For many years in the hot, sweaty, labyrinthian basement below Gristedes that was the Upright Citizens Brigade’s Chelsea theater, throngs of improvisers and onlookers have gathered to perform, party, and watch the chaos of the UCB’s annual Del Close Marathon ensue every summer, a New York tradition now entering a new phase for its 20th year.
When comedy guru Del Close — one of the founding fathers of longform improv in San Francisco and Chicago, and the mentor of UCB founding members Amy Poehler, Matt Walsh, Matt Besser, and Ian Roberts — passed away in 1999, UCB held its first DCM at the group’s original theater on 22nd Street (a former seedy strip club), which was only about 12 hours long. But it quickly extended to a 52-hour marathon — a non-stop, weekend-long bender of improv shows and festivities in honor of the UCB’s patron saint. After all, Close spent decades in Chicago developing future comedy superstars like John Belushi, Tina Fey, and Bill Murray, and after UCB brought his methods to New York, they’ve been passed on to new generations of comedians everywhere by osmosis (his comedy cult leader–like status is apparent in the UCB-produced documentary Thank You, Del about the 2014 Marathon).
Much like how the UCB grew from humble beginnings to becoming a mainstream comedy incubator, the DCM now includes improv groups from all over the country (and sometimes the world) and continues to evolve. The founding members performed at Carnegie Hall on Thursday night to kick off DCM’s 20th year, and this weekend will be the first year having the Marathon’s HQ in the new Hell’s Kitchen theater, which opened a few weeks after Chelsea closed in November 2017. It may also possibly be its last with the recently announced plans to move the marathon to UCB’s Los Angeles theaters in 2019.
In an attempt to capture the spirit of DCM’s New York era, Vulture collected the memories of some of theater’s most well-known alumni, most of whom surround the inimitable Chelsea theater that brought a grungy, punk-rock aesthetic to everything.
Matt Besser (UCB co-founder): I know that Del would appreciate what happens backstage as much as what happens onstage. Del liked to party and so do the UCB. Maybe one of the more wholesome things to arise out of the backstage partying were the sing-a-longs and the wrestling matches. Watching [Rob] Riggle make [John] Gemberling and [Chris] Gethard into a sandwich and pinning their heads to the floor did not happen during the sing-a-long.
Ben Schwartz: I have been performing at UCB since 2003 and have always loved the Del Close Marathon. It was so fun to watch a group of legends do ASSSSCAT together for the first time, or check out shows from out of town like Baby Wants Candy, or stay up till 3:00 a.m. to watch insane late-night mess-around shows like Match Game. And when I had the chance to perform, I would get onstage for as many shows as I could. I think one year I did 16 shows and loved every second of it. Gil [Ozeri], Horatio [Sanz], Adam [Pally], and I did a show called Camping Trip where we would give three secret props onstage to each other in a bag during the show, and the person who got your bag had to justify why they had these insane things. There was a fun [Thomas] Middleditch and Schwartz show where we wore all of the audience’s hats while performing. Countless insane Hot Sauce (Adam, Gil, myself) shows. And one special Snowpants show where I got the Upright Citizens Brigade (Ian Roberts, Matt Walsh, and Matt Besser — Amy Poehler wasn’t available to come) to perform with Hot Sauce, which was a dream come true for Gil, Adam, and I.
Casey Wilson: Sadly, what I remember most was all that took place backstage around 2006 and 2007. By backstage, I mean the catacombs — the claustrophobic hallways that snaked underneath the Gristedes grocery store where people hung out before and after shows. It was so packed and sweaty and cramped and wild. One time I got really drunk and there was no place to sit, so I just wheeled around listlessly in the prop wheelchair and remember meeting my podcast partner Danielle Schneider for the first time. We didn’t really meet exactly, but I wheeled around the corner and found her making out with her then-boyfriend, now-husband Matt Besser. It was truly alarming the passion they exhibited and I was intrigued and titillated. And I knew we would be friends.
Jack McBrayer: My favorite DCM memory might be a little more sentimental, but I will never forget my first Marathon. It was the summer of 2002, and I had just moved to New York a few months earlier. Paul Scheer, Rob Huebel, Brian Huskey, Jackie Clarke — we were all onstage doing God knows what, and we were all just sweaty, drunk, and laughing. I knew then that I was going to be just fine with this new community.
