Upright Citizens Brigade Television | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Upright Citizens Brigade Television 

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at A Red Orchid Theater

Out in front of A Red Orchid Theater at 11 PM there's a guy handing out flyers. He wears a business suit and has a cardboard box over his head. Pasted onto the box are the photocopied, enlarged eyes and nose of a face obscured by 3-D glasses, a variation on the giant eyeballs used by the musical group the Residents. It's a funny and somewhat unsettling sight, and one that holds promise for the show that follows, Upright Citizens Brigade Television. Lots of postmodern posing and a gritty grunge-rock sound design make it seem like this comedy group wanted to forge a fresh, challenging revue: a show to make you think while you laugh. Unfortunately, while a few sketches hint at something more, most of the material in this show is just standard fare delivered with overblown cutting-edge airs.

The amount of disappointing material is surprising considering how cleverly things start out. Two men waiting for a train strike up a brief and friendly conversation. After some chummy sports bonding, one man offers his hand for an introduction. The other man produces a hammer and a nail and proceeds to nail the hand to the ground, leaving his victim horribly bewildered. It's a strange and funny bit, and if more of this show contained such ruthless humor it would be a lot more enjoyable. Instead the show travels through its uneven material in fits and starts.

After establishing an oblique Big Brother framework in which a mind-controlling television network is created by the man with the box on his head, the show becomes a series of one-joke sketches that often run far too long. In one of them, four men in a car savor stories from a wild party the night before. Oddly, one of them will speak only in short Jack Nicholson impersonations, which begins to annoy the others. It's funny at first but never develops beyond an "annoying-guy" gag, and it ends weakly with the other men pushing the offending impersonator out of the car and leaving him by the side of the road, stuck in Nicholson mode. The same sketch is reprised twice more later in the show, each installment less funny than the last.

Perhaps if the group stayed within their framework a little more, the show would have more punch. The theme of dangerous media creating a dangerous world is intriguing and fertile ground for satire. But the show sinks in incongruous sketches such as an aimless bit about Honor Finegan, a merry garden nymph in silly lederhosen who tries to make people happy with offers of trees and plants. When people scoff at him he turns them into stone. Once again, the joke is carried past its potency; in fact, the whole bit seems to exist only because someone got hold of a pair of lederhosen.

The fours stars of Upright Citizens Brigade Television (Matt Besser, Neil Flynn, Adam McKay, and Ian Roberts, who also wrote and directed the show together) throw themselves into their performances with admirable energy and charm, often injecting life into otherwise nondescript sketches. Besser's sound design pushes the show along with a mix of subtle banalities from everyday television and power chords by the group Helmet. With more perspective and perhaps an outside director, the show might take more form and lose some of its dull excess.

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