Watching 56 straight hours of improvisational comedy could kill a man. Granted, a weak man. A man who had pre-existing diseases or was impaled by a chair, or something. But still, it's no easy feat.
Nevertheless, once a year, thousands of people line up outside New York City's Upright Citizen's Brigade Theater in Chelsea and seven other nearby spaces for the Del Close Marathon, a 56-hour comedy festival that takes place over a single weekend in June in honor of legendary Chicago improv teacher Del Close.
During DCM, dedicated comedy nerds stay up all night waiting for hours to see some of the funniest people in the world perform, all of whom got their start at UCB, a theater and school for improv and sketch comedy that was founded by Matt Besser, Matt Walsh, Ian Roberts, and Amy Poehler in the late 1990s. Since then, it's grown tremendously. The theater has helped launched the careers of dozens of writers and comedians, from Ed Helms to Donald Glover to Aubrey Plaza. Messy, exhausting, and always hilarious, DCM is Christmas for UCB performers and comedy fans, myself included.
This year I had the golden ticket (aka a press pass), meaning I got to skip lines and gain access into any show. I felt spoiled. I was riding first class all weekend, like a traitor to my comedy peers. To take advantage of this rare gift, I tried to see as many shows as possible. Here is a recap:
Day 1: Friday, June 27
11:22 a.m.: To prepare for the weekend, I try to sleep late. I get up around 11:30, which would be amazing if I didn't toss and turn throughout the night, haunted by my dream in which both Kumail Nanjiani and Leonardo DiCaprio were hitting on me in a bar. I was getting along better with Kumail, but then I was like, Wait a minute, that's Leonardo DiCaprio. He's super hot, or at least was in 1996. Paralyzed by indecision, I chose neither and left. This almost perfectly mimics my real dating life.
12:15 p.m.: I pack a bag with a book, my notebook, my press pass, some granola bars, two types of lipstick, and Band-Aids for the inevitable blisters I'll get. I wear a dress and new open-toed shoes with a heel because I love them, and I don't have to perform in any shows until tomorrow.
3:30 p.m.: The first event of the festival is a press conference. When I arrive the theater is already packed. When two UCB founders, Matt Besser and Ian Roberts, and honorary member Horatio Sanz (SNL), finally take the stage, the crowd erupts. Then there's the inevitable sigh of disappointment when they realize Amy Poehler and Matt Walsh aren't there.
The men riff, answer questions, and make fun of the press, saying things like, "Press who cover improv are inferior to the rest of the press." They also ask me a number of questions about what, exactly, the word "BuzzFeed" means.
Sanz deems "chaos" the theme of the weekend, and that seems appropriate.
"Now is the perfect time to start fucking things up," he says, and with that, the press conference ends, and the shows begin.
5:20 p.m.: I leave the theater and walk about 10 blocks to attend a cocktail party/red carpet press event. I grab a water and see a few of my old improv teachers and friends and catch up with them!
5:55 p.m.: I chat with Thomas Middleditch, the star of Silicon Valley and one of the best improvisers I've ever seen, and I ask him who is the funniest person he knows. He says probably his Silicon Valley co-star Kumail Nanjiani, and I blurt out "I had a dream about him last night!" He jokes, "You know he's married, right?" So good call not going home with him in that dream, me!
Thomas Middleditch (left) and Ben Schwartz (right)
6:15 p.m.: After spotting an eyelash on my face, Ben Schwartz (House of Lies, Parks & Recreation) grabs it and tells me to make a wish, and I do. He is remarkably charming and he knows it. He's like a real life, less obnoxious Jean Ralphio Saperstein (the character he plays on Parks & Rec).
6:27 p.m.: I ask Jason Mantzoukas (The League) how he would die in The Hunger Games and it immediately becomes clear that he has an extensive knowledge of all things Panem. He wants to know what district he's from, what resources he has, if Katniss is there, if he's his young self or if it's like Catching Fire where older people also participate, and what the arena is like ("Jungle? Water? Desert?"). He then decides he wouldn't die. He would win by outsmarting his peers. This is a very different answer than SNL star Bobby Moynihan's, who says he would die on the train on the way to the arena by eating himself to death.
