Long before he even thought of leaping onto the stage, Nate Dern was “working the house.” As a kid, he’d often throw on a sombrero and one of his mom’s dresses, pencil in a little mustache, and traipse around the living room as Mrs. Ham & Cheese Sandwich, a made-up character. He especially loved presentations. Book reports were peppered with bits of comedy. His favorite part of being in the student government, he says, was the school assemblies because he could try out new material on his classmates. Still it wasn’t until Dern got to Harvard and began hanging with other comedians that he realized he wasn’t cut out for a career in politics.
“It took me a while to connect the dots,” Dern said recently, “like, oh, the common thing I like to do in all these different activities is to perform, and to try to make people laugh.”
Dern eventually moved to New York in 2008 to take classes at the Upright Citizens Brigade, the city’s premier venue for long-form improvisational comedy, and is now a resident performer as well as the theater’s artistic director. Part of his job is to set the schedule for U.C.B.’s two New York locations, which typically present three to four shows per night. Another is to run the auditions. Dern also acts as the theater’s industry liaison. “If a casting director or agent wants a recommendation for a pilot,” he says, “I might suggest they take a look at one of our talent that I think would be a good fit.”
Since setting up shop in New York in the 1990s, U.C.B. has earned a reputation for grooming rising stars, such as Bobby Moynihan (Saturday Night Live) and Aubrey Plaza (the big-screen comedy The To Do List). Dern, who’s currently shopping a web series called Mic Masters and taking doctoral courses in sociology at Columbia, works hard to maintain the theater’s status as an “incubator of talent.” He spends as many as six nights a week at the U.C.B. theaters, splitting his time between the East Village and Chelsea sites. But you won’t hear him complain. For Dern, an Evergreen, Colo., native who described himself a couple times as “never the funniest one in [the room],” working at U.C.B. is a dream come true. “I can’t believe how lucky I am,” says the 28-year-old, who clearly relishes his job’s mixture of work and play. “Instead of going to a bar to drink, I’m watching a comedy show or doing a comedy show.”
On a recent Saturday we caught his latest, “What I Did for Love,” at U.C.B. East on Third Street and Avenue A. The performance, featuring Dern and his improv house team, started with a volunteer from the crowd sharing a story about the time he was dumped in college. The guy’s ex-girlfriend then turned around and asked for a favor, which led to him acting in a play where he burst into tears midway through a scene. After a good ribbing, Dern and the other comics culled together bits of the man’s story, adding in a few loopy details, and ran with it. The show elicited heaps of unexpected laughs from the audience. There was a spontaneous scene in a chemistry lab with some clever double-entendres and a sketch that took place at a keg party where the boyfriend is stuck playing a lame card game. His unseen friends shout a running narrative of all the really cool stuff he’s missing in the next room. You had to be there, not only because it was funny, but also — this being improv — those particular jokes will not be reperformed.
When the 90-minute set finished, Dern was in good spirits. We sat down in the theater’s dimly lit lobby for a post-show interview, during which the self-deprecating hipster (“we’re worthy of being made fun of”) and Brooklyn transplant talked freely about the nature of improv comedy, the perks of the job and getting naked on stage. Below are excerpts from our conversation.
What was the idea behind your current show in which you take a random audience member’s love story and spin it for laughs?
The inspiration for this show was to do a positive improv show. A lot of the improv based shows in New York City have a negative question: “What is your [effed] up family life?” “What is your worst secret?” “Worst living situation?” Those are all great shows, and suffering is obviously ripe for comedy, but we wanted to try a show that focused on love and great positive emotions. As it turns out, half of the time we end up hearing a tragic story of heartbreak anyway. Relationships do well in comedy just because they are something everyone cares about. And while in an improv scene you have to imagine whatever specifics the improvisers come up with — we’re in space, you’re holding a trident. I’m a penguin, etc. — a person acting lovingly, or angrily or whatever, towards the other actor on stage is something you can see and don’t have to suspend your disbelief for.
You must hear some priceless stuff from the crowd?
The best interview so far was a young guy who had his heart broken in high school then sang a song at the school talent show about that girl, and got kicked out of the talent show because that girl’s parents had a business that was a sponsor of the show or something. It was already a great interview, and then Michael Kayne, [one of the comics] who usually does our interviews, put the guy on the spot to sing part of the song, and he remembered the entire thing. He got a standing ovation.
We know people will do just about anything for love. What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done for a laugh?
Oh, that’s funny. In college, I would like streak, and things like that, to try to get a laugh or get a reaction. I also did a talent show where I started stripping and was kicked off the stage. So I guess nude stuff. When you’re a college student first trying to do comedy you just got to go for it, and that’s where I would go.
How did you first hear about the Upright Citizens Brigade?
I learned about it through the older students on my college improv team, The Immediate Gratification Players. When I was at Harvard we would make a pilgrimage to U.C.B. once a year. So it was on my radar as the improv mecca. I took my first U.C.B. class in 2007 and then moved to New York specifically to take improv classes at U.C.B. and to try to get on a house improv team.
You’ve done other comedy clubs before. What makes U.C.B. different?
Well, it is my favorite place to do comedy. People just take it so [effing] seriously. I love it. When I got to U.C.B., it felt like I’d finally found the missing clan of people I’d been searching for my entire life. Like, this is my tribe.
So after studying social anthropology and comparative religion at Harvard then completing a yearlong grad program at the University of Cambridge, you moved to New York and enrolled at Columbia to study sociology. Shouldn’t you be out doing some enthnographic fieldwork for a book on the notion of civil religion rather than standing on stage telling jokes?
