From One Door to Another and More
My #ByeChelsea salute
OK, so I know I’m late. Like really late with this tribute…like so late that there will never be another Chelsea show ever again…but it’s because it’s emotional. And for someone who’s spent such little time there in the last couple of years, I’m surprised by just how emotional this is making me. But, I’ve got some shit to say about that dirty dark magical basement that was crucial for my comedy uprising. That helped me find a new group of crazies that I never would have otherwise. And while UCB still remains, and I tend to spend more days at the East Village location, the move will definitely have an impact on the culture of UCB. There will be good, and bad, and everything in between. I’m excited for the future, and honored to have been apart of it’s Chelsea days. A place is just a place, except for when it’s more.
I grew up here, in NYC. So it means that I never had to move here to follow a dream. Also, that I was very familiar with the struggles of the people who did move here to follow their dreams. And for a long time I feared that I couldn’t compete — so I went into a career that would be much more stable — hospitality. Of course, when I realized that stability doesn’t trump misery I left my corporate job with perks and benefits to find myself…which I did. But I still wasn’t sure how I could get back into performing again without starting from some basic acting 101 class or something. I graduated from the Fame school — I was a little beyond that. Luckily for me, I surround myself with smart people, like my friend Adriane who was looking into comedy schools and things for her own benefit. She suggested I look into classes with the Upright Citizens Brigade. I knew of the theater that resided in a Chelsea basement. I knew that there were free shows on Wednesday nights that were called hump night. And Adriane and I had even gone to see a show or two together — they were cheap, so they were accessible. I didn’t know that they offered classes. I looked into it.
I was interested in both the improv and sketch programs and I was trying to figure out which one would be better to take first, when fate intervened. By fate, I mean a drunk night out that lead to a stumble in front of my building and a landing on my already damaged knees. Hmmm…probably better to let myself heal before committing to improv. So, in January of 2012, I signed up for sketch 101 with Melinda Taub that was due to start the day after the Superbowl — which is not a thing that I would usually be able to keep track of because I don’t care about sports, least of all, football. But, because I woke up the day before the Superbowl with the inability to swallow my own saliva, I remember it well. I wound up hospitalized for 3–4 days. I missed my first day in class. And I was so bummed.
I think it had a strange impact on the rest of my UCB training center life, but maybe I’m just crazy. Most importantly, however, was that I discovered this group of misfits that had been missing from my life. I had taken several other writing courses over the last few years, but none of them really made me feel like I’d found my place. I tried chick lit, travel writing, general fiction, but not until that first class (that I made it to — so technically the 2nd class) did I understand what it felt like to be with your people. I found a friend in a girl named Janet, who went on to be on a house sketch team, and wrote and starred in a show that got a run at Chelsea, with her friend Lindsay. Slowly, I was finding my path.
Once I felt physically able I signed up for my first Improv class, which ended up being taught by a man who was the middle school or elementary school boyfriend of a good friend of mine. I loved it. I was thrilled to be performing again and continued to make more and more connections, but most of those early class shows don’t get you onto the famed Chelsea stage. But, in order to fulfill my class requirements and just because I’d now become obsessed with it — I was often going to see shows at Chelsea. I would spend time on those internet bulletin boards, to see how I could become more and more involved. I continued to take classes and soon stumbled into an oddball (redundant, I know) group of folks who wanted to put sketches up at Liquid Courage — an open mic of sorts that was late on a Friday night. So, the first time I performed on that sub-earth stage was in a truly awful and very racist sketch that is very hard for me to even think about now. My fellow actor and I have since commiserated in our participation. And while I hope that the video of the sketch never surfaces, I did still feel a thrill from being on that stage. I remember feeling so cool to be able to have access to that green room and to be able to interact with whichever house team was hosting it then. It was both a high and low point in my UCB Chelsea life…but mostly low.
I continued my UCB education, taking repeat teachers — sometimes accidentally, and other times purposefully. As we approached my first Del Close Marathon, I was bummed that I couldn’t really go see anything because I had work. I felt so ashamed when I walked into day 1 of my Improv 201 class with Ari Voukydis. I knew that this was an important weekend that I missed. I wanted to bad to be apart of this world, and I felt like a dope for not making this holy weekend in the community my priority. What I quickly found out was that I was not alone. Ari surveyed the room and no one had participated. He definitely let us have it. Explained to us what we missed out on and I felt awful — although he did excuse those of us who had work. And I loved the tough love so I signed up to take another one of his classes — which I’m now very grateful for as he moved out to California shortly after that class.
