SXSWorld March 2016 – Film & Interactive


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4 4 S X S W o r l d | F I L M / I A M A R C H 2 0 1 6 | S X S W. C O M he arrival of improv as an essential genre of live comedy in many major cities is a relatively new phenomenon. While many people's first intro- duction to improv is reruns of Whose Line Is It Anyway, those short-form games have little to do with what groups like the Upright Citizens Brigade have made famous, which is much more like sketch comedy being written entirely on the fly. Although long-form improv has often had difficulty finding a mainstream audience, it has a bigger presence at this year's SXSW. In addition to the premiere of Robert Klein Still Can't Stop His Leg, at which the legendary comic will be in attendance, Mike Birbiglia is premiering Don't Think Twice, a film centered around an improv group star- ring Gillian Jacobs, Keegan Michael-Key and UCB staple Chris Gethard. The UCB will be well-represented, with founders Matt Besser and Veep star Matt Walsh returning for live shows and podcasts. This includes flagship show ASSSSCAT, in which top UCB performers are inspired by celebrity monologists such as past SXSW guests Jeffrey Tambor and Girls star Andrew Rannells. And finally, a film about the man who in many ways started it all, Thank You Del: The Story Of The Del Close Marathon, makes its debut at SXSW. "When you watch comedy on TV or a movie or online, there is a good chance that the person who created it was either directly trained by Del or trained using Del's methods," Thank You, Del director Todd Bieber explains. "Also, improv theaters are popping up all over the world." That fact is evident in the documentary, which shows improvisers from every where from Missouri to Japan coming to New York for the annual non-stop, three-day improv marathon that has been held for 17 years in a row. The festival aims to honor Close, one of the fathers of longform improv with the group The Committee back in San Francisco in the 1960s, and possibly one of the most important people in comedy that nobody knows about. He honed his skills at Chicago's Second City, where improv was mostly used for inspiring written sketches, until partnering with Charna Halpern in the '80s at Improv Olympic. His work, especially at Second City, allowed him to impact gen- erations of comedians, including Saturday Night Live alums Bill Murray, John Belushi, Mike Myers, Chris Farley, Tina Fey and UCB co-founder Amy Poehler. He elevated improv comedy to a low-budget art form before he passed away in 1999, the same year that the UCB got its own sketch show on Comedy Central. "When I started doing improv in my 20s and younger, I had never even heard the word, much less seen it," Besser remembers. "These days, I would at least think everybody knows what it is, even if they haven't seen it. And in sitcoms and comedy movies, it's a tool that everyone recognizes and uses now, especially directors like Adam McKay and Judd Apatow." The film interviews famous comedians as well as the students and aspiring performers that give UCB its cult following. Those who study its methods worship Close, for better or worse—in the docu- mentary, Ian Roberts recalls him having classes chant at long length, and Poehler calls him a "Groov y Cult Man." There are also many "isms" to go along with studying improv. Add overzealous, eccentric young performers, and it has the makings of a new age religion. "I do think the concept of finding the game, and learning how to do that and having an epiphany when you're finally able to apply that to your improv, is a kind of enlightenment, for sure. There really was a moment where it all clicked in, and I truly respect that philosophy and what it has meant to me in comedy," Besser said. Similar to the Bible, Besser pointed out that people often misinter- pret the words of Close and UCB to suit their needs, which is perhaps just another testament to their unyielding influence on comedy. Besser looks forward to bringing UCB shows back to SXSW, where he says, "The crowds are up to party and always have really great energy." That's one thing that the festival has in common with the Del Close Marathon: a raucous, party atmosphere that follows and encompases each performance. "One of my favorite DCM memories was at one the early mara- thons, when not as many people were there. We'd do stuff late at night that could be barely called an improv show, like just throw two mattresses on the stage and have people just wrestle for dominance," Besser recalled. "I remember Rob Riggle grabbing—I'm pretty sure it was Jon Gemberling, and maybe Chris Gethard—with one arm, holding both their heads like a sandwich onto the mat." He thinks that combination of experimental comedy and a party atmosphere sums up Close as well: "Although he was the biggest pro- ponent as improv as an art form, he also liked to party and have a good time. Those are the two sides of the Del Close Marathon." And as any SXSW Comedy attendee can attest, it's like that in Austin, too. T Thank You Del: The Story of the Del Close Marathon screens today (Sunday, March 13) and on Tuesday. Robert Klein Still Can't Stop His Leg world pre- mieres on Thursday. SXSW Comedy events run nightly through Saturday. See for full details. Improv's Unsung Hero Celebrated in Films and Live Shows by K atla McG lynn T A my Po e hle r a n d ot h e r s d u rin g t h e D el Clos e M a r a t h o n

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