Splitsider

Monday, August 29th, 2011

Inside the Del Close Marathon's Three-Day Celebration of Improv and Sweaty Drunkenness

“Hey. Remember DCM? (I don’t. Please fill me in.)”

Four days after I get home from the Upright Citizen Brigade Theatre’s 13th annual Del Close Marathon, this message pops up on my Facebook wall. I laugh for a second, trying to think of a stupid joke before realizing that — holy shit — I kind of can’t. Remember DCM, that is.

Towards the end, 50 straight hours of non-stop comedy on three stages (four, counting nightly featured shows) begin to blend together. Plus, the weekend-long festival is overcast by a frantic feeling of wanting to see everything (especially since this is likely your only annual chance to catch visiting groups). Presenting well-known acts like ASSSCAT, Baby Wants Candy and Derrick Comedy, plus UCB teams including The Stepfathers, Convoy and Mother, alongside late night shows with titles like Old Prospectors’ Make ‘Em Up Jamboree and Ira Glass-prov, the three-day festival honors the memory of improv guru Del Close the way the grandfather of modern comedy would have wanted: by creating an environment where performers feel not only free but obligated to push every boundary (both onstage and off).

It’s weird how, like lyrics to a song, I can recite near-verbatim my favorite stand up acts, but the best improv scenes I’ve seen tend to defy faithful (and still funny) translation. DCM festival opener Outlook of the Poet, for example? Prompted by a quote from Jabberwocky, their scene followed time traveler New Jersey Vinnie and his truck full of pizza through a medieval conflict led by two bumbling, palomino pony-loving young knights. All-star troupe Bassprov's Friday night set? Titled “The Wedgie Riot Fishing Trip,” it centered heavily on developing a business plan for a “kid rape store.” I won’t even attempt to describe Sentimental Lady’s mind-blowingly amazing half hour (my notes just read: “Amazon adventure, communist tiger, chicken vaginas, accidental racism, sex-crazed beetles, Gin Blossoms singalong”). My point is, it’s really hard to describe an improv scene without tacking an “I guess you had to be there” at the end.

Enter DCM, a booze-fueled, sleep-deprived festival that draws improvisers from around the world to several sweaty, cramped New York City basements for a delirious whirlwind of performances and partying. It seems pretty appropriate that a format characterized by its lack of preservation is best celebrated with a weekend that’s hard to remember.

Friday

This is my second year at DCM; last August, I arrived (and shared one microscopic UES hostel room) with eight other improvisers, accidentally sleeping through most of Saturday’s shows and bumbling my way through a Sunday afternoon set. This year, I decided, would be different: I’d stay somewhere without a hostile Russian concierge, and I’d go alone, to avoid feeling pressure to do anything but plant myself in a theater seat for hours at a time.

The whole thing kicks off late Friday afternoon at a press conference with the current incarnation of the Upright Citizens Brigade proper — Matt Besser, Ian Roberts, Horatio Sanz and Ian Walsh. Outside the UCB Theatre, a line whose first few members have been patiently waiting on the Chelsea sidewalk for over six hours begins to wind down the block, some veterans armed with chairs and pillows to prove they’re in it for the long haul.

As the four UCB leaders step onstage to thundering applause, they pause to survey the room.

“This is nice,” says Roberts. “This is indicative of our…”

“Explosion.” Besser interjects.

“…publicist.” Roberts finishes, grinning.

“We’ve never had this much press,” notes Walsh.

While the festival has earned countless accolades in its 13 years, and the UCB’s theaters — the original New York training center and rapidly expanding Los Angeles location — are consistently producing big-name talent (like the Human Giant trio, notably absent from this year’s festivities due to various filming obligations), DCM itself is always a fairly intimate affair. There are often daunting lines, but you rarely miss a show as long as you arrive reasonably early.

The familiarity with which the UCB team (performers who most attendees no doubt consider icons) addresses and interacts with the audience exemplifies the festival’s incredibly laid back tone. While the four joke about their age (noting that internet commenters recently likened Roberts and Besser to “someone’s grandmother on dialysis” and “the portrait of Dorian Gray,” respectively), alluding to their decades-long work shaping the current improv landscape, a majority of the bravado seems like an act. The Q & A includes inquiries about UCB co-founder Amy Poehler’s whereabouts and requests for “most embarrassing moment” stories, but there’s a hefty amount of hardcore improv philosophy, Roberts and Besser dominating discussions on the mechanics of yes, and-ing and the function of gameplay with obvious, sincere delight (and even a hand-drawn graph).

When asked what festival namesake and UCB mentor Del Close would think of the proceedings, Walsh notes, deadpan: “The party aspect, I think, Del would appreciate.”

And it’s true that even the early evening shows have an electric current of excitement running through them, with audiences effusively reacting to every beat of a scene. I find myself wondering if the same sets would elicit an equally enthusiastic response on a non-festival night — but then, that’s the beauty of improv: it only exists in that moment.

