The 14th Del Close Marathon: Now with more TV starpower

Gil Ozeri stared down Adam Pally for a few seconds that seemed to stop time.

Then Ozeri bum-rushed Pally and tackled him onstage.

That a sold-out crowd of 479 in the School of the Visual Arts Theatre looked on didn’t seem to deter them from turning their hourlong improv comedy show into a fight. After all, only a few moments earlier, Pally (one of the stars of ABC’s Happy Endings) had swung a chair that struck Ozeri (a writer for Happy Endings) in the face. Ben Schwartz (Showtime’s House of Lies; Jean-Ralphio on NBC’s Parks and Recreation), the third member of Hot Sauce, jumped into the fracas and eventually pried the two apart.

As they stumbled to opposite ends of the stage, Ozeri broke the silence: “Where are my spectacles?”

The audience laughed, nervously. Hot Sauce still had 15 minutes remaining to perform. They tried to regain some momentum, although fans of the three young men laughed just as easily at sloppy scene work and meta references post-fight.

A few hours later, Pally and Ozeri could laugh in the green room of the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre about their improvised wrestling match. Pally reminded Ozeri that he’d tossed Ozeri’s glasses aside before they rolled around. Ozeri noted his glasses had broken last time they tussled, then said he actually thought about tackling Pally harder. “I’d like to hear you go back into the (writers) room and have to say, ‘Shut it down. I killed Adam,'” Pally laughed.

None of this could have happened had the 14th Del Close Marathon not moved its dates back about six weeks from its typical mid-August weekend on the calendar to the end of June. The marathon is an annual celebration of Close, the late teacher of improvisation who created the Harold form and inspired the performers who created the Upright Citizens Brigade, and who in turn launched theaters and training programs in both New York City and Los Angeles.

And those UCB classes in improv and sketch comedy have produced more and more talent that you’re seeing on TV sitcoms and in the movies.

Five years ago, plenty of TV talent took to the UCB stage, scattered across various improv teams in the marathon. Back then, they all lived and worked in New York City productions such as Saturday Night Live, 30 RockThe Daily Show or Human Giant. Since then, more UCB regulars have moved to Los Angeles to take advantage of the Hollywood casting agents and pilot season, with much success. So much so, in fact, that last year’s DCM seemed lacking in starpower.

They fixed that this summer.

Matt Besser (far left), Ian Roberts (left), Matt Walsh (center right), Owen Burke (right) and Amy Poehler (far right) give advice to an audience member in "We Can Fix You." Photo by Peter Murphy.

Amy Poehler (Emmy-nominated this year for her star turn on NBC’s Parks and Recreation) rejoined her fellow UCB “Four” from their 1990s Comedy Central series for the first DCM in several years. Poehler not only performed on the traditional big-stage ASSSSCAT that closes out each marathon, but also sat in on the penultimate marathon show at the UCB Theatre in Chelsea — an actual therapy session for actual audience members called We Can Fix You.

Betsy Sodaro (on this fall’s Animal Practice on NBC) helped kick off the marathon on a Friday afternoon at the UCB Theatre with her Los Angeles group, Bangarang, which also includes Lauren Lapkus (NBC’s Are You There, Chelsea?).

Three hours later on that same stage, The Stepfathers delivered a virtuoso half-hour that was nothing short of brilliant, led by the initial offering of Zach Woods (NBC’s The Office), taking the audience suggestion of “rewind” to dizzying technical effect — stopping midway to actually rewind all of the performers through their previous motions, then restarting the previously improvised scenes, only this time with commentary from the back row.

In the marathon’s annual press conference, Matt Walsh (HBO’s Veep) said “there are conflicts that we do take into consideration” when trying to schedule each summer’s DCM. Last year, Comic-Con panels drew many performers away from New York City to San Diego, Walsh said.

At the same time, he and his fellow UCB founders are proud of their success stories.

Walsh offered another one: “I’ll say one guy who impresses me, because I saw him from never doing anything, would be Rob Riggle. Rob Riggle. U.S. Marine. They wanted him to stay in, re-up his enlistment. He told them if you can put me in either new york or L.A., I’ll stay, because at least there’s entertainment there. He comes to New York, takes his first class here at UCB, never performed, and he’s going to be a movie star. That’s pretty exciting.”

Matt Besser added: “What Rob Corddry did with Childrens’ Hospital, and how that’s a predominantly improvised show, and how he pretty much employed UCB people and his friends. I think that’s so cool, and such a great way to make television. The way he did it, starting a web series, becoming a television series, and full creative control. That’s very cool and very, I don’t want to say UCB, but the aesthetic of this theater and being able to make it onto TV is starting to make it to Adult Swim and IFC.”

“Paul Scheer did the same thing, has a show on Adult Swim,” Walsh said. “He has brought a lot of his friends and sensibility to that work. It’s neat to see him be so successful.”

Ian Roberts said he has first-hand experience right now of the UCB’s star-making system. “The show I work on now. The staff, everybody has an association with the UCB on the writing staff,” Roberts said. “Two of them have gone through the whole system.”

Riggle, amid preparations to host this year’s ESPYs at the time of DCM and co-starring in the upcoming film, The Watch, couldn’t make it this summer. Neither could Corddry.

Paul Scheer (right) presiding over Match Game '76 during the 14th Del Close Marathon at the UCB Theatre in NYC.

But Paul Scheer (FX’s The League) returned, carrying the lead as host on two of the marathon’s stalwart shows amid the post-midnight ridiculousness — Match Game ’76 and To Catch A Predator: Improv Edition. Scheer might not have looked or sounded like the late Gene Rayburn or Chris Hansen, but his ability to preside over a motley crew of oddball characters and outdated celebrity impersonators is unmatched.

Seth Morris (a podcasting favorite as Bob Ducca, and featured in the pilot for NBC’s Go On) showed up. As did Jason Mantzoukas (The Dictator, FX’s The League). Ari Voukydis even returned to hold down the ever-popular ode to Boston sports maniacs, Wicked Fuckin’ Queeyah. And Bobby Moynihan and Vanessa Bayer represented for the Saturday Night Live cast.

Of course, the Friday-to-Sunday marathon included hundreds of other performers from across America, and even from as far as Europe, converge on the UCB and New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood to celebrate the Harold and showcase their interpretations of it. The marathon grew so large in 2012 that they added three more venues, the two large theaters within the School of Visual Arts (SVA) a few blocks south of the UCB Theatre, and the UCB’s second NYC outpost, the UCBeast in the East Village. Even with all of the increased space for shows and space to see them, the line at the main UCB Theatre stretched longer than perhaps it ever had down West 26th Street on Saturday afternoon.

Comedy fans — and the visiting improvisers counted themselves as fans, too — stood willing to wait outside in the sticky summer heat for hours just for the chance to see their more famous colleagues improvise onstage. Which is something they could do in 2012 thanks to the bumped-up dates to the end of June.

“It really helped that they moved the date up,” Ozeri said, while waiting backstage during one of the nightly breaks in the action for a theater cleaning.

Production on the third season of Happy Endings begins at the end of July. With a happy Ozeri writing for a healthy Pally.

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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