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Del Close Marathon superstars commemorate the improv marathon's 15th anniversary

Amy Poehler, Nick Kroll, Chris Gethard and many more reflect on a decade and a half of nonstop improvised madness

Though it’s grown larger and more diverse over the past decade and a half, the guiding principle of the annual Del Close Marathon remains the same: To honor Chicago improv guru Close, teams of improvisers from New York and elsewhere perform, one after the other, for at least 24 hours straight (with the help of energy drinks, booze and other intoxicants). Past performers and audience members are familiar with the DCM’s incomparable mix of laughs, thrills, weirdness and general bacchanalian revelry; here, Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre performers share moments they can’t forget—or had help remembering later. 

Nick Kroll: The DCM is the closest thing I’ve experienced to Woodstock—in part because it makes me feel like I’m part of a real artistic community and partly because I’m naked and on acid the whole time.

Amy Poehler (UCB Four): Early DCMs, our first ones, were only 24 hours.  It was inspired by this great thing in Chicago called the Abbie Hoffman Festival, and they would stay up all night. So for the first couple [DCMs], my memories are just me staying up for 24 hours, because I was probably in 25 of the 45 shows. A lot of the memories are really drunken. Backstage was always as fun as onstage.

James Eason (of improv group Mother): It was maybe DCM 2 or 3, and Mother was the current Cagematch champ and was automatically in the DCM Cagematch. Scot [Armstrong] had… talked [Matt] Walsh, Horatio [Sanz] and Amy [Poehler] into sitting in with us. Apparently, on the way [to the theater], Horatio ordered pizza and wings from Domino’s. There we are having a great time playing with these improv idols, and the Domino’s pizza guy walks in. Horatio pays for it all and starts passing out pizzas to the crowd. Then he holds up the box of chicken wings. The crowd goes nuts. Horatio drop-kicks the wings into the audience. After the show, I saw Amy trying to appease an irate woman who’d gotten covered in awful, greasy chicken wings. Ever since then, it's been part of the pre-show [Cagematch] announcement [forbidding players from kicking chicken wings into the crowd].

Mike Still (Death by Roo Roo): The marathon has all sorts of shows that are just so strange. And  [John] Gemberling—I think this was 2010— had a show called Babies and Mommies, and everyone onstage had to either be a baby or a mommy. It was so creepy. I had borrowed a robe from my girlfriend at the time. Seth Morris was playing a baby, and he was like, “Hey, can I borrow your bathrobe tie?” And I was like, “Sure,” and I give it to him. He went out completely naked except for an umbilical cord—that was the tie thing. But in order to affix it to himself he had it in his ass crack, so I was worried I was going to get in trouble with my girlfriend at the time when she saw that her bathrobe was in Seth Morris’s ass.

Shannon O’Neill (Optimist International, the Stepfathers): My very first DCM was 2001, and I participated in a show called Substance Abuse. The premise was [that] everyone in the group would abuse a substance anytime an audience member yelled it out. Some of the substances were diet pills (just candy), absinthe (just beer, I think), Manischewitz, man come (icing)—mine was tequila—real-deal, cheap-ass Jose Cuervo. The show was Saturday at 6am, and I had been interning the entire night before. Around midnight, Amy Poehler asked if I wanted a beer, and I couldn’t say no. Six a.m. rolls around, I’ve been awake all night, the rest of my team came to the theater just for the show, and there I was, black-out drunk. There were about ten people in the audience; four of them were my friends shouting, “Tequila!” any chance they got. Long story short, I got offstage and puked in a trash can, and when I arrived back at the theater around 7pm the next night, Susan Hale, the manager at the time, looked me in the eyes and said, “You were supposed to be my good intern.”

Chris Gethard (Optimist International, the Stepfathers): [Substance Abuse] quickly ascended—some would say descended, but I think those people don’t know art—into Shannon screaming and crying, interrupting every scene, giving long monologues about her childhood interspersed with hard-to-decipher fantasies about a unicorn and ended with her dragging a garbage can to the edge of the stage and repeatedly vomiting into it. I am not being facetious when I say it was one of the greatest comedic performances I’ve ever seen.

Andy Secunda (The Swarm, the Stepfathers): The thing I love about the marathon is that regular improv shows are already by definition a little loose, but during the marathon literally anything that comes into your head can be a show. Besser had commented to Michael Delaney and I that all of our scenes had become so talky that we looked like our shoes were nailed to the floor. It’s not something either of us was proud of since object and space work are essential to good improv, but in the marathon you can take a legitimate critique and turn it into a challenge, which turned out to be immensely fun in Nailed Down (wherein our shoes are actually nailed to the stage). Then Will Hines, John Gemberling, Anthony Antamanuik and I came up with the Chairmen, in which we were seated in all of our scenes. I guess I’m slowly working toward being completely motionless in a show called Bedridden and then maybe ComaProv.

