On Monday afternoon, in a long Facebook post, Chris Gethard announced the end of The Chris Gethard Show. The series has a long and somewhat torturous history: It began as a monthly live show at New York’s Upright Citizens Brigade in 2009, when Gethard was an instructor at the legendary improv theater, and moved to the public access channel Manhattan Neighborhood Network (MNN) in 2011. Comedy Central commissioned a pilot in 2013, but declined to pick up the series. The show aired out of MNN’s 59th Street studio until 2015, at which point Fusion picked it up — and cut it down from an hour to thirty minutes — for two seasons. For its third and final season, which ended in May, TCGS hopped to truTV. And now, more than 200 episodes later, it’s over.
A freewheeling phone-in series with an anarchic spirit, TCGS had a punk-rock heart and an air of spontaneity that is rare for television these days. The late-night show had a simple conceit, centered on host Gethard; his “sidekick,” longtime UCB artistic director Shannon O’Neill; and “internet liaison” Bethany Hall, who would facilitate live Skype calls from fans all over the world. Regular viewers came to know and love recurring characters like the Human Fish (David Bluvband) and Gethard’s nemesis, Vacation Jason (Riley Soloner). Despite the looseness of the format, most episodes were built around concepts like, “Show Us the Weirdest Thing About Your Body,” the first episode to air on Fusion, in 2015, with guests Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer. The season two finale, “Fight for the Fish,” features a wrestling match between Gethard and Vacation Jason (Jon Hamm shows up and dons a sumo suit). The season two episode “One Man’s Trash,” from May 2016, was an instant classic: A dumpster is wheeled out at the beginning of the episode, and Gethard and guests Jason Mantzoukas and Paul Scheer spend the entire hour taking audience guesses as to what’s in it.
In his Facebook post, Gethard, 38, writes that the end of his namesake show was a mutual decision between himself and the executives at truTV. “With my hesitation to continue and truTV’s need for numbers improvement,” he wrote, “it’s time to throw in the towel.”
The Voice spoke to Gethard — who is looking forward to some down time before jumping into his next project — about the reaction to the show’s cancellation, the struggle to break into the mainstream, and making TV with heart.
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This must’ve been an intense week for you. How are you feeling?
I’m feeling pretty good, honestly. It’s been pretty nice to feel people’s love as they reach out and also, as I said in the thing I wrote online, it feels like a bit of weight off the shoulders. I’m sure it’ll hit me at some point and I’ll get tremendously sad and grieve it. But for now, I gotta say, I’m letting out a sigh of relief that the pressure is off.
There are over 200 comments on your Facebook post. Have you read them?
I’ve read a lot of the reaction online, yeah. It was really beautiful. I’d say 95 percent of it was just really nice, people telling me what the show meant to them, saying that it had some effect over the years and that’s really overwhelming. When I think about it, the fact that anyone gave a shit is still so remarkable and flattering to me. There was three percent of it that was like, truTV fans that were like, “Good! Now we can get more of the programming we like back.” Then there’s the two percent that really rattles my nerves, which is old fans who say we sold out anyway, celebrating our demise.
So much late-night TV these days feels geared to producing short clips that can go viral, but your show felt almost like the opposite. It had this kind of “You had to be there” vibe, like going to a late-night UCB show — like the point of it was to hang out for an hour.
Well, I certainly wasn’t opposed to having clips go viral, and we tried our best. We had a whole team of people who were trying to make it happen. My hope would always be, float out that clip, get people interested, and then they’d want to come in for the whole long-form show. But I think my experience is just proving more and more, that is not how people’s attention spans work right now. There are other shows that I think are built to accommodate that more and sadly I think ours is a little bit more of an experience where you had to buckle up and come along for the ride. It just wasn’t happening. I know I sound a little dismal and defeated, but what can I do? I feel like nine years of banging my head against the wall is enough banging my head against the wall.
At the same time, and maybe this was the show’s tragic flaw, but I think it worked because it was smaller and more intimate — it felt like something special in this little corner of a really crowded TV landscape. There aren’t that many shows that really foster a community the way yours did. Do you think that’s possible to do in TV these days?
It’s funny, because if we did anything it was build a community. So I guess it’s possible — we did it. The real question now on my mind is, “Is it possible to build a community that can grow to a mainstream size?” and we came a couple inches short of the goal line on that. So I don’t know; I don’t know if that’s what people are interested in right now. I was happy to give it a shot and I have no regrets because the community was a very active one, it was one that I was really a part of in a big way. I don’t think I was just some figurehead from afar. I’ve spent the days since we announced the show ending thanking a lot of people who have tweeted at me, sent me messages — people who watch the show and used to show up at the studio, people who used to call in. I know who they are, I know their names. They really did mean a lot to me and the show meant a lot to me, and the fact that the show could be a gathering place where I got to meet all these interesting, unique, odd people — it was the best thing about it.