Paul Scheer: My favorite part of DCM are the late night “fuck around” shows. These are the very late night shows where the weirdest premises are put on really just to make the people onstage laugh. I’ve done To Catch a Predator-Prov and Andre Dice-Prov (everyone improvising as Andrew Dice Clay) and even something called Drunken Sonic Assault, which is exactly what the name implies. But of all those shows, the one that is my favorite is Match Game ’76. We’d been doing the this show since the the very first DCM, which was only 12 hours long. It was essentially an improvised re-creation of Match Game. Every year we did it, it just got more and more insane. The grouping of “celebrity” panelists started at eight and went up to about 20, and the personalities would get so angry and go off-track that in most shows we couldn’t get past more than two questions. The funniest thing to me was that the one thing that united everyone was their hatred for Jack McBrayer, who always played a contestant. In real life, everyone loves Jack, but in this show people just physically and verbally attacked him. It got so intense that even the audience would boo Jack whenever he spoke. No matter how hard he was attacked, drenched, wrestled, threatened, or booed, Jack would never lose the smile from his face, and after two years of this he started to bring a full change of clothes. He’s the consummate team player.
Matt Walsh (UCB co-founder): For several years in a row, from 1999 to 2003, the DCM would begin with a street ritual. A group of people would meet at Tompkins Square Park and we would call them on the phone and give them a live suggestion from our audience at UCB Chelsea on 26th & 8th. They would take that suggestion and repeat it to each other and start walking toward the Chelsea theater. This suggestion would mutate as more improvisers would join them, meeting at designated corners en route to UCB. I can only imagine if the suggestion had been “barista,” the ever-growing group, say, near Union Square, would be chanting “Fonzie equals Frazier!” or marching through a CVS chanting “Someone’s having a birthday!” Random pedestrians would get standing ovations at the crosswalks, and they’d be chanting at a NYPD patrol car rolling past them on 6th Avenue, “Hey New York, you have cops!” The last year we did this at DCM, the mob was like 100 people by the time it reached Chelsea chanting sweatily, thundering downstairs into our little basement ‘neath Gristedes theater, circling the stage chanting something as dumb as “Garbage fire, hot dog fire!” This would become our suggestion to kick off the weekend. It was unwieldy and slightly dangerous in traffic, but it was remarkably compelling and ridiculous in the best way. We stopped doing the street ritual because New York got the Republican convention one year, and our type of street nonsense was outlawed in New York. But I always remember it being the best way to kick off the festival: Treat the suggestion like some magnetic Olympic torch, one that people would turn their heads to look at, then lose interest when they heard the crowd chanting, “Butts are for real, gravy ain’t potatoes!”
Neil Casey: After a few years playing small parts in the DCM’s prestigious late-night review To Catch a Predator: Improv Edition, I finally got the call. Paul Scheer couldn’t make the show, so creator John Gemberling tapped me to play Chris Hansen, the perpetually sickened newsman at the center of the fray. Each time Gil Ozeri stepped out to bait the parade of perverts, I felt like an orchestra conductor, dispatching each criminal sex offender with a flourish before starting the movement anew. Some experiences in life are so unique that they could never repeat themselves, while other things repeat themselves over and over again like a predator knocking on an imaginary teenager’s door while I wait in the wings adjusting my wig.
Chris Gethard: Back at the old 22nd Street theater, I watched a group in the dead of night put on a show called Substance Abuse. There were only a dozen or so of us watching. The idea was that each performer was assigned a substance and if the audience yelled the name of that substance, the performer had to drop everything and imbibe. Every single person had a joke substance except for Shannon O’Neill, who walked out with a jug of tequila. When the crowd realized this potential fiasco was on the horizon, they relentlessly shouted “Tequila!” every 30 seconds or so. Shannon called their bluff and went hard each time. This led to a performance that I think about often to this day, where Shannon tagged everyone out and went on a rambling but very heartfelt monologue. If I remember right, a lot of it involved her revealing that she often feels like a tiger trapped in a glass bubble. It was captivating, in both an artistic sense and a disaster level. At one point, she walked to the edge of the elevated stage, grabbed the handle of a garbage can, dragged it toward herself, vomited into it, then turned around and tagged everyone else so she could continue her performance. I can say, without a doubt, that while I’d already been a friend of and admirer of Shannon’s, that this was the night that I truly fell head-over-heels in love with what only she can do onstage. This performance — the potential it showed in her ballsiness and the inspiration it provided me — are a big reason why she and I still work together 18 years in, and why I trust her more than anyone else as the co-host of my TV show. She owns a video tape of the performance and has never let anyone see it. I would pay good money, but also recognize that some things are to be experienced only in their rawest, purest, most immediate form.
