In the third episode of “The UCB Show,” one of Seeso’s (the new comedy streaming service presently in Beta) flagship series, comedian Scott Aukerman does a bit where he uses his stage time as rehearsal for a different, more prestigious show. Aukerman shrugs at the audience, asking, “You guys don’t give a shit, right? What did you pay to get in here?” The implied answer is not much, so why not pony up ten minutes for a lark?
Aukerman’s is a common, and common sense, approach to live comedy. After all, the audience has gotten out of bed, left home, and, depending on the venue, paid the $12 drink minimum. They want to laugh. It’s comedy as a team effort.
Yet these qualities that Aukerman takes for granted in a UCB show’s live audience are necessarily absent in “The UCB Show’s” internet viewership who, watching after the fact, cannot collaborate. While a live audience is biased by their own attendance at a comedy show to find it funny, people streaming online have no compelling reason, except for quality of content, not to instantaneously abandon ship for something funnier.
That’s a shift in stakes that “The UCB Show” needed to acknowledge. It doesn’t. Instead, splicing together content from real sketch, stand-up and character performances at Hollywood’s UCB Sunset variety show, “The UCB Show” airs its source material without much conceit — essentially, as is. It’s a naive failure to calibrate for a medium with fundamentally different demands.
The bummer of “The UCB Show” is that this trap was somewhat inevitable. Founded by Amy Poehler, Matt Walsh, Matt Besser and Ian Roberts, the Upright Citizens Brigade’s defining credo is a commitment to risky, experimental comedy. The impetus driving a UCB show, the thing that makes it a sacred comic space, is the tossing of a half-baked idea on stage to see if the hot lights cook it. And so, a UCB show is rarely funny if it doesn’t also kind of suck. This intertwining of success and failure builds toward an electrifying weirdness in the liminal space of live theater, but on “The UCB Show,” bad, unformed comedy — of which there is plenty — merely eats the air.
There are a not insignificant quantity of moments on the series that fall flat for no other reason than conceptual lameness. (Looking at you, James Adomian’s stale Bernie Sanders’ impression — the fact of Sanders’ candidacy stopped being inherently funny enough to ground a routine months ago.) But in examining the show’s failed promise, it’s more revealing to look at the moments that could have been great, only to end up lost in translation. To that end, the series’ fourth episode features Rich Fulcher performing a physically excruciating piece of gross-out comedy. He burps. For a loooooong time. And not just one burp, but, rather, a series of starts and stops, so that you are constantly deceived by false glimpses of salvation. It’s basically Tig Notaro’s bit where she pulls a stool across the stage, except it replaces the nails-on-a-chalkboard screech with a wrenching reminder of the grotesque horror of the human body.
As Fulcher burps for so long (about 40 seconds) that the uncomfortable laughter crescendos and renews, the joke is that the audience is stuck sitting there, having paid money for the privilege of hearing a grown man belch. But the thing is, it’s an inherently exclusionary experience, as internet viewers don’t just sit there watching — they are tempted to, and can, press pause, check the time bar, or straight up click away. While there’s certainly something compelling about watching grown adults cover their faces in agony at their voluntary plight, it’s a different and less transporting experience than actually existing with that audience. “The UCB Show”‘s transformation of Fulcher’s bit from a communal crisis into self-flagellation undermines it, underlining why “The UCB Show”‘s disregard for its form is so destabilizing.
Still, while “The UCB Show” never really coheres as a series, it isn’t without funny, interesting, and occasionally truly exciting moments. Unsurprisingly, the best bits are those that are consciously framed as performance, so that the focus is totally onstage instead of on a dialogue happening with the audience. A standout instance centers around a performance by the “Balikbayan 8,” an eight-person Filipino dance troupe, six of whom are stuck in traffic. The sketch deals with veiled rage of the two members present (Rene Gube and Eugene Cordero) as they ask the audience to “help us out with your imaginations to fill in the gaps of this highly obscure Filipino cultural dance that you’ve never seen before.” Rooting its humor in the gap between what’s onstage and what is not seen, the sketch is ideal for people not in the room, as it’s a demonstration of representative limitations. Gube’s rabidly genial mask, in particular, sells the material, as he pitches so high at something that isn’t that his energy reverberates through to the screen.
Yet, perhaps the best demonstration of “The UCB Show’s” structural weakness is that some of its funniest moments are the ones that are utterly beside the point. This is the part where we discuss Amy Poehler. Poehler, along with Besser, Walsh and Roberts, shows up briefly in the series, appearing to introduce each episode and bridge the gaps between segments. Amounting to maybe two minutes of screen time per half-hour episode, the founding four do their intros while positioned around the theater, working concession or selling merchandise. The privileged joy of these cutaways is that when, for example, Poehler pleads, “Here’s your coffee, please don’t throw it at the performers,” it’s footage that is shot solely for “The UCB Show’s” benefit. These brief moments are the only ones in which the series consciously acknowledges its own form, and the consequent specificity breeds a more satisfying laugh. They are thus the reminders that “The UCB Show” should exist as more than a cynical ploy to milk extra money from live shows. It should stand as entertaining content in its own right.
Ultimately, the “The UCB Show’s” failure to meet this standard makes it hard to recommend it wholesale. But if you’re already on Seeso, you’re probably a comedy nerd, so you might as well check it out. Maybe the best approach is to take notice of the medium’s unique advantages where the creators haven’t. In other words, skip to the funny bits. The performers won’t mind. They’re not really here for you, anyway.