While the theater steadily fills, people flattened against walls and crouched on the edge of the stage, the Official DCM Party House is opening its doors. In early years, the performer-only gathering — which more or less goes on all weekend — was held in the theater’s tiny backstage area. Last year, a rented bar space was shut down midway through the marathon. Now, the party’s moved east to a five-story walk-up, the top two floors filled with waiting-to-be-tapped kegs.

A few blocks north, at the Fashion Institute of Technology’s auditorium, another line is forming for Horatio Sanz and the Kings of Improv (whose set, sidebar, featured possibly the best initiation I’ve ever heard: “You know that movie Snakes on a Plane?”). As I queue up, I overhear a man explaining that he’s just arrived from Israel, DCM being the sole reason for his trip.

“Yeah, it’s expensive, and a long way, but to me, it’s worth it,” he explains. “There’s nothing like this going on anywhere else, to see things like this.” Later, I spot him seated directly behind avant-comic Eric Wareheim, who’s otherwise blending in with the rest of the ecstatic audience.

“I was just saying the other day, there’s kind of two halves to the festival; there’s before midnight, which is really good improv, then there’s after midnight, which is pure craziness.” — Matt Besser

At 3 am — after performances from late night acts including intentionally offensive Christian Lighthouse Players and the aforementioned Old Prospectors’ Make ‘Em Up Jamboree (an excuse for performers to bust out their best, most exaggerated characters) — I step out of the theater and there’s still a short, patient line. But when I return 45 minutes later, there’s no wait. In fact, in the basement, I’m greeted by a half-empty room with completely empty bottles of liquor scattered under seats holding audience members all somewhere on the scale of can’t-stop-yawning tired to actually passed out. Onstage, four shirtless, be-wigged comedians are The Matthew McConaugharold, in the middle of a cunnilingus-themed interpretive dance. As the door to backstage opens, waves of laughter punctuated by bottlecaps dropping on concrete floors echo through the main room. In less than two hours, the late-night programming will wrap up and any remaining audience members will be ushered out for a quick theater cleaning before the first, tired troupes take the stage at 6 am.

I decide to call it a night.

Saturday

I’m not the only one who chose sleep; at 1:30 pm, there’s still no line at UCB, though the basement’s filling up. After a block of stellar sets from groups including That Day in Finland (a team of adorably accented performers who weave audience stories into scenes from Finnish life) and Austin-based ColdTowne, I head to an unofficial college team showcase at nearby Triple Crown.

“I have a theory: it’s that, I think, this theater is now a place that attracts the best people around — they’ll come here instead of Second City. They’ll still go to Second City, but I think people now are like, hey, I want to be with the best people. So they come here first.” — Horatio Sanz

“There’s that theory. There’s also that people come to us with no comedic sensibility whatsoever — barely functioning humans, they’re hanging on by a thread. We build them up, we give them confidence, we teach them what we know. And then, they entertain you.” — Ian Roberts

While UCB may take some shit for their (largely put-on) grandstanding, it’s obvious that there’s truth to both Sanz and Roberts’ theories. One way to tell? The fact that, much like the rapidly growing, trendsetting SXSW festival, DCM is beginning to inspire “unofficial” sideline shows. While the college teams performing all afternoon in Triple Crown’s basement aren’t official marathon selections, they’ve still made the trip down and managed to get some stage time. Rock and roll.

They can’t, unfortunately, get into the party house, which by early Saturday evening is still fairly quiet. I get my first taste of a fruity concoction of indeterminate origin being served alongside the Bud Light, and speculate on how fast the night will turn into a sweaty, juice-fueled dance party (pretty quickly, as it turns out). Over by a table covered with trays of ice-cold Chinese food, two backpack-clad bros are hovering, trying to track down some weed.

Farther west on 26th Street, the Hudson Guild Theater is packed, with a sizable crowd milling around outside. One of the night’s most lauded teams, LA’s Bangarang, usually performs the Harold but surprises with a three-person set so smooth it could practically be scripted.

Ultimately, that’s one of the goals of improv as defined by the UCB: “The skill you’re really developing is the skill of a writer,” explains Roberts, “because if you can consistently do good improv, whether you know it or not, you could write sketch. It’s the exact same thing. Nothing exists before you start, then you write it and you use those same rules — if this happened, what would happen — and you leave out all the extraneous stuff, and you don’t make jokes that are off the game of the scene.”

It’s interesting to note how far the weirder late night sets are, in many ways, from the forms that Del used to teach. Novelty acts like Wicked Fuckin’ Queeyah — a group of former Bostonians who perform as the most perfectly, obnoxiously stereotypical South Shore townies — are dependent on upholding the characters. Perennial favorites like Match Game 76, a game show parody that packs the stage with notable figures from (you guessed it) 1976, is similar in that it follows a very specific rubric.

Post-midnight sets are also meta-humor heavy, featuring conceptual acts like Straight Men (where each performer refuses to be cast as absurd, the set centered on deft dodges of assigned craziness) and Improv Cult (a group of students [including my very own personal hero Mindy Kaling] coached on essential skills, like taking audience suggestions, by a mock-militant Besser). When one of Besser’s “students” bungles his assignment, telling the audience the suggestion he wants instead of vice versa, it’s an accessibly comical moment, but the humor really lies with an in-the-know audience’s understanding of the rules and conventions of traditional improv.