Shannon O’Neill: One of my favorite DCM memories happened at the party space. Fran Gillespie and I were dancing and then we saw a guy that clearly got off on the wrong floor, but he also looked like Sean Penn, so Fran started chanting something like “That’s Sean Penn! That’s Sean Penn!” and then more people started chanting it and we chased him to the elevator, but the elevator was really slow, so for five minutes, 100 or so people were just chanting that this guy was Sean Penn. Unfortunately he loved it more than I wish.
Sasheer Zamata: This photo is from 2010. I’m pretty sure this is the first DCM Doppelganger (me, Nicole Byer, and Keisha Zollar) did as a group. We bought 40s from Gristedes and brought them to the party for some reason. I don’t know why we thought we had to go so hard — we were excited. And very sweaty. I remember being very sweaty every DCM, because it’s hot outside, it’s hot inside from all the unwashed bodies that have been performing or sitting in theaters for hours, and the dancing. This was when we could still party backstage at the Chelsea location and make the stage into a dance floor. One year, I think it was one of my early ones because I still felt new, I somehow usurped DJ privileges and picked the songs for the party, and I felt like a GOD. I didn’t know how to work the computer in the tech booth, so I just pulled up YouTube videos and played them in a row and tried to play the commercials on mute while I cued up the next song. I had it down to a science, and I took it very seriously because I wanted to impress everyone. And I think I did. They still let me come back so I think it worked.
Anthony Atamanuik: I’ve been doing the marathons forever — I came around in 2001. I tore my back muscle at one show because I was dressed as a Nazi clown called Piss Nose the Mime Clown, and I’d scream at the audience about history and bring out my pie babies — I had sex with a pie and these pie babies would come out and improvise with me. It was the second show — we’re ending it with the fifth one this year — I pitched it because it didn’t have a bit show, so I kind of made up what I thought would be the worst idea that wouldn’t get made. I pitched that idea and they said “Let’s do it.” They had spilled beer all over the stage and I goose-stepped across the stage and landed on my back, knocked myself out, came to a little later and tore my left lumbar, but stood there and continued to do the show. I just remember that because when I came to I was like “I can’t not do the show,” so I just stood there and tried to navigate. But I’d never heard a crowd of people all gasp in horror at once like that at a comedy show.
Jason Mantzoukas: DCM really came into its own when it moved from the theater on 22nd Street to the one on 26th. Long before there was a separate party space, the party was at the theater — filling the backstage area, the green room, and then spilling out into dank, filthy the labyrinth of disgusting basement hallways under the building. The later it got, the more out of control the party in the halls would get until there seemed to be little separation between the shows happening onstage and off. During those years I saw some of the most inspired, insane, hilarious, and debauched stuff I’ve ever seen. But there was one show that usually happened around 5:00 a.m. on Saturday that would captivate and recalibrate the whole festival through a wild, improvised musical performance, and that was Dar Silicon.
Dar Silicon, a trio consisting of Owen Burke (vocals and trombone), Brendan Burke (drums), and the Struggler (bass), took the stage and proceeded to cleanse the whole place through improvised songs. The show started with Brendan and the Struggler starting to play and then Owen, in some kind of a metallic jumpsuit, would enter leaping and contorting onstage with a trombone like some kind of possessed Elvis. Then gradually over the next hour of amazing music, everyone — performers and audience alike — would all end up onstage dancing ecstatically for the final songs.
After Dar Silicon there was a mandatory cleaning, so everyone had to leave the theater. While I got to do and see so many great shows over the years, nothing made me feel connected to this whole festival/community more than all of us watching Dar Silicon then climbing the stairs up from the dark, gross, sweaty basement into the world, the sun having come up, New Yorkers out doing their Saturday morning activities while all of us went to get breakfast, grab a few hours sleep, and then head back downstairs for hours of more improv.