It almost feels like an earlier era of the internet, where certain websites would foster similar communities — like the website Videogum, maybe a decade ago. Or the GLOW, the 1980s wrestling show that the Netflix series is based on — it was scrappy and goofy and small-scale and I don’t know how long something like that can last without changing fundamentally. It almost spells its own doom.
That’s totally true. One thing that I cop to is, I still have a chip on my shoulder, but it’s not the same chip on my shoulder I had when I came up with this idea. You mentioned GLOW, and there’s a whole bunch of examples of these scrappy local TV shows. I think of Uncle Floyd, who I grew up with in New Jersey. I think of Steampipe Alley, this weird kids’ show I grew up with. Clearly somebody was fighting to get those things through. Nothing that weird can exist without somebody fighting. I think I’m just ready to fight some different fights. I’m older now.
There’s also a real embrace of sincerity on your show that can be hard to come by on television, and in comedy. Do you feel like that’s something people are craving more of?
My assumption, knowing my career, is that now that we’ve ended my show, eighteen months from now sincerity’s gonna become the biggest thing in the history of the world. That just seems to be how things go for me. Now that I gave up, it’s gonna become all the rage.
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How does that make you feel?
If I was gonna worry about that I would’ve ended [the show] many moons ago. I just had to keep my head down and do it because it was fun.
I did an appearance on a talk show a few years back. One of the executive producers pulled me aside before I left and he was like, “You know, your show is really popular in writers’ rooms.” And I was like, oh, that’s really cool, got the respect of my peers. And he was like, “No. Your show is really popular in writers’ rooms — watch your back.” At first I was like oh, he’s telling me everyone’s gonna rip us off. There was a part of me that was real worried about that but I was like, you know what, rip us off, take what was good about it, make it better. I think what was good about the show was that it had a lot of heart, and if people rip off having heart, find ways to make it more palatable and more mainstream — big thumbs up at this point.
You’ve still got your podcast, Beautiful/Anonymous. Does that feel like a nice change of pace from doing such a chaotic live show?
There’s no pressure on it — there’s not like a big brain trust of people that get together and rubber-stamp everything for approval, which is how TV works. On a creative level, I feel like the entertainment I love the best feels really personal, feels a little small. I think I think The Chris Gethard Show really fit that description when it was at its highest peak. The show was maybe starting to grow to a point where I wasn’t necessarily feeling that as much. Doing smaller stuff feels good. The podcast feels good; it’s one-on-one. And I’ll tell you what always feels best, and will always feel best till the day I’m on my deathbed, is performing live. Just getting onstage in a roomful of people where I can see their eyes, I can react to them. They can see me, I can see them, and we can all feel like we’re a part of something together.
Every Sunday night for the past 22 years, a group of improvisers from the Upright Citizens Brigade get together for ASSSSCAT, one of the longest-running improv shows in the country. The performance is split into two parts; in each, an audience suggestion spurs an improvised monologue, which inspires a series of scenes. The show began in the mid 1990s in Chicago, before Amy Poehler, Matt Besser, Matt Walsh, and Ian Roberts took their sketch comedy group the Upright Citizens Brigade to New York. When the UCB Four, as they’ve come to be known, moved east in 1996, they brought ASSSSCAT with them, and it’s been a fixture of the comedy scene ever since. When the UCB opened the first of two Los Angeles theaters in 2005, ASSSSCAT went bicoastal.
ASSSSCAT features the best improvisers UCB has to offer; they play two shows a night every Sunday, an early ticketed show at 7:30 p.m. and another at 9:30 p.m. that is and always has been free. On Thursday, the UCB Four reunites for the first-ever ASSSSCAT show at Carnegie Hall, for the twentieth annual Del Close Marathon, a weekend-long improv festival named after the godfather of modern improvisation. This is the final year the event will take place in New York; earlier this month, the UCB Four announced that next year, the Del Close Marathon will move to Los Angeles.
To mark the occasion, the Voice spoke to performers past and present about the origins and significance of ASSSSCAT, the UCB’s flagship show.
Peter Grosz (The President Show, Late Night With Seth Meyers): The ASSSSCAT show is based on this show called TheArmando Diaz Theatrical Experience and Hootenanny.
Matt Besser (UCB founding member): We had a show in Chicago at the ImprovOlympic where this guy Armando Diaz would tell a story and then we would improvise based on that story. We took that form, and instead of Armando, it just became any guest monologist.
Armando Diaz (improv teacher, founder of New York’s Magnet Theater): I didn’t start it. Dave Koechner and Adam McKay started that, and they named it. Both those guys were working for Second City and they were kind of dissatisfied, because at Second City you don’t get to do a lot of long-form improv.
Adam McKay (The Big Short, Succession): The Armando Diaz Experience was a show built around Armando Diaz, a thoughtful, hilarious, tall Cuban American improviser who Dave and I, during a night of drinking, decided deserved his own show and maybe even his own cult.
