Interview With Neil Campbell, The Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre's Reigning Artistic Director

by KYLE RAYMOND FITZPATRICK · April 26, 2010

Upright Citizens BrigadeThe Upright Citizen's Brigade Theatre has carved a name for itself in the Los Angeles comedy scene since its July 2005 inception. In the 4.83 years it has been around, it has produced a lot of really great comedy and has provided a platform for new talent and it's already accomplished list of alumni. Currently, reigning as Artistic Director, is a man who has been involved with the theatre since it opened out West: Neil Campbell.

With short blonde hair and distracting blue eyes, Neil sits in the UCB office during his weekly office hours. He tinkers away at his computer, in the office that is akin to a hallway underneath the sound and lighting booth, that leads actors, comedians, improvisors, writers, etc. back stage. Over the sound of a lively rehearsal, I sat down with the paternal Mr. Campbell, to hear how he arrived at his position, where comedy stands now, and what we need to look forward to at the Upright Citizen's Brigade Theatre Los Angeles.

Neil CampbellKyle Fitzpatrick: First, when did you first get in comedy? What is the genesis of it all? What’s the back-story?

Neil Campbell: Alright, I’ll try to go this as quickly as possible. I was just into writing and stuff, reading and writing and stuff, and was really into The Simpsons and when Late Night with Conan O’Brien premiered—those things started shaping my sense of humor. Then, freshman year of high school, I started to make short films and editing on my VCR. Those were generally pretty funny.

On your VCR? Wow.

Yeah, my VCR. Off of a camcorder onto a VHS tape.

Nice.

I’m sure they’re not funny now, but they were at the time—for a ninth grader. Then, I went off to the University of Iowa. They had a weekly show at No Shame Theatre that was, basically, open mic in a theatre space. It was dominated by comedic monologues and sketches. I started doing that every week in college and started doing a lot of sketch comedy and character work. Then, I met people with whom I still collaborate. Paul Rust and Michael Cassady—I met them at Iowa. I kept that going after college and I wound up here, looking for any places to do sketch shows. Eventually, UCB opened and we had a few people recommend us. UCB liked us and things clicked. We took improv classes and got into the improv side of things…and, that’s about it. Probably as fast as I could get through it!

That was pretty good. So, Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theatre Los Angeles started in 2005?

Yes, yes, yes.

You pretty much got involved and hit the ground running?

Yeah, we were doing sketch stuff, Paul Rust, Michael Cassady, Chris Stangl, and I—all of us went to Iowa—and had been doing stuff around town, anywhere we could. We were doing things at Zen Sushi, which isn’t around anymore, and the basement of the Ramada on Vermont. Eventually Kulap Vilaysack and Scott Aukerman had seen us and liked us. Kulap did Garage Comedy, which was a show she started years ago, and booked us. Aukerman got us on Comedy Death Ray, which used to be at the M Bar. We started to meet people and get out there and, when the theatre came to town, those were the people they asked for recommendations. We did a show there the first month it was open, in July of 2005. We didn’t keep doing the same exact show, but we did shows pretty consistently.

Eventually, we started hosting Not Too Shabby. Matt Besser was hosting it first and, the second week, we were the only ones who had been the first week and were back the second. He asked if we wanted to take it over. It was like the Wild West. Of course, we said, “YES.” We’re doing a fifth anniversary show in July.

That should be fun! I guess the vibe back then was pretty much…what was it?

It sort of depends on your perspective. There were people who were veterans at UCB’s New York Theatre, who had relocated to Los Angeles to work on pilots and had been doing stuff with iO. That community seemed to say, “Great! A place to be doing improv again!” For us younger comedians, it was like, “Oh, this is great! A place to put up shows!” And, that first month, a TON of people put up shows. Eventually, you got a sense of who was really interested in doing shows consistently and who was just doing it for fun the first month, but didn’t really want to do it. Charlyne Yi, who we had met around doing open mics and shows, was one of those committed to UCB. For people around our age, if you were working hard at it and really wanted to get involved, it paid off. That’s still true—it was just more immediate back then, since they had to fill a schedule.

That kind of goes into how you’ve gotten here today: you were here from the beginning, you know everything, and it led into a natural entrée into being the artistic director—or did something else happen?

There were a few factors. I started taking classes right away and was lucky enough to be placed on one of the first improv teams, Last Day of School. To find places to do sketch, I had been to a lot of open mics, so I knew a lot about stand-up. I knew people in all the different comedy worlds, which had little crossover then. And, even though I wasn’t an expert in all fields, I knew all of them well. I had stuck around the theatre so long that, eventually, I was trained to be an instructor and started teaching. The position came along and it was the right fit, at that point.

That makes a lot of sense and sounds like an easy enough explanation.

It’s the kind of thing that, if it had opened up and I had been working on a two-month writing gig, I wouldn’t do it—the timing just all worked out.

When did you take the reigns?

September 2008.

So…what are the perks of being the artistic director?

Uhh…health insurance!

Nice! I vaguely get health insurance.

