Going Hard at the Del Close Marathon
Written by Ale Domeier
I was sure that improv was something I wanted to do with the rest of my life once I realized that nothing about it made me feel unable to succeed. When I saw someone do really well, I didn’t feel jealous, I just wanted to keep learning and get better.
While I’ve felt that way throughout the past few years I’ve been pursuing comedy, it never hit me quite as strong as it did at this year’s Del Close Marathon in New York.
DCM is the world’s largest improv festival in the world, lasting three days, and hosted by the Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB) theater in Manhattan. This year had about 600 shows over the course of 56 consecutive hours, and I was so very lucky to have been a part of it.
All things considered, I should not have been at Del Close. My improv team, Nixon’s Neverland, missed the date to submit an application to perform. However, our sister team, Passionate Mom Society, being far more proactive than I could ever hope to be, applied and were accepted into the marathon and needed members from our team to fill some slots.
I’ve heard Chicago cited as the “mecca” of comedy, and that’s pretty fair. We’ve got The Second City, and iO Theater - the two comedy training centers most consistent with pushing out successful comedians. Off the top of my head, I can list four comedy bars within walking distance of my apartment, and they’re always crammed with people trying to practice stand-up sets, or improv teams trying to get a quick 15 minutes in.
So, out of the tons of improv teams in Chicago, how did Passionate Mom Society (PMS) manage to get accepted into DCM? By being big ol’ fibbers (sorta). DCM tries to create a diverse experience, so regular Harold teams have a harder chance of getting in, because there are so many of them. Each year, PMS will pick a stylized improv form, and then spend the year practicing it until the marathon. They then get in, because the marathon is lacking the improv form they’ve chosen. This year, PMS chose to do a Harold-in-the-dark; an improv set without any visuals, and typically done in pitch darkness.
THURSDAY, JUNE 23
If you’re going to DCM, but also want to make the most out of your time in New York, I can only really recommend that you get it done before it actually starts. That’s why we flew in a day early.
Due to the tedious nature of flying anywhere in a group, our flight was at five in the morning. Because bad ideas always sound easy, we all agreed it would be best if we didn’t go to bed, leave our respective places at two in the morning, and meet at the airport.
Timing is key in traveling; it’s always better to be early than late. Timing is also a bitch, and causes you to check into your hotel seven hours before you’re allowed into your room. Lucky for us, the kind people at one of the many Manhattan Days Inn Hotels let us leave our luggage in a back room while we waited.
We only went in with one major goal for our day off. By request of one of our team members, we had to go see NBC Studios.
Everything in NBC is big, shiny, and expensive. But between you and me, reader, the best things in life are free. If you hang around the NBC gift shop long enough, you can get standby tickets to see a monologue rehearsal, or even a full show. Not only did my group and I manage to see Seth Meyers test jokes for Late Night, but we got to sit in the audience for the actual show that night. It’s all about patience, and having someone with you who can squeeze out sweet, sly information from the NBC pages. The guests for the show we had were Aubrey Plaza (Parks and Rec), Samira Wiley (Orange is the New Black), and author Neil Gaiman (American Gods, Coraline).
My goal for my first Del Close Marathon, was to go. Fucking. Hard. After getting my performer’s pass, I never went back to my hotel, and saw a total of 42 shows in three days.
The marathon runs in blocks - typically, you get in line, and get into one of the theaters. A block of shows will run for a few hours, and then everyone will be asked to leave for a theater cleaning. Then the next block starts. During shows, as people leave, those waiting in the lines are brought in, to keep each space at fullest possible capacity.
I got about two hours of sleep inside UCB’s Chelsea theater (At five in the morning, everyone’s tired. As long as you sleep somewhere in the back, no one minds), and didn’t sleep again until I was back in my apartment in Chicago.
Now, of those 42 shows, not one of them was awful. I can’t exactly talk about 42 groups, though, so the following are my personal highlights, based on how much I can remember through a total lack of sleep and many, many bottles of Brooklyn Summer Ale.
FRIDAY, JUNE 24
WUCB: Radio In the Dark
On my list of celebrities to see with my own two eyes, Ben Schwartz (House of Lies) was right on top. Lucky for me, I saw his first show - which is done completely in the dark. I didn’t get the best seat for this one, but under the circumstances, I guess it didn’t matter. Alongside Schwartz was the equally talented Gil Ozeri (Brooklyn Nine-Nine). The format is done in a radio style, with new scenes cued by static noises, or Schwartz singing the chorus to Uncle Kracker’s Drift Away, ending it each time with a catchy “Fuck you-u-u-u.” One shining moment Schwartz and Ozeri dealt with a heckler by having the whole audience sing a few bars to the offender.
Fucked Up Broad City
Hosted by Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobsen, the show also featured other Broad City cast members, as well as additional writers for the show. I heard mixed opinions about their show last year, but I love the duo more than enough to even care. Jacobsen and Glazer hadn’t done improv since their show at last year’s DCM, and it showed in a lack of commanding the scenes (the two primarily choosing to do walk-on roles), but it was made up for by their unashamed personalities, and the other stellar performers. It’s also easy to forgive any mixed energy from the duo during this show, because everyone except for Chris Gethard (The Chris Gethard Show) was mad drunk, and for the first ten minutes or so, Glazer’s microphone didn’t work. The show’s shining moment was a kiss between Chris Gethard (as Macklemore) and John Gemberling (as Barack Obama), as prompted by D’Arcy Carden (playing the ghost of Richard Nixon).
