From a Basement to Carnegie Hall: A Eulogy for UCB’s Del Close Marathon in New York

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Del Close Marathon in New York, 2018. Photo: Francine Daveta

I am onstage with an array of faux Bruce Springsteens for a show called Springsteen Prov, which is something that happens in the wee hours of the morning during the Del Close Marathon every year. It’s John Murray’s show, but he wrangles as many people as he possibly can to pretend to be the Boss (all dressed in the Born in the U.S.A.–era white T-shirt, jeans, and red bandana) to do improv scenes about highways and hope and working in factories. It’s sweaty and joyful and it typically starts with bringing the entire audience up onstage to collectively play the Courteney Cox role from the music video for “Dancing in the Dark” and closes with a “Born to Run” sing/scream-along.

Normally this happens in the sweaty, cramped grocery-store basement that was UCB Chelsea, but this year it’s at 555 42nd Street, the Upright Citizens Brigade’s new and bigger Hell’s Kitchen theater. (It’s also happening mere blocks from where the real Bruce Springsteen is performing his own Tony-winning show every night.) And yet, while the mood is celebratory, this is an ending, and it feels like one. It’s doubtful that Murray is going to fly across the country next year when the Del Close Marathon moves to Los Angeles for DCM21, and the vibe of this show doesn’t feel like something that is going to make the shift westward in 2019. So, this is over. It’s my tenth DCM and my ninth as a performer. I look forward to it all year long, even though there are a million crazy ways in which it should feel terrible to me. It wrecks my body, it fries my brain, and when it’s done, I feel like a zombie for a week. And yet, it’s the goddamn best. And I am gonna miss it.

By the time I arrived on the UCB scene in 2009, the Del Close Marathon was already in its tenth year, and discovering it at that point was almost overwhelming: three days of nonstop improv shows, one after another, in multiple venues all over town, playing to packed houses with lines down the block of people trying to get in. Someone in the audience yells out a suggestion, and a completely unscripted show happens, immediately, right before your eyes. Some shows are 30 minutes, some are 10. Some feature nuanced, patient, deeply funny character-based improv, while some feature people eating jalapeños until they throw up.

UCB started the marathon back in 1999 just months after the death of Del Close, a pioneer of long-form improv who helped shape performers like Tina Fey, John Belushi, Bill Murray, and the co-founders of UCB (Amy Poehler, Matt Besser, Ian Roberts, and Matt Walsh) into the legendary comedians they’ve become. I assume DCM felt massive back then with 36 shows in 30 hours, and it’s only gotten bigger every year since then, expanding to literally hundreds of shows on 11 stages at six different venues, and that’s not including last Thursday’s sold-out show at Carnegie Hall, where the UCB4 (Poehler, Besser, Roberts, and Walsh) performed the theater’s signature improv show, ASSSSCAT. (The old joke about how you get to Carnegie Hall probably wasn’t referring to the kind of practice that involves “Zip-Zap-Zop” or “Follow the Follower.”)

Frequently, performers who find success at UCB and go on to work in the wider world of show business find themselves moving from New York to L.A. “where the work is.” DCM is an excuse to come home every year and reunite with their old improv teams, perform to packed houses, stay up all night, run into familiar faces from back in the day, and mingle with the ones who stayed in New York, plus the newer generation of performers who currently put on shows at UCBNY every week. It’s exciting to have so many visitors, and DCM audiences go crazy when they see performers like Jason Mantzoukas, Ben Schwartz, and Betsy Sodaro, all of whom perform regularly at the two UCB theaters in Los Angeles.

