Lena Dunham’s Improv Night at the Upright Citizens Brigade
Lena Dunham ditched the Brooklyn purlieu of her Golden Globe–winning HBO series Girls for the decidedly more chichi Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan to join a special benefit show dubbed A is for Asssscat 3000—a comedy improv night at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. All the night’s proceeds went toward A Is for …, an organization fighting for women’s reproductive rights.
“The crazy has become the norm,” said the event’s host, The Daily Show co-creator Lizz Winstead. “We now talk about abortion in the norm of ‘if you’re raped,’ the life of the mother, incest, and not about healthy people who have sex lives, and sometimes people get pregnant, and sometimes they’re not ready to be parents, and sometimes they get an abortion. When a woman chooses to have an abortion, for whatever reason, that reason should be good enough. Every time that a woman gets to choose her destiny, whether it’s to have kids or not have kids, it’s a better world. We’re moving towards this place with these crazy conservatives where our destinies are being spoken for us, and I don’t want to live in a world like that.”
Asssscat, now in its 16th year, is a fully improvised show. The way it works: an audience member suggests a topic, the monologuist tells a story from his or her life related to the topic, then the improv team acts out the scenarios. In addition to Dunham, who served as the night’s special-guest monologuist sharing personal tales—a treat, considering the 26-year-old actress-showrunner recently signed a book deal for a reported $3.7 million—the improv troupe included current Saturday Night Live players Taran Killam, Bobby Moynihan, Aidy Bryant, and Vanessa Bayer, as well as 30 Rock’s John Lutz, SNL writer Mike O’Brien, and others.
First topic: cousin.
Dunham took center stage. “I’m experiencing anxiety,” she said to roaring applause, before launching into a story about her slacker cousin, who is 18 and still in high school because “he’s a bad boy” and got held back. Her cousin worked the summer as a production assistant tasked with following Dunham around on the set of Girls and lived with Dunham’s parents but turned out to be “a crazy party freak.”
“My parents would wake up to weird sounds, go into the back, and there would be five 17-year-old boys passing around a one-hitter,” said Dunham. “My mom has two daughters—one’s me and one’s an extremely politically conscious lesbian—so they were horrified.”
She continued: “We went to the country to shoot [Girls] and all stayed in a hotel together,” said Dunham. “A crew member knocks on my door and says, ‘He’s in Steve TV’s room—we have a crew member named Steve TV—he appears to be high on marijuana, he’s wearing a toga, and someone just posted a bunch of pictures of it on Facebook’ ... The next day, I said, ‘Listen, man, I know you need to do what you have to do. I’m not a buzzkill. I had some good times in my youth ... And he said, ‘None of that ever happened.’ And I was like, ‘But I saw the pictures Steve TV posted.’ And he said, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ And I was like, ‘Cool angle!’ He’s coming back to work for us again this year and has graduated to the job of ringing the bell so everyone knows it’s time to be quiet and we’re ready to shoot. He asked to live with my parents again. They said no, so I offered that he should live with my boyfriend. We’ll just see how it all works out!”
After a series of cheeky improv scenarios centered on the bad-boy cousin, Dunham emerged again.
The second suggestion: videogames.
Dunham shared a story about a stalkerish ex-boyfriend—that sounds an awful lot like the character of Adam, played by Adam Driver, on her show Girls. She texted him to say she was running late, and he replied, “I’ve gotten really into this videogame, and there’s no way I’m stopping once you get here.”
“I got there, and he’s totally fucking serious,” said Dunham. “It’s three hours of me sitting there, watching him play something with guns in its fifth iteration ... But the best detail was that his name in the videogame was Alanis Morissette. Then I kept dating him for five months.”
She then told another story about the same boyfriend—a guy living in a brownstone in Park Slope, Brooklyn. His landlord had recently died.
“He wanted to make sure his rent would stay the same now that her children were taking over, so he said, ‘We have to go to her funeral.’ I’d met her one time when I was leaving the house for 15 seconds ... We first went to the wrong funeral home ... So we ended up staying at the wrong funeral for 20 minutes as this woman pitched me a show about how she was both a psychic and ran a funeral home. Then we got to the right one, and people were smoking weed in the room with her open casket ... He’d never seen a dead body before and was really shaken up by it. I wanted to break up with him and thought, well, this adds another five days. Then the next day I tried to break up with him ... He put a pillow over his face and screamed so loudly, this horrible, smothered scream—it was New Year’s Eve ... I was like, ‘Fine. We can stay together one more day.’ So then we went to my friend’s house for New Year’s Eve, and he’d totally forgotten I’d broken up with him two hours earlier, and said, ‘I can’t wait till June so we can go tubing.’ I was like, ‘What?’ The next day, he said, ‘I’ll be over at your house at 8,’ and five minutes later, hiding behind a magazine rack at Barnes & Noble, called and said, ‘NEVER COME OVER AGAIN!’ A friend of mine is getting married, and I’m afraid I’m going to run into him, so I thought about telling him I was pregnant—not with his baby, I just feel like he wouldn’t be able to be mad or hostile with me if I was.”
Improv acts followed, and then the third suggestion came: time travel.
Dunham took center stage once more and told a story about her days at Oberlin College—the school where all her characters on Girls met and became friends.
“There was a dorm at my college that was like a sci-fi, fantasy dorm,” she said. “There was a dorm that was a ‘safe space’ for women and transgendered people, which I feel now I’d be really into, but back then I was like, I’m here to fuck! And then there was a dorm called Harkness, which is just an Eyes Wide Shut sex-positive nightmare dorm. They had a gang-style shower, and there was a guy who lived there who was the leader of the sex gang. He was French. His name was Jeremy, but he called himself Zebulon. He had six girlfriends. He was really into contact improv ... It’s where you dance, but always have to have one point of contact with the other dancer. I wrote for the newspaper and thought, I’m going to go in undercover style and find out what really happens at a contact jam. What happens is you roll on each other’s bodies. I was so freaked out cause he kept coming up to me and saying, ‘You’ve got to loosen up.’”
She added, “They had a Halloween party at this dorm, and it was the craziest. Everyone just dressed up as tits. They made their own cheese there, so the smell was terrible. I was dressed [like a hooker], and this big, lesbian woman from my gender-and-women’s-studies class came up to me—she was wearing a dog collar—and said, ‘There’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you ... You look so much like Britney Spears!’ This was before the head-shave and the barefoot in the bathroom. I was like, ‘Thank you so much!’ She was like, ‘I have a couch. I was wondering if you wanted to come back and play some videogames.’ I really thought about it, and thought I wanted to do it, but I felt like she wasn’t presenting the full picture to me.”
The final Dunham tale was a relatively flat one involving a male-model friend of hers who lived in a model apartment filled with bunk beds.
Despite the lackluster finale, Dunham and the improv troupe charmed the modish audience over the course of the one-and-a-half-hour show. When the lights went up, the young crowd quickly scurried toward the exit.
“We better hurry. We’re missing Girls!” shrieked a blonde 20-something.