Armando Diaz: Dave and Adam were hanging out at my apartment, passing show ideas around. I’m kind of drafted into doing this show. I think it was Adam’s idea to put me in charge of it. I wasn’t sure what he was talking about but in the spirit of “Yes, and.…” There was no talk about what the structure was. They just kind of booked this show. The next day I get a call from Dave saying that Charna [Halpern, co-founder of ImprovOlympic] loved the idea and we were gonna do it in April.
Adam McKay: They’re similar shows in structure but that’s mainly because “monologues inspiring scenes” is kind of the core of what Del Close, the innovator of long-form improvisation, taught. ASSSSCAT was inspired by a freezing cold Tuesday night of free improv at a place called the Elbo Room in Chicago that culminated with an empty stage and a few of us on mics repeating “aaaaasssssscat” over and over again in high-pitched voices to a crowd of maybe four people.
Ian Roberts (UCB founding member): Matt Besser was doing a two-person show with his girlfriend at the time, Susan Messing, in the basement of a bar-slash-club. And she had to go out of town and the guy was ticked off, he said, “Look, I need something down there.” So Matt said, “Don’t worry, I’ve got a group, the Upright Citizens Brigade, we’ll do a great show.” Matt made the terrible mistake of telling us, “Guys, we can’t screw around tonight, gotta be a good show.” Which guaranteed that the only thing we were gonna do was screw around.
Matt Besser: I know Ian Roberts was there and Adam McKay and Horatio Sanz, and a few other performers. At some point the improv was just going very poorly, and we were all drinking during the show, and getting a buzz on that was probably affecting our improv. We were just not getting laughs. People started disappearing into the wings and not coming back onto the stage and just drinking in the wings.
Horatio Sanz (Saturday Night Live, Great News): We were yelling things from backstage during sketches, and one of them was “asscat.” I just thought of the stupidest, dumbest thing to yell.
Ian Roberts: At a certain point the show descended into Matt Besser trying to start a scene where he was in an igloo, and he’s sitting in the middle of the stage, and nobody comes out and joins him. It was the opposite of good improv.
Matt Besser: I was alone onstage in an igloo and I was like, “Well, fuck this,” and I abandoned the stage. So there was just an empty stage, and we were drunkenly yelling from left wing to right wing, across the stage to each other, the nonsense word asscat. We were just going, “Aaaaasscat!” and making ourselves laugh at how hilariously disrespectful this was to the audience. We just reached a whole new level of abandoning our responsibility to entertain them.
Ian Roberts: I believe we lost two of our four audience members during that show.
Adam McKay: For the next few years we would refer to that night as the worst and most irrelevant moment in theater history.
Matt Besser: That nonsense word asscat became our code word for the improv set you do after your sketch show, which is more of a fuck-around than a show itself. You don’t really care if it goes well or not, it’s a little more loose. When we moved out to New York, we were doing these sketch showcases to try to get our show on Comedy Central, and at the end of a show we would do our fuck-around set, and we started calling it ASSSSCAT.
The New York groove
Amy Poehler (UCB founding member, Parks and Recreation): I truly don’t remember when the first official ASSSSCAT show was. I’m the worst at remembering things but I’m sure there were five people in the audience, including one set of parents.
Ian Roberts: We started doing it in New York City right away when we got there, because we all loved to improvise but there was no place that did what we did.
Matt Walsh (UCB founding member, Veep): Turning people on to long-form improv was sort of like bringing gunpowder to the natives. They hadn’t seen anything like it. We were fortunate that New York didn’t have a handle on long-form when we came out of Chicago.
Andy Richter (Conan): New York was full of people who were funny but they did not play well with others, and that’s what these guys represented. As Chicagoans we felt a little smug — “Jesus Christ, on every corner there’s someone doing this in Chicago.”
Matt Walsh: We moved out [to New York] in March ’96 and we were doing two shows, one at the Red Room on 4th Street and one at Tribeca Lab. We also started a Sunday night improv show and we started doing it at a place called Rebar. We had a lot of friends in New York who were writing for [Late Night With Conan O’Brien]or Saturday Night Live, so our Sunday night show was one of the first Chicago improv shows in the city. We had no home so we’d just find a bar. We slowly built an audience from that.
Peter Grosz: They were still kind of getting their feet wet in New York City and they didn’t have a huge following yet, so I was going to see them in weird buildings that were, like, on the sixth floor of a strange building in the Flatiron District where only ten people could go in an elevator at one time.
Andy Richter: Wherever they could get space they’d set up folding chairs and they would do improv shows. It definitely did feel like something important was happening — as important as an improv show can be.
Matt Besser: When it became a real show we wanted to list it. This was before the internet. You wanted to get your show listed, it was so important. So having the word ass at that point, we just didn’t want someone to not [list it] because of that word. So we made it into an acronym: Automatic Sprinkler System Shutdown Siamese Connection Alternative Theater. You know the Siamese connections that come out of buildings in New York? The valves that the fire department puts the hoses into? So we made it an acronym, made it all capital letters.
