The Upright Citizens Brigade Theater touts itself for specializing in affordable, high-quality comedy shows, seven nights a week. It's hard to get more affordable than free, and Wednesday night's final show, School Night, is just that: free. As for quality, the show has its finer moments as well as its lesser ones. Emceeing the evening was Justin Purnell, who hyped the show up to high levels of expectation. His naturally likable personality made him more convincing than most emcees, but his between-skit banter tended to drag on too long, slowing down the show's pace and forcing the comedians to spend too much time trying to bring back the crowd's enthusiasm. Purnell's consistent use of "um" and "uh" betrayed a bit of discomfort in the spotlight, which also sapped the audience's energy.
The show's opener, Tony Camin, came on strong with some potentially offensive but truly clever jokes, but then quickly sank into witless grade-school humor. While his sex jokes were merely unoriginal, his material mocking people with mental retardation was offensive. His efforts to point out that retarded people are indeed retarded merited neither laughter nor applause.
Billy Merritt and Pam Murphy increased the laughs with their improvised show called "Bicker." Taking a key word from the audience, the two portrayed numerous bickering couples, cleverly weaving each couple's story line into the next couple's story line.
Daily Show correspondent Miriam Tolan and her skit partner, Jason Mantzoukas, exemplified improv at its best as they too portrayed a couple in a situation taken from an audience member's suggestion. Tolan and Mantzoukas seemed completely comfortable as their characters, easing into joke after joke while simultaneously building the world their characters inhabit. As a young married couple who met in rehab, Mantzoukas was a lovably homicidal and hilariously neglectful husband/father of two, while a deadpan Tolan doted on every one of her beau's psychotic flaws.
While attempting to introduce the night's next act, emcee Purnell was interrupted by his overbearing girlfriend, Sara Schaefer. A clearly obsessed Schaefer bounded onstage, stopping the show and producing a slide show of imagined romantic moments between the two lovers before strong-arming Purnell into a disturbingly well-choreographed ribbon dance that was like Olympic rhythmic gymnastics.
Chris Gethard played a slow-witted and comedically challenged Queens restaurateur named Uncle Billy. His terrible delivery of unfunny jokes was riotous, rivaling Tolan and Mantzoukas as School Night's best performers. Gethard was not just a comedian delivering his material but an actor giving a carefully scripted and brilliant performance.
Aziz Ansari entertained with his personal style of self-deprecating yet self-obsessed humor, and the duo of John Conroy and Rachel Hamilton closed out the show with another portrayal of a bickering couple. Conroy and Hamilton had some funny moments but found themselves at a distinct disadvantage, having followed two pairs of performers who were more adept at the same game.
The show started 20 minutes late, and with seven performances and emcee banter in between, it dragged on about 20 minutes too long. The comedians ranged from good amateurs to bad professionals to seasoned pros. As is the nature of improv, School Night is guaranteed to be different every time, with any number of performers appearing.
Still, at the unbeatable price of zero dollars, the show is worth the risk, especially if you find yourself bored, broke, or looking for an excuse to stay up late on a school (or any other) night.