Ian Roberts (UCB4 Four): For one of the marathons, someone had purchased a combination beer cooler/scooter. You could basically get on this cooler and ride it around. The UCB Four did a show in which we rode this cooler around quite a bit. The show ultimately degenerated into my lying down on the stage with a piece of plywood on top of me so that someone—Matt Walsh?—could try to ride the beer cooler over me. I honestly don’t remember if this worked or not.

Paul Scheer (Respecto Montalban, Facebook): I started doing an improvised version of Match Game ’76 in the second year of DCM. I was Gene Rayburn, everyone else picked a ’70s celeb, we re-created the show and [Jack] McBrayer played one of the contestants. Every year the characters got more and more insane and the behavior got worse and worse. Beer was spit, fistfights broke out,  balls were placed on people’s faces and Brooke Shields even played herself one year. But the best part of Match Game is that all that bad behavior is directed at Jack. It’s the one time in a year where people hate the most lovable guy in the world—with a passion. Even the audience boos him when he gets onstage. The show has devolved into just an utter destruction of Jack. We must continue to do it until Jack is killed onstage. 

Jack McBrayer (Optimist International): I knew every single player on that stage, and I knew that every single one of them would never, ever do anything to truly hurt me. It was just utter, ridiculous, chaotic fun.

Jesse Falcon (Mother): One year, in the middle of Match Game—I was Dr. Zaius— Rob Huebel ran onstage in a Bigfoot costume and wrestled me offstage. It was strange, and not part of the show, but [then] he leaned into me and whispered, "The girl you came with is passed out in the bathroom."

Matt Walsh (UCB4 Four): I love the early morning shows where things get crazy, like Robot TV, Drunken Sonic Assault and Dar Silicon. I also like interviewing the hard-core fans who have stayed for every show during the marathon. They seem to be in a haze of improv.

Matt Besser (UCB Four): The first year, Drunken Sonic Assault was, like, four hours or something, because we had to kill time. It’s basically cranking industrial music and people just doing whatever they want. There were some breasts that came out. I’m not sure if it was the first year, the second or the third, but I think it got the guys hyped up in general: Hey, this is like rock & roll—breasts are going to come out. But I think since that time, it has been a heavy stream of penises.

Ari Voukydis (Beautiful Cop, Pound): Wicked Fuckin’ Queeyah was dreamed up, drunkenly, about 15 years ago at [Peter] McManus [Cafe] by Amy Poehler, Rob Corddry and myself. All three of us are from the greater Boston area, and all three of us have worked hard to eliminate that accent, but it comes out whenever we get really drunk or angry. So one of us had the idea that we do a show as, basically, people we didn’t like in high school. The rules of WFQ are that we have to use our native accents, drink out of tall boys the whole time, every scene has to end in a fight and no scene can be about Boston—the “cast” of the show (an improv team called FunnyBeans from North Adams, Massachusetts) thinks they’re a lot smarter and edgier than they probably are. But the real secret to the show is that the audience only sees the second half. The “show” starts half an hour beforehand in the green room and just kind of spills out onto the stage. On the way through the curtain onto the stage during the debut at DCM 1, Amy punched me in the arm and said, “Dude, that pahty was fuckin’weak. Your friends ate all my Steak-umms and raped me. [Beat] But it was okay, ’cause one of them was wicked hot and I got a ride home.”

Joe Wengert (Dillinger, Krompf):
 One of the first years of Krompf breakfast, we cooked everything at Ryan [Karels]’s place in Brooklyn and I remember either driving or cabbing a big pan of hot eggs over the bridge into Manhattan. The next year, we got a little bolder and cooked everything on camping stoves in the green room which is a really, really, really stupid idea. If you tell any of us early on Saturday night that you can’t wait for Krompf breakfast, you are guaranteeing yourself to miss it.