Horatio Sanz: I had nothing to do with that. When I said it originally, it was asscat with two s’s, but the way I was saying it was, “Aaaasscat” — so if anything there should be three a’s. But I want you to put there somewhere with an asterisk that I spell it with three s’s, please.
Andy Daly (Silicon Valley, Review): I believe it was at Luna Lounge that I first saw the UCB in the summer of ’96, when they first came to New York. I loved it, and at the end of it, they mentioned that they do a long-form comedy improv show at Solo Arts theater on 17th Street.
Miriam Tolan (Jon Glaser Loves Gear): I performed at the place with the crazy elevator, Solo Arts. That elevator was terrifying. It just felt very rickety. Everybody kind of held their breath when they got in. You felt like something was being asked of you from the very beginning.
Matt Besser: We started doing [ASSSSCAT] at Solo Arts and that’s where we eventually established a school. The school really evolved out of ASSSSCAT — people saw us do the improv form and they were like, “Teach us how to do that.”
Andy Daly: I do remember the first ASSSSCAT show that I saw at Solo Arts. I would love to say that I jumped on the bandwagon before anybody, but when I got there, there was already a long line and I was not sure I was gonna get in. The main thing I remember thinking watching the show was, I did not understand how they were doing it. Two people would step out and it seemed to me they knew, the moment they stepped out, what their scene was going to be. I was just like, I don’t see how it’s possible. At the end of that show, Matt Walsh said, “We’re teaching a workshop, there’s gonna be a sign-up sheet in the lobby,” and I jumped out of my seat. I believe I was the first name on that sign-up sheet.
Amy Poehler: There was always a huge line and I remember thinking, “Oh, people are willing to wait in line. Maybe we’ve got something here.”
Jason Mantzoukas (Brooklyn Nine-Nine, The Good Place): It was just exciting. It felt like a cool thing that was happening. Because also in the audience there would be, like, Mac and Laura from the band Superchunk, or Georgia and Ira from Yo La Tengo.
Matt Walsh: Yo La Tengo would come to our shows and occasionally they might do monologues. That was kind of neat, to have people in the rock world come through. It sort of legitimized us to people that started doing monologues. There was a guy, David Rakoff, who was an author, he was a lovely storyteller. He’s since passed.
Andy Daly: One of my favorite ASSSSCAT memories was a time in the Solo Arts space when they couldn’t find a monologist and Matt Walsh just kind of went out into the street and found a weird lady to come and be the monologist. She was this slightly overweight, fiftyish woman. She had a filthy stuffed animal that looked like she had taken it out of the garbage, and it had a personality to her and she talked about it. Her monologues were nuts. The last time she went up to do a monologue she said something so crazy and Ian Roberts on the back wall just gave this big reaction like, “She’s insane,” and he just calmly opened the window behind the stage and stepped outside onto the fire escape and climbed up and was not seen for the rest of the show.
Miriam Tolan: It was very full of energy, that little space. There would be people like Stephen Colbert — I think he was completely without a job at the time. He was like, Thanks, guys. It was kind of a holding pen for a lot of people who didn’t have a gig.
Andy Daly: I remember the day that there was a meeting on the roof of Solo Arts, announcing they had found a space and were opening their own theater [on 22nd Street]. The meeting was not supposed to take place on the roof, it was supposed to take place in the space, but there were too many people to have the meeting in the space so we had to go up to the roof — which was, as Besser pointed out at the time, very symbolic of the problem.
Moving on up
Ian Roberts: It turned out to be a really good idea to have a free show because it got people in the door, and they come back a second, third time. The hardest thing is to get someone in the door to give you a chance.
Peter Grosz: People would sit outside for three or four hours waiting in line because there are no presale tickets for those shows.
Ian Roberts: We wanted the show to be free, don’t ask me why, that’s how it started. Eventually we charged because we had so many people who wanted to see the show we kind of had to weed them out, so we started a second show that we charged for. But we always kept the free show.
Jason Mantzoukas: Once we moved to our first theater on 22nd Street, it became a real institution. Sunday night was just a night you made an effort to go and watch the show, because you didn’t know who was gonna show up. I still remember shows — Jon Glaser one time played a character who in every scene was an Israeli man trying to sell someone a Subaru. As somebody who was learning to improvise at the time, you were getting to watch masters do it. Oh, you can do that! That’s interesting. No matter what the scene, Jon Glaser’s somehow finding a way to play the same character every time.
Chris Gethard (The Chris Gethard Show, Career Suicide): I started at UCB in 2000. I was in a college [improv] group at Rutgers and it made me happy and I was pretty depressed. MC Chris, he’s the famous nerdcore rapper, he was randomly in my level one class, and we buddied up. He grabbed me and my other friend from Rutgers — our Sunday class was three to six — and he’s like, “I’m gonna go see ASSSSCAT.” Every week after our level one class the three of us, we’d go and buy 40s, and there was a parking lot across the street from the UCB theater on 22nd Street. We would drink the 40s in the parking lot from 6 to 7:30 and then we’d try and sweet-talk the manager into letting us into the early show. I remember my mind was just blown. That’s how I was first exposed to it, drinking underage in a parking lot and then sneaking in. Then taking the train back to Rutgers afterwards, drunkenly rambling to my friends about how it seemed impossible.
