Laughs Abound at Upright Citizens Brigade

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UCB member Allie Kokesh reveals the secrets of being a comedian in New York City.

by Marilyn La Jeunesse

Jokes about sex, drunkards and Vladamir Putin are a regular part of nightly shows at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theatre in New York City. Started by Matt Besser, Amy Poehler, Ian Roberts and Matt Walsh in 1996, UCB offers both shows for comedic connoisseurs and a training program for aspiring comedians. Reputable alums include Anziz Anzari, who performed at UCB in his free time while attending New York University and Hangover star Ed Helms.

Armed with a feisty personality and a talent for making light of embarrassing situations,  Allie Kokesh, a member of the improv group First Lady at UCB, talked with Journalistic Inquiry about the struggles and triumphs of trying to make it as a comedian in New York City.

JI: How did you get invested in UCB?
AK: I started doing improv in college. I went to Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, I wasn’t finding the theater program to be very enriching so I started doing improve and fell in love with doing that and then the professor said if you want to keep doing comedy go to UCB in New York.

JI: Did you take classes at UCB?
AK: I did, tons and tons of classes. Anyone can take classes; they usually start taking either sketch or improv.

JI: How do you transition from just taking classes to actually participating?
AK: There is an audition process. They hold open auditions once a year, and actually they’re coming up in May. I think they will have 500 people sign up to audition and the number of spots changes every year, and then they hold closed auditions also in the fall and they will invite about 64 people.

JI: Do you have to have gone through the UCB classes to be a part of the UCB team?
AK: Yes, there is a requirement to audition: You have to have been accepted to the dance study.

JI: You guys obviously practice, but it’s improv, so do you guys ever bring in some of the ideas that you practice on to the stage?
AK: I wish I was that thoughtful when I am on stage, but it really is just hearing the ideas that you are 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 have to react to what they’re saying, otherwise it just devolves.

JI: How frequently do you guys practice? What do you do?
AK: We practice every week for three hours with a coach that we pay for, and we pay for rehearsal space, so we collect monthly dues. We mostly just run exercises.

JI: Where does your comedy come from? Where do you draw from the most in your life?
AK: I would say, like any working actor, I don’t get paid to do comedy so I spend a lot of my time doing different jobs mostly I’m an assistant so I feel like most of my comedy comes from that.

JI:What’s the hardest you have ever bombed?
AK: Oh my God. I think I can always vividly remember bombing in auditions because that’s when I cared the most. The first time I auditioned for Harold in 2011 I bombed pretty significantly, but I was pretty green and hadn’t been performing a lot.

JI: What went wrong?
AK: Well, I played a drunk person, which is not unusual or funny, it was like a weird pretend that didn’t feel comfortable in the audition either so it didn’t translate to be funny.

JI: Who inspires you?
AK: Steve Martin is a huge deal for me. Mindy Kaling is really inspiring as someone who worked really hard and did the things she loved to do; that’s how she got discovered.

JI: Do you aspire to get on Saturday Night Live?
AK: That is actually not my goal, because I am very realistic with my goals, I’m twenty-seven years old, that’s when that happens. I’m not great at on the spot celebrity impressions. I would be happier writing and creating something for myself.

JI: What’s your favorite thing about UCB?
AK: I think the community. Now that I have 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. I love it because I get to work with all of my friends. I think it’s also great because it’s a community of people that are passionate about comedy and working really hard. You always have something to work with or hangout with.

JI: Are you ever at a loss for words?
AK: Not on stage, you don’t have time to be. It’s kind of a UCB thing: Don’t Think.

JI: If you don’t like the way a scene is going, can you gear in the direction you want to take it?
AK: I mean that assumes you have total control of the situation and also that undermines your team kind in a way. If you’re on stage and you’re thinking, “This isn’t going well,” you’re the problem, not the scene. You should just be focused on what’s going on on stage.

JI: Is there a certain type of person that UCB is for?
AK: I’m a bias audience participant, but I think the type of person that improve is for is kind and intelligent and ready to play pretend with grown-ups for hours. You have to have a fun attitude for it.

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