Posted by Jesse Fox
Del Close was the father of modern long-from improv, and last weekend, for the 13th year in a row, the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre put on a festival in his honor. The Del Close Marathon last for 52.5 hours, from 4:30PM Friday to 9:00PM Sunday, and I was there for 43 of them.
When I interviewed Ben Schwartz a couple months ago, he spoke at great length about how important UCB was both to the honing of his craft and in offering him a community of supportive, like-minded artists, of which he could be a part. Yet, before Friday, I had never seen long-form improv. I knew nothing about it other than what I learned from that one chapter of Tina Fey’s Bossypants. The Del Close Marathon felt like the perfect time to jump in.
Complete and total immersion was the only logical solution. I wanted to get lost in the form and come out of this weekend a new comedy fan. Here is what I learned:
1. The gap between average and good improv is immense
It’s perhaps larger than the equivalent of any other craft that comes to mind. Good improv is as funny as the best television episodes, with an absurdity and irreverence that just can’t be premeditated. Average improv is like watching a bad first date, in which one person without fail is trying way too hard to be funny.
2. Great improv, like The Stepfathers team, will make me cry from laughing in less than 30 minutes.
3. Good improvisers actually smack each other in scenes and don’t pantomime it like amateurs do.
4. When in doubt, rape.
With out exaggeration, 75% of the shows I saw this weekend, from the beginners to the pros, had rape in it. “Heighten” is a term I heard thrown around, and I presume rape is the obvious way to do so in an “alternative” comedy way. Kids were raped, bunnies were raped, Darryl Strawberry raped a lot of people, Peter Pan raped Tinker Bell, and so on.
5. Chris Gethard is Darryl Strawberry
Gethard performed as Mr. Strawberry three times over the weekend and it was always hilarious. A short, nerdy looking white guy playing a large, thugged out, drug addicted, MVP baseball player is, as one might expect, comedy gold. Sometimes, playing against type just works.
6. Improv is as much a craft and it is an art.
7. Scott Adsit is an improv Jedi
Known best as Pete Hornberger on 30 Rock, Adsit was the single funniest person I saw this weekend. One of the two shows of his I saw, he performed in short scenes with volunteers from the crowd. Despite the shortcomings of these amateurs, Scott was able to make sure every scene hit.
Now consider the bigger picture, Adsit is nowhere near a household name. He represents how hard it is to breakthrough in entertainment and just how good the people that do make it are.
8. Famous funny people deserve to be.
Along with Adsit, there were a few TV personalities taking part in the marathon and without fail they seemed to standout from the pack. SNL cast-members Paul Brittain and Vanessa Bayer both performed with their former Chicago groups and they both seemed to possess something intangible. Especially, Bayer, who even if she wasn’t the funniest person in her group, maintained a dynamic likeability
Though, there did seem to be some resentment towards both. Their respective teams pushed back a little bit towards them. Mostly it was loving, except in one scene in which Vanessa said “I have a gun” and one of her teammates responded “no, that’s just your hand.” Instantly everyone shut up, stunned that someone would put his or her teammate in that position. She was able to save the scene but it was the most abundantly real moment of the weekend.
9. Fran Gillespie & James Adomian should be famous
Over the course of the weekend I saw a lot of hilarious people that I had never heard of before (Gavin Speiller, Silvija Ojols, Neil Campbell, etc.) but Gillespie and Adomian were the two that stood out the most. It’s hard to single out what specifically is so funny about Gillespie but when she is on stage its hard to not laugh at her. She possesses a singular comedic voice that will hopefully make her a star. Adomian, I was familiar of before this weekend as he is a frequent guest on the popular Comedy Bang Bang podcast but seeing him in person is something to behold. He is a mad genius, whose impersonations are both freakishly accurate and absolutely bonkers. Both are hard to describe and really unlike anyone else.
10. White people.
Mindy Kaling trying to hype the crowd: “What is everyone’s ethnicity tonight?”
Matt Besser: “That’s always the answer at an improv show.”