Anthony Atamanuik (The President Show): I think the first ASSSSCAT I saw was probably in 2001. It was like I was still banging out major chords on the ukulele and these people were symphonic, you know? At the time I couldn’t even understand how they were able to all stay so connected and come back to ideas and link ideas. It was at the old 22nd Street theater so it was sort of sweaty, a little janky — it felt almost like you were at camp, like the end-of-year talent show.
Adam McKay: The super-small theater gave the shows a crazy energy, like we were performing for coal miners in the twenties.
Shannon O’Neill (artistic director, UCB Theater New York): The first time I saw ASSSSCAT, it was at the 22nd Street theater. It probably was sometime within the first six months of taking a class, because it was the flagship show. You’d go and watch and get to see Amy [Poehler] and Rachel Dratch play, even though they’d just had SNL the night before.
Amy Poehler: Doing the show during the SNL years was incredibly helpful to not go crazy and stay loose. After a brutal week there was something comforting about going out onstage with nothing prepared and then eating nachos with friends after. It was a ritual that kept my head on straight, and kept me feeling connected to an audience and to my fellow funny people. I know improvising for some people would be their worst fear, but doing ASSSSCAT during those New York years was like a salve for me.
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Andy Daly: I don’t know how long it took before I was invited to do an ASSSSCAT, but the way it would work — oh, man this is such a visceral memory. You would show up and you would be in the audience. At some point one of the four [UCB] members would come into the audience and look around and see if there were any trusted improvisers out there, and they would come up to them and say, “Hey, do you want to play tonight?” So all the improvisers that would come to ASSSSCAT every Sunday were thinking, “Is this the day that I’m gonna get tapped on the shoulder to jump up and join in?” It was very exciting and nerve-racking. So much was emotionally invested in that moment.
Fran Gillespie (Saturday Night Live, Comedy Bang! Bang!): I think I started at UCB right when the Chelsea theater opened [in 2003]. It was right around the time UCB performers were gaining notoriety. People performing were on SNL, or did bits on Conan. I think that became a big draw for the theater — for a very, very low price point, you could see professional comedians who are on TV.
Connor Ratliff (The Chris Gethard Show, Search Party): I would see an ASSSSCAT and I’d be like, “That guy’s really funny,” and then a few months later I’d go see, like, In the Loop or something, and I’d be like, “Oh, that’s the guy!” I associated ASSSSCAT with, well those are successful comedy people, and I never thought I was gonna be in that bracket.
Shannon O’Neill: You sit there and watch and if they’re short players sometimes they’d ask people to play. I probably watched for a year until one time Jason Mantzoukas was like, “You want to play?” I probably went back the next week and watched for two months before I was asked again.
Chris Gethard: I remember there were two years in a row when I was asked to do it on Super Bowl Sunday and on Oscar night Sunday, and that was it.
Fran Gillespie: I think I was asked to do it first either on Super Bowl Sunday or Oscar Sunday, because they couldn’t get anybody to do it.
Chris Gethard: I was for sure the low man on the totem pole. I mean, everybody is when they first start. But it would be, like, Amy Poehler, Seth Meyers, Jack McBrayer, Horatio Sanz, Rachel Dratch, and me. I was so scared to do it the first time that I froze up. Jason Sudeikis actually grabbed me by the collar, dragged me out onstage, forced me to do some scene. I remember people tagged out and all of a sudden I was just in a scene with Amy, and I was not very good but she carried me and got some big laughs. She told me, “You should keep coming, drop by anytime.” I kind of didn’t believe her. I’d get an email once in a while when they were short on people and I’d come by, and she was like, “No, I’m serious, you need to do this every week.”
Peter Grosz: It was a big deal to be asked to play. I think because Amy was still involved — she was really committed to it, so she was there every single week, running the show, asking people to play. It was, if not the holy grail, whatever the second cup Jesus drank out of.
The more the merrier
Andy Richter: From a showbiz point of view, you get to have guest stars — Janeane Garofalo or Conan O’Brien or Amy Sedaris. I don’t think that was the horse that was leading the cart, but from a business standpoint, that’s pretty good. You get a promise of higher quality. Because an improv show can be more of a threat than a promise.
Ian Roberts: We knew all of our stories. You get a suggestion, and it sparks something. The average person maybe has 200 good stories over their lifetime, and it got to the point where we knew each other’s stories, so you start to want to shake it up and get guest monologists, and that just became part of the draw of the show.
Shannon O’Neill: We had the lead singer of Spin Doctors recently. Gina Gershon has done it in the past. There’s a guy that’s running for Senate in Iowa who was in town and wanted to do it.
