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Del Close, who taught long-form improvisation to John Belushi, Gilda Radner and Dan Aykroyd in the '70s in Chicago, passed away in 1999. But his memory lives on for 72 straight hours of improv each year in the city through the Del Close Marathon, which was started by the Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB) the year Close died. The improv marathon kicks off on Friday and runs until Sunday at midnight.
"He lived his life to make improv an art form unto itself," said Matt Walsh, one of the founders of the Upright Citizens Brigade, "not just a tool to develop material, but to make it an audience-worthy show. I think that's what he dedicated his life to and I think he's someone that over the years has trained some of the best comedians we know who are working now in film and television."
Walsh founded UCB with Matt Besser, Amy Poehler and Ian Roberts. Together, they brought their long-form improv -- so-called because a group riffs off an audience suggestion for sometimes an hour at a time -- and sketch comedy shows from Chicago to New York in the late '90s.
"You can spontaneously create a piece of comedy that sustains itself without a script or a plan for a long time," he said. "I think it's pretty amazing that people can get onstage without any idea of where it's going and captivate an audience with it."
The founding members of the UCB will be kicking things off during the marathon's press conference at 4:30 P.M. They'll also be performing (minus Poehler) on Saturday and on Sunday.
Other highlights of this year's marathon, according to Walsh, include performances by The [Doug] Benson interruption, Match Game '76 (which will include over 50 celebrity impressions from people who famous in the 1976), THE COLBERT REPORT Writers: Seize The Mustard, DERRICK Comedy, Horatio Sanz & The Kings of Improv, and the musical improv group Baby Wants Candy.
All total, 150 groups from New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston, Washington DC, Chapel Hill, Raleigh, Austin and Philadelphia will perform. Groups from Asia, Europe and Canada will also be taking the stage. As in years past, the marathon's shows will be performed at multiple venues in Chelsea — the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, the Hudson Guild Theatre, the Urban Stages, and the Kate Murphy Amphitheater and Haft Auditorium at F.I.T.
One of the groups performing at the Hudson Guild Theatre on Sunday at 7 P.M. is Mother (pictured right), a group founded 13 years ago at the UCB theater. Mother will be doing its own take on long-form improv called "The Soundtrack."
"We gather iPods [from audience members] and we have a DJ, and the DJ actually starts to put a soundtrack out from the music collected from the audience and then we improvise around that," said Jesse Falcon), who works at Marvel Comics and has performed with Mother for the past 12 years. "When the music changes, we then have to follow the mood of the music to change the course of the scene. It's kind of 'Follow the Leader' a little bit — with music. It's a lot of fun."
Erin Whitehead, who lives in Los Angeles, will also be performing at the Hudson Guild Theatre on Saturday at 9:30 P.M. with a new improv group called Kid Grift.
"We're the eager beaver, newbie team," she said. "But we gelled really fast and love playing together and do really, like, high-energy, fun shows."
Whitehead said during its show, Kid Grift would ask for a suggestion for a skit idea from the audience, and then base three two-person scenes and one group scene around that theme.
"There's something so fun about walking out with a bunch of people and knowing like, 'We're going to put on an entire 30-minute show and things are going to come back and it's going to have themes and we have no idea what they're going to be until we get that word from the audience," said Whitehead, who got her start at a short-form improv group at Emerson College called This is Pathetic.
Whitehead will also be performing on the UCB Theatre stage on Sunday at 3 A.M. with a group she started called John Hughes-prov!. During the show, each comedian plays a John Hughes character in improvised scenes.
DC Pierson (center in the photo at left), who is part of DERRICK Comedy, which performs on Saturday at 8:30 P.M. on F.I.T.'s Kate Murphy Amphitheater stage, has long been a fan of the Del Close Marathon.
"The image that comes to mind when I think of the marathon is like the sweaty back underground hallways of the UCB theater just being, like, crammed with sweaty improvisers who either have gone on or are about to go on or are just kind of like hanging out and doing bits and associating in the largely-alienating-to-outsiders way that improv comedians tend to do," he said. "It's kind of a big party as well as an artistic celebration."
At the marathon, DERRICK Comedy will be doing a form called a "montage," during which comedians will get an audience suggestion and do scenes based off that suggestion for between 45 minutes and an hour.
Pierson added that what he loved about improv what that it was the spontaneity of live theater on overdrive.
"It really is, like, this one night, this one thing, this one audience, this one ensemble, and it's never going to happen again," he said, "even if it gets taped or even if you try to tell your friend about it on Monday, it never really works.
Del Close Marathon shows start (roughly) every half hour from Friday at 6 P.M. through Sunday at midnight. A marathon pass costs $25, and $12 tickets to the F.I.T. shows are sold separately. To see a schedule of Del Close Marathon shows, click here.
Members of Kid Grift performing in July. Pictured (left to right): Jason Sheridan, Erin Whitehead and Anthony Gioe.