Yeah, yeah—that’s a big one. Honestly, it’s a job I enjoy and that’s the biggest perk. You know, I like being able to help talented people, either be seen or help their shows get better. Some people need a little help, some people need no help, some people need more help—it’s just something I enjoy doing. It’s like teaching: I like teaching sketch and, when people bring in sketches, I try to help make them better.

That’s very altruistic.

It’s like directing a show. It’s fun.

And, on a larger level. That makes a lot of sense. Well, those are all the good things—what are some downsides? (If any.)

Well—how do I put this?—it’s a job that involves a lot of me-having-to-reject-other-people. And, I don’t want to say “I HATE doing it,” because I know it’s part of the job and I feel, whatever choices I make, I can defend. BUT, I don’t take joy in bumming people out.

I don’t think anyone likes that.

Right! If it’s cutting someone from a team or if someone does SPANK and doesn’t get a run of their show, I don’t think, “Great! I get to tell this person no!” I really want to stress that, if you get cut from a team or don’t get a run of your show, it doesn’t mean that the theatre thinks you are untalented and should give up. It’s always, “This particular team didn’t work,” or, “This show wasn’t right, at the moment”—it’s the same as running a network. I am sure many hilarious comedians haven’t gotten their television shows picked up. Louis CK is one of the funniest stand-up comedians in the world—and he’s had TV pilots that weren’t picked up. That doesn’t mean he was told, “Hey, man, you should get out of the business.”

Do people actually say that? Like, “QUIT NOW!”??

I think people take it that way. But, there are a million different ways to get involved, assuming you want to share your comedic voice to people. If all you want is to feel cool being on a team or having a show, then there aren’t that many ways to get involved. That’s what separates them from people who think “Okay—there are a lot of other things I want to say and do”. Eventually the theatre is going to go, “That’s right for us.” I like those people.

What show would you like more people to see? What show “needs a little more love,” if you will?

That people aren’t coming to?

Not that people aren’t coming to, a show that you feel is really great, but only insiders come to or—

Honestly, I would say The Birthday Boys are my favorite thing at the theatre. They do a monthly show that does sell out; but, I feel those guys should have a TV show—they should have had a TV show eighteen months ago! Yes, they are popular around here, but I wish they were immensely popular.

That’s good! What are some upcoming projects happening at the theatre you’re excited about? Anything personally?

PERSONALLY, my brother is getting married in November and I have to write a really funny best man speech.

OOOH. Those are hard.

I’m trying to test out my jokes on Paul Rust and Harris Wittels: I’m getting professional comedians to tell me if they are funny. Other than that, nothing showbiz wise on my horizon that is super exciting. God, there is actually good stuff coming up—but, I don’t know how much I can talk about it…

Are there just a lot of surprises we’ll have to keep checking the website for or…?

I’d keep checking the website. There’s going to be a cool show on May 22. [Laughs] I can’t say anything more than that.

Good to know. What do you want to see more of or less of? Because, things are always changing and—like The Birthday Boys—they should be huge.

Well…what would I like to see more of? The thing I am always looking for, is an individual or a group or a duo with a strong voice. And, you build that voice from working at it and honing it. I like seeing people work at that. When someone doesn’t limit themselves and really try to do stuff. Sometimes, you have to know your limits, but you always have something to say.

Again with the altruism. It seems like you are the big father of the theatre: very supportive of everything happening at the theatre and you don’t want to baby anyone—you want people to succeed, they just have to take it upon themselves

There are people who I know are super funny and who I want to see more of. I try to nudge them and some people respond, some people don’t. At a certain point, you have to take the initiative yourself. I did a bunch of garbage for years, at No Shame. I did TERRIBLE stuff. But, you have to get through it and figure out what you want to do. You have to work out how you want to make people laugh. The people who have done that are the people I respond to most at the theatre. Everyone has a different path to it, but it all involves working at it and trying stuff out. Right now, Zoe Jarman is doing a great show. She’s worked at it for years and now has a great one-woman show, where you can see her distinct voice. Stephanie Allynne has a show like that, The Apple Sisters are like that, The Birthday Boys, some of the Maude Teams and Harold Teams are doing that as well. Convoy is another great example. They all have a voice and do what they want to do. They aren’t trying to be like anyone else.

That’s good. That’s what everybody wants. I think that sums everything up. But, the last question on my list is “If you could be an animal would you be? And, what kind of animal would the theatre be?”

A pause.

Laughter.

This is the hardest question.

This is the most serious one!

I guess it would be…uhhhh---

This really is hard.

I’m going around different continents, thinking of different ones. Actually, I just read about this animal, that I will go with because I am newly fascinated with it. God, what’s it called?

OH NO!

It’s like the Scottish Highland Wildcat. (Or, something like that?) It looks like a cat, but kind of beefed up on steroids, with a big bushy tail. And, there’s only like four hundred left in Scotland.

And, rarely photographed, I remember.

Yeah, rarely photographed! But, if you saw one in the wild, you would freak out, like, “There’s a GIANT cat in that tree branch!” I’ll go with that.

That’s good enough!

The theatre, would be an elephant, we’ll say.

[Laughing] Yes, an elephant.

I’d be a little cat riding on its head.

Like, in a circus.

Trying to push it in a certain direction, but with mixed results.