Uncalled Four is a homegrown comedy success story. From its unsteady origins in dive bars (with the prototype name "Comics Against Civility" standing in until a punnier title emerged) to its current status as a full-fledged brand, Uncalled Four has maintained its gleefully irreverent comic voice while continually branching out into new venues. The brainchild of Zac Maas and Jake Browne, who also co-host the Whiskey & Cigarettes podcast, the show is loosely inspired by the popular game Cards Against Humanity. Each show calls upon comedians and audience members to generate their own cards, each more devastatingly wicked then the last. In advance of the season finale on June 26 — and the launch of a spinoff, No Holds Bar, at El Charrito June 20 — Westword caught up with Browne to discuss offended crowds and taking the show on the road to Los Angeles and the prestigious Bridgetown Comedy Festival in Portland, Oregon.
Westword: When did you decide to change the name from Comics Against Civility to Uncalled Four? Was that a branding or copyright issue?
Jake Browne: Early on we reached out to Cards Against Humanity creator Max Temkin and he was surprisingly cool — as long as we weren't making money off of what we were doing. So we went to some dopeass lawyers and said, "How can we start making money legally?" According to them, we needed our own look and feel to expand, so we did this extensive rebrand. Plus Crabs Adjust Humidity exists; how could we beat that?
What is your basis for distinguishing your show from the popular party game? (There's a lot of Helvetica and casual misanthropy involved with both.)
Ironically, we use a Helvetica knock-off. There's a completely different dynamic at work when the audience can only win prizes, not points. You're watching Iron Chef at our show: four trained professionals working with their own ingredients and playing to the stadium. The more you play the "popular party game," the more it feels like a bunch of home cooks trying to impress each other with a recipe they saw on Pinterest. I'd put our contestants' cards up against theirs any day.
You've taken the show to a wide variety of local venues ranging from small bars like the Armoury to huge theaters like the Oriental and Alamo Drafthouse. Have you developed a favorite venue, and how does the size of a crowd impact the viewer participation elements of the show?
Your dream is always to take a show to a theater like the Oriental that has a whole team of people to make sure you don't fuck anything up. Our show was barely a month old when Scott LaBarbera gave us our first shot there. It's a challenge, too: It's not a hot basement room like Comedy Works. We know a good show there meant we worked our asses off. In smaller venues, the show feels more like a cock fight: where someone could just start shanking people with heckles and the whole thing could go off the rails. So we're cognizant of that. At the Alamo, it's more like a Roman collseum and people want blood in a more anonymous way. Either way, if someone wins a prize they're stuck in the pit with us for a minute.
You recently took the show to the Bridgetown Comedy Festival in Portland, Oregon, and then did a special engagement in Los Angeles. How was it received by those audiences?
For not having a clue what to expect, they were phenomenal. We had steeled ourselves to the possibility that we'd be walking away from burning wreckage, but all of the comics crushed. At Bridgetown, we didn't have the luxury of explaining to a full room how to play and they still nailed the suggestions. Hunter Hill hustled us a great crowd at The Lyric in L.A., an amazing alt-comedy space they're working on a documentary about. We were fortunate to have some names that audiences were familiar with but in a new format, so it was a treat for comedy nerds like myself.
Can you briefly describe the format of Uncalled Four? I've done a show and I'm still not certain I know how it works.
You had one of my favorites! "Writing Comics Against Civility cards instead of a suicide note!" So, the way the show works is: Comedians write twenty things like that — usually less meta — and then draw from this deck they've created. The audience writes question or fill-in-the-blank cards; they'll answer anonymously with those, then the audience applauds for their favorite. Points are distributed until we have a winner at the end of thirty minutes.
You and Zac are the co-creators and faces of the brand, but who are the unsung heroes of Uncalled Four?
