On a cold March night on New York’s Upper East Side, about 50 people gather in the halls of the Manhattan Neighborhood Network television studio eagerly awaiting the unexpected.

The group is the studio audience for The Special Without Brett Davis, a new public access talk show that has already gained a loyal following just seven episodes into its first season. Named from Davis’ tendency to host as a character rather than as himself, the show is entirely improvisational. Most of the fans waiting in the halls understand the show’s brand of non-sequitur humor. One mustachioed college student, however, does not and asks the friend who brought him to the studio what exactly Davis does on the show. “It’s kind of hard to explain,” says his friend.

The group is then lead onto the MNN soundstage where they sit cross-legged on the floor, except for those who have chosen to dress up in various costumes to portray the “studio audience” on the show. As the show begins, it appears to proceed in typical talk show fashion, albeit with a panel of quirky characters including “Mr. Jokes” and “The Human Fish.” There is a call-in portion of the show as well as an interview with Tim Williams, the Trivago spokesperson. Suddenly without warning, a group of black leather-clad terrorists dubbed, “The Great Darkness” descend into the studio and hold the entire show hostage. Davis, still in character as comedian Chris Gethard, attempts to carry on the show as the terrorists intermittently kill off members of the panel in an overly dramatic fashion. As this strange scene unfolds it is not only being broadcast across New York on MNN, but also on YouTube via the show’s Tumblr.

Throughout the broadcast, a young man in an aqua blue sweater and jeans furiously takes pictures of the action from the left side of the soundstage. John Ambrosio, a junior at New York University, has been working on the crew for the show almost since its inception. Ambrosio first learned of Brett Davis after watching his guest role as an MNN producer on an episode of The Chris Gethard Show, Davis’ timeslot predecessor. He describes being intrigued not only by Davis’ performance, but that of The Chris Gethard Show’s entire cast.

“I saw all the people on it and was like, ‘Where are all these funny weird people that I’ve, like, never seen or heard of before?’” said Ambrosio.

Ambrosio soon found out that the performers he’d seen on the series had all been trained at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theatre. An aspiring comedian himself, Ambrosio decided to take improv classes at the theatre. One year later, Ambrosio is about to take his fourth and final improv class, “Advanced Improvisation.”

Ambrosio and Davis are just two of the thousands of people across the country who comprise the UCB alumni. Since its inception as a school in 1996, UCB has begun to build up a reputation as one of the premier pools of comedic talent due to the success of former students like Nick Kroll and Pete Holmes.

For UCB alumni, fame and success has typically translated to steady work as a stand-up, or a member of an improv team. Thanks to the Internet and the growing network of talent at UCB, the step-ladder to fame itself has never been more accessible.

Understanding what makes fame more attainable in this era of comedy requires turning the clock back to an era a little after early man made the first “knock knock” joke known as the first “comedy boom.”

In this era, from the late seventies to the early nineties, the popularity of comedians such as Steve Martin and Richard Pryor led to the opening of hundreds of comedy clubs across the United States. It was during this time that most opportunities for success in comedy revolved around stand-up comedy in clubs and on television. If comedy was a fortress, then anyone who wanted to break inside had to get a laugh from its guards, the comedy club owner and the talk show producer.

“It was specifically mainstream,” said comedian Marc Maron in a recent interview with Vulture, “and obviously there are many comics that surfaced out of there as bona fide comedy stars, but there was a lot that just serviced the audience that was built in that system.”

In this current era of comedy, however, YouTube and other digital streaming sites have changed all that. Comedian Timmy Daniels described this phenomenon saying, “in the land of YouTube, its all up to us. Comedians don’t have to wait for someone to say they are ready. They have so many channels to ‘become’ ready.” The rise in new talent and new content that within the last five years has led many to label this current era as a second “comedy boom.”

If Steve Martin and Richard Pryor planted their flag on stand-up centric nature of the first comedy boom, then UCB has planted two significant flags in this second comedy boom. First and foremost, the theatre is responsible for popularizing the long-form style of comedic improvisation known as “The Harold” in areas outside of Chicago, home of the famed improv/sketch comedy theatre Second City. Second, the success of its alumni has led to a newfound emphasis on improvisation in comedic work. As current UCB improv student Trumaine Alston notes, “Whenever you audition, it’s now kind of expected that you can improvise.”

