“On The Cusp, Off The Cuff,” a documentary film about improv comedians in NYC and the UCB


Say that one word in comedy circles and you’ll see a multitude of reactions. OK. Mostly likely one of three: Love. Hate. Indifference. Or maybe even something that’s along the spectrum that connects those three.

Who decides to pursue a life or career in improv comedy, what are their motivations, and what is the reality of that life and career, really? Especially if you’re living and working in New York City. A couple of years ago, Nate Dern set out to humanize the art form by following five would-be performers who hadn’t yet achieved their dreams and goals in comedy, from first-timers auditioning for the Upright Citizens Brigade’s “Harold” improv teams, to actors and actresses on their third or fourth time through the process.

On The Cusp, Off The Cuff spotlights Allie Kokesh, J.D. Amato, John Trowbridge, Riley Soloner and Sasheer Zamata in 2011.

Dern explains his interest and role in this saga throughout the film, providing narrative voiceover along with his backstory (for more on Dern’s life pre-UCB, click here). He interviews Anthony King, who two years ago was the longtime artistic director for the UCB Theatre in NYC; Dern since has succeeded him. Dern also talks with Will Hines, who was running the UCB’s training school — follow Hines on his Improv Nonsense Tumblr for even more lessons in improv comedy! — for background.

It’s a UCB movie, to be sure, with scenes from The Stepfathers (of which Hines is a member) and Death By Roo Roo. But you’ll also learn about indie improv groups such as Zamata’s trio Doppelganger, venues that provide temporary homes for them, the glut of bad improv out there, how TV and film rarely captures the humor and excitement when improvised scenes are funny and great, and even the economic woes of performing improv.

Speaking of economics, On The Cusp, Off The Cuff was produced with more than $8,000 in donations via Kickstarter.

Here is what Dern told his potential Kickstarter investors in March 2012: “My main goal is to give a small glimpse into what it is like to be a part of the growing world of long-form improv comedy in NYC, answering questions like: What is “long-form improv” and how is it different from what I’ve seen on Whose Line Is It Anyway? Why do people spend so much time and energy on an ephemeral art form that essentially disappears forever as soon as the show is over? Why do people speak so passionately about something that so often involves such silly subject matter on stage? These questions and more will be discussed.”

This is the finished film. If you have 55 minutes to spare, please do so now.

That was a year and a half ago, though. What about now? Here are the UCB bio pages for Allie Kokesh, J.D. Amato, John Trowbridge, Riley Soloner and Sasheer Zamata.

More? In an extra short, Anthony King, Pat Baer, Bridget Fitzgerald, Katey Healy-Werzburg, James Dwyer, Big Rich Armstead, Chris Gethard, Benjamin Apple and Veronica Osorio discuss the meaning of improv.

Roll the clip!

You can find even more extra footage from On The Cusp, Off The Cuff, on the film’s YouTube page.


Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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