In Their Own Words: Matt Besser, Ian Roberts and Matt Walsh on writing “The Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Improvisation Manual”
After several years in the planning, talking and writing, the co-founding leaders of the Upright Citizens Brigade finally accomplished the publishing stage of their effort to write their own book on improv comedy.
Matt Besser, Ian Roberts and Matt Walsh, alongside "UCB Four" co-founder Amy Poehler, unveiled "The Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Improvisation Manual" to an eager crowd at the opening of the 15th annual Del Close Marathon last month. The first printing of 10,000 books won't be available for purchase and shipping until Aug. 5, but Besser said they rushed a special order of 200 copies just to have something to show for their efforts by DCM. "We had to have it for the marathon!" Besser told The Comic's Comic.
At 384 pages, it opens with an introduction to improvisation and ends with a word or several about wardrobe. In between, Besser, Roberts and Walsh explore the UCB's tried-and-tested methods toward improv -- from "creating a base reality" in the scene, finding "the game" in that scene, and then playing at the top of your intelligence. The second half of the book goes into detail discussing various long-form improv structures, including "The Harold" and "The Movie."
All of the authors spoke with The Comic's Comic about finally finishing their book.
Matt Walsh: "It's a big effort to codify a very fluid art form like improv. Because every time you create a rule, you realize there's an exception, and so then you have to go back and wipe out the foundation of what you were sort of planning to say."
"It was building the structure of the classes (that UCB teaches in New York City and Los Angeles) but when we were really investigating it, we found different takes on what we'd been saying for years. And very few of them didn't apply. A couple of them. It's like, oh, we can't say that anymore. And also finding the best exercises for a certain moment. And then we had illustrations to talk about. So it was a long process. Starting with just people recording us talking about it, so we had all these verbal notes. And then we had friends read it. So there were all these rewrites from other improvisers. Or other notes."
"Matt, Ian and I wrote everything together. Every single word was generated by all three of us. And a guy named Joe Wengert edited it."
Matt Besser: "Ian, Walsh and myself had been working on it. Definitely weekly, and sometimes daily, for seven years. We'd meet every morning, and essentially philosophically debate everything about improv we've ever learned. And that was a lot of fun. It was challenging and fun and also frustrating. Because we were writing it to be read by people who'd never seen improv. So we could be in the middle of America. Not be near regular improv shows or an improv theater to go to school, and understand what it is, and make it work for you."
Ian Roberts: "Oh, it's amazing! It was always so embarrassing to us, marathon after marathon, to come back and say, we didn't accomplish our goal. In our defense, we have our careers to pursue. And so it's done. If people know how much I've put myself out just to get this book out, even if it took three years, it meant coming in from 7 a.m. to 10 in the morning, before doing a full day of work on my TV show (Roberts is a writer/executive producer on Comedy Central's Key & Peele). And we really worked hard to make it a book that could be understandable to someone who's never seen improv, who's never been in our classes. It was a real challenge to constantly proof the book by that standard. Try to take all that knowledge you have and say, I'm going to uninitiate it when I'm reading this. Do I understand this? Again and again, you'd say, 'No!' It has to be even more precise. It has to be more -- we have to break down that thing we're treating as a given, they don't understand. You know. So it was a rough process."
Roberts, on obstacles overcome: "I think time was our only enemy. There was nothing we had to crack. We understand this stuff like the back of our hand. It's something I care about passionately. And I've thought so much about this, and I have such strong opinions about it, and that's why it made it difficult. If I didn't, I might have let it go a lot earlier. But I wanted to get across these points of view. And I know that if I'm in a room of people, and you give me some time, I will get it across to you eventually. To do that in writing, it's a whole different skill. I write all the time, but I write comedy. I write funny dialogue. To write something that's textbook, that makes it perfectly clear -- this thing that's perfectly clear in my mind, any day of the week anytime, get me with someone, I know I could explain to you these things. But to do it in print, is a whole different challenge."
Besser, on Roberts: "We were perfectionists. Believe me on that. Ian, in particular, was kind of the grammar guy. Just the way you phrase a sentence is something, I'm not good at. I can't write books like that. So there was a lot of, we know the thought. We know what we want to communicate. But are we communicating it well? And we wanted to write it like a textbook. We didn't to write it like a conversational, more like a lot of other books are like -- we wanted to write it like a college textbook."
Besser, on creating new language and terms for improv: "We've codified all of our teachings. What we thought was going to take a year or two, ended up taking seven years. Because when you're actually laying out everything, you'll come up to certain methods, or certain things that happen in improv that we hadn't had a word for it yet! Like you'd have a word for one thing, but not a word for the opposite of that was. So we were making up a lot of phrases and words. That was kind of fun, like agreeing -- 'Are we going to call this ___?' Like 'chaff" was something. In an opening, we've come up -- you have idea, you have half-idea, and then you have chaff. Like, that was something we'd never -- we need to call this something! What do you call the stuff you don't use? It's like, in wheat, you've got chaff. All right! We'll call it chaff now! And now that's a phrase in our curriculum."
Besser on "Yes, and" as a rule, but not the rule of thumb to remember: "'Yes, and,' is almost given too much importance in the teaching of improv. And we, one of the big lessons of our book is 'yes, and' pretty much begins the scene, but once you get into the game of the scene -- in our language -- we get into what is called 'if, then.' Which is, if this unusual thing is true, then what else is true? To me, that's an easier way to understand how comedy works. 'Yes, and' sounds very life-affirming and very positive, but really it's less a part of making an improv scene than 'if, then' is, in our minds."
"The Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Improvisation Manual" so far only is available for pre-orders at the UCB's own UCBstore.com. It costs $25. Any changes will be updated and reflected here.
UPDATED: You now can buy the UCB Improv Manual on Amazon.com as well.
Here is an easy button to press and buy it!