Peter Grosz: Chevy Chase was one of the worst monologists, because he just got up there and didn’t tell the truth about anything. He didn’t speak from his heart. The suggestion came up and he just sort of riffed on the word and was looking at people in the audience, kind of making fun of the way they looked. It was very awkward. Eventually, people told him, “It’s OK, you can tell a real story from your life.” And then he told a story which everybody thought, “Oh, that’s really nice, that’s sweet.” We said that backstage to him afterwards and he was like, “That was a lie, I made that all up.” It was so disappointing.
Chris Gethard: I’ve been there on nights when Chevy Chase was there. I wouldn’t say it had the same level of warmth it had on the nights Robin Williams was there. I remember there was one night where he showed up and I was so excited. I was born in 1980, and he was Chevy Chase! I tell you, it was a real pressure cooker. I’m not trying to throw the guy under the bus, but it just felt like real pressure. A couple months later, in between shows, somebody was like, “Chevy Chase is coming by to do monologues for the late show.” And I already wasn’t feeling great, and I was like, you know what, I don’t think I can handle it, I gotta go home. I was driving home and I was like, man, if you told me when I was ten years old that someday I’d be dodging a chance to perform with Chevy Chase, I would’ve thought you were crazy.
Peter Grosz: Louis C.K. once came and did [monologues]. You could tell he was just trying out material and he sort of morphed his pre-written thoughts into what the suggestion was. But he still had some genuine moments where he was clearly reacting to things that people in the audience were saying. His style of comedy was conducive to that. Before we knew he was showing his penis to everybody.
Jason Mantzoukas: I remember the first time Nick Offerman came and told stories, this was before Parks and Rec. He was just an actor from Chicago. I remember being like, “Holy shit, who is that guy? This guy’s amazing!” His stories were phenomenal, and so funny but kind of melancholy.
Anthony Atamanuik: Jeff Garlin did monologues. Chris Gethard had a show, Big Lake, that he was really invested in, and Jeff Garlin turned to him, I think he was trying to haze him a little and be like, “Don’t worry, you’re gonna fail your first show.” Chris wigged out, because that was his life at that moment, and Garlin was being really casual about it.
Chris Gethard: Yeah, he was negging me. It was horrible. In the middle of the monologue, he just lost his train of thought and turned to Horatio and is like, “Horatio, you know I love you but this show that you and this kid are on, it’s a real piece of shit, huh?” and the whole crowd just went silent. I could feel all eyes on me. I had this public, painful swing and a miss and he called it out onstage and it hurt my feelings pretty bad. I never really met him before or since.
Amy Poehler: The thing I was always the most proud of was, no matter how famous or nervous any monologist was, they were treated the same. They sat with us in the same crappy green room and were given one word to begin with. There was something deeply democratic about the process. We never had paparazzi or press or any of that nonsense. An audience member at ASSSSCAT truly never knows who will show up.
Miriam Tolan: Henry Winkler, holy cow. It must have been around Arrested Development. He was the loveliest man you’ll ever meet. But when I went onstage, I’m like, how are these kids gonna react to this guy, they don’t know who Henry Winkler is. They lost their minds. It was so gratifying just to see these too-cool-for-school kids like, Oh my god, it’s Fonzie! He was just wonderful. He just kind of blessed everybody. He was like a little angel that came down.
Ian Roberts: We were opening our new theater in Los Angeles [in 2005], so by that time we were having guest monologists, so we invite Andy Dick. Andy craves attention, at all times in all places. Well, he picked up, during the first half, that he only got to come out twice and didn’t get to do the improv. So during the intermission he starts ripping bong hits, gets stoned out of his mind, and the second half is this free-for-all insanity where he keeps walking into scenes and talking to us during the monologues and going out and interacting with the audience. The audience got so thrown by how loose it had become that they thought anything goes. So at some point I’m doing a scene and some guy walks out of nowhere and starts playing a waiter in a scene with us! Andy had set the tone of insanity, like, there are no rules. The audience had the time of their lives. I guarantee you, more than any other show, people have told the story of the night they went to ASSSSCAT and Andy Dick was out of his mind.
Andy Daly: There was one L.A. show that Robin Williams showed up to. There was a good stretch of time when he was constantly showing up, just popping into the L.A. theater. We had a monologist that night who would step up and do a monologue and then step back and Robin Williams would jump out and take center stage and deliver an improvised monologue — there was no scene work, he would just do a monologue, and when he ran out of steam he would look back and we would do a scene. I at some point, feeling defensive of the ASSSSCAT form, and feeling like an ASSSSCAT purist, decided that I was going to step up next to him during one of his improvised monologues and engage him and make a scene out of it. I will never forget the look that he gave me out of the corner of his eye — like, you are interrupting comedy history. I felt like an idiot. But I was defending ASSSSCAT.
In 2017, the Chelsea theater on 26th Street closed and a new location opened on 42nd Street in Hell’s Kitchen.