Also I saw everyone’s dicks. So many dicks.
Rob Huebel: Matt Besser used to host a very drunk, bizarre 4:00 a.m. show called Drunken Sonic Assault. It made no sense unless you were a psychopath. Besser would stand in the tech booth DJing punk music or weird samples or blast sound effects, and improvisers would try to do scenes in the gaps between the music. I’m sure it was upsetting to watch. It was one of those shows that I think they used to try and clear out the theater and send everyone home so they could mop up the sweat and blood and spit from the stage. I was backstage and thought it would be really cool to come out totally nude. (Sooo shocking, sooo edgy.) So I decided to use duct tape to to hide my D/balls/combo. I drunkenly wrapped all of my privates up into a nicely-taped package. I stood up and then realized what I’d done. The duct tape was stuck all over the most sensitive skin in the world. I couldn’t peel it off. It was going to rip me apart. I panicked and ran backstage trying to unglue my scrotum-majora. I remember thinking I was going to faint. It must have taken me a couple hours and I’m sure I lost many layers of foreskin along with giving myself permanent pube damage and a new pee-hole. Anyway. Don’t ever do that. It really hurts.
Charlie Todd: Most of my fondest memories of DCM are from the parties, particularly the Sunday night closing party. In the old days, the back hallway at UCB Chelsea doubled as the party space for the whole weekend. It was hot, sweaty, and very close to McDonald’s dumpsters, but it was the most fun place in the world. Kegs, bits, and ridiculous things like four square tournaments would happen back there. One DCM I played drunk four square for an entire night. On Sunday night after the last show, the party would move from the dirty hallway to the theater itself. This meant air conditioning and a dance floor, which was just enough of an incentive to keep the party going three days in. I had a personal tradition of operating the keg for the party, even though no one asked or wanted a keg operator. It kept the line moving fast, and I got the chance to meet everyone in the room. Late at night when it was just the die-hards left, the DJs would start catering to the specific tastes of performers onstage. One year everyone there got to crowd surf to their favorite song in the world. The DJ would start playing something and everyone would yell, “Oh my God, it’s Kula’s favorite song!” And then we’d all pick Chris Kula up and he’d crowd surf to his actual favorite song. I remember being carried around to the Cure’s “Just Like Heaven,” surrounded by all my friends and drunk on light lager keg beer. It was the best.
Betsy Sodaro: I believe it was nine years ago. The party space was backstage at Chelsea, which was the most fun, and when the marathon ended they threw the final party there as well. This is when we all decided to party as hard as we could the entire weekend. At some point during the party, the pipes broke, causing all the water to become so hot. When you entered the bathroom it was like entering a sauna. You couldn’t touch a toilet or you’d burn your shit off and the toilets were all steaming. No one cared and it was the best. We were all sweaty and stinky and just losing our damn minds together. That party just felt so DCM-y and New York–y that I’ll always remember it. We got wild, the theater itself got wild, and it was GREAT. (I also fell down going up the stairs that night and hit my head on the railing, so maybe it never happened?)
Will Hines: During DCM 2 or 3, the middle of Saturday night was just unstructured insanity — at some point Tina Fey and Rachel Dratch did sketches where they sang songs about dirty sex positions, I think? And Horatio Sanz did a Bruce Springsteen–style song about a Pocket Pussy factory closing down. I think these were old Second City bits they had. Then they did Drunken Sonic Assault to force everyone to leave the theater. Drunken Sonic Assault was just screaming into microphones and playing music at top volume, everyone running around in costumes just acting like demons. I think people DID leave, but I remember them just sort of contentedly walking out. Then, when UCB L.A. first opened up, it brought all these new people to the next marathon. I remember seeing Paul Rust and Neil Campbell doing a whole improv set as “two tiny men on a hot stove top,” where they just kept going “Ow!” and high-step-hopping the whole time. This would have been 2006, I think.
