late Shift” and “The War for Late Night” both deepened my understanding of how comics function (and frequently malfunction). But when putting together an oral history like this, I’m more likely to turn to “Live From New York” or “I Want My MTV” or “Our Band Could Be Your Life,” all of which are deeply reported (and way addictive) accounts of epochal cultural movements.

Thin Reads: We may get you in trouble with this question, but here goes:  You interviewed dozens of performers for your book.  Which ones were the most generous with their time and the most open in their remarks about their experiences with the Upright Comedy Brigade?

I shit ye not: Everyone was awesome. People with very busy schedules jumped on the phone with just a few days’ notice, and interviews that were scheduled for 20 minutes would often go three times as long. I’ve done a bunch of oral histories by now—some good, some meh—and most of the time, the people who agree to speak with me are doing so for less-than-altruistic reasons. Maybe they want their ego to be pumped up, or their glories to be immortalized, or their long-running work-skirmishes to be decided in their favor. But with this piece, I got the sense people were doing it out of a general love of UCB. They were also, for the most part, admirably open when it came to talking about the various hiccups and meltdowns that have occurred at the theater over the years.

Thin Reads:  Amy Poehler comes across as the real backbone of the group, both as a performer and a behind-the-scenes force?  Is that assessment accurate?  And did she really clean toilets when they moved into a new theater?

There’s no doubt that many of the UCB students view Amy Poehler with adoration and awe: Not only is she revered as a performer, she’s also been a hard-working presence at the UCB’s many theaters, not to mention a beloved instructor. And, yep, when the troupe moved into an old burlesque house in the late ‘90s, Poehler was in the trenches, pulling old condoms out of clogged toilets.

But even she acknowledged that Matt Besser--who’d co-founded the UCB in Chicago in the early ‘90s--was, in her words, “the captain that pulled us along.” And while all the members of the UCB Four are still connected with its namesake theaters today, I got the sense from many of my interviews that Besser remains the most heavily involved with the students and faculty.

Still, as an outsider, all the members of the UCB Four—Poehler, Besser, Matt Walsh, and Ian Roberts—strikes me as admirably ambitious. They were a bunch of twentysomething comics who moved to New York to get their own TV show—which they did, within two years of arriving here. But they also opened a school and a theater, and performed in hundreds of shows. That’s pretty enterprising, especially in comedy, where so many good ideas go unrealized, either because of laziness or apple-bong abuse.

Thin Reads:  A recurring theme through the book is the financial hardships through the years that a variety of performers endured all for the cause of....improv.  Did that make you feel sorry for them or did you admire their artistic integrity and drive?

Oh, I never felt sorry for them for a second. There’s a moment in the book in which Eric Appel—a UCB performer who now directs TV shows like “Parks and Recreation”—is talking about one of his improv teams. “We’d hang out together all the time,” he told me. “We’d go out to dinners. We rehearsed twice a week. When we did our warm-ups before a show, we would have a dance party in this back room of UCB for half an hour. We were in love with each other.”

To some people, I guess that could sound goofy, or even sad. But I could relate. The people who got sucked into UCB’s world in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s tended to be young, creative misfits who’d moved to New York to find like-minded souls. I came to the city for similar reasons, so I could certainly relate. And I admired how much the UCB students were willing to sacrifice in order to do something that, at the time, was looked upon as a goofy lark with no career prospects. I mean, these were people who took shitty temp jobs with little pay, just so they’d have the time to hang out in a dingy theater and make strange art with their friends.

In my mind, there’s nothing mockable about that; in fact, I’d wager 99 percent of all the art I’ve loved in my life has been created the same way: A bunch of passionate obsessives trying to create something viable and meaningful, even if no one’s asking them to do so. Which is a fancy-pantsed way of saying that I kinda wish I had been there, too.

Buy at:  Barnes & Noble

Posted 6-17-13

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