By Deborah Lubanga
Over the course of half an hour, comedian Allie Kokesh impersonated Superman to get into a Comic Con-themed nightclub, pretended to be a Hulk-sized milked-fueled 12-year-old, and encouraged an elderly woman with arthritis to do gymnastics.
If you missed Kokesh’s performance, you will mostly likely never have the chance to see these eccentric characters or scenarios again. In fact, every one of her performances is unique and unpredictable because she is a member of First Lady, an improv comedy troupe at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in New York City.
Comedians Amy Poehler, Matt Bess, Ian Roberts, and Matt Walsh started the New York UCB in 1996 and helped popularize the kind of long-form improv that Kokesh performs. Today, there are three UCB theatres – two in Manhattan and one in Los Angeles – that host shows seven nights a week.
Since going through the UCB training center, Kokesh has been performing at the theater for the last two years. We caught up with Kokesh after her show on Wednesday night – also known as Lloyd night – to learn a little bit about her as a comedian and the work she does at the UCB.
Cooper Squared: How did you get involved with the UCB?
Allie Kokesh: I started doing improv in college. I went to Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. I wasn’t finding the theater program to be very enriching so I started doing improv and fell in love with doing that. And some professor said, “If you want to keep doing comedy go to the UCB in New York.”
CS: When did you come to New York?
AK: I came to New York at the end of 2010. I moved to Brooklyn in 2011 and I’ve been doing this ever since.
CS: How many shows do you have a week?
AK: Lloyd teams get two shows a month on average. And Harold [teams] I think get three a month. I only perform with First Lady and always on Wednesdays, always at 7:30 p.m.
CS: The First Lady troupe is a Lloyd team, but what exactly does Lloyd mean?
AK: It’s an arbitrary term. There’s Harold teams, there’s Maude teams, and there’s Lloyd teams. I don’t actually know where the name came from. I know that the Harold was what the form is called, that’s why there’s Harold teams, but Lloyd teams still do the Harold.
CS: Can you describe a little bit about what the Harold is?
AK: Del Close originated it in Chicago and the UCB four brought it to New York and established the theater and the training center where they teach it. So basically the Harold is a structure, and if you just saw the show, there’s an opening to generate ideas, then you pull those ideas and you see them in the first three scenes. And then there’s a group game, which is kind of like a palate cleanser. And then you see the second beat of those first three themes, so either a time dash or analogous beat of those same games that have already been established. And then another palate cleanser and then the third beat is a time for either making connections between all those scenes or Easter eggs, as I like to call them, where someone just says something that caught your ear, that you thought was funny, that you get to basically do in the third beat.
CS: How do you transition from taking classes at the training center to being on a UCB comedy team? Is there an audition process?
AK: There is an audition process. They hold open auditions once a year, and in fact they are coming up in May…and I think they will have 500 people who will sign up to audition. And the number of spots [available] changes every year. And they hold closed auditions also in the fall. So they’ll invite about 64 people to audition.
CS: Since the UCB is unpaid, what do you do during the day?
AK: I just got laid off from a job that I had for a year. I was a personal assistant and before that I was a paralegal at NBC, and before that I was an NBC page. But mostly I find day jobs that don’t mind that I go on auditions or edit scripts at my desk.
CS: How frequently do you practice for UCB shows?
AK: Every week for three hours with a coach that we pay for and we pay for rehearsal space also. So we collect monthly dues.
CS: How do you practice improv?
AK: We mostly just run exercises. It’s like sports, you know. I guess. I don’t play sports. But basically we run drills and work on the muscle of justifying and finding games and creating premises in the opening.
CS: Do you ever use an idea from practice on stage?
AK: I wish I was that thoughtful on stage. But it’s really just about hearing the ideas that you’re generating as a group and sometimes even if I go out and I’m like, “This is definitely what I’m about to say,” and the other person says something first you just got to react to what they’re saying otherwise it just devolves.
CS: Do you ever find yourself at a loss for words when you are on stage?
AK: Yes, I am sometimes, but not on stage. There’s no time to be. It’s too thoughtful on stage. You’re overthinking, I think that’s when you’re at a loss for words.
CS: So it comes out naturally?
AK: Yeah. That’s kind of a UCB thing too: Don’t think.
CS: If you don’t like the way a scene is going, can you steer it in a different direction?
AK: That assumes you have total control of the situation and also that undermines your scene partner in a way. I think it’s supposed to be collaborative…And also if you’re on stage and you’re thinking, “This isn’t going right,” you’re in “you’re the problem” and not the scene. You should mostly be focused on what’s going on stage.
CS: Who is the typical audience member at a UCB show?
AK: I don’t know who the typical audience member is because I’ve always been someone that’s so deeply interested in comedy and improv, especially at the UCB. So I’m obviously a biased audience participant. But I would say that the type of person that’s attracted to doing improv is someone that’s just kind and intelligent and ready to experience basically playing pretend with grownups for hours. I think you just have to have a fun attitude.
CS: Are there a lot of opportunities to get seen by talent scouts when you preform?
AK: I have gotten auditions just from performing. I got an audition for “Girl Code” just because an intern was in the audience. But I don’t have an agent or a manager, I’m told that comes with time.
CS: Do you aspire to get on “Saturday Night Live?”
AK: That is actually not my goal because I’m very realistic with my goals. I’m 27 years old, that’s when that happens. I’m not great at impressions. I mean like actual spot-on impression of famous people. You see like Jay Pharoah and you’re like, “Oh yeah, he belongs on ‘SNL.’” I’m not good at impression. So I would be happier writing and creating something for myself.
CS: How much longer do you see yourself at the UBC or doing comedy?
AK: I set the arbitrary goal for myself that by the time I’m 29, I want to have a job that pays for me to write comedy or act in a comedic way. But there’s no money in improv or the UCB unless you’re in the touring company, which I am not.
CS: What’s your favorite part of the UCB?
AK: I guess the community. I mean now that I’ve lived here for three years, all of my friends are comedians. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but I love it because I get to work with all of my friends. I think it’s also great because it’s just a community of people who are super passionate about comedy and also working really hard and turning out scripts and web series and stuff. You also have someone to work with or hang out with.