My fiancée, Sam Sandt, runs all of our tech and deals with all of the business stuff we're terrible at. She even pulled people off the street for us back in the day. We wouldn't be where we are without her. My mom has been to almost every show and will do anything for us in return for plugging her Uber coupon code. It's a family affair. Kayvan Khalatbari and Andy Juett at Sexpot Comedy have supported us since day one with anything we've needed. And the list goes on and on. For a show like ours to take off, you need so many unsung heroes that we could do a whole album's worth of liner notes and not get close.
Have you rejected any player cards? Do you have any memorable examples of particularly egregious ones?
Early on, we were letting anything go until I had to read "Jar Jar Chinks" on stage and knew immediately that wasn't what the game was about. I still regret that. Since then, we've only had to reject one: "The sweet sound of Bob Barker saying nigger." Both of them were from new comics that I actually like. I think they were just trying to push the boundaries because of the reputation of our show and just didn't know where that "mental cliff" ended. The most egregious list —and I'm fairly sure he'd want me to identify him by name— was Jay Gillespie's. I'm sitting there reading cards like "Four mutant turtles fucking one reporter" and "The sound of a human baby being ripped to shreds" and out of left field he puts, "Two unicorns riding on a rainbow drawn by Lisa Frank." All of those things lived in his head!
You've had some complaints online from audience members (who nevertheless returned to several shows). What was your response to the complaints, and what disclaimer would you offer folks with more sensitive sensibilities?
We'll gladly refund anyone who decides that the show is too offensive for them, but we've also had octagenarians who made it through without throwing a fit, too. The cards are on the table from the beginning, as we start each round with the worst cards from the previous round. Not the funniest, mind you, but the most offensive ideas that comedians wrote. With larger crowds, we're guaranteed to walk someone. That's a positive for us: we wouldn't be doing an offensive game show right if everyone liked it.
What's the deal with Zac's new bar show?
People have been asking us how they can play since we launched, and we've always said, "As soon as you have a solid five minutes to do at the top of the show." This led to us almost booking a show of magicians, so instead of that ever happening we decided to create a game for our fans to play. Now they show up and face off against other teams using Uncalled Four cards, with one team each round deciding which answer is funniest. Then there are weird rounds where they can earn extra points (like a create-your-own card), or you can earn advantages if you have the best team name according to the host that night. It's completely free, at times arbitrary, and there are prizes for the top three teams, so we expect it to get really competitive. It just launched, but there are already three bars signed up and we're expecting a lot more to go up on our website soon.
Tell us about the finalists and the process they've gone through for the honor of being crowned 'Denver's Worst Person."
If you think about this as a tournament, each comic starts in a heat against three of their peers. If they advance, they'll face the winners of three other heats and come up with a deck of new cards. It puts a lot of pressure on them as writers and I'm pretty sure some people hate us when they find that part out. So every contestant on this final show has not only beat out their random pool, but also three others that had advanced. The exception would be Aaron Urist, but he lost in the finals of his round in a sudden death to Chris Charpentier, who won't be able to fly back for the show. To his credit, Aaron bested Chris in sudden death at a private event, so he was a natural to step in. Regardless, when you look at the line-up I think it's clear that no one lucked their way into the finals. They're all talented people with terrible things in their hearts.
Is there's anything else you want to mention before we wrap up?
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There are ongoing talks with a production company to develop this for TV, but given the subject matter we're having a hard time figuring out what that looks like. We're also working with a number of companies to do private events, which is keeping us insanely busy. And look for the home game soon!
No Holds Bar debuts at El Charrito at 7 p.m. Saturday, June 20; it's Maas's birthday. And on Friday, June 19, it's back at the Armoury. The Uncalled Four season finale (aka "The Last Asshole Standing") will see Denver comics Aaron Urist, Mike Hammock, Greg Baumhauer and Christie Buchele square off for the crown of "Denver's Worst Person" on Friday, June 26, at 9:30 p.m. following Nerd Nite Denver at the Oriental Theater. Tickets cost $8-$10 on the Oriental Theater website.
Follow Byron Graham on twitter @ByronFG for more mildly amusing sequences of words