This weekend celebrates the seventeenth annual Del Close Marathon, the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre’s (UCB) yearly tribute to the man who shaped its — and so many other comedians’ — hysterical deliveries.
Del Close, who died in 1999 at age 64, spent many years teaching in Chicago, developing the art of improvisation and influencing Amy Poehler, Matt Walsh, Ian Roberts, and Matt Besser. Other comics who learned under him were Gilda Radner, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, Stephen Colbert, Tina Fey, Jon Glaser, and Amy Sedaris.
“He just challenged you to be better,” says Besser, who worked closely with Close throughout the former’s years in Chicago before moving to New York with the Upright Citizens Brigade and later starring in the Comedy Central show of the same name. “[Close] had all these nuggets of wisdom and ways to apply [them] that actually worked. I went to four years of college, and I don’t know how many classes I could walk away [from] and say, ‘Wow, this class turned my life around. It gave me a skill that I know I can apply.’ But Del definitely did.”
The marathon will be a three-day improv extravaganza, with performers ranging from Ohio and Rhode Island college teams to the very best in the business (read: Ellie Kemper, Poehler, Horatio Sanz, Ben Schwartz) with over 630 shows performed in nine venues around the city. The marathon starts at 4 p.m. Friday and lasts through 11:30 p.m. Sunday.
We scoured the list of shows and picked out some of the best of the bunch:
Friday, June 26:
KEMPSAS: UCB Theatre Chelsea (307 West 26th Street), 7 p.m.
You’ll probably recall Ellie Kemper from her string of recent, memorable roles: Erin Hannon on The Office, Becca in Bridesmaids, or maybe her starring role in Tina Fey’s hit Netflix show, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. What you may not know is Kemper’s earlier work on UCB’s stage, performing with the improv group Mailer Daemon and fwand and writing and performing her own one-woman show, Dumb Girls, in 2008. Kemper will improvise with comedian Christina Gausas, who’s appeared on Girls, 30 Rock, Louie, and The Colbert Report, in their improv team, KEMPSAS.
Middleditch + Schwartz: UCB Theatre Chelsea (307 West 26th Street), 8:30 p.m.
Long before playing everybody’s favorite assholes in Parks and Recreation (Jean-Ralphio) and House of Lies (Clyde Oberholt), winning an Emmy for Hugh Jackman’s Academy Awards opening in 2009, and penning ever-popular book Grandma’s Dead: Breaking Bad News With Baby Animals, Ben Schwartz was performing at UCB as part of sketch/improv team Hot Sauce with Adam Pally (The Mindy Project) and Gil Ozeri (writer on Brooklyn Nine-Nine). He continues to do improv monthly in L.A. and will be performing at the Del Close Marathon with Thomas Middleditch (of Silicon Valley).
The Hooray Show: SVA Theatre – Silas (333 West 23rd Street), 9:30 p.m.
A Saturday Night Live cast member from 1998 to 2006, Horatio Sanz was one of the original members of the Upright Citizens Brigade sketch group in Chicago before Poehler, Walsh, Roberts, and Besser moved the group to New York and made history. Sanz will be performing his weekly podcast, The Hooray Show, live, along with producer Chad Krueger. The show usually features improv, sketch, and music. Recent guests have included Chris Kattan (SNL), Joseph Nunez (Superbad), and Ben Schwartz.
Saturday, June 27:
Are You Afraid of the Dark-prov: UCB Theatre Chelsea (307 West 26th Street), 2:15 a.m.–2:30 a.m.
“We have these shows — they’re called ‘late-night bit shows.’ Once we get to somewhere around 1:30 a.m. to about 6 or 7 a.m., [those] are late-night bit shows,” explains UCB artistic director Shannon O’Neill. “It’s not improv at its purest; we just like having these insane shows where people can experiment and be weird and the audience is sleepy or drunk or God knows what.” One such show is Are You Afraid of the Dark-prov, where a group of improvisers known as the Midnight Society will gather around the campfire to perform a frightening tale worthy of its Nineties Nickelodeon inspiration.