6:46 p.m.: I talk to Ellie Kemper (Bridesmaids, The Office) and ask her for advice for young comedians. She tells me to focus on what you really want and never compare yourself to anybody else, because everyone has their own path. I want to give her a hug but instead I thank her and wish her luck with her shows.
Ellie Kemper (left) and Jason Mantzoukas (right)
6:58 p.m.: I interview my very first improv teacher, Jordan Klepper! I say, "Hi, I'm Alison from BuzzFeed, and also, you were my 101 teacher." He remembers me (or at least pretends to) and asks if I'm still taking classes (I say yes!), and then we chat about the amazing work he's doing as one of the Daily Show's newest correspondents.
7:56 p.m.: I head to the Chelsea Theater for a bit, which is the main venue for DCM. (There are several other venues for premium shows you need to pay extra to see, and then smaller theaters throughout the area to accommodate the high number of performances from out-of-town groups and UCB students.)
8:15 p.m.: See some bearded white guys in plaid. See bearded white guys in hoodies. See bearded white guys in button-down shirts.
8:44 p.m.: I run to a different theater to catch the last half of "fwand," a legendary group that performed at UCB from 2006 to 2008. I had never seen Ellie Kemper improvise, and she's a joy to watch. The show is weird and dark and great.
9:20 p.m.: I return to Chelsea. The theater is crowded and hot. I sit on the stage with my legs crossed and watch an out-of-town group called "Toldeo Rep." Then I see the NYC team "Bucky" with both SNL's Sasheer Zamata and Girl Code's Nicole Byer.
10:30 p.m.: Next up is "Convoy," an esteemed group from the UCB's Los Angeles branch. They are terrific and they do a set in which they explain the Prisoner's Dilemma accurately while keeping it funny and on game, and I get a big boner for it since I have a B.A. in political science and now dedicate a large portion of my time to improv comedy.
10:47 p.m.: Still sitting on the stage. Everything is starting to hurt. Why did I wear these shoes? Blisters already! Is it gross to put Band-Aids on my feet in public? I wait it out and do it later.
11:30 p.m.: I see "Middleditch & Schwartz" perform together and it's one of the best sets I've ever seen; their ability to listen to each other and follow the fun of a scene without losing commitment is a delight to watch. They lady and the tramp an imaginary sandwich. Middleditch plays a very convincing goat.
11:47 p.m.: Will anybody notice if I take off my shoes?
12:00 a.m.: "The Stepfathers!" They are one of the oldest groups in NYC and performed with their full cast, including Bobby Moynihan, whom I had never seen improvise. Let me just say, that guy is pretty great. So are their other veteran members, like Will Hines and Shannon O'Neil, and they have a fun set.
Day 2: Saturday, June 28
12:38 a.m.: Head to the party space. Very slowly. I hate these new shoes I just bought that I love.
12:49 a.m.: I get to the party space! It's a huge room performers frequent between shows that ensures everybody is drunk at night and exhausted during the day. I walk around trying to find people I know. I find them! I dance with my friend Joe who I always dance with... we have a whole routine. He dips me, and I knock into somebody who pours beer all over my dress (not usually part of the routine).
2:32 a.m.: I'm starving and leave to forage, but the taco place I was counting on is closed. I hold back my tears.
2:50 a.m.: Instead of going home, I return to Chelsea to watch late night bit shows, which are chaotic, messy, themed shows, all between five and 15 minutes long. Here's an example of what a classic bit-show — "Wicked Fuckin Queeyah" — looks like:
Find a seat and take my shoes off! Feels great! Then I see a the "AM Zoo Crew" show, which is a hilarious play on AM radio hosts. I see "Christmas In July," and "Dan Black Must Die," in which comedian Dan Black is taped to a chair by about 12 improvisers who wouldn't let him be in any scenes. I see Chris Gethard's "1986 Mets" show, and as always, I'm so impressed by that dude's ability to command any audience, at any time.
