The Upright Citizens Brigade ran for three seasons before Comedy Central gave the series the axe. That may not sound like that long, but on a Viacom-owned basic cable network, lasting more than ten episodes is an impressive feat. For every Upright Citizens Brigade that marches proudly into a second or third season, there are a half-dozen stillborn Frank Goes to the Orients. Off-kilter sketch comedy series have a tendency to quickly build a rabidly loyal fanbase, and UCB's continually pestered Comedy Central for a DVD release. Rather than just half-heartedly dump the episodes on a two-disc set -- something I still would have bought and still would have recommended -- Comedy Central and the Upright Citizens Brigade cast have gone the extra mile, piling on seven commentary tracks, the original pilot, some live UCB performances, a deleted scene, and some of the original promotional material.
Video: The Upright Citizens Brigade is presented full-frame, just as it aired on Comedy Central five years ago. Presumably the transfers for this DVD set were culled from the original broadcast masters, and although the series was shot on a variety of different video and film formats, it's a little sharper and more colorful than I'd guess it appeared on basic cable. Both discs are dual-layered, giving the bitrate plenty of breathing room, and I didn't spot any artifacting or blocking throughout. The only issue I noticed, which is fairly minor, is that some edges have somewhat of a jagged, aliased, stair-stepped appearance. I noticed this fairly frequently, with a cropped example provided below.
Possibly related is some intermittent slight shimmering, rare enough that it probably doesn't warrant a mention. I'm kind of obligated to nitpick over every conceivable flaw in a DVD's presentation, but none of the exceedingly minor concerns here are the least bit intrusive, and I think fans of the series will be pleased with the appearance of this two-disc set.
Audio: The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio (192Kbps) sounds about what I'd expect from an airing on cable. There's a decent low-end presence, especially when music kicks in, such as the Real Welders' theme song and the club beat in the Hot Chicks Room. As is to expected from a sketch comedy series, dialogue is the focus of the mix, and it comes through with few problems here. Some of the louder moments and camcorder exteriors sound a bit distorted, and the "...In Bed" fortune cookie sequence particularly suffers in that respect. There are no jarring problems or anything, and the quality of the audio is pretty much what I went in expecting.
There are no closed captions or subtitles.
Supplements: There's a lot of really great stuff on this two disc set, including the original pilot that I'd never seen until now. It's different than the seasons that would follow in a number of ways. First, it has a shot-on-video look that's indistinguishable from any number of other sketch comedy shows. Second, the pilot was taped in front of an audience, which rapidly became grating. The material should be familiar, at least to anyone who waded through the first season before giving the pilot a peek. Aside from the opening golf revenge sketch and a few scattered gags, the remainder of the pilot found its way into a few different episodes, including the "ugly" "woman", preparation for revenge against the bus driver, and the 'Toad' tale that would become the central focus of one episode without any editing or alteration whatsoever.
The pilot episode is also accompanied by an optional commentary track, recorded live in front of an audience that's encouraged to ask questions throughout. Future SNL cast member Horatio Sanz, who has a cameo, drops in briefly as well. The topics include inadvertently torching a guy in the opening credits, the ubiquitous presence of poorly-applied lipstick, and the genuine but entirely unconvincing audience laughter for the "live before a studio audience" pilot.
The episode "Time Machine" has a live commentary too, where the cast members talk about adapting material from their stage show for the small screen, tossing 16mm film into an oven, and Amy Poehler defining "red wings" in graphic detail. The commentary is followed by an audio-only Q&A session that runs around twenty minutes. Between the Q&A and the pair of live commentaries, pretty much every conceivable question -- how the group got together, where the name came from, the writing process, the origin of the 3D glasses logo, how Comedy Central came to pick up the show, why it was cancelled, and how the UCB Theater came to be -- is asked and answered. The Q&A makes note of an unaired prank at Planet Hollywood where one of the cast members pretended to be maimed by a fallen Road Warrior spiked glove, dealing with Comedy Central's standards and practices (they could show Jesus with excrement smeared all over his face, but uttering the word "Scientology" was forbidden), and the series' one and only finished deleted scene. That snippet of footage, a 90 second ad for "Highland Epoxy", is also included on this DVD. Highland Epoxy is a super gripper, quick action stick-fast for all your working man needs...but it's not for huffing!
Four other episodes, selected by fans, feature more traditional commentary tracks. All four of the primary cast members participate, striking that balance between being informative and extremely entertaining. In "The Bucket of Truth", they discuss the police shutting down the location of one sketch, a condom commercial incorrectly perceived as being part of the show, an unexpectedly loaded prop gun on set, and Comedy Central's distaste for having a Brownie off herself with a shotgun. Orifaces sorted in their order of importance and underutilized pirates are among the topics on "Power Marketing", the other commentary on the first disc.
A second pair of episodes feature commentaries on disc two. In "Cyborgs", the cast pokes fun at Amy Poehler's acting chops, the real-life inspiration for the Christian camp counselor torture, the exorbitant cost of fake weights, and Matt Besser's incomparable ability to grow hair anywhere on his body. In the cast commentary for "Little Donny Foundation", it's noted that the 'Tuvok' action figure is actually Geordi LaForge sans glasses, as well as how the cast and crew got locked inside a hospital room, a dance song sampled the "Mama's got some big ol' titties" line from this episode, and how passerbys on the streets of New York City were duped into contributing to the "Enormous Penis" song. Little Donny himself contributes a second commentary for the episode, joined by his parents and UCB cast member Matt Walsh. They talk about the trials and tribulations of dealing with Donny's disorder, especially how the episode garnered invaluable attention for their beloved son and tacked some additional rooms onto their posh home in Colorado. Donny spends the commentary more concerned with some of the high-voltage wiring in the studio, also filling viewers in on Tuvok's current whereabouts. Novelty commentaries tend to get old pretty quickly, but this one's funny enough to sustain its 22 minute length.
There are also live performances of "Little Donny" and an "Andre the Giant" song, the latter of which is apparently either from a future season or never made it into the television series. Also included are two and a half minutes of Upright Citizens Brigade trailers. Rounding out the extras are three "Comedy Central Quickies", running a little over 6 minutes in total, including a mime bit from Reno 911, the origin of South Park's Professor Chaos, and Jerry Blank trying to see the world from the perspective of the blind from Strangers with Candy.
All of the extras are full-frame, featuring Dolby Digital 2.0 audio (192Kbps). The DVD includes a set of nicely designed 4x3 animated menus, and each episode is presented as a chapter stop. The always-welcome "Play All" feature has been provided for viewers who want to sit down for a marathon viewing.
Conclusion: An exceptionally funny, unconventional sketch comedy series, the first season of The Upright Citizens Brigade boasts hours of excellent material, an impressive assortment of quality extras, and a slim list price (as I write this, Deep Discount DVD carries the set for $16.20 shipped). Highly Recommended.
Related Links: The UCB have an unbelievably comprehensive website, if you haven't given it a peek already.