There existed—from around 2009 to 2011, I think—a podcast that provided complete recordings of each week’s ASSSSCAT 3000, the Upright Citizen’s Brigade’s long-running flagship show. Eventually, however, the podcast not only stopped running, but ceased to be available altogether. If you wanted to see an ASSSCAT for free, you’d have to wait for a few hours in a line on W. 26th street.
Comedy podcasts have long been dominated by UCB alumni and performers, but all things considered, there aren’t a ton of podcasts that do scenic improv. You have Superego and Spontaneanation (both excellent), but both are more polished approaches. You don’t have that ASSSSCAT quality of getting to see masters of the form gleefully mess around and throw each other under the bus.
UCB co-founder Matt Besser has filled that vacancy in the podcast landscape effortlessly with improv4humans, an exercise in rapid, absurd escalation (usually spurred by Besser cutting to a montage or scene painting cinematically) featuring a revolving door of L.A.’s best improvisers. i4h cross breeds Besser’s ASSSSCAT expertise in following the fun with the casual radio setting of Comedy Bang! Bang! (also on the Earwolf Network). The slate of guests is absurdly consistent, and what follows is improv at its most intimate, insane, and id- driven. Besser also infuses the proceedings with a punk radio sensibility, basing scenes not only on one-word suggestions from Twitter, but also on segments like “Crap on YouTube,” arguments with callers, and breakdowns of songs performed live by his favorite alternative musicians.
However, since guests rotate, repeat, and overlap so much, episodes tend to blend together over time—though Besser does compile excellent and regular “Best-Of” episodes that serve as the most consistent entry points for new fans. But you still can’t beat four (or more, or fewer) improvisers in a room tying together scenes for each other’s benefit over ninety minutes. So we dove though hundreds of i4h episodes to find the best of the best! We did this for you, humons! Enjoy!
14. #13: “Ego vs. Nature” (Ben Schwartz, Jill Donnelly and Charlie Sanders)
There is a reason Ben Schwartz keeps cropping up as a guest everywhere these days and it’s that he’s affable and delightful. However, because of that, we had no way of knowing that Schwartz is even more fun when reticent and uncomfortable. In this episode, Besser builds on an earlier episode that established Schwartz’s extreme discomfort with confrontation as inspiration for scenes that put him through the ringer to see when he’ll snap. Ben hates it and it’s wonderful. More shows should put his unflappable disposition to the test.
13. #29: “No Joking Around!” (Adam McKay and Chris Gethard)
Adam McKay obviously looms large over the past two decades of comedy, but because he sticks to behind-the-scenes work, many people who love his movies don’t necessarily have a face (or voice) to put to the name. Luckily, Besser has him the studio to pal around with Chris Gethard, and you rarely see improv this relaxed and effortless. McKay pops up elsewhere on the show, but he really shines best here, when it’s just the three of them performing really chill scenes about the Avengers.
12. #136: “Hallelujah the Hills” (Hallelujah the Hills, Lauren Lapkus, Mike Still and Jeff Hiller)
Wild Horses’ Lauren Lapkus may be the show’s MVP at the end of the day—there’s a reasons she’s about to become super famous any second now. And she’s the MVP of this episode as well, stealing the show with her portrayal of an impatient answering machine that insists the caller press five. But this all builds on Besser’s ability to mine inspiration from his musical guests, and this episode sees him at his best with indie rock band Hallelujah the Hills, who also treats us to a really amazing acoustic rendition of their song “I Stand Corrected.”
11. #189 “Apes Will Fight If We Must” (Will Hines, Mike Still, and Joe Wengert)
Will Hines is a renowned improv teacher and L.A. podcast regular, whose book How To Be the Greatest Improviser on Earth is already a must-read for students of the form. He practices everything he preaches in this episode. Scenes including a realistic human response to Caesar’s speech in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, a hacky action- omedy trailer for a movie about the Bible and a truly special shitting-your-pants story are series highlights, as is an edition of “Cased Closed” that sheds some light on Besser’s thoughts on discord within the improv community, a side of him we rarely get to see.
10. #283: “Brick of Coffee: LIVE from SXSW” (Jason Mantzoukas, Sasheer Zamata, Noel Wells, Horatio Sanz and Dan Deacon)
I’ll admit this list has already been short on—and will continue to be short on, sorry—live episodes and musical episodes, two of the best things about the show, but this recent episode probably represents the best of both. Not only does it give two criminally underutilized Saturday Night Live Players (Noel Wells and Sasheer Zamata, who we’ll miss) a chance to thrive, but it also features Besser favorite Dan Deacon (already the subject of his own excellent episode) working through technical difficulties without anyone noticing. No other episodes of the show take this kind of advantage of a musical guest. It’s beautiful.
9. #284: “Amherst Fighting Whittier Johnny Poets” (Andy Daly and Will Hines)
The best part of this episode isn’t even a scene, though one including an off-brand Goofy going rogue in Disneyworld is a treat. No, it’s an unusually long interstitial segment where Besser breaks down the new school mascots nominated by students at Amherst, and why they piss him off so much. This would be plenty of fun if it was just Besser ranting away, but Will Hines relishes the opportunity to get into it too.