Jim Cooper
June 14, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

What’s the difference between a mediocre sketch comedy show and a great one? With a middling one — say, ”Saturday Night Live” — fans remember the catchphrases. But with the brilliant ones — such as ”Monty Python” and ”Kids in the Hall” — their acolytes remember every episode, every sketch, every word, every inflection. ”Upright Citizens Brigade,” which begins a twisted and uproarious second season on Comedy Central Monday at 10:30 p.m., has joined that echelon. (Want proof? Check out obsessive fan sites like V’s UCB.) And a little slavish devotion can really help the comedy flow. ”Nothing can make you feel better when you’re down,” says Amy Poehler, the quartet’s only female, ”than having some young college boy quoting your lines back to you. I’ll take that any day.”

Unfortunately, the group’s growing fan base can get in the way of its trademark pranks. The UCB (who have their own website, with never-seen clips) films certain segments with hidden cameras, making people on the street part of the sketch, such as one gag this season when they try to get passersby to sign a petition blaming ”Karate Kid” star Pat Morita for all of today’s youth violence. But lately anonymity isn’t as easy to come by. ”I recently went out to the Million Marijuana March (a New York City pro-pot rally) as Bong Boy,” says the tall, wild-haired Matt Besser, referring to a drug-addled Deadhead character from last season. ”At least every block, someone would go, ‘Hey, Bong Boy!”’

Sometimes, the dedication can get creepily creative. Ian Roberts, the Brigadier with a buzz cut who specializes in such ranting roles as Steve Youngblood, shark rodeo champion, was walking down the street when a fan approached him with a small homemade coin purse shaped like a rear end. ”He went, ‘Check it out,”’ remembers Roberts. ”I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘That’s an ass, man. It’s for ass pennies!”’ — a reference to Roberts’ scatological sketch from last season in which a wealthy magnate explains his secret to keeping his business edge: He puts a few pennies in his butt every morning and later spends them; over the years he becomes gradually more superior knowing that nearly every business rival he encounters will have unknowingly handled his ”ass pennies.” ”I was like…’Nice,”’ Roberts says of his fan’s creation. ”The guy merchandised.”

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