Going for the laughsSecaucus native makes good in Hollywood

Rare is the comedic actor who can take a script and make it come alive with wit, without being either too highbrow or too childish.
Rarer still is the comedic actor who can take a mere concept, generate his own script spontaneously onstage, and strike the same balance.
As a founding member of the Upright Citizens Brigade, the improvisational theater troupe that got its start in the early ’90s, Secaucus native Ian Roberts may fall into that second group. After graduating from Secaucus High School in 1985, Roberts attended Grinnell University in Iowa, where he studied theater. He moved to Chicago after graduating and began studying improvisational theater where he soon met Matthew Besser, Drew Franklin, Adam McKay, Ali Farahnakian, and Rick Roman – fellow actors who would help shape his developing comedic style.
“We all met out of Chicago,” Roberts said in an interview last week. “The thing we all had in common was that we all trained with Del Close, who is probably the best improv teacher in the country. Since we were friends, we started Upright Citizens Brigade.”
Performing throughout Chicago for six years, the troupe honed its improvisational theater through frequent live shows.
“Close developed a long-form improvisational style known as the ‘Harold,’ ” Roberts said, a style that greatly influenced the Brigade’s work. “It has scenes that recur, so you don’t just do one-off scenes [the way many other improvisational groups do]. You come back to your earlier scenes later in time and you have the scenes tie up together. In stand-up comedy it’s called a call-back, and those are the jokes that get the biggest laughs. So, obviously, we hope to do the same thing.”
Eventually, the troupe moved to New York City in hopes of getting on TV while still being able to perform live gigs in small theaters.
Their plan worked. Within months of their move, they were getting booked for television appearances and soon landed their own show on Comedy Central in 1998. (The show ended two years later.)
“It may sound effortless, but we did many, many live shows where we had like six people in the audience,” Roberts laughed. “And if it hadn’t been for my folks coming to some of those shows, we wouldn’t have had half those people in the audience.”
Roberts’ parents, Donald and Penny, still live in Secaucus.

Moving out, moving up

Since then, the members of the Upright Citizens Brigade have changed. Some people have left the troupe, while others like Roberts have remained. (The group now includes “Saturday Night Live” alumna Amy Poehler.)
Through the Brigade’s success, Roberts has been able to branch out into other projects. Next month he will make his debut as the newest cast member on the Comedy Central show “Reno 911.” He’ll play the character Seargant Declan and his background in improv will be on full display.
“The show’s developers – Robert Ben Garant, Kerri Silver, Thomas Lennon – write up a bunch of scenarios that are about a paragraph long,” Roberts said. “And the cast improvises off of them. There are about 150 scenarios for the season.”
Roberts, who now lives in L.A., is also writing and developing a sitcom for Spike TV, tentatively titled “Players,” which is currently set to debut on Spike in the fall. Although closer to a traditional sitcom, that show, too, will borrow heavily from Roberts’ background in improvisational theater.
“Its script is more plotted out, like a regular sitcom, and what will be left up to the actors will be what they say. There won’t be any scripted dialogue. But there will be a plot, there will be a story like in a standard sitcom.”
In his opinion, the best improv looks scripted and rehearsed, but isn’t.


So, has Roberts ever tried to mine Secaucus for laughs?

“When improv can begin with a single suggestion and, without using gimmicks or tricks, looks like the best sketch comedy, I think that’s the greatest improv you’ll see,” said Roberts, who admires the work of Monty Python and Abbott and Costello.

Any Secaucus scripts?

So, has Roberts ever tried to mine Secaucus for laughs?
“Actually, I have. I tried to sell an idea for a sitcom that was based on Secaucus,” Roberts said. “My mom used to work for the Home News. A lot of the ideas for the show came from her experiences there. Unfortunately no one picked it up. But the show centered around the staff of a small weekly, one of those places where there’s one reporter who does everything. They write, they take pictures….The main character has to cover these offbeat stories in this small town.”
Wait, that sounds more like reality TV.
Reach E. Assata Wright at awright@hudsonreporter.com.

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