By Kathryn Jones
For improv comedians like Allie Kokesh, it takes only seconds to come up with a joke. However, any zinger Kokesh thinks of can become irrelevant just as fast if one of her teammates changes the direction of the scene.
Moments like these are what amused audiences at the East Village’s Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theatre since its founding by Matt Besser, Amy Poehler, Ian Roberts, and Matt Walsh in 1996. UCB also owns a training center for longform improv and sketch comedy in New York City and a program in Los Angeles, with some students later earning jobs at Saturday Night Live, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,Late Night with Conan O’Brien, and Parks & Recreation.
Since moving to the city from San Francisco, Kokesh studied at both Los Angeles and New York City locations to advanced level of the program. She auditioned alongside about 500 other comedians to perform on the UCB stage. After auditioning for UCB’s Wednesday Lloyd Night, directors placed Kokesh on three different teams within the last two years. Lately, Wednesday night crowds see the 27-year-old comedian with the team First Lady. One after another, two Lloyd teams improvise for 30 minute intervals consisting of an opening, scenes, beats, and group games – a Chicago style created by Del Close and practiced by UCB’s founders called “Harolds.” So, Kokesh and her seven teammates play off each other to win over the crowd.
Journalistic Inquiry: How did you get involved in UCB?
Allie Kokesh: I started doing improv in college. I went to Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. I wasn’t finding the theatre program to be very enriching so I started doing improv, feel I love with doing that, and then the professor said that if you want to keep doing comedy, go to the UCB in New York.
JI: What’s your favorite part about UCB?
AK: I guess the community. 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 passionate about comedy and also working really hard and turning out scripts and web series and stuff.
JI: Do you drink beforehand?
AK: Coffee, sometimes a Red Bull. Sometimes I’ll just eat a whole bag of gummies. I really like the berry gummies from Haribo.
JI: Where does your comedy come from? Where do you draw from the most from 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: If you don’t like the way the scene is going, can you gear it in the direction you want to take it?
AK: That also assumes that you have total control over the situation and also that undermines your scene partner in a way. It’s supposed to be collaborative. You’re on stage, and you’re thinking, “This isn’t going right,” you’re the problem, not the scene. So you should mostly just be focused on what’s going on on stage.
JI: Describe the hardest you’ve ever bombed.
AK: Oh my gosh. I think I can almost vividly remember bombing an audition the most because that’s when I cared the most. I would say the first time I auditioned for Harold actually which would have been in 2011. And I bombed pretty significantly. But I was pretty green in having been performing a lot, so.
JI: With the bombing, what went wrong?
AK: I played a drunk person which is not unusual or funny. It’s just like a weird pretend. I didn’t feel comfortable in the audition either. So it didn’t translate to being funny.
JI: Are you ever lost for words?
AK: Yes, I am sometimes but not on stage. There’s like no time to be too thoughtful on stage. You’re overthinking it. I think that’s when you’re at a loss for words.
JI: UCB is unpaid. What do you do during the weekdays?
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 for a year and a half at NBC. Before that, I was an NBC paid. But mostly, I just find day jobs that don’t mind that I will go on auditions for or that I will edit scripts at my desk.
JI: Do you aspire to be on Saturday Night Live?
AK: That’s really not my goal cause I am really realistic with my goals. I’m 27. That’s when that happened. I ‘m not great at impressions –I mean actually thought out impressions of famous people. I would be happier writing and creating something for myself.
JI: Do you think’s the audience’s reaction kind of shapes the show as it’s happening?
AK: Oh yeah. It’s hard because you really want to do it for the sake of your teammates and what you are generating and trying to perform. But I hear laughter and I’m like, “Okay. Do that again.”