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Martin & Orloff

What happens if you take a tragic incident–let’s say, for instance, a suicide–and try to make it funny? Think it’s impossible? Well, think again, as the masters of improvisational comedy, the Upright Citizens Brigade, have pulled out all the stops with their new feature film, Martin and Orloff.

Ian Roberts, Martin and Orloff’s star and founding member of the Upright Citizens Brigade, took some time out to talk to the press from his hotel in Los Angeles. Roberts is most commonly known for his part as the hard-ass gay choreographer, Sparky Polastri, in the teen cheer flick Bring it On.

The genesis of Martin and Orloff sprung from the idea of taking a tragic movie and warping it scene-by-scene into a comedy. Unfortunately for the funny bunch, that proved more difficult than they anticipated. So, the writing trio of Matt Walsh, Ian Roberts, and wife Katie switched gears.

"How about if we just start with a horrible image–something that seems completely dramatic and tragic–and then write a comedy," Roberts said. "And the whole movie was written from there linearly. We just started without knowing what the movie was going to be."

In the opening scene, Martin Flam cleans up his own blood from the white tiles of his bathroom floor. Martin slit his wrists after feeling responsible for the death of a man wearing the eyehole-less egg-roll suit he designed for a commercial shoot. The film spirals from there and intersperses garish gags into the already goofy plot.

"We would sit around in Katie and my studio apartment with Matt, and we would just improvise the stuff. And we would keep going until we liked the line," Roberts said. "The whole movie was written by using improvisation."

In the movie, Ian Roberts plays Martin, an uptight promotional costume designer who is buffeted around by his crazy psychiatrist, Dr. Orloff (Matt Walsh). Orloff wrangles Martin into mad-cap situations and has psychiatric "sessions" with him in the oddest locales: a softball game, a city jail, and a strip club.

Roberts, who enjoys playing the more straight-laced characters in comedy, respects mainstream comedian Ben Stiller, who has often played the straight man in movies such as There’s Something About Mary, Meet the Parents, and Zoolander.

"I play a lot of straight men, and I kind of like that," Roberts said. "I have no problem with the fact that seemingly you’re not the one getting the laughs. But I think it’s a lot of fun to be the guy getting kicked around."

Some of the film’s tortuously funny gags are taken from the actors’ everyday lives. For instance, Dr. Orloff’s friend Keith, a deranged Desert Storm veteran, leaves a little present in the bathroom sink at every place the group goes, including Martin’s mother’s house.

"The shit in the sink used to be something that Matt would joke about. We were both in this tour called Second City," Roberts said. "When we were on the road, he used to joke around and come out of a bathroom and say, ‘Come on, we got to get out of here. I just shit in the sink.’"

In another scathingly amusing scene, a crane lifts out a giant, drooping egg roll from the river. The actor wearing Martin’s egg-roll costume drowned because the suit had no eyeholes. The actor’s death sends Martin to the razor’s edge.

"We just sort of thought of a ridiculously tragic thing. Both Walsh and I have done singing telegrams. I had to do things like dress up like a California raisin and go around like a mummy at a rich person’s Halloween party. Because of being actors and having those struggling years where you do ridiculous jobs, that was in our minds."

Martin and Orloff is technically not an Upright Citizens Brigade movie, since all of the founding members did not write the script. But all four Brigade members, Amy Poehler, Matt Besser, Matt Walsh and Ian Roberts, star in the film. Poehler is part of the "Saturday Night Live" cast, and Walsh is a correspondent for Comedy Central’s "The Daily Show."

The Upright Citizens Brigade formed in 1990 as an improv comedy group. Their outlandish improvised sketches have created a loyal fan base. In 1998, Comedy Central picked up UCB for three seasons. But to the surprise of many, the show was not renewed in 2000.

Through the years, UCB has become a production group and has spawned a theater in New York where many groups and comedians perform in their theater. "It’s become the best place in New York to see non-stand-up comedy. It’s gotten to the point where we’re drawing the best stuff to us, too, because they know it’s a good place to be seen. And there is an audience guaranteed just by the fact that you are performing under our auspices."

The popular comedy theater’s extremely student-friendly prices (weekdays: $5, weekends: $7) make it unique in a city of over-priced Broadway shows.

The Upright Citizens Brigade has written a film script, but unfortunately, no one has picked it up yet. Roberts finds writing to be a task that is less than thrilling. "Although I can write, it is not like falling out of bed for me. It’s kind of hard work. Even when I did the sketch show, I wrote all the time. It’s just not the most natural thing for me. Whenever I think of sitting down and being disciplined and getting down in front of a computer, I’d rather be sitting down watching a movie or taking a walk."

Roberts finds the improv and filmmaking processes wholly different. The guffaws and chortles that Roberts hears throughout his improv performances reward him for his talented, lightning-quick witticisms. With the multiple takes involved in feature filmmaking and its intrinsically slow process, Roberts sees the satisfaction in the finished product instead of the process.

Roberts enjoys improv more than TV or film acting for another reason. In film, the cinematographer and writer can take credit for the laughs produced by the way the comedy was shot or the way the script was written.

"I find improv very satisfying, because you’re getting to be a writer and performer at the same time. And if people respond to it, it is all yours. In the moment, you keep manipulating the audience. You figure out what they find is funny, and you give them variations of it. And that is very satisfying in the moment," Roberts said.

At the end of the film, Martin faces his demons with the help of Orloff’s quirky and unorthodox techniques. In the end, laughter is the best medicine for Martin’s problems. Roberts supremely enjoyed playing the anxious and malleable character.

"In general, the sort of dynamic I like is the premise of a fairly normal person trapped in a crazy world," Roberts said. "That is what I find funny is somebody basically being frustrated and driven crazy by something that he is being subjected to."

According to the ’80s synth-pop band Tears for Fears, it’s a mad world. And actors like Ian Roberts only remind us to laugh at ourselves and enjoy the ride.

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