I still might try to do that. I do sometimes wonder, like, “Oh, man. I wasted my degree. What am I doing?” But then I think about what sort of office job there could be and I’d much rather be doing this!
Seriously, though, has your background in sociology come in handy at U.C.B.?
I think so. In the management position of artistic director, I think it’s helped me to think about larger questions related to people behaving in groups and group dynamics, that sort of thing. Even though comedy is so subjective, I like to turn things into data, or quantify them, whenever I can. So, like, in determining who gets onto our house teams I try to rank the audition using a variety of systems and then have our U.C.B. teachers score shows.
How many people showed up last audition for the U.C.B. improv house team?
It’s usually 400 to 500 people. We have two improv auditions and one sketch team audition every year.
Is there a certain structure they have to follow?
There are two rounds of auditions. You do two improv scenes, usually with a stranger — someone else auditioning. Then we have callbacks. The 500 get whittled down to 64 and from there we have teams of eight perform a half-hour show to decide who gets on. Each audition, maybe five new people get on a house team. So we go from 500 to five.
People at U.C.B. talk about doing a “Harold.” What is that?
It’s just an arbitrary name given to this particular long-form structure. The scene content is all made up; it’s all improvised. But oftentimes the structure of the show is decided ahead of time. So the “Harold” structure is three scenes with two persons then a big group scene and that four-scene cycle is repeated like three times for about a half hour. There are other structures, but the Harold is probably the most famous long-form structure. It’s what Del Close [the beloved improv comedy teacher] created. But Del just arbitrarily gave it that name is what I have heard. It’s tough! We see a lot of talented people, and it is super hard to narrow it down and then to make cuts from existing performers.
A bit of advice for future auditioners and those who’d like to make it at a place like U.C.B.?
Lean into your strengths! Do whatever you naturally do well. We want to see your sense of humor, not what you think we want to see. You can always tell when people do what they think is funny.
You mentioned that it’s never easy making cuts. What other parts of the job are harder than you expected?
Email management was surprisingly hard to me. This is my first real managerial job and just like the sheer number of emails I get is amazing. At any given time, there’s maybe 400 actor-performers and then there are people that are kind of in the loop. My performer email list has about 800 people on it. So that’s 800 people who are frequently pitching me shows, or they have a question about their show. Then also other industry people come to you with questions or corporate people want to do a deal with U.C.B. It’s hundreds of emails a day, so I’m always on my phone. But that’s probably more and more common to all jobs. You just have to be on email a lot.
Is being funny one of the job requirements for an artistic director?
No, definitely not. You just need to have taste that’s in line with the U.C.B. Theatre’s style and you have to be able to articulate feedback in a useful way. You have to be a director, more than a performer.
How did you go from being a U.C.B. performer to its A.D.?
It got the job in August 2011. The last A.D., Anthony King, was leaving after a long and successful tenure, and I submitted my name to be considered for the role. I did a cover letter and then a series of interviews. I was one of four finalists, I think, and I was somewhat of a surprise choice for the position because there were other more senior candidates being considered. It was the greatest feeling of accomplishment in my entire life getting chosen as A.D. of the U.C.B. Really, like my biggest dream in the world come true.
And you also get to check out some big-name acts at the U.C.B.
Yeah, that’s one of the great things about my job. U.C.B. has a cool factor so you’ll get people like Sarah Silverman or Louis C.K. or Jim Gaffigan perform. Aziz Ansari will stop by every once in a while and do a show. “Harold Night” at the theater, though, is my favorite. That’s Tuesdays at the Chelsea location. Harold Night was the first show that made me fall in love with the theater. It’s what everyone wants to be a part of. There’s just something magical about it. Sometimes when I’m in the middle of watching a show it’ll just hit me, like, “Oh, this is my job,” just to watch comedy and try to help my friends achieve their comedic goals. It’s unreal.
What about compensation? The U.C.B. Theatre doesn’t pay its performers, which helps them keep ticket prices low. Are you one of the few that actually gets a paycheck?
Yeah, I get paid to be artistic director, but not to perform.
Is it enough to live on?
I mean if you’re not a millionaire surviving in New York is hard. But I get a living wage. [Laughs]
Before you go, I want to ask you about your feature-length documentary On the Cusp, Off the Cuff about New York’s improv comedy scene. How did that come about?
It just seemed like an interesting, thriving community, and I felt like I was in a unique position in that I had some video production skills and access to this community. It just felt like I was in a unique position to make this movie, and I just hadn’t seen anything like it so I wanted it to exist.
Did you have a question in mind that you wanted to answer with the documentary?
It was sort of like why do we do improv comedy? Why do we care so much? Supposedly, it’s to help our comedy careers, but with improv you’re creating this product that disappears as soon as you make it. So if we really cared about our careers we’d spend that time producing a comedy sketch or a pilot — that has a more tangible reward in the entertainment world. But we keep doing this thing, like we’re addicted to it. So I wanted to explore that.
Improv comedy is a lot like performance art. It’s not supposed to be reperformed. It’s live and experimental.
Which is what’s beautiful about it. People have tried to commodify it to varying degrees of success, like short form, which is better for TV. But with long-form improv comedy, which is what we do at the U.C.B. Theatre, you can only enjoy it by watching it live. So it’s special. The audience is a part of it with you.
Is that what you love about improv?
Yeah, I love performing. It’s a cliché, but when I perform I feel totally alive. I did track and field in high school and college, and it’s a similar thing. When you’re in a race, you’re working as hard as you can and not thinking about the bull[crap] stress in your life. And when you’re in a really good improv show the same thing happens where you’re just listening and reacting. You’re not even thinking about the audience. You’re totally in the moment.
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