I signed up to become an intern and submitted my application at a good time. There was a change in who was overseeing the interns. I had become friends with a classmate from my sketch 201 class who was friends with the overseer. My timing was pretty open, and within only a few weeks I was offered an internship slot at Chelsea during the coveted Tuesday night spot. Also known in the UCB community as Harold night. It’s the night that the house teams perform. Chuck was our manager, Steve was in the box office, and David and Sky were my fellow interns. I think that Rachael was our bartender, but it could have been John. Aside from the fact that I had a guaranteed front row viewing of all of the Harold shows — which enhanced my learning of this craft, I also had direct access to all of these more seasoned performers. I got to meet many of the people I admired and watched perform. Some of them were nicer than others, but either way I got to make those judgements from a firsthand experience, and now I get to watch a bunch of them on TV, and in the movies which is pretty damn cool!
As the newbie, I was given toilet duty, but I actually became very proud of my bathroom cleaning skills and when the call came to move me onto a different night, a few months down the line, I kept my toilet brush with me. Look, if I was going to be the one cleaning the bathrooms, then I could be assured that they were actually clean. When Claire asked if I wouldn’t mind switching nights I was sad to leave my Tuesday friends — and that important Harold spot. But, I had the most flexible schedule and they needed someone with some seniority to fill the role, since the two other interns were brand new. So, I felt excited to lead this team to greatness. I also got to work more with Daisy who was often the manager for Thursday nights.
The new boys Nick and Sebastian were such fun! And Thursday nights were cool because I got to see all of these spanks — which gave me inspiration for my own scripted shows. Moving to Thursday nights also meant dealing with a whole new crowd of people. Tuesday nights are precious because they’re mostly crowds of UCB students. The public isn’t generally coming to see these shows, so you have people who typically know what the routine is. Where they’re supposed to go, how to buy tickets and show tickets, where the bar is and the bathroom and that everything was all cash all the time. Either way, it was pretty easy to deal with compared to some of the other crowds — Fridays and Saturdays are probably the hardest. But Thursdays were where the many friends and colleagues and family members and weird date nights would show up. We also had to deal with cage match, so in addition to the scripted shows we had the improv battle that could bring out either more community folks or more randoms depending on who was battling that week. I’ll never forget how much I loathed the supporters of the one indie team that kept winning week after week after week. We really had to flex our stuff and dole out the rules of the theater to the unknowing. The three of us interns laughed about how there should be a guide to going to the Chelsea theater. And so, I started a short-lived tumblr blog, with the first post outlining the rules of the road. I called it The UCB Door Guys — from some comment or joke or who can even remember?
The blog then became something of a tribute to the many hard-working people that make the theater run on a daily basis. As with any job in customer service, some people were more grateful than others, except that all we got paid with was class credits and the ability to bask in the glory that was this little hole under a Gristedes. I, personally, was already on an extension of my internship. Most people fulfill about a 6-month commitment, and back then you would be offered an extension — which included an additional class credit, if you were lucky. We were seriously vying for the chance to mop those floors and clean those toilets! But, as that extension came to an end, I was told they wouldn’t be extending me any further.
At first I was sad, but then the world worked in this way that made my departure rather beautiful. It also helped to give me a sort of peace with myself when I pulled away from the community a little. Because I really went out (of the internship, anyway) with a BANG!
While I missed the first DCM that I should have attended, I learned my lesson for DCM 2013 — which actually turned out to be a pretty big deal, for me and for the marathon in general. This was the 15th festival, and the UCB heads decided to film it all for a documentary which I can now hear my laughter through, called Thank you, Del. Because my last intern shift was so close to DCM, I was asked to commit to a shift or two of volunteer work during the marathon. I told my supervisor, Claire, that I was willing and able to work wherever, whenever. I was then asked if I would be interested in working (LIKE PAID MONEY) in line control. The theater had recently started adding line control shifts to some of the more popular evenings to help keep our neighbors happy. Naturally, I wanted to remain involved in this community and so I jumped at the chance. Despite not really knowing what it was that I was going to be doing — there were a couple who managed the wand before me. Jon Monje and Nancy Melchert were the original line control team and look at them now! Like, they seriously run shit now!
My last intern shift was truly the kickoff to DCM15. The final cagematch show before DCM had an insane audience that included some of the comedy legends that had come through these and other smaller theaters before this one while they were just starting out themselves. And since it was my final night as an intern, I was ready to get my party on. Like many before and after did, we headed over to McManus — the legendary bar where comedians and cops sit side by side and drink Irish whiskey together whether they know it or not. So, that night, I got to party with some of these super funny folks, like Seth Morris and Horatio Sanz, and it was the perfect way to kick off this crazy weekend. I was taken aback by watching everyone reuniting with one another over hugs and “Happy DCM” wishes. People who lived outside of NYC (mostly in LA) were back for this magic weekend worship of improv.
