All Improv, No Sleep: Inside the 14th Annual Del Close Marathon

When you’re surrounded by several hundred sweat-drenched people on a New York City sidewalk for hours at a time, you don’t expect to see so many smiles. Unless, apparently, the crowd’s waiting to catch a taping of celebrity quiz show Match Game ‘76, or an X-rated pantomime performed by chanting robots, or a brilliantly threaded 30 minutes of completely improvised comedy — or all three in the same hour. Last weekend, a small army of exuberant fans streamed into the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre (and several nearby spaces) for all this and more, courtesy of the 14th annual Del Close Marathon, a sleepless weekend celebrating improv at its sharpest — and its most pointedly absurd.

Months before the 2012 lineup was even released, marathon veterans wondered whether the event was finally about to reach its well-deserved tipping point. What began as a single theater production honoring the memory of late comedy innovator (and UCB muse) Del Close has grown to a 54-hour-long, caffeine-fueled comedy overload spanning multiple venues (and an official off-site party space, now famed to the point of being essentially inaccessible during the weekend’s peak hours). DCM features acts from training centers and cities across the globe, with a focus on local New York teams and alumni of the UCB’s bi-coastal courses; for many improv fans, it’s a highly anticipated chance to catch mind-expanding talent and discover new favorite groups, and with each festival season its core audience visibly grows. This year, the UCB’s new East Village outpost stretched the marathon across Manhattan, and more slots for headlining acts – like a 30 Rock staff supergroup, multimedia sketch masters BriTaNicK, and public access hit The Chris Gethard Show – filled the School of Visual Arts’ two Chelsea auditoriums for a grand total of seven stages (up from last year’s five). It’s no surprise programmers prepared for a much larger crowd than usual – the lineup featured over 100 more performing groups than in 2011 and, while the audience tends to be heavily populated by participants, general wristband and single-ticket sales were also up.

It might have something to do with the fact that, each year, an increasing number of UCB performers are finding mainstream success (see: Adam Pally, Zach Woods, Ben Schwartz, Kate McKinnon). So much that this year’s fest was moved up a month to accommodate pilot season, after mainstays like Paul Scheer were conspicuously absent last August due to filming obligations. While the changes meant longer lines and more sweltering temperatures to endure them in, it meant the inclusion of special-occasion acts like Hot Sauce (Pally, Schwartz, and Happy Endings writer Gil Ozeri), Bruckheimer (Scheer, Chad Carter, and Owen Burke), and Mantzoukas and Morris (Jason and Seth, respectively). It also meant the festival’s notoriously rowdy late night programming, 15-minute slots running from 1 a.m. to 8:15 a.m. built on wacky, in-jokey premises, were especially a playground for some seriously weird shit.

Perhaps the most defining detail of DCM is the work hard / play harder mentality that divides the daytime and late night programming; by midnight, UCB’s cramped basement is hazy with sweat and hot breath, the room’s energy rising and falling in time with the pace of whatever bit’s playing out onstage. From the perfect clusterfuck of the Mets Monoscene to the butter-greased punchlines of Paula Deen-prov, the late night sets are the comedy nerd equivalent of telling ghost stories around a campfire; it’s impossible to avoid getting sucked into the fest’s truly WTF moments:

  • John Gemberling and Gil Ozeri, as robots (maybe?) / lovers (definitely) Dayvin and Danielle, chanting in tandem Shining-style as they undressed audience members and shimmied through packed aisles in gold bodysuits and glasses.
  • The Chris Gethard Show ended their carnival-themed contest – described by one reviewer as “a mixture of surreal wonder and a line up of camp activities at a Chuck e Cheese for Improv hipsters” – with an audience-demanded dance party to audio from the Jonestown massacre.
  • We bet that UCB’s Besser, Roberts, and Walsh are all excellent wingmen, judging by the sincere effort they put into attempted matchmaking – they spent their entire Saturday evening set trying (and sadly failing) to make temporary connections between DTF audience members.
  • The 15 Minute Sound and Movement – possibly the most meta of the late night shows –  kept an organic opening flowing from chants to dance to fake punches to a slow-motion snake, turning a sometimes uncomfortable improv exercise into a 15-minute lesson in “don’t think.”
  • The late nights have been described as a tribute to namesake Del Close’s notoriously free spirit, but the 30-minute showcase sets celebrate the finer art of longform, and the subtle moments that tie scenes together:

  • The Stepfathers’ already legendary Friday night show came from the suggestion “rewind,” and they played it literally by pausing, rewinding, restarting, and commenting on the first few scenes of their set, with members Chris Gethard, Shannon O’Neill, Connor Ratliff, Michael Delaney, Will Hines, Silvija Ozols, and Zach Woods earning a standing ovation for their laser accurate precision. The New York Times aptly described the thrill of watching scenes unravel and rebuild: “There’s an earnest brand of self-awareness here that displays an understanding that improv at its best does not merely aim to simulate scripted drama. It asks the audience to see the viewpoint of the performers, what corners they talk themselves into and how they get out.”
  • Will Hines sat in with Alex Berg and Alex Fernie for an amazing Convoy set featuring a full minute of surprisingly comfortable silence, and a sincerely magic moment where, when prompted to name an organization, Hines offered “Blamers of New England” and was in a split second met with “BONE?!” from Berg, Fernie, and about 50 gleeful audience members.
  • Batmanprov was, without a doubt, my favorite part of DCM14; what was supposed to be a set performed by several Batmen turned into a surprisingly touching character study / glimpse at what it’d be like to live with one sad, orphaned Batman when everyone but Joe Wengert abandoned their masks. Earning one million comedy points, Wengert rolled with it, in full Batman baritone, spinning a silly premise into something unexpectedly deep.
  • Supertrio Hot Sauce turned their Saturday night set at the SVA into a series of electrically energetic, fourth-wall straddling personal challenges, from Schwartz forcing derailed scenes back on track to Pally accidentally striking Ozeri with a chair and sparking a not-so-accidental brawl.
  • The Straight Men, a group of players fighting to be the least absurd character in each scene, stumbled upon the perfect initiation for their premise, a beautifully simple, slightly detached “What’s up with that?”
  • Mantzoukas and Morris, as two men discussing their very different problems in a doctor’s office waiting room, managed to make the term “blood farts” almost endearing by diffusing moments of stark honesty with callbacks to an unfortunate ailment.
  • Closing out the weekend on the UCB stage, Outlook of the Poet’s Gavin Speiller and Jon Gabrus turned a spy story into a faithful recreation of a classic American Gladiators episode, working their occasional slips outside the scene (mostly to agree on exactly how American Gladiators went) into an ultra-heightened case of mistaken identities.
  • If you didn’t make it to DCM, at least a few hours were recorded for your podcasting pleasure. A late-night edition of The Benson Interruption (featuring Matt Besser, Matt Walsh, Megan Neuringer, Rory Scovel, and Vic Garcia) is online now; the next few episodes of  improv4humans will feature clips recorded live at UCB East with over 20 special guests; the quasi-serious life advice givers of Here to Help are about to release their festival show (with Matt Besser, Ian Roberts, and James Adomian). Beginnings, a podcast that explores the early years of comics’ careers, recorded a live episode with the always-intriguing Matt Walsh. Plus, the UCB Four took some time off from the marathon to record commentary for the highly anticipated UCB season 3 DVD release. They also made the crowd at the pre-fest press conference sweat by alluding to a “secret” announcement we’ll all be “very impressed” by – let the wild speculation begin!

    Image via Danielle.

    Samantha Pitchel has finally caught up on her sleep.

    All Improv, No Sleep: Inside the 14th Annual Del Close […]