I leave around 4 a.m. Day 1 complete.
9:17 a.m.: A little girl starts screaming outside of my apartment. I try to go back to sleep but am fully awake by 11:30 or so and spend the next few hours plotting how to kill that girl.
1:15 p.m.: I have such an intense headache even though I'm not hungover. I decide to chill for a little bit, so I tan on my roof and pretend the gorgeous view I have of highway traffic is the ocean.
2:30 p.m.: I head to lunch in Park Slope and eat apple pancakes. My outfit today is shorts and an old T-shirt and sneakers because I learn from my mistakes.
3:45 p.m.: Level of tired: I try to walk through a subway turnstile without swiping my card.
4:32 p.m.: I arrive at Chelsea and immediately realize I missed Ellie Kemper and Christina Gausas' two-prov show and shake a fist at the gods/my stomach that demanded that I go eat pancakes. I see other fun shows instead, including a great two-person show with Zach Woods and Neil Casey (writer for SNL, Inside Amy Schumer, Nick Kroll Show).
6:00 p.m.: I see "Snowpants," a show hosted by Ben Schwartz featuring Horatio Sanz, Thomas Middleditch, Zach Woods, Bobby Moynihan, and a boy picked from the audience who had never done improv before. This show was so, so good, and Middleditch played both a hypeman for a Yarmulke salesman, and a female comedian known for her filthy Jewish humor.
Whoever the audience member was who improvised with the group gifted Bobby Moynihan as a superhero whose power was pulling cool things out of his shorts, so he should sign up for improv classes immediately. (This isn't a joke, I thought it was really funny).
7:00 p.m.: I had planned to leave to see "Gravid Water" — a show that was featuring Olivia Wilde, Jason Sudeikis, and others — but I have a seat in the second row of the Chelsea Theater, and it's way more crowded than yesterday. If I leave now, I won't be able to get back in.
Instead, I stay at the theater and see "Hot Sauce," the three-person improv group with Adam Pally (The Mindy Project, Happy Endings) Ben Schwartz, and Gil Ozeri, a writer on Happy Endings who is the least famous of the three, but very uniquely hilarious. Since Adam Pally isn't there, Schwartz and Ozeri replace him with a potato.
They do actual improv with the potato.
Later in the show, Ozeri's character convinces Schwartz's to eat the potato/Adam Pally.
Sorry I got caught up describing the potato bit. I really liked it.
8:00 p.m.: I see "Mike Birbiglia's Dream," a show hosted by the comedian Mike Birbiglia! The cast is stacked: Tami Sagher (Broad City), Mike O'Brien (SNL), John Lutz (30 Rock), Ellie Kemper, Zach Woods, Horatio Sanz, Bobby Moynihan, Christina Gausas, Chris Gethard, oh my! Zach Woods, like always, proves to be a fast, one-step-ahead player who can make any scene funny (Note to self: Petition for a Woods and Middleditch two-person show next year).
A highlight of this set is when Horatio Sanz throws what appears to be an actual bag of weed to Zach Woods on stage. Then Bobby Moynihan steals it and runs away.
9:00 p.m.: I had planned to go see "Improvised Shakespeare" because it's my all-time favorite improv show. But since I don't want to give up my seat, I skip it to see a one-hour monoscene by the self-proclaimed best improv team in New York, "Death By Roo Roo," and L.A.'s equivalent, "Your F'ed Up Family."
This show has everything: a naked guy playing guitar, a naked guy asphyxiating himself, a magician, a naked guy's butt, a naked guy sitting on another naked guy. (You get it.)
I end up staying for one more set, "The Smokes," and then leaving. If I could do it again, I would have gone to "Improvised Shakespeare," and then "Nick Kroll and Friends," I mean, LOOK AT THIS CAST FOR "NICK KROLL AND FRIENDS"! But hey, you can't have it all.
