In the span of two hours you can see a stage shared by Sarah Silverman, current cast members of SNL, a man dressed as Yoda wearing only a Speedo, and an improv team who just got off the plane from Finland. "It's the Woodstock of improv comedy" comedian Doug Benson said as we stood outside the Upright Citizen's Brigade Theatre at three in the morning. It's now halfway through the Del Close Marathon in New York City. "It's like comic-con for theatre nerds." Benson goes on to explain the one of a kind experience that is the Del Close Marathon, "It's a three day marathon where you can see various improv groups performing 24/7, all day and all night. They are only given half an hour to perform (as opposed to the usual hour-hour and a half), so they're really scrambling to make you laugh before their time's done. It's a high pressure situation and since the performers are usually intoxicated at this hour (3am) it makes for a unique viewing experience."
This marathon of non-stop comedy is what over two hundred New York City locals line up around the street to see. The temperature is up to ninety degrees but dedicated fans still wait in line for their chance to see this rare three-day comedy spectacle. The Del Close Marathon brings a great blend of seasoned veterans, well-known comedians, and up-and-coming improv teams (both local and from around the world) to one underground black box theatre. However the Marathon wasn't always a three-day long, alcohol-fueled, improvised comedy Super Bowl. Backstage at the marathon I talked to Matt Walsh, Ian Roberts and Matt Besser, who are three-fourths of the original founding members of the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. They explained the trajectory of the Del Close Marathon to me. It was 5am Friday morning.
How long has the Del Close Marathon been going on?
Eleven years ago when the theatre was on 22nd street, it used to be only 24 hours. Now it has evolved into a three-day event. It started a year after Del Close passed away. He was a huge influence on modern improvisational theatre and the marathon was a way to keep his memory alive.
How do groups get into the Marathon?
We have groups from Japan to Finland applying. Getting a diverse group of improvisers is something that's really important to us. We get over a thousand applicants and it's whittled down to three hundred. We make sure that we end up with a unique mix.
What's your favorite aspect of the Marathon?
Improv doesn't get a lot of exposure. Sketch and stand-up dominate television. Improv doesn't have a lot of media attention. This gives people a chance to see some of the best improv from around the world, at one location. It's a great experience and the crowds get bigger every year.
There is a reason this dark theatre under a Gristedes grocery store is packed with over eighty people at five in the morning on a Saturday: everyone here has a passion for watching improvised comedy and wants to see the best improvisers from around the world perform. And, why not get drunk in a basement while they're at it?
Del Close combines a "best of" show for improvised comedy with the atmosphere of your friends' living room during the last hour of a New Years Eve party. More important, the marathon offers a very progressive opportunity for the comedy community. Doug Benson went into detail, "The giant magnitude of the Del Close Marathon lets lesser known groups get really good spots and gives them the opportunity to perform in front of a sold out crowd. This isn't something they can do every day. I think the Marathon is a lot like that Randy Jackson MTV show, "Americas Best Dance Crew". Just like Randy Jackson has dance crews that no one has ever heard of perform in front of a giant audience and get great exposure. UCB Theatre does the same thing for up and coming improv groups, except without the break dancing". While the Del Close Marathon may come off as a giant party, it offers more than just intoxication and laughs. It's a growing force in the improv community; an opportunity to see shows like "Yoda Hot Tub" where two comedians in Speedos interview a man dressed in green face paint about his love affair with his Asian mistress, Moda, and his sexual adventures with her.
It's a rare environment, one that successfully combines live theatre with a never-ending supply of Pabst Blue Ribbon.