In 10 Words or Less
Great sketch comics meet the horrors of improv
Loves: Upright Citizens Brigade, Amy Poehler, Sketch comedy
Likes: Good improv, Thomas Lennon
Dislikes: Most improv
Hates: Bad improv
The energy that develops from Improvised comedy can be incredible, and can result in fantastic laughs, as long as Cristopher Guest is somewhere in the vicinity of the production. If he's not, you end up with one of the countless examples of competitions, exercises and classes that have bastardized the concept of improv in recent years. Knowing how funny the founders of the Upright Citizens Brigade are, one would think they could rise above the challenges of improv and deliver a hilarious special made up on the fly. But in watching "Asssscat!," it is readily apparent that even the greats should probably sit down with a pen and paper before taking the stage.
The four primary members of the troupe-Matt Besser, Amy Poehler, Ian Roberts and Matt Walsh-are joined by Chad Carter, Sean Conroy, Andrew Daly and Horatio Sanz, as they take a suggestion from the audience and run with it, in a quartet of free-form performances that see the comedians tagging in and out, taking the scene in whatever direction they feel is appropriate. Their act ispreceded and paced by a monologist, who sets the tone for each quarter, with a riff on the suggestion, and, not coincidentally, gives the crew some time to think about what they are going to do. Thomas Lennon ("Reno: 911!") and Kate Walsh ("Grey's Anatomy") serve to provide these set-ups, though neither hits a home run, which is a particular disappointment when it comes to Lennon, who you expect to be able to create something out of nothing, considering his previous improv successes.
In no way am I suggesting that improvising comedy is something easy, but there's little in this collection that leads to serious laughter, the way the UCB's sketch show does. As you watch the performers twist and morph the concepts they are working with, and pick and choose when to jump in and when to stop a train of thought, you get more of a sense of admiration for what they are doing, rather than enjoyment. It takes some serious timing to watch people working their characters and just say, "Hey...my turn!" In that respect, these eight performers are genius, though the four founders are obviously the most skilled at knowing when to say when. The other four seem to play off the leads of the founders, which keeps them from really taking control of a scene at times. As a result, they can, at times, slow things down, while Sanz seems content to pop in on rare occasions to add a physical element to the comedy. Of the three lesser-known participants, Daly is the most recognizable (memorably playing Ben Franklin on "The Office") and the best at portraying a sense of self-respect that makes it easy to laugh at him.
The comedy is all over the map here, including a middle-class crack-smoking party, a car mechanic on a desert visionquest, a moose with an honesty problem, an overly-generous girlfriend and the worst ski-school class ever. Most of the time, the jokes are in the ridiculous direction a relatively common situation heads in, but oddly, both halves of the show end in a rather large display of physical comedy, which seems to the be the antithesis of what the UCB are known for, though the chaotic feel is certainly spot-on. I think part of the problem I had with the special is the limited nature of the material, as you have 60 minutes divided into two halves, with one theme for each. While the cast is free to explore inside those themes, as noted earlier, they are still inside those themes. That's obviously necessary, in order to allow the improv to develop, but it results in a slight lack of diversity, and if it's not working, it's hard to get out, without breaking "the game." Perhaps when you watch this show live, without the edits made for DVD (the reasons for which are unclear,) the energy and overall experience makes it more fun.
Packaged in a clear, single-width keepcase, with a sweet two-sided cover, this one-disc release features an animated, anamorphic widescreen main menu, with options to watch the show, check out the bonus round, see the extras, select scenes and adjust the audio. Audio options include English 2.0 and 5.1 tracks, but there are no subtitles and no closed captioning.
The anamorphic widescreen transfer on this DVD is good overall, with solid color and a decent level of fine detail, though it is slightly soft, and the wide shot has an annoying amount of pixelation and compression artifacts, making it seem like it was shot with an entirely different camera than the rest of the angles. Fortunately, the wide shot isn't used as frequently as the close-ups.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is bolder than the 2.0 track, thanks to some separation to the sides and rear, but honestly, it's more about recreating the feel of being at the show, than any kind of aural bombast, as you might expect from an improv comedy show. In that respect, it succeeds, but don't expect to be blown away.
As expected from Shout! Factory, there's a pretty hefty dose of extras included, starting with a bonus round of "Asssscat!," 30 minutes of clips from other "Asssscat!" performances, with monologues from comedienne Jen Kirkman, Paul F. Tompkins, Ed Helms and Will Arnett. There's some good material in the monologists' segments, a brilliant run involving a gay child and a family history of pornographers; and a very meta bit in which a class pauses a scene, only to later be paused by the scene, which reveals they can control their own reality. The material is actually funnier than what's in the main feature, which makes one wonder why it's tucked away here.
An almost-17-minute interview with the four founders gets into the history of "Asssscat!" and what goes into creating the show, without (surprisingly) talking about the troupe as a whole, as the quartet joke and chat about their past, segueing into thoughts about Stephen Colbert's ice cream and hauntings. It's followed by a four-minute clip from the show, where Tompkins' monologue is distracted by an unusual fan. It's a fun bit of oddity that is absolutely classic cringe comedy, and a good example of true improv skill.
The audience gets more facetime in "We Love Our Audience," a two-minute compilation of the UCB messing with the crowd. Good stuff for anyone who enjoys crowd work, especially when you think about what the average UCB audience looks like. It's definitely better than the loop of the "Asssscat!" theme song, over a creepy picture of a cat.
The final extra is easily the best one, as Walsh, Besser and Roberts (sadly, Poehler is not on hand) sit down for an audio commentary on the main feature. They state that their goal is to not be funny, and they actually try to stick to that goal, focusing on explaining how you do improv comedy, and giving tips and techniques that they use on stage. It's absolutely fascinating to anyone interested in improv and really quite detailed. It's kind of like the play-by-play for a sporting event, and is one of the best examples of a technical commentary I've seen that doesn't focus on camera work or writing. But, not to spoil anything, but the guys fail at their goal.
The Bottom Line
I love the UCB and find the ability to come up with interesting things to say off the top of your head to be awesomely impressive, but I just couldn't get into this DVD. Maybe the art of improv is better experienced in person, because here, it just came of as ordinary, which actually hurts me a bit to say. Fortunately, the presentation, outside of one rogue camera angle, is pretty good, and the bonus material is both a lot of fun and actually really informative about the art and science of improv. Fans of the UCB or improv comedy will want to give it a look, mainly for the extras, but a purchase may be pushing it. By the way, I made this whole thing up without writing anything down beforehand.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Check out 1106 - A Moment in Fictional Time or his convention blog called Conning Fellow
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.