Bobby Moynihan (Saturday Night Live) and Chris Gethard enter the theater space dancing to Busta Rhyme’s Don’t Touch Me (Throw Da Water On ‘Em), and then ended their show by pulling 20 people on stage and doing a scene - which wound up being about 20 people gathering together and peeling bananas. In retrospect, it felt pretty short, but was a well-needed pick-me-up between heavier, full-casted performances in the block’s line-up.
BroBroTime was one of the more straightforward shows I saw. It was a standard improv set with no real gimmick. A collection of young comedians, and ones slightly more older and wiser, it’s nice seeing UCB founding members Matt Walsh and Matt Besser being active in their own theater. I don't think it’s out of place for them at all, but it’s comforting to see that age doesn’t wear away at passion.
Snapchat The Show
Hosted by Ben Schwartz and Gil Ozeri, this was a fun 15 minute break, where everyone in the theater was invited to participate in Schwartz’ Snapchat story. One bit separated the audience into two groups: a shouting match against salt and kosher salt (followed by pepper, and kosher pepper).
SATURDAY, June 25
At 4:20 in the morning, Gil Ozeri and John Gemberling try to fall asleep, and get the audience to sing them a lullaby. It didn’t work out - everything sounded like a dirge, and at 4:20am, words are stupid sounds you leave tucked under your tongue until the daylight comes, but the pair were pretty cute trying to get their nap in.
Some of the fun in improv is when you pick on and call out your fellow members (kindly, of course). That's what Blank Check’s show was like. The premise is that the kid from the 90’s film Blank Check hired an improv team to do whatever he wants, and the show was him side-coaching the other players, pushing relationships, and calling out what scenes he wanted to see.
Okay, so by the time I saw Juggalawyers, I was VERY tired, and the marathon was getting into it’s more stranger flavors. It’s five in the morning, and I’m sure I’m having a fever dream, but oooh no, I’m watching Juggalawyers. They are Juggalos, and lawyers. Improvising a court case in full face makeup.
Bangarang’s premium show, hosted at the theater in the School Of Visual Arts, was hands down the best show I saw. With flawless teamwork, they’ll make you want to call them out for faking it. I really hate this phrase, but they have the best “one group mind” in improv I’ve seen yet. I had the good fortune of sitting in the front row, and there’s something magical about laughing so hard you think you’re going to start convulsing at Lauren Lapkus’ feet. The shining star for me, however, was Betsy Sodaro (Animal Practice). She has a wicked kind of charm, which makes her a fun player to watch. She spent nearly the entire show as “hot-mess” Cate Blanchett. All things said and done, Bangarang makes me want to be a better player.
SUNDAY, JUNE 26
To Catch A Predator: Improv Edition : Volume 18 (Is too old of an age)
A fun swinging-door style show, with guests coming out one by one as costumed predators getting caught by “Chris Hansen.” The golden moment of this show was John Gemberling (Broad City) coming out wearing nothing but pantyhose, both on his legs and over his head, pulling out baby carrots stored near his crotch, and throwing them into the audience.
The OJ Simpson Talk Show
There’s something about the OJ trials that just sticks with America. There’s his book, If I Did It, the trial recreation in American Crime Story, and most recently, the documentary, O.J. Made In America. Now, the trials were just barely before my time, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t appreciate this show. In it, Shaun Diston as O.J. Simpson hosts a talk show, with Fred Goldman Sr. (Connor Ratliff) as his sidekick, who’s still mourning his son’s death.
Wicked Fuckin’ Queeyah
I heard nothing but good things about this team, and they did not disappoint. Wicked Fuckin’ Queeyah is a parody of what happens when a group of terrible, awe-inspiringly awful people from Boston get together to do improv. They really hate the Yankees, and someone will always be pegged as Matt Damon. It almost plays out like a really good, old (OLD) twenty minute cut-away gag from Family Guy. Five stars, ten out of ten.
If there’s any lesson I’ve learned while performing at DCM, it would probably be that personal performance suffers from personal pressure. Like any other person, the more I worry about how well I’m going do, the worse off I am. I rarely choke in front of a normal audience, but performing in front of mainly other improv players is such a shoddy feeling, because they know how everything needs to be structured, and can catch when something’s not up to par. Comedy can be brutal, especially when you can hear how badly you’re doing by how quiet the audience is. Building up the potential of that silence in your head before a show is the worst, because, at least for me, it translates into being silent on stage.
I’ve been a guest player for PMS before, and though they are always welcoming, I’m consistently reluctant to be in the forefront of a scene. Their brand of humor is different than that of my team’s, and I don’t want to infringe on their style of play, or take away from their team dynamic. PMS, almost as a tie-in to their name, tend to maintain a madcap, childlike-in-nature theme, with scenes that typically pit a pure, innocent figure with something wicked. Nixon’s Neverland, meanwhile, is rooted more in our personal relationship as a team. Our goal is usually to make each other break and laugh, so we work our scenes around in-jokes, and jabs at each other’s personalities. That, though, can be hard when you’re mixed in with a team you don’t know as well.
I feel that performance tips are so, so subjective. However, if you’re an improv player, all that matters, no matter where you’re performing, is that you’re on a team with good, kind friends, and you’re having fun when you’re on stage. Whether your show is great or a total bomb, you’re going to learn something from it that will, without a doubt, help you grow as a player.
Contact Ale by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter here.
All photos courtesy of Ale Domeier.