Drink number two is settling in well with Eli Newell. After a slow start, he's now swiveling around a bit on his barstool, speaking in full sentences, and talking a little shit about Chicago's storied Second City comedy troupe.
"New York is the best of Chicago, made better," insists the bespectacled manager of the Upright Citizens Brigade Touring Company. "I mean, it's turning into tofu over there. Wait! Don't write that!" Newell pauses, possibly considering the ramifications his dis might have on future Northeast-Midwest relations. Then he smiles. "Instead, say flan."
Thinking on his toes comes naturally to the career funny guy — and it better, considering the company he keeps. The Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB) is one of the country's biggest ha-ha heavyweights, spawning celeb comedians and Saturday Night Live regulars faster than Kevin Federline can say "baby mama."
The UCB specializes in sketch and improv comedy without all of the "jokey" aspects of more game-oriented groups, and their Touring Company brings it to the masses. Writers have to go through a mini-gauntlet before their shows are allowed to run at either of the UCB's theatres (there is one in Los Angeles, in addition to the original theatre in New York's Chelsea district), and the path to the theatre's Touring Company is even tougher.
"Basically, I have to be able to sit in a car with them for hours and hours," says Newell of the Touring Company's selection process. His three well-mannered travel mates happen to be Charlie Sanders, Bobby Moynihan, and Eugene Cordero, who, with Newell as behind-the-scenes manager, make up the touring sketch show Buffoons & 4 Dudes.
Moynihan and Sanders (both UCB veterans and regular actors on Late Night with Conan O'Brien) market themselves as a modern Abbott and Costello — slapstick with a brain in the style of "old school sketch comedy." Buffoons finds the two longtime comedy partners and friends bouncing off of each other in sketch format, with a mild-mannered, recurring waiter character (Cordero) thrown in as a comic foil.
When pressed, Newell has a hard time summarizing the show, because it's kind of a live, organic monster on the run — although there is a common fabric of sketch material that stitches each show together, the comedians go with the flow. The magic is in the group's seamless interaction with one another. "Their connection is amazing," Newell says of Moynihan and Sanders. "Sometimes they'll throw in new stuff just to fuck with one another." Newell recalls one memorable show when a friend jumped on stage and joined in on the jokes, and the duo rolled on without skipping a beat.
Cordero (as the aforementioned waiter), plays the straight man to the duo's tag-team humor. Another UCB veteran, Cordero has a long history of sketch in Chicago as well. As with Moynihan and Sanders, Newell has no problem talking up the comedian. "This is not just a 'duo show' — Eugene is amazing. In comedy, everything has to be grounded."
As the Touring Company nears its two-year mark this spring, the continued success of shows like Buffoons bodes well for the future of road trip sketch comedy. Taking one last dig at the Midwest comedy scene, a loosened-up Newell is optimistic about the Touring Company's future. "The stuff that we're doing [in New York and on the road] is more of an art — the art of comedy ... and we're just gettingstarted."