Theater

After Hours: Network Comedy Writers Hone Their Improv Chops Onstage at UCB

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It’s a Thursday evening in July, and a group of staff writers from NBC’s Late Night With Seth Meyers are huddled around a small table in the back corner of Smithfield, a dimly lit sports bar on 25th Street in Chelsea that serves cheap cans of beer and big glasses of whiskey. The few staffers who made it out on this night look exhausted. It’s the end of their workweek — four long days of churning out monologues, sketches, and desk pieces for the still fledgling talk show — and the grind is starting to take its toll.

But while the week has largely been spent typing away in the writers’ room, helping the show’s host and namesake make viewers laugh come 12:37 a.m., earlier this evening the spotlight shifted. Once a month, the writers of Late Night gather near Smithfield at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre on 26th Street to perform an hour of improv comedy in front of a packed house. Aptly titled “Crate Night With Set Fires,” the performance gives fans a glimpse into the antics of the Late Night writers’ room, and provides the writers an opportunity to reconnect with their improv roots.

“Improvising is unrefined writing — it’s just writing on your feet,” explains Late Night‘s Sal Gentile, relaxing with a beer after tonight’s UCB performance. In addition to performing with Crate Night, he continues to appear regularly on a UCB “Harold” team — one of the house troupes that stage sketches in the style and structure of legendary improv teacher Del Close. “When you do a late-night show, you’re ahead of the audience. You know everything that’s going to happen. But with improv, you are on the exact same page as the audience — you know exactly as much as they do and you’re all discovering it together. That’s just a high that you don’t get from anything else.”

While improv theaters like UCB and Chicago’s Second City have long been feeders for popular television shows like Saturday Night Live, 30 Rock, and Broad City, more and more writers are finding it difficult to kick the improv habit even after landing a coveted gig as a network scribe.

For the last year and a half, writers from The Daily Show have performed together regularly at UCB, and the staff hopes to continue the events once Trevor Noah officially replaces Jon Stewart as host this fall. The staff of The Colbert Report started the trend in 2010, performing at UCB until their show went off the air last December. (They plan to relaunch their monthly improv night after The Late Show With Stephen Colbert debuts on CBS September 8.) The writers for Comedy Central’s Key & Peele and IFC’s Comedy Bang! Bang! have both performed sporadically at UCB as well.

“In a writers’ room, all the ideas just come from people riffing on each other and generating ideas together,” Zhubin Parang, the new head writer of The Daily Show, explains. “So it’s very important to have people who, if [they’re] not improvisers, at least have the spirit of improvisation and are willing to take an idea and run with it.”

In many ways, improv has its roots in the written word. In the early days, ad-libbing was used as a writing exercise — a way of generating a creative spark to later put down on paper. And Parang, along with members of the Late Night staff, say they all secured their jobs based largely on their skill as off-the-cuff performers.

In the Late Night writers’ room, Meyers, a graduate of Chicago’s ImprovOlympic, will often use improv terminology to speak about the strength of an idea before putting it into production. He might ask a writer what the “game” of his or her proposed piece is — referring to the central concept of a sketch, which improvisers then “play” with onstage — and will work with the team to brainstorm new ideas quickly.

It’s a pedigree that’s exceedingly useful in the competitive world of late-night TV, and characters that first appeared spontaneously onstage have often found their way onto Late Night sketches.

“Improv is like writing a billion sketches in 40 minutes,” explains Late Night writer and Second City alumna Amber Ruffin. A character she created onstage at Crate Night — a kooky, loudmouthed grandmother — ultimately ended up with some screen time with Meyers on the show, sitting down for multiple scripted interviews. “People who are great at improv tend to be good at writing. When you’re writing, you’re only improvising with yourself. That’s all writing really is.”

While improvisation helps inform the writing process, the relationship also works both ways. Like many improv shows, Crate Night is unpredictable, flying off into absurdism and near-chaos at a moment’s notice. But there is also a certain literary quality to the performance, an attention to character development and plotlines not always seen in the trenches of improvisational comedy. It’s a refreshing take on an art form that’s become ubiquitous — and increasingly slapstick — over the years.

A high point of July’s show came when Late Night‘s Conner O’Malley conducted a mock interview onstage with supervising writer Seth Reiss. After Reiss divulged that he had once blown his chances with a college crush by sending her half a dozen unanswered emails in a single night, the other four writers mercilessly re-created the exchange for the audience. The skit followed a near perfect narrative arc, culminating with the love interest faking her own death and the crowd exploding into laughter. Even with the occasional flat joke or accidental fumble, the performance had a writer’s touch throughout, and drew extremely well for a weeknight set at the 150-seat venue.

“I think it’s become its own little genre of improv,” says Opus Moreschi, the head writer for The Late Show With Stephen Colbert. “Plus we get a bunch of random strangers clapping for us, and, you know, you’re disconnected from that when you’re behind a computer all day. It’s nice to have that immediate feedback of, ‘Oh, yeah, people like us.’ ”

After so many hours spent helping other people sound funny on TV, part of the draw naturally involves branching out on one’s own and claiming some of the glory. On staff at a late-night show, writers have to constantly shape material to fit a host’s voice, at times letting their personal sense of humor and style take a backseat to the larger brand. The balancing act can become exhausting.

“The host has a certain voice, and there are ways in which the writing staff’s voice overlaps with the host, and there are ways that it doesn’t. We’re all personalities,” Reiss explains. “It’s fun to perform in front of people, it’s fun for people to laugh at you, and it’s also fun to just sort of break out of the day-to-day of the show and do something that’s a little more open.”

But ultimately, the motivation behind the improv nights has less to do with honing chops or stealing back some spotlight, and more to do with encouraging collaboration and building bonds between writers.

“We’re all so tired right now. It’s on a Thursday, and that’s our last taping of the week,” Andrew Law, another Late Night writer, adds as the group gets ready to leave the bar. “But it’s really fun, and pretty much no one makes me laugh harder than the people who are in this room.”

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