“Comedy was mystical to me. I used to think, ‘you’re either funny or you’re not.’ And UCB said you can analyze it and produce comedy and think about it as a writer.”
-David Barton Harris
For David Barton Harris, long form improvisation at Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB) is like composing modern music – the intro, the verses, the bridge, back into the chorus, etc. He says part of the appreciation for the audience is knowing the structure and how you bend it.
“You definitely enjoy the Harold more, including first beats, group games and connections if you know what to expect,” he says.
For those not in the improv world, “The Harold” is the long form structure created by Del Close, the longtime collaborator with Charna Halpern at iO. Amy Poehler, Matt Besser, Matt Walsh and Ian Roberts – four iO teammates – founded UCB. And UCB’s particular take on improv is finding the game of a scene. David plays on the popular team, Last Day of School Text Message Show on Thursday nights.
I always like hearing how people found improv. David taught my 201 class and, like me, saw one improv show that changed his life. His improv career started in Chapel Hill as a North Carolina Tarheel. He doubled majored in music and theater and was on a short from improv team. Two major events would change his trajectory. The first was a play that required a significant time commitment – five to six days a week at 30 hours a week. The second was a trip his improv group took to Chicago to see a three man Harold show at iO.
“I thought it was so good, so vibrant and in the moment. They were listening so well to each other,” said Harris. “I thought it was the pure version of what I was trying to do with my theater degree. I was becoming disenfranchised, so I ended up changing my major from theater and gave music a shot.”
After college, Harris taught middle school for a year in North Carolina, but his music career was calling him, so he moved to LA to pursue a master’s degree in commercial music composition at Cal State Los Angeles. He also enrolled at UCB and it totally took over his life and became his focus.
“When I first came to LA in 2005, I thought UCB had more theory, structure and a vocabulary than the other improv schools. I just loved the structure. I studied music composition and learned all these very specific rules. And the beauty of the art is how composers would bend the rules to express something. I find a parallel in that with UCB. I enjoyed that there was a theory that was applicable. Improv and comedy is more like a science to me. There’s a formula that you’re going to follow.”
Harris didn’t complete his masters. He dove head on into UCB. He eventually secured a spot on one of the first UCB LA Harold teams, Last Day of School, and started performing regularly. Eventually, they earned a weekly slot and have performed on Thursday nights at 11 PM ever since. Side note – the text message component part of the show was added in 2008, the same year David started teaching.
Long term, David is going to write more and take advantage of the artistic methods of improv used to create comedy and apply it to web, tv and film projects. The first is commercials using a hidden camera to capture moments using improv actors.
He’s also excited about UCB’s new training center at Sunset and Western, which recently had its soft opening. The consolidated training center will offer more classes, more student resources and more opportunities to perform.
“The training center will take what’s already a strong improv appreciating atmosphere and make it stronger. It’s a great thing for the improv community.”
Time to make some music.