From midnight to early morning at DCM, there’s a shift: The shows get shorter and enter the realm of the “late-night-bit shows.” These are usually ten minutes long, and some of them return year after year. Pie Babies is one example of a long-running LNBS: Anthony Atamanuik (The President Show) plays a Nazi clown named Piss Nose who had sex with a pie and created “pie babies,” whom he now forces to do improv. (The “pie babies” are all grown men wearing diapers and all of them end up getting pied in the face at some point. It’s a humiliating show to be in, and very popular.) Match Game ’74 is another show that returns every year, an excuse for dozens of performers to play fucked-up versions of 1970s celebrities and hurl abuse at contestant Jack McBrayer. Browse the schedule from 1 a.m. to dawn and the names of shows jump out at you: “Hey, I Can’t Finish This Pizza,” “Where’s Batman?,” “Improvised Orgy Scene,” “Meatballs Eating Meatballs,” “We All Watch Some YouTube Videos on Our Phone,” “5 Minutes of Perfect Improv & a 5-Minute Standing Ovation.” You get the idea. Some of these are ten-minute spectacles with ornate, cobbled-together costumes, while others are half-baked notions that feel like they were submitted in a haze, forgotten about, and then hastily reconceived five seconds before the performers went onstage. But in both instances, the results range from “madcap brilliance” to “unwatchable slow-motion train wreck,” and you never can predict it based on the title or the listed cast. And even in the worst-case scenario, the next show is never far behind.

It’s hard to be an audience member at DCM. The lines are long, it’s hot outside, and you never know if you are making the right choice. Choosing to wait in line at the Hell’s Kitchen theater (or Chelsea, prior to this year) means that when you get in, you will be treated to a lot of the biggest and best shows. The downside is that the wait is longer and eventually the whole audience will be turfed out for “theater cleaning” — if you want back in, you’ve got to go to the back of the line again, so timing out your wait is a tricky business. Back in 2009, there were no “theater cleanings.” The advantage of this was that if you got a seat, you could stay in it for literally three days straight. The bad news was that by the end of day three, the theater was one of the most disgusting places in New York City. It also meant that there was less hope for the people still outside waiting in line — you were counting on people to leave the theater so you could get in, which wasn’t always a safe bet. The people who were lucky enough to get inside and claim a seat often came with provisions to last them through the end of the marathon. To be a DCM audience member is to constantly be missing out. No matter what cool thing you are seeing, you are acutely aware that you are missing out on whatever cool thing is happening at that same exact moment on any one of the other stages. The stage count is now up to 11, so every cool show you see means missing ten other ones that might be as cool, or cooler. It’s a FOMO nightmare.

I have my own insane ritual that started with DCM15. By sheer stupid coincidence, I performed in 15 shows that year, and I decided I would continue to try and match the number of shows I did to correspond with the number of each year’s marathon. I did 16 shows in DCM16 and 17 shows in DCM17. I overshot it a couple of times, but this was the first year I thought I might actually fall short. I went in with only nine shows on my schedule, but by Saturday morning, I had weaseled my way up to 17, with no clear path to 20. One hour before dressing up like Bruce Springsteen on Sunday morning, I’m lying on the floor of the green room at Hell’s Kitchen, unable to move my arms and legs. Horatio Sanz and Jack McBrayer make fun of me and tell me that it looks like I won’t be able to summon the energy to do another show. Then we hear that an improv team from Uruguay is about to miss their 5:40 show and, without hesitating, five of us are clambering down the stairs to rush onstage to do another ten-minute show in their now-empty slot. (They were celebrating the World Cup and ended up coming back later to join up with Springsteen Prov.) The extra show means I ended up meeting my 20-show goal earlier than expected, and Sunday night’s ASSSSCAT pushes me over to 21. The realization that I agreed to appear onstage wearing only a diaper for the final DCM installment of Pie Babies when I ultimately didn’t need to is something that I’m just going to have to live with.

I look at the lines snaking down 42nd Street and I wonder what it’s going to feel like a year from now, when DCM doesn’t happen here. Part of me thinks it’s good to end it now at what feels like a peak moment — it’s almost gotten too big, like a balloon that’s about to pop. If it were to keep expanding at the rate it’s been growing, it feels like it would eventually devour Manhattan like a Cloverfield. The optimist in me thinks that after some time has passed, maybe UCB will come up with a new thing to scratch the same itch for the NYC improv scene — maybe a return to something smaller and more manageable. Or maybe this really is it. I hope not, but not every good thing is meant to last forever, and the DCM of today is not the DCM of even a decade ago, let alone 20 years. This stuff is ephemeral, it’s all about living in the moment, and the thing about moments is that they all pass. Besides, how do you top Carnegie Hall?

Saying Good-bye to UCB’s Del Close Marathon in New York