Jason Mantzoukas: I flew back [to New York] to do the final Chelsea ASSSSCAT. I never did ASSSSCAT at 22nd Street. So the entirety of me doing ASSSSCAT was at 26th Street. Abbi [Jacobson] and Ilana [Glazer] from Broad City were the monologists. They came up through that scene, so they spoke very nostalgically about ASSSSCAT. Walsh talked about how important this show was, how he’d met his wife in the theater. John Lutz told a very similar story about how much ASSSSCAT meant to him and how important that theater was because he’d met his wife there. It had lots of emotional moments.
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Chris Gethard: If you’ve never seen Horatio Sanz do an ASSSSCAT, I don’t think you’ve really seen comedy in its most primal form. He’s like a hurricane.
Matt Besser: Horatio, if there’s a Top 20 memories, I’m sure he’s in ten of them. In the second show we did for TV, the Comedy Central special [in 2008], if you look at the DVD extras we put in, at some point in the show there’s this young man and his seat is onstage, front row, where he’s on camera. You can tell he’s looking for a way out so he can go to the bathroom. He cannot figure out how to exit without, like, walking across the stage. I think his solution was to go to one of the doors that are on the stage and go through it to exit. This guy had a white dress shirt on, and in typical Horatio style, he goes backstage and finds a fucking white dress shirt. Horatio comes back onstage as if he is the guy and he’s bumbling around trying to find his chair again.
Jon Glaser (Jon Glaser Loves Gear, Inside Amy Schumer): I remember Horatio Sanz doing something that made me laugh so hard that it pops in my head every now and then. Someone was talking about a Starbucks closing and he just jumped on it. “Starbucks lockdown!” It was so stupid and funny and he just committed so hard.
Chris Gethard: I remember I was a student at UCB, and it was the Sunday after 9-11 and I went to watch ASSSSCAT. Somebody wound up playing the Statue of Liberty, just kind of standing there, and all of a sudden Horatio turned his hand into an airplane and just started making that buzzing airplane noise, and the whole crowd just gasped. And he just went, “OK, not yet,” and turned the plane around and flew away. And it just exploded in laughter and catharsis.
Horatio Sanz: Everyone in the cast was like, “Oh no,” kind of turning away. The crowd was just groaning more and more as it got closer to the Statue of Liberty. No, for 9-11, you can’t hit the Statue of Liberty.
Shannon O’Neill: ASSSSCAT is like a pickup basketball game — you’re gonna foul each other, and it’s a little bit of a fuck-around, but you’re still respecting each other onstage. But it could really get insane. Things happen in ASSSSCAT, like, there’s five or six breakdancers in the audience and I’m like, “OK, breakdance for us.” So breakdancing happens onstage.
Peter Grosz: Anthony Atamanuik was pimped into playing Trump, meaning that somebody just called him Mr. President. This was in the summer of 2015. He was still a joke at the time.
Connor Ratliff: That was one of the only weeks that I wasn’t there in 2015. I heard about it instantly, like, “Atamanuik walked out and did a Trump initiation!”
Anthony Atamanuik: I remember Shannon stepped out first, and she said, “Mr. President,” that was the initiation. There was a beat, so I stepped out. I just did a shitty version — the version I did was what Alec Baldwin does now on NBC, so it was fucking terrible. I stepped out and I did a little Trump and I realized that he was such a vehicle to just say any goddamn awful thing you wanted to say. People really enjoyed it, and Shannon and I laughed, we did a callback. And then at the break between the shows, Shannon was like, “You really should do a half-hour Trump show, do you want to do it?” I was like, “Yeah!” She was like, “OK, I’ll schedule it for seven days from now.” It was called Trump Dump. The idea was, it was a press conference set in March of 2017, when he had already become president. I outlined it at ASSSSCAT, I put it down on paper a week later, and that thing basically sustained itself for two and a half years. Isn’t that great? What a humblebrag.
Connor Ratliff: Hopefully he’s only stuck with it for a couple more years. I have this thought that if there’s a way to get Atamanuik into the actual Republican primary, I think he could take Trump down.
Chris Gethard: I remember one show — one of the best shows I think I’ve ever been a part of in comedy. It was during that brief phase where there was that phenomenon called icing — you’d walk up to someone and make them chug a Smirnoff Ice. Some kid had a six-pack of Smirnoff Ice in the front row and he was saying, “Yeah, I carry it with me, me and my friends ice each other.” This whole show, during it, performers kept grabbing this kid’s Smirnoff Ice and icing each other. I remember it ended with Zach Woods hoisting John Gemberling on his shoulders — if you can just imagine the physique of Zach Woods, it doesn’t make so much sense. I remember another Horatio one where we did an entire half-hour show because he said that we were all working in a restaurant that was horizontal instead of vertical, so we did the whole show on our sides, on the stage. Horatio was really a driving force of absolute batshit craziness. I think a lot of the stuff that led to me having a career, especially with the Gethard Show, and some of it that’s more performance-art driven, it’s all because of ASSSSCAT and especially because of Horatio.
