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Arts and Entertainment

Upright Citizens Brigade Sold, Reopening Under New Management

Matt Besser, in a shirt and tie, gestures while improvising, seemingly holding an invisible object, toward Amy Poehler. She sits in a chair and has a hand extended to him. On the right, Matt Walsh raises a hand, apparently looking for the attention of Besser or someone else. A sign in the background reads "UCB THEATRE #DCM20."
File: Matt Besser, Amy Poehler and Matt Walsh attend the UCB's 20th Annual Del Close Improv Marathon Press Conference at UCB Theatre on June 29, 2018 in New York City.
(Nicholas Hunt
/
Getty Images)
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The famed Upright Citizens Brigade comedy theater and training program, whose founders include Amy Poehler, has been sold. The buyers, according to a statement from the new UCB, are the former owner/CEO of The Onion and a co-founder of Mosaic talent management.

Mike McAvoy and Jimmy Miller, respectively, plan to reopen UCB comedy theaters and training centers “in the coming months” in both Los Angeles and New York. No specific reopening dates are yet announced.

Those training centers offer classes focused around improv, as well as sketch comedy writing, TV writing, and more. Those classes have historically been more profitable than the theaters. While the theaters haven’t always made money, they have been critical to the UCB brand, driving people into classes and helping performers get noticed.

Comedy Struggles, Controversy

In recent years, both the theaters and training centers have struggled, reflecting issues faced by other comedy outlets after an earlier boom. Major financial problems were exposed following the opening of a new theater and training center, UCB Sunset, which struggled to find businesses to rent their retail space. The result was smaller audiences than at their other L.A. home, UCB Franklin. Over this same period, other L.A. comedy theaters such as iO West closed, years before the pandemic. Other theaters have shuttered — some permanently — since the COVID-19 shutdowns in 2020.

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UCB’s theater faced controversy during the pandemic over how the theater historically treated non-white male performers and its practice of profiting from unpaid performers. UCB leaders also faced backlash after receiving coronavirus bailout loans from the federal government, but not going on to rehire employees who’d been laid off. The theaters did not reopen following those loans.

What Happens Next

The new owners are promising to provide additional support and opportunities while continuing UCB’s efforts to create “a more diverse and inclusive environment.”

“We have many great plans we can’t yet talk about in detail, but our first priority is to reopen theaters and training centers in Los Angeles and New York with diversity, equality and inclusion front and center,” McAvoy said in a statement. “The additional resources at our disposal will enable us to pay performers for stage time and enhance The UCB 4 Scholarship Program which will continue to aid underprivileged students.”

This includes working with third-party firm Arts Consulting Group, which has been working with members of the UCB community on diversity initiatives. The revamped organization will be creating a human resources department for the first time, as well as a committee to oversee and execute diversity, equity, and inclusion plans.

“We are pleased to be handing over the reins to Jimmy and Mike in the hopes the theater and school will continue to be a thriving environment for all who want to learn and perform comedy," the founding owners known as the UCB 4 — Amy Poehler, Matt Besser, Ian Roberts, and Matt Walsh — said in a statement. “We look forward to the ways they will commit to increasing diversity and ensure the continued existence of an organization we have loved and dedicated ourselves to for over 20 years.”

The New Owners' Comedy Roots

New owners McAvoy and Miller both have experience in the comedy business, including Miller representing a number of big names from the comedy world. Miller will be the new company’s chairman while McAvoy will be the CEO. They’re also being backed financially by Elysian Park Ventures. Miller noted that this will be a separate business from Mosaic, but that he hopes to find “synergies … that provide overall value, support and stage time to as many performers as possible, regardless of representation.”

“I look at the UCB theater and school as another great client,” Miller said in a statement. “To be clear about my interest in this — I love comedy, I love improv, and I love UCB. I want to be sure that this business continues and thrives for 20 more years, and beyond.”

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Miller is also the brother of Saturday Night Live alumnus Dennis Miller.

The Ongoing Influence Of UCB — Both The Theater And Its Founders

UCB began as a group of performers who moved from underground improv stars to starring in the Upright Citizens Brigade comedy series from 1998–2000. Those performers — Poehler, Besser, Roberts, and Walsh — later became known as the UCB 4. The theater was founded in 1999 in New York City before expanding to L.A. in 2005. The profile of the UCB 4 themselves would grow over the years, with Poehler in particular becoming a massive star. They would also go on to have a huge impact on the comedy world through talent developed through their classes in New York and L.A.

During the pandemic, UCB continued to offer online improv classes. Several of their teachers also started their own businesses teaching improv outside of UCB, while a number of their performers would go on to launch outside ventures. These include new upstart groups such as the Comedy Co-Op, taking on what they promise are new approaches in response to perceived problems with how UCB and other comedy theaters have traditionally been run.

The new owners promise more details in upcoming months.

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