Before your first DCM shift you’re to pick up your badge. These days we’re a little better organized and we have a much bigger training center, so if you’re a performer or staff you go there to pick up your stuff. But back then we all went to Chelsea. And as I walked up to the theater the energy was palpable. There was a hug line of folks waiting to buy their passes and another huge line of people who bought them and were waiting to get into the theater to see the Press Conference. When I initially saw this on the schedule, I thought it was a joke. Imagine my surprise as I went downstairs to get my pass for my first DCM shift at FIT, and Amy Poehler was digging around the closet when she turned around and said hi and asked how I was doing?! ME! I don’t remember what I said — if I said anything at all. But I realized she may never know me, but I’m now like a 10-times removed cousin. I sweat for this theater she created, and she seemed to, in that very brief moment, care about that.
I also managed to sign up for a workshop with Billy Merrit earlier in the day, which was perfect, as he used to host Hump Night way back when I was still in college and it was the first show that I ever saw at UCB — and it was only months after they had even settled into this new Chelsea space. I was learning stealthy improv moves from an improv master and this wouldn’t be the last time — not even for the weekend.
My first night wasn’t really spent at Chelsea, but it was OK because I got to work there on Saturday and Sunday night. Plus, our shows ended pretty early and so we were able to head on over to the party space! I remember feeling so cool when Seth Morris remembered meeting me at McManus the night before! I got to chat with him and meet Jason Mantzoukas. Then I got to watch as my friend Lauren geeked out over Nick Kroll and even said so to his face. He was very nice about it. I suppose he was probably in similar shoes only a few years earlier.
When I reported to my Chelsea shift on Saturday, I was subject to my first Matt Besser tongue-lashing. Little did I know this was rather commonplace and so I needn’t be as stunned as I was. As I was just having my fellow volunteers checking on the line he came by and screamed at me:
“Hey, you work for me?”
“Do you work for me?”
“You’ve gotta make sure the line is under control! We can’t have people all over the sidewalk!”
“Yes, that’s what they’re doing right” —
Then Daisy swung the door open and became my immediate hero:
“Matt! I’ve got it! Get inside!”
Phew. Don’t worry, I went on to redeem myself the next day in his class when I gave the right answer to some improv question. I’m sure he still had no idea who or why I was, and probably never will. Which is fine.
That night, I was kind of working double duty between the inside and outside of the theater. There were many volunteers who were less familiar with the space, so, I would often be recruited to help manage the inside. Which meant I did get to catch some glimpses of this marathon’s mainstage performances. The one from that night that will forever stay with me, however, was a show that was something that it was never meant to be — but soon I would learn that’s pretty normal for a late night DCM bit show. I was upstairs when this show marched it’s way over to this famed theater. I had just walked down the line as I watched this group coming toward us, that was being lead by Shannon O’Neill. At the time, Shannon was a well-respected teacher and performer. I had recently finished my 401 with her and I was always excited to see the woman we called Mommy. There were several improvisers I knew, some other interns, and some people donning the well-known Sleep No More masks — their theater was walking distance from ours. Some people with noisemakers of different sorts and Shannon then pulled some people who were in the line to join her band of euphoria as they made their way down the stairs into the theater.
Shannon was scheduled to put on a vine show — which was summarized as a show that would just have 6-second bits — like the Vine app. Shannon, however, had been at the party space and was offered some Molly for the first time, which she accepted. Well the vine show went out the window, and instead she was onstage with a full crowd of others and she turned it into the most insane but beautiful love-fest where she went around and talked about the people surrounding her and praised all of their talents. She began to cry at one point, and it was so exactly the kind of thing that would happen at DCM, and then they went out dancing. I was happy to stay a little later than I was scheduled to so that I could help out with this place that I’d fallen madly and deeply in love with.
Before the weekend began I was one of a few people who were asked to help with ASSSSCAT which would be held at Chelsea for the last time during DCM until this past year…which now makes a lot of sense that it came back. I knew it was a big deal and felt honored to be helping out during these shows. The manager was asked to have an intern handle the microphone for the shows — which basically meant sitting near the front so that they could be handed out to the UCB4 and whomever else needed them for the interview portion of the first show. My colleague Sebastian was originally called to this duty, but he was nervous and said that I could do it. So I did. And I very timidly hung out at the front of the stage and handed mics out as needed before getting reprimanded by Amy to sit down — which I was initially scared to do as we interns weren’t generally allowed to sit down, but I could see how I was in the way standing. So, I’d managed to weasel my way into a front row seat for ASSSSCAT! Getting to watch the creators of this place create their art right in front of my eyes.
The guest monologist was another reason why I’ve been delayed in my writing. Louis CK was the surprise guest of the night. And, at the time, I felt very lucky to be in his presence. I had been a fan of his stand up for a while and I couldn’t believe I was so close to him in this moment. But, of course, a few years later I would hear in the circles of female comics what a disgusting monster he actually was. However, the show was not about him, nor was this whole experience, and so I won’t allow him to taint my memory!
