I Watched 52 Hours of Non-Stop Improv
[The Wall Street Journal, 17 August 2009]
By Richard Morgan
Imagine seeing an improvised comedy team made up entirely of the ’86 Mets, or characters from “Lost,” or Bill Cosbys, or teenagers, or Jane Austen characters, or Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. Imagine a wet t-shirt contest between Rob Huebel and Jason Mantzoukas. DCMXI is not illiterate Latin; it’s the 11th Annual Del Close Marathon. Attendees didn’t have to imagine, whether they wanted to or not. This is not normal improv, and not just because it goes for more than two days and nights non-stop.
The Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, the godfather of comedic talent farms in the country, announced an expanded reach this weekend during their annual marathon to honor Del Close, a legendary instructor. Matt Besser, one of the creators of UCB, said the theater would take on an additional location in November in Manhattan’s East Village, at 3rd St and Avenue A – to be named UCB-East (the only other location is in LA) – and, he added, although it’s always hard to tell if such people are serious, that it would include a bar called “The Hot Chicks Room.”
Your dutiful blogger endured the entire 52-hour marathon, from Friday at 6 p.m. until Sunday at 10 p.m. – which would swing from hundreds of shoulder-to-shoulder, standing spillover onlookers to a low of 10 people (two of them asleep) at 6 a.m. on Sunday morning. Only three spectators also sat through the whole marathon. One of them, Nathaniel Oberstein, 21, a record assistant from New Jersey, was given a golden medal that read “Winner,” which he wore although his two friends didn’t.
“When it got hard to breathe from being so crowded, we were like ‘what are we doing?’ but it was worth it. You lose track of time, which means losing track of pain too,” said Blair Gerold, 21, a college student who was one of the three survivors.
Like entering the Playboy mansion’s Grotto or a pirate’s treasure cave, entering the underground theater requires a weird mix of bravado and idiocy. The stream of improvised, disposable humor can be inspiring; a 2 a.m. parody of the 1970s game show “The Match Game” moved two people to enjoy physical recreation in one of the dingy bathrooms, they later admitted when someone on stage inquired about romance during the event.
By far, the most enthusiastic audience responses came from a round of improvised Shakespeare – the first standing ovation – followed closely by a handful of improvised musicals. “Those shows seem impossible to perform,” said Anthony King, the artistic director of the theater. “And so to see those feats accomplished is impressive.”
Although enduring the marathon itself is its own kind of feat. “I had a Red Bull every four hours,” said Oberstein. “You have to see it all. It’s these guys who have all been best friends since before they were anybody, since they had day jobs, and at this marathon you can pay just $25 to see all of them together, where normally you’d spend hundreds seeing them all separately.”
The night included guest appearances by Jon Glaser, Wyatt Cenac, Jason Sudeikis, Sarah Silverman and more. “It’s a thinking man’s genre,” said co-founder Ian Roberts. “That’s not to say we don’t have fun. But you don’t say ‘I’m going to a bacchanal’ you look around and realize, ‘oh man, I’m in a bacchanal.’”
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