Philip Markle makes sure to tell me that the Brooklyn Comedy Collective never stopped paying performers during the pandemic.
“We were the first ones to do it and it proves that we put a value on original ideas,” Markle says, “No matter if it was an established performer, or a new one, everyone got paid.” Markle is the owner and artistic director at the four-year-old comedy theater in East Williamsburg. According to Markle, BCC splits proceeds from ticket sales with performers, which he calls a rare chance for amateur and emerging performers to actually make money from their comedy.
Last month, Markle had kicked off the inaugural “Fun And Dumb Improv Festival,” a three day event that booked over 300 improvisers to perform at Eris, an event center around the corner from “The Dog House,” which is the name of the club’s new 2,500 square foot studio and classroom space on Montrose Avenue.
“Maybe a ‘community rec. center’ is a good analogy for ‘The Dog House,’” Markle tells me. Speaking of dogs, visitors there are greeted by a toy bichon frise standing atop a greek column in the former studio’s glass storefront. A bedazzled outline of a dog bone also hangs on the aqua- blue wall above a seating area inside. Across from the bone, a clock hangs with a post-it note stuck to it that reads: “Clock.”
Improv is the art of making stuff up on the spot. Markle likes to emphasize that improv is best when it is simplified. “Everybody is just as dumb as the next person,” he tells me.
The “Fun And Dumb” fest had featured everything from the musical improv troupe Baby Wants Candy to other popular Brooklyn acts like Ladies Who Ranch and A Crazy Amazing Friendship. Some of these teams came from as far away as Berlin and Los Angeles. Markle estimates that total attendance approached a thousand people, with most of them gathered around a central hundred-person capacity stage, and others in the smaller downstairs sixty-person theater.
That weekend, the Tevin Campbell song “I 2 I” – recognizable from the soundtrack of Disney’s 1995 A Goofy Movie – could be heard playing well over a dozen times. As I listened to it over and over again, I realized that it combined the perfect amount of fun—with its ‘90s new jack rhythm—and just the right amount of dumb—to serve as the weekend’s theme song.
Performers and audience members told me the festival stirred memories of the now-dormant Del Close Marathon, another three-day improv festival put on by the Upright Citizens Brigade. “Del Close ran 24/7,” Will Braithwaite, a performer with improv troupe Go Dummy, told me, adding that the performances got increasingly more eccentric in the early morning hours and with increased intoxication.
“[These] feel a little more controlled, and higher quality shows,” says Braithwaite.
The Del Close Marathon had run annually until going on hiatus during the pandemic, and then officially shutting down after the owners of UCB – Amy Poehler, Matt Besser, Ian Roberts, and Matt Walsh – decided to sell the theater and training center to Elysian Park Ventures, a venture capital firm, amid the ongoing pandemic. Another Chicago improv theater and training center, Second City, went a similar way last year, in a sale to New York-based venture capital firm ZMC.
Markle told me that he had no strong opinions on these sales.
“It could be a fresh start,” he says, in reference to UCB’s new ownership at Elysian Park. He said that plenty of new independent theaters have grown from the ashes of other shuttered comedy clubs. In 2013, Markle moved from Chicago to New York to open a New York location for a Chicago club called the Annoyance Theater, which then closed in 2018. Now, he’s doing this.
Opening new clubs, he says, is part of the spirit of breaking rules and giving the audience something “cuckoo, wild, and weird.”
“Anytime you put something on a pedestal, it takes the fun out of it,” he claims.
Outside of Eris that weekend, crowds spilled out onto the sidewalk under clouds of marijuana. Performers gathered in between shows at The Dog House. A mobile speaker blasted music, and “I 2 I” made its way over from Eris, too. Crushed Pabst Blue Ribbon cases started to form a pile near the recycling bin. On Saturday night, the NYPD even made an appearance to ask Markle to keep the noise down. The next morning, the encounter is posted to the club’s Instagram page. Markle laughs when I ask him about it the next day. “It was fine. The cops were nice. They just asked us to move the party to the back.”
Many of the performers and attendees I talked to at the festival came to New York after the worst of the pandemic had passed.
“I don’t know if the pandemic is a turning point,” Markle tells me when I ask. Improv, perhaps, requires a present state of mind and thinking about past or future events will ruin a scene. “It’s about the immediacy of the moment,” he tells me. “Every show is one night only.”
The Brooklyn Comedy Collective is located at 137 Montrose Avenue and they hold shows at an event space called Eris, at 167 Graham Avenue. Check out their schedule of upcoming events here.
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