After this final show and our clean up, we got to join in at the party space, and then when that was closed we continued the party over at McManus. Those left at this point didn’t have early flights back to LA or “regular” jobs to get to, or just still had some adrenaline left in them. I remember hanging out with Chuck, who was drunk enough to tell me that I had done a great job and would surely get hired by UCB. And if you know Chuck, at all, then you know that a sincere moment from him is something of a rarity. I felt satisfied with the weekend, and when they finally kicked us out of the bar, the sun was out and I was ready for a cab home and a long sleep.
I went on to work in the line control department, which meant that I continued to have my Chelsea fun, but as the cold weather began to creep in, I began to wonder if my brittle bones could handle it. When the temperatures dropped, I asked Gia about possibilities of indoor work, and while she didn’t have any box office shifts open, she suggested getting trained to be a fill-in. While I was initially scheduled to train at Chelsea, I was told last minute that it wouldn’t be a good night to do it there, so I could do the Beast instead and then train at Chelsea another time.
I never did get to train at Chelsea, for whatever reason and so I never worked at the theater again. And I slowly went to fewer and fewer shows there. I’ve popped into DCM shows here and there, but not often. I’ve worked DCM every year since and while it usually means that I don’t get to see as many shows as I might like to, I still have the fun of seeing the people and sharing in that energy and helping to make the festival what it is. And that’s really what it’s all about, as it was said many times during the final moments of Chelsea’s life. UCB is not made by its space, but its people, and those same people will still be at this new theater on 42nd street…they’ll just have a little more space to breathe.
I have so many wonderful memories of UCB Chelsea, that include schmoozing with my idols, shooting the shit with my colleagues and fellow comedy dreamers. Bits and bits and more bits. SOOOO much laughter. I remember being there the Tuesday night after Sandy had hit NYC. Chelsea was gonna open up the doors for those who were around and needed a place that had power and heat and beverages. It was my regular night to work, and I live in Manhattan so I could get there — my father actually still had his car, so he was able to drive me down. It was surreal going past 34th street to see the traffic lights and many buildings without power. The performers who could make it did and since it was just an open house of sorts we were just there to help keep things clean. Justin McManus was our bartender for the evening and brought some real booze to help us all stay warm. Of course he did so dressed as a penguin…because why not?
While my own journey with UCB in general is sort of uncertain, I do get to remain apart of the family — even if it’s mostly on the east side, for now. Chelsea, however, is over. When I received the email about the end of the road for this theater, I signed up for both shows right away. I wanted to submit some bits, but I never got around to it — plus, I figured those more seasoned than I would want their final moments on the stage a little more. I was gifted with an entry to the first show and as I saw the theater fill with mostly familiar faces, I felt very lucky to be there. And as soon as the show began I knew it was something truly special. My former teacher was now the Artistic Director of the theater, my fellow interns and co-workers had continued to move up in this weird space and we were all there for the same reason. Love.
After leaving the theater — significantly later than they had planned, many of us were jumping into other lines to have our pictures taken inside the iconic window on 26th Street.
Many people hopped back in line as they had tickets to the late show as well. I got to see some other friends in that line. A group of us lingered for a bit and then decided we would head to McManus. We made it about 3 blocks before we heard that they has stopped checking the list, and were just opening up to whomever was in the know. Half of us decided we wanted to head back and be there for those final moments and we were. It was an insane show and as I was flanked by comedians who’ve worked their asses of to get their own TV shows, but still come back to their humble roots — for a last celebratory hurrah, I knew this was the way to say goodbye.
When I exited the theater for the second time that night, I told Big Rich that it was just for a moment — to get some air. But I knew I wouldn’t be back. I got to watch the performers celebrate their love of the theater on stage. I had chatted with Alex, the CEO of UCB, about his thoughts and feelings on the whole thing. I caught Chuck enjoying himself from the safety of the tech booth. I got to watch Shannon tear up about her sentiments attached to the theater but reassure us all that it’s the people that make UCB strange. I also got to comfort my friend Nancy who’d changed her life in this basement, as she watched the revelry onstage. Then upstairs I ate cheeseburgers that were purchased by performers to feed their drunk friends and fellow UCB fans as we all watched some of the original UCB kids who’d helped turn Chelsea into what it became — a place that COULD move to such a big theater on 42nd Street — play in the window before they planned how they would paint it all black before the final move out today.
I thought about going back downstairs. There was still more working…and drinking to be done. But not by me. I didn’t want to intrude. I was there for more than I’d expected I would be and that was enough for me. I may have never made it on those stages as an official performer, but I’ve played on that stage. I’ve made friends in those hallways. I’ve shared drinks and drugs with famous folks. And I have laughed to the point of tears. I will miss Chelsea, but I’m so excited to see what this ragtag bunch of kids does with the Hell’s Kitchen theater.