Improv4Humans: UCB Theatre East Village (153 East 3rd Street), 1 p.m.–5 p.m.
Besser will do his weekly podcast, Improv4Humans, for a whopping four hours. “That’s my own little one-man marathon,” he says. The show is completely improvised, and past guests include Lauren Lapkus (Orange Is the New Black, House of Lies, Comedy Bang Bang), Neil Flynn (Scrubs; also an original member of the Upright Citizens Brigade sketch group), and UCB Theatre co-founder Ian Roberts. Of the marathon at large, Besser says, “We speak seriously about [Del Close] and we all get drunk and high and celebrate his name.”
Hurt Luster: UCB Theatre East Village (153 East 3rd Street), 7 p.m.
Asked what audiences can expect at the marathon, the first thing O’Neill says is, “There’s a team from Poland coming over.” That team from Poland, more specifically Warsaw, is Hurt Luster, featuring three Polish women doing their best improv. They are Aleksandra Markowska, formerly a puppeteer and opera singer who now focuses mostly on comedy; Joanna Pawluskiewicz, who writes for HBO Europe and co-owns her own comedy club in Warsaw; and Marta Iwaszkiewicz, who’s studied comedy in Chicago and often works with kids. What’s it like watching improv in another language? “It’s funny,” says Besser.
The Daily Show Writers: SVA Theatre – Silas (333 West 23rd Street), 9:30 p.m.
Throughout the weekend, various TV writing teams will be attempting the art of improv together, including the writers of Key & Peele, Late Night With Seth Meyers, and Funny or Die. On Saturday at 9:30 p.m., watch the writers of The Daily Show With Jon Stewart take the stage. According to the marathon website, they will “take a break from working dildos into political commentary to do an improvised show based on audience suggestions.”
Sunday, June 28:
Help Us Make a Movie in a Movie Theater: SVA Theatre – Beatrice (333 West 23rd Street), 1:15 a.m.
Local superstar Jo Firestone, who can be seen hosting a slew of shows in the city, including the dating show Friends of Single People and the pun competition Punderdome 3000, was recently featured in New York magazine and appeared on Broad City. Connor Ratliff, who performs with some of New York’s veteran improvisers in their group the Stepfathers (they’ll be doing their show in the marathon Friday), has made appearances on Broad City and HBO’s Veep. Together, they’ll produce an improvised movie using the audience as cast, crew, writers, studio executives, foley artists, set builders, etc.
8 Bitch Harold: UCB Theatre Chelsea (307 West 26th Street), 10 a.m.
“We have a show that’s just all dogs,” says O’Neill. “A bunch of improvisers are bringing their dogs onstage and we’ll see what happens.” The “Harold” in 8 Bitch Harold refers to a style of long-form improv that Close developed and UCB is known for teaching. Its structure includes scenes and group games, and players are encouraged to call back the most interesting scenes and characters and intertwine them. According to the marathon website, these dogs will be working “based on instinct alone.”
Thank You Del Close: SVA Theatre – Silas (333 West 23rd Street), 3 p.m.
This is a special test screening with audience feedback for the Upright Citizens Brigade’s documentary Thank You Del Close, with a q&a session with the director and members of UCB following. Their love of and appreciation for the man is clear. “The whole movie is showing that we couldn’t have done any of this without Del,” says Besser. “You cannot make someone funny. He didn’t make anybody funny. But he gave a lot of funny people a methodology to work with that makes them funnier together.”
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Admission is $35 for the weekend for all regular shows, plus possible entrance (depending on seating availability) for “premium” shows like Broad City Live and Nick Kroll and Friends. For those who simply want to check out the big-bill shows, tickets range from $10–$20. A number are already sold out, but there will be standby lines day-of (with no guarantee of entry). For more info, visit delclosemarathon.com.