It’s Teddy Roosevelt’s Presidential Funk Pad in heaven and the former Rough Rider is holding court with noted VIPs.
Robert E. Lee clutches a bottle of Fireball Whiskey. Martin Luther King, Jr. shares his dream journal. A cavalier Ted Kennedy apologizes for, among other sins, killing Marilyn Monroe.
There’s a knock on the door, and in walks Richard Nixon introducing himself as “the most successful” president.
“How would you define successful?” asks Roosevelt, Bud Light dribbling on to his silk print robe and house slippers.
“Whoever was the president for the most number of years in the ’70s.”
This is just one of the improvised shows under the guidance—and in this case starring—Mike Still, artistic director at the Upright Citizens Brigade in Los Angeles. His penchant for absurd, ridiculous humor compliments the seriousness with which he takes comedy.
UCB’s establishment as a talent incubator is undeniable, contributing to countless entertainment productions, and boasting a 30,000-square-foot compound in Los Angeles that brings to mind the Death Star, only funnier. Famous UCB alum make up a who’s who of Hollywood’s most hilarious and successful writers, actors, and directors, including Fast Company cover woman Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Veep‘s Matt Walsh, and Will Ferrell co-conspirator Adam McKay. (Note: We make videos with UCB members, too!) Mike Still has a hand in its current success, managing the expansive Los Angeles outpost’s talent lineup and calendar. No easy feat when there are over 3,000 performances per year.
“The schedule is really my artpiece,” the affable 34-year-old says of his role, which requires being both nurturing mentor and critical casting director.
Still’s artpiece is an ever-changing behemoth that accommodates 300 performances a month: well-known shows, new additions, and house improv teams. Students of the theatre’s acclaimed school hope to graduate to a spot on the esteemed lineup, with over 1,200 auditioning for only 8-20 slots per year.
“If you get on a team, you feel like you made it,” Still says of the school system, now a lively showcase for top agents, executives, and scouts. Opportunities for team members range from Paul Feig films to summer blockbusters to new Comedy Central shows. He even helped handpick talent for the upcoming Star Wars installment, sending a few actors to audition for a lead role. “I was so excited,” he gushes. “It was a dream.” Still has become a go-to for casting needs, and routinely plays matchmaker between comedians and the studios.
“There has to be some sort of vetting process,” Still says of his job. “[UCB] is the first line of defense for finding talent in Hollywood. We’re a collective—the comedy experts.”
The Lancaster, Pennsylvania-bred director got his start in dramatic theater before moving on to a variety of comedy, ranging from pop culture satire to musical improv. A fine eye for talent has led him thus far, but it’s his empathy and sensitivity that cemented his role at UCB.
“All these people, they’re weirdos—talented weirdos,” Still says of his affinity for the performers who grow through the theatre’s ranks. He susses out the potential in all this talent and manages it for an audience. “I have a skill of putting sugar in that medicine. It’s creativity with a focus.”
At a recent improv rehearsal, Still guided a young troupe through a series of exercises before they combined their talents with members of the physical theater group Stomp. He showed YouTube clips of classic Russian ballet and current hip-hop dances, inspiring students to jump off into scenes incorporating any one element. The end result: competitive ballet moves at a dinner party, beat box noises interpreting the concept of a “tequila sunrise,” and a couple sexually aroused by dangling one another above the Grand Canyon.
“They’re learning a language,” explains Still, who gives notes to the team ranging from theory (“balance those emotionally heightened, tense scenes with cartoony characters—just make sure they come from a real place”) to helpful additions (“I wanted to hear some Japanese accents”).
He also serves as mentor, imparting his wisdom to the next generation. As he told this group: “If you tell team members that you hurt your foot, they will subconsciously accidentally step on it.”
Helping foster the next generation of funny professionals seems to be Still’s calling—and the calendar is a testament to the industry’s growing trends and tastes. It creates opportunities, but also confirms where comedy is headed.
“Mike needs to be in tune to all the performers and material coming up through our system and push it to find its artistic voice,” says Alex Sidtis, UCB’s managing director. “The entire DNA of UCB as a theatre is to showcase new and exciting talent and concepts and he needs to make sure those voices get heard.”
Still, who took his first class in 2006, picked up the scheduling reigns for UCB in 2014 as it was undergoing its Los Angeles expansion. He curates the programming to be more inclusive and accommodate more performers. A glance at current shows reveal presentations for new improvisers to an Extreme Gaming Championship (satirizing competitive gaming), to an entire show dedicated to the seedy underbelly of Internet searches (featuring former SNL writer and current star of MTV’s Girl Code, Nicole Byer).
Those who have performed under Still’s guidance attest to his adherence of collecting feedback from both veterans and newcomers, surrounding himself with a council of creative voices.
Mary Holland, star of Starz’s new faux-cable news show Blunt Talk (executive produced by Seth MacFarlane), fully credits her UCB experience to landing a manager, agent, and even her current role in the upcoming movie Mike And Dave Need Wedding Dates, alongside Anna Kendrick, Zac Efron, and Aubrey Plaza (directed by UCB alum Jake Szymanski).
“I feel like almost every person in comedy is tied to UCB,” Holland says. “They helped me hone my skills and apply them on a more accessible level. So much of learning is just getting on your feet and just doing it—and Mike has provided that stage time.”
In some ways, Still’s work sounds like a mad scientist of funny, tinkering with personalities and comedic tastes to produce performances that are purely spontaneous.
“Improv is a real mindset, a real challenge. It’s being at your most connected,” explains Still, who studied philosophy at Penn State. “It’s one of the newest creative expressions of the 20th century—and it’s an accessible artform.”
Pulling people together—and sometimes apart—comes with its own set of challenges, especially in such a tight-knit community as the comedy industry. (For more on that, revisit Patton Oswalt on Trevor Noah.) When it comes to the difficult task of cutting a would-be team member, Still sets expectations early and works with peers to manage the proper formation of teams. “There shouldn’t be a hierarchy,” Still says of the elimination process, which he considers a group effort.
But yes, having to cut pals and students has to be done, and it can be awkward and heartbreaking.
“I have made people cry,” Still admits. “It’s not that anyone was that bad, but we need to make room for the new talent.”
That’s certainly how it seems, as I watched Still ask his students to give it one last try before releasing them to collaborate with Stomp.
“That was good, but let’s do another round with some sound effects,” he instructed, “like fart noises.”