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Ian Roberts on Improv and TV

Alum Ian Roberts '87 takes a moment to do a Q&A with Matthew Bachtell. - Contributed
Ian Roberts ’87 discusses his adventures in sketch comedy including his time at Grinnell. Roberts is also the co-founder of Upright Citizens Brigrade and will be starring in a new TV show Players on Spike. Matthew Bachtell ’13 spoke with Roberts over the phone on Wednesday.

When did you first get interested in sketch comedy?

Well I was a fan, as a kid, of Monty Python, and then I got interested in doing it through—actually at Grinnell—we started an improv group, It was called ‘Proteus.’ I had gone away and done a semester [abroad] and I’d also done a summer with the National Shakespeare Conservatory, so I came back and wanted to start an acting workshop, and one of the other women that I’d played with, I told her that, and she said, ‘No, I want to start something, do my thing.’ And her thing was, she was from Chicago and worked with the Piven Theater Company, which does story theater and develops improvisation, so I joined that group and we started doing improv together. That lasted for a few years after I left, but then it disbanded unfortunately. I always thought it was so cool that it still existed, you know?

When did you first get into television or movie acting?

I guess the first time we started doing that was when we all moved to New York. We had all been in Chicago, and that’s where we met all the Upright Citizen’s Brigade guys, and then we moved to New York and started doing Conan O’Brien’s show, a sketch on that, and then we got our own show after about a year—The Upright Citizen’s Brigade Sketch Show. That was the beginning of my doing TV shows. We spent a lot of years sort of incubating here in Chicago doing stage stuff, weird little shows.

What led to the creation of the Upright Citizen’s Brigade?

Around 1990, we met through the Improv Olympics, which was one of those things where the main teacher was this guy Jeff Fullerton. He’s the guy who trained Bill Murray, and John Belushi and John Penn. He has just this huge list of basically all the good sketch comedians. We all studied there, performed there, then started our own sketch group out of there, somewhere around ’90, ’91.

Could you tell me a little bit about “Players”? I don’t watch TV much anymore.

It’s not out yet, so even if you watched it you wouldn’t know about it. It airs March 2, and it revolves around two brothers who own a bar together, and are basically polar opposites. My guy’s very uptight, comes from a world of corporate chain restaurants, and is always trying to impose order and, ‘I’m the establishment,’ and I’ve got this brother, who’s the guy everybody likes, the two-time Charlie guy, who’s basically the bane of my existence. And every episode involves monkeying about—these guys get in conflicts, the other guy has a terrible idea, my guy does damage control.

How long have you been working on “Players”?
We filmed it for about six months. It’s all improvised, the dialogue. We have scenarios for 10 episodes, where we act out the plot of each scenario, and make up the dialogue as we go along. We finished quite a while ago, but it’s only airing now. There were a number of considerations for pushing it back.

Considerations like what?
Well one was the Winter Olympics, actually. Because, you know, it’s about sports, the Spike network, so you want to think about something that gears towards college, spring break. There were all kinds of things—one was that they were getting the rights to re-run Entourage. Thought that would be a good lead-in, so we had to wait until they got those rights. That didn’t happen ‘til the New Year. There was another show they put on that they wanted to air first, so there were all kinds of considerations, really. We finished up last summer, and now it’s airing.

And you’re really happy with how it turned out?

Yeah. It’s really great when you get with a network who’s younger in their original programming, because they tend to be very open to letting you get you’re way. And they were fantastic, and they really basically let us do whatever we want. I can remember how the show used to be, because it’s what we wanted to do. And it kind of really bugs you when network producers kill the show, and you really want to know how it could’ve gone if you’d done it your way, but that’s not the case.

Over the course of your career, have you worked with any big comedians?

Well Amy Poehler is pretty successful these days. She was on “Parks and Recreation,” she was one of the people on that TV show. Adam McKay, who is a writer-director, who directed a bunch of Will Ferrell movies, “Anchorman,” “Talladega Nights,” “Stepbrothers.” He was one of the founding members of the Upright Citizen’s Brigade. Horatio Sanz was one of the founding members who was on SNL for about seven years. Who else? Oh, Tina Fey. We both came out of Improv Olympics together, and she’s performed regularly at our theater in New York. I know a bunch of guys I took classes with have done pretty good stuff.

I’m a little curious now—why was it called the Upright Citizen’s Brigade?
It was kind of an ironic name. We used to do shows that were pretty crazy, right, we’d take people out of the theater, stage a fake suicide or run the audience down the block to a friend’s house and have them watch a murder through the window of the house, and so we thought a name like that sounded like we were very strict, and proper, and socially conscious. I think we just kind of thought it was a funny name.

During your time working with them, have there ever been any roles that you’ve just really liked performing?
I liked this sketch Ass Pennies that I had. It’s something that has always been kind of a role I really enjoyed doing the sketch on-stage. Yeah, maybe that. We played all different roles. We weren’t the kind of sketch show that had a lot of recurring characters.

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