Day 3: Sunday, June 29
12 a.m.: I go to the space and p-a-r-t-y. It is so fun. It's a huge room with a DJ and all your friends. And then one of your comedy-heroes walks by and you realize you're not so far away from where you want to be, but also, being in this room doesn't actually put you any closer to achieving your goals. Then you get drunk and forget about that. I smoke weed with one of said comedy-heroes. I dance until I am inappropriately sweaty.
I see my friends Rachel and Anna who ran a DCM Fashion Instagram/Twitter! Regretfully, I did not make it onto DCM Fashion. Biggest mistake of the weekend. Not even in that damn shoe-dress combo I wore Friday.
3:20 a.m.: I perform in a bit show! It's silly and fun!
3:30 a.m.: Watch more bit shows. They're all sort of a blur. I remember a "Best Man Speeches" bit show. I also remember seeing a human man's balls on the stage at some point? The main theater is still packed at 5 a.m., and stays like that all morning.
5:00 a.m.: Leave the Chelsea Theater. It is getting light out.
5:17 a.m.: I see the sun rise, like a goddamn idiot.
6 a.m.: Arrive at UCB East, the other UCB theater in the East Village. See a lot of half-naked women doing an "Improvised Girls" show.
6:22 a.m.: So much blinking. Struggling so hard to stay awake, but I bet I could just push through until the morning and be fine.
6:40 a.m.: Perform in another bit show! HUGGEE audience at this point!! (Maybe seven people?)
7:10 a.m.: Re-thinking that whole "pushing through until morning thing." 10 a.m. is still three hours away.
7:12 a.m: Take a cab home and think it is pretty impressive I stayed up so late, until the friends I am with tell me they're planning to stay up all night and all day on Sunday. Feel like a failure. But whatever. You gotta do you, you know?
11:30 a.m.: Wake up. Take a shower. Get a massive coffee and take a train to Chelsea.
1:20 p.m.: Arrive at destination. The theater smells like sweat.
1:30 p.m.: Watch a whole bunch of shows. See the Manzoukas brothers. See the musical improv team "Baby Wants Candy." See Chris Gethard kiss Michael Kayne. See an incredible set by "Good Dad" that starts by Guy Code actor/terrific improviser Jon Gabrus waking up a sleeping audience member to ask him for a suggestion (the first thing he says is "UGH" and they go with that). I see at least two other (luckier) people who are still sleeping.
6:30 p.m.: This is the last show of the weekend at the Chelsea Theater and the premise is simple: Audience members go on stage, tell the founders of the UCB their problems, and they try to fix you. Apparently, I'm not the only one who has noticed the smell, because Ian Roberts brings out Febreze and starts spraying the audience and the stage.
For the first time that weekend, Amy Poehler appears at the theater and people freak out. Her advice is so genuine, kind, funny, and gracious ("Love the people who love you") and I adore her more than any other person I do not know at all.
7:30 p.m.: I'm exhausted, but I hold out to see "ASSSCAT," the longest running improv show in New York City that features all the best performers and a special guest monologist. For this show, it is Amy Schumer. She tells hilarious, clever, concise stories that inspire a great show. I see Amy Poehler perform improv for the first time this weekend and it's wonderful!
9:07 p.m.: "ASSSCAT" ends and I go get fro-yo because I've been sweating for about 34 hours.
9:19 p.m.: Fro-yo acquired. I return to the FIT theater for the late "ASSSCAT" show, which will have a different cast and monologues by Broad City's Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson. The cast is terrific, but I leave this show a little early.
11:15 p.m.: Time for bed!!!! My whole body aches. I can't wait to sleep. But hmm… then again… I get a text from my friend Cory who says the party is really fun right now... I could go back to the party space. This only happens once a year! People are having fun without me right now! OK. Yep. Let me just stop by for 20 minutes. I go back, like an idiot, for some quick sober fun. I realize that the best party probably happens on Sunday once everything is over, and I make a note to remember this for next year.
I wish DCM would never end. It is the best time I've had in months, but, like Christmas, I can only handle it once a year. Seeing and watching so many brilliant, committed, hilarious people inspires me to think about my own goals as a performer.
1:00 a.m.: I split a cab home with a friend, and then I finally fall into my bed, which has never felt better.