Upright Citizens Brigade comes to SF Sketchfest, only mildly entertains with ‘East vs West’ show

SF Sketchfest/Courtesy

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Performing with Upright Citizens Brigade, or UCB, may very well be the endgame for any serious improviser, and with good reason — not only do members of its chapters, which include theaters in Chelsea as well as Los Angeles, perform widely popular improv shows weekly, it’s also where many of today’s “Saturday Night Live” legends got their start (Amy Poehler, in fact, is among the group’s founders).

As part of SF Sketchfest, which took over San Francisco this month, two Upright Citizens Brigade teams — New York-natives Women & Men and Los Angeles-natives The Dragons — combined forces for a Friday night show at PianoFight, one of several UCB improv shows at the comedy festival. Their first set consisted of an improv format known as “the Convergence,” which involved two “mono-scenes” (extended scenes that occur in one location, in real time) with distinct narratives that connect at the end.

When the audience suggested the phrase “dolphin-free tuna,” as the starting prompt for the Convergence, there was certainly some doubt as to what the improvisers could possibly come up with. The resulting two scenes could not have been more separate from each other — the first took place at a science laboratory at risk of shutting down on suspicion that they were “teasing” the chimpanzee test subjects, and the second at a girl’s sleepaway camp, where a group of teenage girls swapped stories of their experiences with “vaginal sex.” As the set alternated back and forth between the narratives, there was a satisfying subtlety to the connections being drawn by the improvisers, who knew better than to try and rush the converging of the storylines but still wanted to lay the groundwork for a hilarious finale.

The connections were, ultimately, convoluted, but that is beside the point — nobody goes to an improv show expecting a clean narrative (we did, nonetheless, enjoy plenty of callbacks to earlier fan-favorite one-liners). There were plenty of standout performers among the bunch, including Zack Poitras as an insecure consultant, Ronnie Adrian as a coy storyteller and Joel Cooper Jensen as a suspicious, judgmental conspiracist. It’s also worth mentioning, however, that other jokes probably should’ve stayed off the stage, with topics such as the Holocaust and sexual harassment going entirely mishandled.

Following the Convergence, the two teams ended the night with a jam session including all the members performing at once. The montage of scenes, which was inspired by the suggested word “bananas,” featured scenes about singing family members, a protest aimed at burning down a banana forest and David Bowie sponsoring NFL football.

While the improvisers committed no egregious technical faux pas (outside of the offensive content, that is), the set wasn’t anything particularly revelatory — there are younger amateur teams that regularly perform sets just as humorous. It’s unlikely that any audience members left dissatisfied, but some who had heard tell of UCB’s prowess may have set their expectations too high.

Contact Shannon O’Hara at [email protected].