“Everyone would be a lot happier and a lot better off if they had a little improv in their life.”

Julie Brister

If you’re going take improv classes at UCB Los Angeles, you have to take Julie Brister’s class at some point in your journey. Period.

Julie taught my 301 class and here’s what I like about her: she’s efficient with time, succinct with notes and super supportive. She’s also old school – no talking heads scenes. She wants you to get into the environment, she wants real emotional reactions and she wants you to slow down and listen. While UCB may be known for fast and funny improv, Julie wants it to come from a richer “what’s happening in the world of this piece” place.

Julie fell backwards into improv. She was taking acting classes for a long time in New York, but wasn’t really pursuing acting projects. She was burned out on acting classes and knew she wanted to do comedy. She did stand up briefly, but hated failing. She was a dinner party one night and a friend of a friend had a toe in the comedy world. His wife worked at Catch A Rising Star and he was faxing jokes in for the weekend update. Julie was intrigued.

In New York in the late 90’s, there were really only two improv comedy places to go – Chicago City Limits or UCB. She lived on the East side and said it was a dead zone. Chicago City Limits was pretty far from her place. UCB was five blocks from her apartment. She decided to check it out. The evening she went, she saw show with four people in the audience. She loved it.

They were doing sketch and some of those sketches showed up on TV show later, like when Besser plays a weed dealer people can’t get away from. After the transaction, he keeps talking. Five or six people did a Harold, including Billy Merritt, Michael Delaney, Sean Conroy and Linda Delaney.

I thought, “This is creative and fun and I was certainly intrigued about the performance, not about playing somebody else,” said Brister.

After the show, Julie stayed in the lobby and talked with a few people. Someone approached her and asked if she was interested in classes, including an upcoming workshop for women taught by Amy Pohler and Tina Fey. She signed up.

“We were asked if we’d previously improvised. I lied. And immediately regretted it because I could tell there were guidelines for scenes I wasn’t following. I knew playing make believe. I saw a show and understood the basics – commit to reality and play broadly. I asked a lot of questions. I was hooked immediately,” said Brister.

Julie added that Tina offered gentle guidance and both were incredibly supportive.

“We laughed a lot. They were both very thoughtful in how they shepherded us through scenes,” said Brister. “The workshop featured a lot of scene work, but we also sat in a circle and talked about what it was like to be a woman in comedy and our frustrations. It was very illuminating.”

Amy played a profound role in Julie’s teaching style.

“Amy was my favorite teacher. The perfect blend of support and tough love. She had no problem calling you out if things start to go awry or if the energy was cluster fucking, she’d put the kibosh on it right away. Her notes were supportive. I had her for three different classes. I really liked her teaching style,” said Brister.

Julie was among the second wave of incoming students for the burgeoning theater, even though, at the time, there wasn’t officially a theater. The UCB was operating out of a solo arts space.

“Their first classroom space was in a martial arts studio. We had two classrooms. It was amazing! That was a step I got to be a part of. Glad I got to be there,” she said.

They had performance nights. And her class formed a practice group in her 201 class and started rehearsing with a coach. Her practice group became one of the theater’s first Harold teams – Mexican Popsicle.

Her team performed every week, sometimes twice. Julie was working a full time job and would have a show every night.

“It was very different from how theater is now because we were really allowed to be terrible. We were so green. We really figured out a lot on our feet,” said Brister. “Today, when people get on a team, they’ve been improvising for a few years. By the standards we have now, I’d never get on a team.”

The team helped sharpen her comedy chops, which lead to some work on Conan in 1999. She did bits a few times a month – 30 bits overall.

She eventually started teaching in January 2001.

Julie was in New York for 18 years, but decided a change was needed. “Before 30 Rock, there wasn’t a lot happening in terms of TV in New York. It was soap operas, dramas and Conan. There were commercials. And MTV stuff. But I was ready for something new. And I knew the theater was opening in LA and I was excited about starting over,” said Brister.

Julie moved to LA in 2006 and started teaching.

I’ll share the second chapter of Julie’s UCB career in LA in my next post. In it, Julie discusses how improv is playing a greater role in TV and film, what makes a great improviser, improv and life and how longform improv has evolved.ro