Ugly Baby is an independent Birmingham improv troupe featuring players Callie Mauldin, J’Mel Davidson, Tim Childers, Arik Sokol, Mike Cunliffe, Brian Barrett, Christopher Davis, Billy Ray Brewton, and Birmingham’s very own Nick Crawford. When you think of the phrase “improvisational comedy,” you probably imagine a troupe of dopey twentysomethings dressed in black turtlenecks trying desperately to make you laugh. Well, Ugly Baby improv is nothing like that. Find out why their brand of absurdist comedy works in their interview with Weld.
1) First and foremost, just to flush it out there: why improv? What makes it different from other Birmingham night life activities, like going out with friends or even going to a movie?
J’Mel Davidson: Seeing an improv show is like seeing a great jazz musician freestyle. What will you hear? Where will he go? There is no way to know! What you’re seeing is creativity at its rawest. There aren’t many chances to see that, especially these days…
Billy Ray Brewton: We’re completely unexpected, even to us. If you’re going to see a movie, at the very least, you know exactly what movie you’re going to see when you purchase your ticket and sit down. With improv, you have zero idea until the words start coming out of our mouths–and you’re in the same exact boat as the performers. It really puts the performers and the audience on more equal footing. The audience is experiencing everything for the first time just like the performers are and the two feed off one another in a very organic way.
2) I love Ugly Baby’s form because it’s so fluid and free from rules like in improv games. Explain a little bit more and why you guys chose it.
Arik Sokol: Nick Crawford had a DVD of Upright Citizens Brigade performing this really cool style of improv called ASSSSCAT [Editor's Note: Video is not entirely safe for work, unless you work at someplace cool.]. We started passing the DVD around.
J’Mel Davidson: We began goofing around with really free-form scene making in a coffee shop after work. This led to Ugly Baby.
Billy Ray Brewton: I think we choose that style because it’s the purest form of improv–a group of people standing on a stage with no preparation, turning nothing into something. I much prefer improv in its most stripped down sense, back to the basics and such. We were inspired by the Upright Citizens Brigade show ASSSSCAT and we’re adding to our format with almost every show.
Arik Sokol: We actually got to perform at Upright Citizens Brigade this year in New York City and the response was amazing. For us it was a realization of those first shows we performed for our friends in that coffee shop.
3) This is kind of in correlation to the previous question, but it seems like UB, in comparison to other stuff we’ve seen before, throws the rule book out of the window. Explain how that helps you mold and create comedy.
Billy Ray Brewton: If there are no rules, it gives you complete freedom to do whatever you want. And that is an awesome feeling. It helps with the comedy because you don’t ever have to take even a brief second to think about whether or not something is or isn’t appropriate–you just say it. If the audience likes it, you build off that; if they don’t, you change course and find another way to make them laugh.
J’Mel Davidson: No, there are always rules. If there weren’t, this wouldn’t work. The secret is, we should never telegraph the rules to the audience. Only a creep goes to a magic show thinking, “Now, to figure out every trick!” No, you want the magic. You want the show. And what we’re trying to do is give you the best possible show, but there are rules. It’s all sleight of hand, like the magic show. We’re all doing what we’re “supposed” to be doing, or it wouldn’t work.
Arik Sokol: With us, we’re actually creating our formats and style ourselves. In addition, we have folks like Brian Barrett who taught improv at the Upright Citizens Brigade in NYC and Chris Davis & Callie Mauldin who have been learning and performing improv for over a decade. So we know the rules and we also we aren’t bound by them.
4) Tell us a little about the places y’all pick to perform at. What’s your favorite?
Billy Ray Brewton: For the most part, Ugly Baby performs at bars and clubs in town like Bottletree, Avondale Brewing Company, Matthew’s Bar & Grill, Urban Standard, etc. We like finding unique environments to expose us to different audiences. Personally, my favorite venue is Bottletree; they have a great stage, a nice set-up and usually a very receptive audience. You don’t always know what kind of audience you’re going to get at an improv show, but Bottletree audiences rarely disappoint.
Arik Sokol: Avondale Brewing Company has great beer and Matthew’s is always fun. We’re always looking for new spots to perform at so we can introduce our improv to new audiences. We’d love to do a show in other areas like Hoover or Gardendale. In fact, if you read this, find us a venue and demand they book us. I’m not advocating violence, but I’m not not advocating it.
5) If you have a favorite scene or moment in UB that you think the readers might enjoy, feel free to share.
Billy Ray Brewton: I have a terrible memory but we did a great bit at our last show at Matthew’s Bar & Grill where Chris Davis played an old noir detective with an inner monologue always going. The rest of the group were behind him acting out different voices in his head. It was just one of those brilliant little moments that turns into something really special.
Arik Sokol: I think Callie is amazing. Her characters always crack me up and I’m fond of her riffs on slow country folk. Truthfully, all of our scenes rely on the context of an entire show and watching us develop the scenes. So while scenes may be individually funny, they build to shows that are hysterical.
6) What was the audition process like forming the troupe? Do you guys have auditions?
Billy Ray Brewton: The troupe formed organically with members of other local troupes and then it brought on additional members over time, myself included. We don’t really hold auditions. If you’re in Birmingham and you’re good at improv, we’ll sniff you out somehow. Or if you are just desperate to get involved with us, let us know. It’s a pretty rigorous process from interest to actually being on stage, but we won’t laugh at you.
Arik Sokol: Until now, UB has not had an educational component. In other words, everyone who performs already knows how to create great improv. We have some interesting things in the works, so I’d advise aspiring improv performers to follow us on Twitter and Facebook.
You can see more from Mary Claire on Twitter @WeldBhamComedy.