11. DCM has an overriding Upstairs, Downstairs Dynamic
It is a festival for performers more so than fans. It’s meant to educate the beginners and act as a celebration for the established performers. Periodically, I’d hear merriment from backstage and it was obvious I was having a different experience. Those with red wristbands spoke of a party house while us with orange tried to figure out places we could nap.
12. There is nothing more awkward than watching a beginner get painted into a corner, in which they have to do a character that is gay, Black, Hispanic, Asian, etc.
I accidentally found myself watching a college troupe Saturday afternoon. The scene’s twists and turns found one of the kids in the position where he was supposed to play a homosexual. There was a palpable pause and then he cringed as he lisped his way until there time was over.
13. The least funny person in an unfunny scene is always the person trying the hardest to be funny.
14. In Finland, improvisers make fun of Sweden.
One of the standout shows was from the team from Finland. Due to the language restriction, it was incredibly lowbrow. Maybe, in their native tongue their shows are Samuel Becket-like in construction and philosophical richness, but this weekend it was all pubic hair jokes and deriding of their Nordic brethrens.
15. At 5:00 in the morning, if there is an improvised punk band, half the audience will take their shirts off and run into one another.
16. An improv audience will always say “God bless you” when you sneeze
Maybe, it’s because they’re trained to be supportive but over the three nights no sneeze went unblessed.
17. After a while every conversation I had outside of the theatre felt like a scene.
Apparently, taxi drivers, bank tellers, and bagel cashiers don’t care about my “yes, ands.”
18. My friend is the single best-dressed male improviser in America.
Every other guy wore one of two outfits:
A)Cargo shorts and a pre-ironic/ironic/post-ironic graphic t-shirt.
B) Ill-fit jeans with too much of a wash on them and a western shirt.
19. No matter how funny and ingenious a 15-minute improvised episode of This American Life sounds, at 3:15 AM, after 15 hours of watching comedy, I will fall asleep.
20. Drink your own piss.
At 4:30 Saturday night/Sunday morning was a show entitled “To Catch a Predator Improv Edition”. The premise was a particularly young looking actor in boxer briefs and a half-shirt sat down and increasingly extreme characters would come in to eventually be caught. I thought a guy wearing only a lucha libre mask, swastika armband, and a penis pump couldn’t be topped, but then out walked a gentleman in a black thong and wolf mask. The wolfman grabs the microphone and asked the crowd “Who wants to see me drink my own piss?” Despite no one saying yes, he proceeded to pull his dick out and pee into a water bottle. After he filled it up about a third of the way, he chugged the contents with all the rest of the comedians now onstage cheering him on. I felt sick and excited and edgy and dirty. I definitely wasn’t laughing.
The moment has lingered well beyond the festival. How can that moment be traced to Amy Poehler, one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People in the World? Is it the punk edge that allows the UCB to feel alternative even when its house teams perform for tourists on the weekends?
21. The process works.
Two hours into Saturday afternoon, a new group came on stage. In it was an acquaintance I hadn’t seen since college. The last I saw him, he was doing stand-up sadly indebted to Dane Cook. Now five years later, he was truly hilarious. He had a fantastic physicality and never forced a joke. Afterward, I learned that he has been taking classes at UCB consistently for the last five years. There is something reassuring in seeing how someone can be molded with out losing what originally made him or her uniquely funny.
22. New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago teams are always better than teams from other cities. Except for when they’re not.
Boston, Austin, and Kansas City (yes, Kansas City) each had one of my favorite teams of the festival
23. It’s also a scrambling for seats festival.
With no time between sets and standing room only seating, the festival is not unlike Stratego.
24. Bed bugs?
This is the first large event I’ve been to since moving back to New York City. The seats themselves are wood/plastic but a carpeted five-foot high wall surrounds each section. Considering the nature of the festival’s schedule and little amount of time earmarked for bathing, I was concerned.
Two days before the festival, a friend offered me an organic serotonin supplement. I’m not one to pop pills but it was supposed to be natural and I’ve heard the word “serotonin” in college. “In 30 minutes you’ll realize you’re smiling and that will make you smile even more” he said, knowing this would be a surprising occurrence. Fast-forward 45 minutes, my smile was upside down and I had a headache.
To the theatre and the art form’s credit, I smiled a lot this weekend.