Exploring the promise of This Show Will Get You High.
There is a seventy-year history of sketch comedy TV shows that simply have stacked casts and writers rooms. Your Show of Shows kicked it off in the 50s, followed by the first season of Saturday Night Live, SCTV Network, and Mr. Show. The writers and performers on these shows are responsible for so many of the comedic styles seen in film and television today. Two of the most prolific comedy auteurs (Mel Brooks and Woody Allen) came out of the murderers’ row of writers working for Sid Caesar during Your Show of Shows and Caesar’s subsequent TV career. SCTV Network boasted Martin Short, John Candy, Catherine O’Hara, Rick Moranis, and this whole article could just be a list of brilliant comedy writers and performers that worked on SCTV Network. Mr. Show had Bob Odenkirk, David Cross, Scott Aukerman, Dino Stamatopoulos, and Paul F. Tompkins and many more. I don’t need to go into the original cast and writers of SNL, you get it.
In 2010, Comedy Central could have continued the tradition of stacked casts and writers rooms with the incredibly underrated sketch pilot This Show Will Get You High. The show was set up to succeed: the show’s creator (Matt Besser) had already had a hit sketch show on the network with the original Upright Citizens Brigade sketch show, and he had a bi-coastal bullpen of comedy writers and performers that were trained in the comedy school he helped create. But then again the show was a departure from the successful formula of Upright Citizens Brigade.
The biggest difference between the two shows was in their structure. Upright Citizens Brigade would weave disparate sketches together—reminiscent of a Harold, the improvisational form the group is famous for performing. Besser explained it best in 1998, “You start out with sketches that seem unrelated, and as the show progresses, you find out exactly how they are connected. In a really good Harold, it’ll end with all three scenes coming together somehow.” To further the parallel, Matt Walsh (fellow member of the UCB4), explained that each episode of Upright Citizens Brigade explored a new theme each week. This is similar to the Harold’s hallmark of performers discovering the show’s theme during the improv set.
This Show Will Get You High was a study in a different tenant of the Upright Citizens Brigade curriculum; The Game of the scene. Game is the thing that makes any scene funny. When you find the Game you repeat and heighten it to its biggest form. While Upright Citizens Brigade utilized Game in all of their sketches, it was dwarfed by the Harold-like structure of the entire show. In This Show Will Get You High the Game dictated the structure of the show. The show’s sketches were not restricted to thematic guidelines, and so the jokes could come from any direction. It was jagged stream of consciousness, with some characters popping up throughout the show without much explanation, but the jokes hit incredibly hard.
Another departure Besser took with This Show Will Get You High is in the interstitial segments. In Upright Citizens Brigade the interstitial segments depicted pranks pulled on unsuspecting victims. While these pranks are a trademark of the Upright Citizens Brigade group, Besser wanted to move away from the exploitative nature or pranking to a more inclusive form of real-world improvisation. Taking a page from Charlie Todd’s (creator of improv everywhere) book, Besser brought his sketch troupe into reality. Characters like Winnie the Whiney Baby left the canned world of his sketch to inhabit the real world. The reality footage, while some is still confrontational, has a lighter and more collaborative tone than the pranks in Upright Citizens Brigade.
The number one reason for the strength of each sketch in the show is the number of high caliber writers who worked on it. UCB artistic directors Anthony King and Neil Campbell fed Besser their best writers from the New York and Los Angeles theaters. Over twenty part-time writers were hired and a few full-time writers ran the room. Chris Kelly is credited as head writer and went on to fill the same position at Saturday Night Live.
Nick Wiger (Comedy Bang! Bang!, The Doughboys podcast) was one of the temporary hires on the show. He explains that Besser would have each writer complete as many sketches as possible per day. Wiger’s estimate was about six sketches a day, while Kelly recalls writing as many at the office then going home only to stay up all night on Gchat writing more sketches with Craig Rowan, another writer on the show. Kelly says other temporary hires were Sean Clements (Workaholics, Hollywood Handbook podcast), Dominic Dierkes (Mystery Team, Workaholics), while Curtis Gwynn (Narcos, The Walking Dead) was also in the room.
The biggest asset the writers room benefitted from was Besser’s leadership. In addition to focusing the room on the Game of the scene, Besser gave his writers every opportunity to test their sketches in front of live audiences. The UCB Theater in Los Angeles had been open for five years, providing a new home base for alternative comedy in the city. After writers had finished their six+ sketch-writing day, Besser would set up slots for sketches to be put up live at the theater that night. This rapid pace and the sheer volume of sketches written stripped any preciousness the writers had about their ideas. Kelly says they didn’t have time to judge the idea, they would just write it. The live productions allowed the writers some much-needed perspective.
The utilization of the theater did not stop there. Beyond putting sketches up from the This Show Will Get You High writers room at the theater, writers on the UCB Theater’s Maude (house sketch) teams had the chance to supply their sketches to the show as well. This aspect of the show was the closest to Besser’s original concept. He pitched the show as having no set cast, allowing the entire UCB community to participate in the show. However, Comedy Central pushed for a core cast to which the audience could relate. And, this cast was stacked.
Similarly to how he pulled the best writers from the UCB system, Besser brought on some of the theater’s best performers to make up the core cast. John Gemberling and Brett Gelman had been performing at the theater since the early days in Manhattan. Their improv team Death By Roo Roo is widely regarded as one of the best teams in UCB history. Paul Rust had been performing at the UCB in Los Angeles since 2005 when he and his friend (and eventual UCB artistic director) Neil Campbell were handed a hosting job at one of the UCB’s sketch shows after one week of performing at the show. Betsy Sodaro was the newest member of the UCB network, having begun performing at the theater in 2007. Every member of the cast has gone on to create inventive, singular comedy since appearing on the show.
Despite the stellar product, Comedy Central opted to air the pilot at obscenely late times. Like, four in the morning. They didn’t give it a chance, and it died without a second episode. But there is a silver lining. Besser got to shoot his original pitch of including the entire UCB in a show a few years later. The UCB Show premiered on Seeso in 2016. The show was shot in the group’s new theater on Sunset Boulevard, featuring scores of amazing writers and performers that were brought up through the UCB system.
And hey, even though This Show Will Get You High didn’t have the run it deserved, you can still watch the pilot and dream of what could have been.