Passing the torch
Adam McKay: I did it a few times out here in L.A., but I have kids and work and blah blah blah. So I just fell out of it. Once you haven’t done it in a while it’s harder and harder to go back. I’m definitely rusty as hell.
Fran Gillespie: I started working at SNL and it was pretty impossible for me to have the energy on Sunday to do anything, let alone feel totally present to do ASSSSCAT. So now I’d say I do it spottily, as a result of the SNL schedule — which makes me feel embarrassed, because Amy was out there every single Sunday!
Andy Richter: When I go do things like that now, I feel really old. At the end of a day of writing a television show, you’re not like, “I’ll see you, wife and children, I’m going to do three hours of improv with a bunch of people who are twenty years younger than me.” It’s a young person’s game, and I mean that in the best possible sense.
Chris Gethard: At the end of the day ASSSSCAT has always been about a youthful, rebellious energy.
Shannon O’Neill: I’m the artistic director [of UCB], that’s one thing, but being in charge of ASSSSCAT is a separate responsibility. When I’m done being artistic director, I’m still gonna be taking care of ASSSSCAT until I can’t anymore.
Andy Daly: I wonder if anybody coming to the show now would have the same experience that I had seeing it for the first time, of just bewilderment at how this is possible, because there’s so much more general awareness in the public about improvisation and how it gets done and what it is. People might not be quite so mystified. But they’re definitely entertained, because the people doing it now are hilarious.
Jason Mantzoukas: ASSSSCAT to me is always the show where you’re watching people have so much fun with each other. There are shows you can go watch at UCB with masterful, technical improvisers. But then there’s ASSSSCAT where Horatio will, like, wander in from backstage after having been I don’t know where, and just start doing a scene and it’s insane and so funny. There’s a real sense of chaos to it. It was the most exciting show I ever saw when I would go and see it every week, and it was the most exciting show I ever did when I got to spend years doing it. When I think about it, that show was a huge part of my life for probably fifteen years. I was just talking to Jon Glaser about a show I remember doing with him. I ran into Tim Meadows awhile ago and he was like, “Hey, do you remember this show we did together, like ten years ago?” People never remember stuff unless it’s meaningful to you.
Horatio Sanz: It’s just this ever-evolving thing — you inspire these people, they inspire other people. There’s built-in chemistry that’s flowing through all the students that go through UCB.
Amy Poehler: I think the show was important to me and others because it felt free. There was freedom in what was expected of you. You could drop in and feel welcome. And the show was free so the audience was young and hungry. Literally.
Anthony Atamanuik: The fact that they were able to figure out how to capture the feeling of being at something that feels punk rock and feels underground and feels like anything can happen, and the fact that they were able to sustain that feeling in that little corner of the week, is amazing to me. Because everything’s grown so much bigger, and obviously with that comes certain formalities. Somehow everyone maintained that this is the little corner where we just fuck around.
Connor Ratliff: Moving to Hell’s Kitchen has changed the show a little bit. The old UCB [theater in Chelsea] was like an early Elvis Costello record, like My Aim Is True, and Hell’s Kitchen is more like Imperial Bedroom. Some scenes that played really funny in Chelsea don’t play as funny in Hell’s Kitchen, but that’s compensated by the fact that there are scenes when you could pick up a chair and throw it as high as you want towards the back wall, and you know the stage is so big that it’ll ricochet off the back and you don’t need to worry about hitting the front row of the audience.
Matt Besser: If the audience is packed, it’s kind of the same to me. I think Carnegie Hall can be intimate, actually. We’ve had a lot of venues that we’ve played around the country that you can get 2,000 [people] in and still feel like I’m talking to the audience.
Ian Roberts: The big debate right now is whether we need to wear suits.
Adam McKay: When we started the group we were listening to Fugazi, Big Black, and Public Enemy. It was the last moment “don’t sell out” was still something humans said. I still think that’s part of the DNA of Upright Citizens. I know, they’re all wealthy and people get hired for all kinds of commercial, big-money shows out of there, but when you walk in it doesn’t feel like that. Del Close was always good at that, too. Yeah, opportunities are nice, but it shouldn’t be what you’re thinking about right now. Right now you’re onstage in the moment, listening.
Chris Gethard: The thing about ASSSSCAT when it’s at its best is, it’s a bunch of people who are very good at what they do getting together and testing themselves in a very real way. As an artist, that’s a valuable thing. When I was doing that show I was onstage with the best people at their craft in the entire world. As a young comedian, there was a stretch of a couple years where every Sunday I showed up, and when I left to go home I was a little better at comedy than I had been at 7:15.
The founding members of the Upright Citizens Brigade — Matt Besser, Matt Walsh, Amy Poehler, and Ian Roberts — will perform ASSSSCAT at Carnegie Hall, along with special guests, on Thursday, June 28, at 8 p.m.