Thousands flocked to the 17th Annual Del Close Marathon over the weekend to watch improv teams from around the world perform for 56 straight hours – courtesy of the folks from UCB. By Carly Petrone.
Poehler. Walsh. Roberts. Besser. If you’re a fan of improv then you’re probably familiar with the UCB Four. Amy Poehler, Matt Walsh, Ian Roberts, and Matt Besser started the Upright Citizen’s Brigade 25 years ago, back when the idea of acting out a scene on stage without a script or safety net of any kind seemed flat-out crazy. This fearsome foursome took the knowledge they learned from the Father of Improv himself, Del Close, and opened up the Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theater back in 1996. Now, 25 years and a host of incredible alumni later (Ilana Glazer, Abbi Jacobson, Kate McKinnon, Nick Kroll, and Aziz Ansari to name a few) they’re celebrating the life and wisdom of Del Close during the 17th Annual Del Close Marathon. For 56 straight hours from June 26th – June 28th, improv groups from around the world performed 630 shows across 9 stages in New York City. In fact, the comedy festival has gained so much momentum over the years that some fans flew in to attend the entire weekend (without sleeping or going home to change).
What makes the Del Close Marathon (DCM) so great? How about the fact that most of UCB’s alumni stopped by to perform with their equally as famous friends. SNL regular Bobby Moynihan got his start at UCB and he couldn’t be more thankful. “I just did a show with 5 of my closest friends. It was like going to a family reunion. I wouldn’t be on SNL without UCB,” said Moynihan. Many comedians feel the same way about the theater that helped set the foundation for their careers. “As corny as it may sound, I’m excited to see my old friends. Folks I don’t see a lot. I enjoy seeing the passion that people have for improv,” said co-founder Matt Walsh. The Daily Show Correspondent Jordan Klepper certainly remembers the first time he participated in the marathon. “It was 12 years ago. I came in from Chicago and I was just in awe of the whole situation. We were so poor we only ate tortillas that we brought from Chicago and a $10 bottle of whiskey.”
UCB alums Ben Schwartz, Gil Ozeri, and Adam Pally certainly take pride in the UCB Comedy Improvisational Manual, the comprehensive guide to long form improvisation written by Matt Walsh, Ian Roberts, and Matt Besser. When asked to highlight their favorite parts of the book, they simply couldn’t choose just one section. “I love the branding,” said Schwartz. “The glue is insane,” said Ozeri. “We obviously haven’t read it,” said Pally. However, Ozeri does know a thing or two about staying up for an entire weekend. He recently attended another marathon for 57 hours and watched the entire series of Entourage from beginning to end. “After that, he decided not to even go see the movie. What did you end up seeing?” asked Pally. “Aloha,” Ozeri responds.
It’s hard to believe that this insanely fun marathon has been going on since 1999, the year that Del Close passed away. Amy Poehler joked that “these 17 years feel like a million and five all at once.” Comedian and SNL alum Horatio Sanz has been around since the beginning and has seen it grow rapidly. “The first couple ones were so small. Sometimes I would fall asleep and the audience could hear me snore back stage. Now, I don’t really fall asleep backstage anymore but you wouldn’t be able to hear me there’s so many people.”
It wouldn’t be a true UCB event without a few wacky parties and unforeseen events taking place. “I remember being driven over by this little vehicle that was supposed to deliver beer. They put plywood over me and rolled over me. It was bananas,” said co-founder Ian Roberts. For comedian Anthony King, his favorite memory was when someone drove a motor home to the theater and parked it outside. “At 5 a.m., Rob Riggle started shaking the motor home. They thought they were being attacked!” Bobby Moynihan still hasn’t forgotten his first DCM back in 2001. “I was living in Westchester County and I missed the train. I walked home, thinking it would take me an hour. It took me 4 or 5 hours. Worst thing I’ve ever done. I should have slept in a dumpster somewhere.”
When it comes down to it, it’s all about celebrating the life and legacy of Del Close. He taught students the concept of “yes, and” as well as how to apply “the game” to long-form improvisation. “The best advice Del ever gave me was to be fairly close to yourself. Let your performance come through the rules so it was organic. If you made jokes or tried to be funny, he hated you and gave you harsh criticism,” said Roberts. This is the great thing about the art of improvisation. You don’t want to think too much. You don’t want to plan anything or work too hard for the joke. It just doesn’t work otherwise. Del’s honest truth helped start a revolution that has turned funny people into household names.
Overall, this weekend was all about making people smile from the inside out. When Amy Poehler asked a room full of UCB devotees on Friday evening, “Is anybody hoping this weekend will get them out of a funk or a bad spot?,” a majority of the audience raised their hands. “Your brain chemistry will change by the end of the day or night or weekend.” Now that’s powerful. Comedian Mike Birbiglia understands just how powerful the room can be during those live shows. “It’s hard to describe but there’s a certain positivity to the improv world, the energy which I really enjoy.”
But part of what makes improv so much fun is the fact that nobody knows how the show will actually turn out. Silicon Valley star Zach Woods is open to the idea of an improv app – just in case things start to go awry on stage. “Every comedian has that thing they go to in a panic. I get talky…wordy. Maybe there could be a low-level electric shock that goes off when people go to their bag of tricks. Kind of like those dog collars,” said Woods.
Want to take a chance and try improv yourself? Just make sure to stick to attainable goals. As Amy Poehler says, “If doing good work and making stuff with your friends is the goal then you’re succeeding. If making money and being famous is your goal than you’re in real trouble because it rarely happens. You’re not paying attention to what will make you money. Go do good work and be with your friends.”
Whether the shows were good or bad ultimately didn’t matter. Just having the chance to be in the same room with comedic idols like Amy Poehler, Scott Adsit, and Ellie Kemper was reason enough to head down to one of the DCM appointed theaters this past weekend. In fact, if you really want to get on Ellie Kemper’s good side, send her a box of cookies from Levain Bakery. They’re her favorite.
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“It doesn’t ever get old. We always look at each other every year and have a minute where we say ‘Here we go again. Can you believe it’s still going on?’ This will be the first marathon for some of these people and I hope it’s just the beginning for the people that are here. It’s really f*cking awesome. We feel really excited about getting it started.” – Amy Poehler.