Emily Tarver: Favorite DCM memory? Very ironic as I don’t remember much. What I do remember is Horatio Sanz asking me to perform with him, Matt Walsh, and some other amazing people I worshiped and adored. Horatio had always been kind to me and after realizing I wasn’t performing in the marathon, he said, “You’re getting onstage, right now.” I was an intern mopping up barf and cleaning the toilets during my second or third DCM shift. I chose to work multiple shifts because I was obsessed. I got onstage, another improviser proclaimed my character was deaf, and so naturally I proceeded to use American Sign Language the rest of the show. People came up to me after the show and told me how “realistic” my sign language was. Well, that’s because I studied it for three years in college. I didn’t say that, of course, because I’m not an asshole. I simply signed, “Thanks. Go get me a beer.” No one got me a beer.
Ian Roberts (UCB co-founder): During one Del Close Marathon, around 2005, someone within the Upright Citizen Brigade organization decided it would be a good idea to buy a motorized, rideable beer cooler for the event. For those not familiar with this technological marvel, it is basically a picnic cooler on four wheels, with handlebars to steer it and a motor to propel it. If such a thing has any purpose, it surely is not to be ridden indoors at a small theater in the basement of a supermarket. But someone bought it, so we were going to use it. Therefore when the four UCB founders stepped onstage to do one of our shows, we brought the motorized rideable beer cooler with us. All other particulars of this performance escape me, except for our decision that Matt Walsh should “jump” the motorized rideable beer cooler off a ramp, Evel Knievel–style. We furthermore decided that the ramp should consist of a board propped up on me as I lay on the floor. I reasoned that this shouldn’t be too much of a problem, since I would only have to support the weight of Matt and the cooler for a split second. The problem with trying to fly off a ramp on a motorized rideable beer cooler is that they don’t quite have the horsepower of one of Evel Knievel’s motorcycles. As such, rather than jumping off me, Matt Walsh and the cooler very slowly drove over me, the board tipping like a teeter totter as Matt crested my prone body, and the cooler subsequently rolling slowly off the other side. Surprisingly, and thankfully, this did not hurt or cause any bodily damage. This sort of insane, chaotic, ill-advised moment is, for me, emblematic of the spirit and unpredictable nature of the Del Close Marathon. The motorized rideable beer cooler sadly did not remain operational for the duration of the marathon, and has since been retired.
Jeff Hiller: This is the first DCM in recent memory that didn’t fall on Pride weekend. Nowadays there are beautiful improvisers across the queer diaspora, but in the early aughts, the small group of LGBT improvisers would go to a sweaty Sunday morning show and then walk the parade from Chelsea to the Village and have brunch. Later (when we had at least eight queer improvisers) we developed an improv form called “The Brunch” and did it in the marathon on a sweaty Sunday morning.
Jon Gabrus: In 2007 or 2008, one of my earlier years, I was at Chelsea super late and had gotten naked (along with 12 or so other people) for To Catch A Predator-Prov. After the show, me and some of the people from that cast, DC Pierson and Justin Tyler, just stayed naked. We ended up sitting in the second row in those dirty ass chairs, buck naked. We watched like an hour of shows until Krompf hit the stage with their hit show where they serve breakfast. So DC, Justin, and I decided to get up and make ourselves breakfast plates. All of a sudden we realize we are onstage, naked in front of a full audience, a bunch of people getting food, and knew it was time to go home.
Gil Ozeri: I love DCM for the chaos. The lack of sleep, the thousands of people, the bizarre late-night shows where it was somehow okay to push things much further than you could normally. As corny as it sounds, coming up, it really did feel like improv Christmas. It was a long sleepover with all the funny people I looked up to. In the early days, the party in the back of Chelsea would spill out onstage, and it was so loud you could barely hear the shows. DCM is very much tied to NYC for me. I will most miss walking through the city from theater to theater, in the middle of a warm summer night, having just performed, and laughing with my friends at how stupid what we just did was. Some more specific highlights that come to mind: Rob Huebel in Director’s Commentary playing a stunt man who would yell “ME!” or “NOT ME!” whenever he was onscreen, Rob Riggle being a crazy lunatic character in the green room called “Johnny Hot Glove.” Brian Huskey as Sandy Duncan, jumping over chairs to beat up Jack McBrayer in Match Game ‘76 at DCM 4 or 5. Performing with Hot Sauce (Me, Ben Schwartz, Adam Pally) and the UCB 4 at DCM 15. Also, just personally, any time I got to run around the city with John Gemberling buying props for an insane bit show was always pure joy.