Billy Merritt (The Swarm, the Stepfathers): What many don’t realize [about the DCM] is the injury factor. You will not come out of the weekend without at least severe dehydration and a nasty cold. I’ve seen mild concussions, broken wrists, blood noses, nasty cuts, broken hearts and borderline alcohol poisoning. In his early days at the UCB, Rich Sommer [of Mad Men fame] worked one of the DCMs as an intern/bartender in the backroom area bar. The room is a swamp: no ventilation, smoky and hot. In his eagerness to get more beer to the backroom, he slid on the wet floor and banged his head on one of the low hanging pipes. We all laughed and laughed… until we realized he got a slight concussion. His girlfriend took him to the emergency room, despite his protests—he wanted to finish out his intern shift.

John Gemberling (Death by Roo Roo, Monkeydick): It was at least six or seven years ago, and a bunch of us were hanging out in the wayyyy back[stage area]. I was there, as was Joe Wengert, Matt Besser and Rob Riggle. Everyone was probably extremely drunk. Except me: Alcohol tends to give me a tummy ache. I was probably high, though. And I’d definitely done whippits. Rob Riggle had transformed into his drunken alter ego named Johnny Hotglove, and Matt was egging him on for his own amusement. Somehow he came around to this plan: Joe and I would wrestle Riggle on a weird, dirty mattress in the corner. So we all got on our knees on this disgusting mattress (I really can’t imagine what this fucking mattress was doing there), and Besser yells “GO!” and Riggle just smashes into us like the Mack Truck of a human being that he is. I remember Joe's placid, Alfred E. Newman face as he just accepted defeat and got up off the mattress to resume his evening. His fuckin' face never changed the whole time! I guess he probably was pretty high. I determined, in that moment, to defeat the monster mountain that was Riggle. “I may be smaller, but I’m strong, and I’m quick!” I thought. “I’ll grab him and use my strength to force his drunk ass to the mat!” Riggle just fell on top of me and pushed my face into the mattress. My strategy quickly changed. “I’ll just wait here with my face in the mattress until he gets tired. I am an immovable stone!” I guess I was a little confused on the rules. Riggle was quickly declared the winner.

Matt Donnelly (Neutrino, Possible Side Effects): Possible Side Effects took [the DCM] quite seriously. In maybe ’99 or ’00, we arrive a little early for our 2 a.m. slot and we hear that Chris Kattan is at the theater. This was the old theater in the old days, so having a celebrity show up was a big deal. Then, backstage, we hear Chris Kattan join whoever is onstage in the 1:30 a.m. slot. “How exciting!” we think. We sneak around to watch: Mr. Kattan is sweaty (coke), red-faced (drunk), hyper (coke) and entering every single scene. Suddenly, we are scared: We don’t want this to happen to us. We think it is exciting to perform with an SNL cast member, but not at the expense of our show. We begin our show and [there’s] no sign of Mr. K. Then, after 5 minutes, we hear him rumbling backstage like a rat who has found his way into the insulation of a wall. We stay calm and focused on the show after a brief exchange of Uh-oh looks on the back line. Finally, about ten minutes in, Chris Kattan bursts onto the stage and interrupts screaming, “Could you please keep it down? I am trying to watch Splash!” One guy in our group pretends to close cabinet doors in front of [Kattan’s] face and turns to the other guy [onstage] and says, “Sorry you had to see that.” The audience roars with laughter. Chris is embarrassed and leaves the stage. The next scene we make references to the high and lows of cocaine and get more roars. We had a great show.

Chris Gethard (Optimist International, the Stepfathers): My personal favorite performance I’ve ever put on was as part of a group called 5 Dudes. One year for the marathon, it wound up being just me, Bobby [Moynihan], and Eugene [Cordero]. They brought a giant watercooler jug onstage and said it would take the place of Charlie Sanders during the show that night. At one point, they set up a scene where the water jug was my therapist and then left me onstage. I wound up improvising with it, doing a heartfelt therapy session, for close to the entirety of our half-hour set. At one point I glanced backstage and both Eugene and Bobby were staring at me with grins on their faces while Bobby chain-smoked cigarettes. I look back on it and realize it’s actually the best scene I’ve done in 13 years of improvising. There’s a great picture of it hanging in the green room at UCB Chelsea—I don’t know who took it, but I’m glad it’s there. Anytime a young improviser asks me about it, I just say, “That water jug was the best scene partner I’ve ever had,” and refuse to explain any more.

Alex Sidtis (UCB Theatre managing director): Among the UCB staff it’s unclear whether the Del Close Marathon is more loved or feared. It is literally like preparing for the funniest storm you could imagine—chairs and performers have been known to take to the air. The day after it’s over is always a relief, but I miss it immediately.

The Del Close Marathon begins Fri 28 at 4pm and ends sometime before midnight Sun 30; visit delclosemarathon.com for details.

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