Improv in its basic definition is a scene in which the action and dialogue are created collaboratively by the performers onstage without a prepared script. Improv has been likened to a religion and like any other religion, improv has been broken into several different methods and schools of thought. The two basic forms are short form, made famous by the program “Whose Line is it Anyway,” and long form improv. In “the Harold,” UCB’s primary method of long form improv, performers improvise three scenes based on a one-word suggestion. If “cat” is the suggestion, one scene might take place at a pet store followed by another at a cat food factory and then at an animal hospital. Improv performers working with “the Harold” are trained to take any idea and twist it into different forms within this loose plot structure.

This training will come in handy for Alston as he furiously scribbles in a small black notepad at the People’s Improv Theatre in Midtown Manhattan. He is currently set to perform at an open-mic for sketch comedy at the theatre but does not yet have a sketch to perform. Closing his eyes for a moment, he talks out ideas with a friend backstage.

“So there’s a guy,” says Alston, “and he’s got….cool shoes.”

Alston quickly abandons this idea and when the open-mic begins fifteen minutes later he remains without a fully scripted sketch. He does, however, have a loose structure for a parody of a letter correspondence in a Ken Burns Civil War documentary. As he performs onstage it is difficult to immediately discern which lines were scripted and which were improvised.

“Dear Sylvia,” Alston says to his imaginary correspondent, “in a theater seeing a play right now, will write later as my pen scratching is disturbing the actors.”

The People’s Improv Theatre, or simply The PIT, is one of the four major improv theatres in New York City including UCB as well as Magnet Theatre and The Annoyance Theatre. It is also one of two theatres that have been founded in the last fifteen years, PIT in 2002 and Magnet in 2005. While UCB has influenced these other theatres as an institution, each one has their own identity and styles of teaching improvisation. Improv teacher Chris Griswold equates them to “the four houses of Hogwarts” in terms of their approach to the craft.

“UCB performance feels audacious, kind of like Gryffindor,” says Griswold, “The PIT feels a little bit more like Ravenclaw, they think things out. Magnet [is] Hufflepuff, they’re a community, and then you’ve got The Annoyance who are kind of weird.”

Griswold, a tall man with a graying red beard, is one of the busiest working improv teachers in New York. Introduced to improv while at University of Pittsburgh in 2004, he traveled to New York City to take classes at UCB, working at a comic book store to “fund his improv habit.” He then went on to work as a UCB registrar before leaving to start his own improv school called “Thunderbolt Comedy.” Now he teaches about thirteen classes a week including one he recently taught via Skype.

As a UCB alumnus and experienced coach, Griswold believes that UCB’s influence on the modern comedy scene is specifically tied to its function as a “lightening rod for weird people” and as “a lab for new comedians trying things out.” It is both a commune for like-minded people and a haven for individual creative expression. Griswold cites The Chris Gethard Show as an example of people who used the UCB venue itself to produce their own brand of humor and build an audience while also taking advantage of the other talented writers and performers within the UCB network.

“What matters is those connections to each other,” says Griswold. “We all learn these approaches to comedy and everything but in the end you got to develop your own voice, and you got to reach out, and you got to meet other people.”

Griswold stresses, however, that individual expression is key in order to achieve success in comedy under the guidance of UCB. He cites as examples Abby Jacobson and Ilana Glazer, two UCB alums who were simultaneously taking classes while developing their web series Broad City that was picked up for television by Comedy Central.

“I think one thing that happens now is that people see the success of a lot of people that come through UCB and they think, ‘well I’ll just do UCB,’” says Griswold, “None of those people [who achieved success] just did Upright Citizen’s Brigade. They still were making their own things.”
These “things” may include a solo show at UCB or a sketch group. More often than not, these “things” are found less onstage and more online in the form of a podcast, a twitter page, or a web series.

In the first era of comedy, there were very few ways for a comedian to self-promote beyond a headshot and a tape of their latest material. Fortunately the age of the Internet has opened up several avenues for developing a portfolio of work that can be viewed by both potential employers and fans. Comedians such as Ben Schwartz and Billy Eichner, both of whom went on to play characters on NBC’s Parks and Recreation, have used these avenues as launch pads to further their careers. Schwartz directed online video shorts and posted jokes on Twitter which lead to appearances in sketches on CollegeHumor and a job as a writer for the Emmys. Eichner created and posted comedic man-on-the-street videos online in which he quizzed bystanders on pop culture which allowed him to appear as a correspondent on Conan.

It was by creating her own online content that UCB alum and Funny or Die writer/producer Liz Lanteri has landed most of the opportunities throughout her career. In 2008 as a junior at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, Lanteri got an internship on Ellen by creating her own Ellen parody video in which she portrayed its titular host. Then after writing several highly viewed articles on Buzzfeed she was hired as a comedy writer and director for Cosmopolitan’s online video content. She also created the Parks and Recreation-inspired meme site “Tom Haverfoods” which drew praise from the show’s creator/showrunner Michael Schur, actors Aziz Ansari and Amy Poehler, as well as Time magazine. Lanteri cites the accessibility of online content creation and the convenience for others to view her content as crucial to her success.