And when you’re part of a community that’s often completely misunderstood not only by your general peers but, often, by other comics, there’s something incredibly freeing and comforting about occupying a room with a few hundred very likeminded people who also get the joke.

“Man, I really want to run onstage and get in this,” a man in front of me gleefully whispers to a friend during the Straight Men.

Later, emerging from the theater, I’m met by an actual deluge; sheltered in the basement, I had no idea it’d been raining for hours. The now-packed walk-up party space is steamy with sweat and smells of damp clothing and, out of nowhere, plain boxes plastered with the black-marker scrawled label “CONDOMS” have appeared on tabletops. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve been coming down off a massive caffeine rush since the afternoon but, by about 3 am, the high-octane juice is starting to take its toll.

Sticking under awnings to escape the rain (which will continue, off and on, the rest of the weekend) I hurry the few blocks back to UCB in time for the 3:15 am Raiders in 15 Minutes, Owen Burke’s attempt to get as drunk as possible and reenact the entirety of Raiders of the Lost Ark before his short slot is up (he doesn’t make it all the way through, but it barely matters). Next up, talk show host Chris Gethard leads The NY Mets Monoscene, a tribute to the team that brings a crowd of characters from baseball history onstage. I’m immensely pleased to discover that, for the second year in a row, I have a chance to chant “a black man, in black face” to the tune of Daryl Strawberry’s forgotten hit “Get Metsmerized.”

Sunday

My biggest regret of the festival occurs Sunday: I miss the Krompf breakfast. The 10 am set doubles as a tenth anniversary show for the four-member team (which includes UCB staffers Joe Wengert and Neil Casey), and the early morning audience is rewarded for their attendance with a catered spread courtesy of the group.

I wake close to noon and realize that A. it’s still raining and B. I’ve missed out on a free meal. Allegedly, Sunday night inspires markedly more fervent celebration. Multiple people have warned me that the drinks, on the third evening, earn the nickname “rocket fuel.” I decide I need a few hours to rest up.

As the last few shows approach, I’m feeling like I spent a lot more than a weekend holed up in UCB — but also like the time passed too quickly. I’m elated to have discovered a full roster of new favorite teams, but bummed that it’ll probably be another year before I can catch up with them. I’m reminded of the opening night conference, where the UCB vets jokingly explained DCM’s role in the improv community:

“It brings it together,” says Besser.

“It gives people an excuse to come to New York,” adds Roberts.

And Sanz quips: “Also, some of the other improv theaters that we make fun of all year? We let go of that, and everyone’s welcome this weekend.”

Shortly before the final show (the sold out ASSSSCAT), Roberts, Besser and Owen Burke take the UCB stage as We Can Fix You. The trio calls audience members up to unload their sincere problems (which range from not being able to find a date to dealing with domestic violence), responding with a mix of gentle jabbing, surprisingly astute guidance and bear hugs.

It occurs to me that great deal of Roberts’ advice on improv is also, intentionally and directly, advice on general life. He says of scene mechanics:

It’s not just simply responding, it’s also responding with filters. You might have an impulse that makes you feel something, but then the situation you’re in, the person you’re dealing with, affects what you can let out. You’re very specifically doing exactly what you would do at that precise moment, and that’s something that should be available to everybody. Whereas you have not played games formally your whole life, through your whole life you’ve responded to everything you’ve encountered precisely the way you respond to things. So that should be available to you, that’s like a ‘get out of your own way’ thing. It’s the only place where I’d say that the training is via negativa — just stop doing bullshit, do what you would really do, it should be there and available to you already. Just get out of your own way.

Don’t think. Say yes.

This is what I’m considering as I head over to ASSSSCAT, though my introspection quickly turns to deserved horror when (there’s no way I can not mention this) during one of the audience monologues, a former Second City employee tells a 20-minute story about a time he seemingly date raped a stranger, turning off every woman in a ten-mile radius and regrettably introducing the slang “to fishhook” into our lexicon. Truth in comedy, amirite?

Later that evening, on the fourth floor hallway of the party house, a crowd of smokers has gathered. Perched on the stairwell above, Matt Besser’s got an acoustic guitar on his lap and photocopied lyrics in his hand. As a small crowd of plaid-shirted, white, twenty-something comedians earnestly belts out unplugged renditions of “Hey Ya,” “Fuck You” and, of course, “Piano Man,” I feel like I’m in a sort of twisted teen movie. Cigarette ash covers the floor and every few minutes an unsuspecting partygoer slides, ass first, down the beer-slicked steps, but everyone’s smiling wide. When the celebration moves to a nearby bar, I end up in a corner playing Truth or Dare with my three newest best pals til 4 am, feeling as comfortable as I would around old friends. And that, in the end, is what DCM’s all about: It shows you what’s possible. It breaks down walls. It creates instant connections. And it changes you — if only for 50 delirious hours.

Samantha Pitchel is still recovering.

  • Stervenson

    In the list of the current UCB lineup, it should be Matt Walsh, not Ian Walsh.