“I feel like nepotism exists in any kind of industry. The niece of the boss is gonna get the job first,” says Lanteri, “but if you’re able to do things like a meme site or get in the door another way, it’s available online to those people. Online is like a platform for you and then you can just work towards and build your resume off things that you just do on your own.”

Like Griswold, Lanteri believes that individual expression is extremely important and advises novice comedians to use social media to find popular topics on which they can give their own unique perspective. She recently used her Twitter to provide her own insight on the AMC drama Mad Men as the newest episode was airing. “There’s a lot of different techniques and even if you’re new and trying to break in, people will notice you,” says Lanteri. “If you have a good Twitter feed it doesn’t need to be high in numbers it just needs to be something you’re projecting.”

Despite her own online accomplishments, Lanteri believes it is the contacts she made online via social media and offline within the UCB network that helped her career the most. As a producer on the Funny or Die series Billy on the Street, Lanteri has been able to come into contact with stars such as Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd. As she describes working with Poehler she reflects on the fact that she worked with her on the series only two years after seeing her live at UCB when Lanteri was still taking classes. She also mentions that Poehler and most of the celebrity guests Lanteri has worked with were already fans before making an appearance on the series.

“I would say the comedy world is very supportive of each other and they overlap a lot,” says Lanteri, “It’s not so much a competition as it is, you know, ‘when can we work together?’”

This mentality has inspired her to keep tabs on the growing crop of new talent. She describes looking up the names of different comedians or comedy writers she does not recognize while reading Splitsider, a known comedy website, only to find that they have a huge Twitter following.

“It’s just becoming familiar with the people within comedy,” says Lanteri, “and you’ll see them show up on something and then you’ll get to work with them.”

Within the past twelve years, the population affiliated with UCB has grown exponentially due to growing class numbers and the opening of a UCB theatre in Los Angeles. As a byproduct of its size, the UCB network has begun to break off into factions and form their own schools of thought on comedy. This was the case with The Peoples Improv Theatre, which split off from UCB, and Magnet Theatre which broke away from the former. Although UCB remains a rich pool of talent, these new comedic entities are beginning to dilute that pool due to collaboration among comedians.

“I think UCB for the 2000s, was the place to be and now it’s a place to be,” says Comedian Brett Davis.

Davis is a writer and character comedian who is the host of The Special without Brett Davis. He is a UCB alum though he is reluctant to identify as one due to the fact that he has taken classes and performed at People’s Improv Theater as well. While he speaks about how much he learned taking classes at UCB, he explains that the material currently being presented at UCB does not excite him as much as what is being shown at The Annoyance Theatre.

“I will say there was a bit of a time when UCB was kind of just passé or, you know, a lot of people thought they were just turning out the same stuff,” says Davis.

Although Davis does not believe UCB is on the forefront of innovation in comedy, he does believe it has extreme value as a network and a talent pool. He speaks about how he would not have his show had fellow UCB colleague Chris Gethard not invited him to guest star on The Chris Gethard Show and offered him the time slot after his departure from public access. Furthermore, he respects their efforts to provide networking opportunities for younger talent.

“Instead of being the school of, like, ‘we’re gonna train the next generation of improvisers,’” says Davis, “now its sort of like, ‘well we’re just gonna have the best people in comedy and try to bring them into the fold and expose them to newer people.’”

In the first era of comedy, success was brought about by the solo efforts of a comedian. Aside from writing on a sitcom, the stand-up centric nature of the first comedy boom rarely provided the chance for collaboration. In addition, the need to win the approval of a comedy club owner meant it was risky for a comedian to try and explore their own voice.

In the second era of comedy, the establishment of UCB not only brought about more opportunity for collaboration, but also fostered a meeting place for like-minded people. Furthermore, streaming websites and social media have allowed these like-minded people the opportunity to explore their own comedic tastes by allowing them to connect with their audience and vice versa.

It is because of this growing comedic network that the modern comedic voice is beginning to change. The accessibility of success in comedy has allowed for new ideas. Comedians have nobody’s approval to win but that of their fans and each other and make an effort to establish their own brand of comedy as a result. While UCB’s artistic reputation might be reduced by this growing well of new talent, their impact on the second wave of comedy is irreversible. In the first comedy boom comedians had to break through a brick wall to achieve success. Now in the aftermath of the second, all they need to do is climb the web of funny until something sticks.