To the members of iO West, the Del Close Awards Ceremony is like an improv prom. This past Monday, Aug. 27, the comedians of Improv Olympic convened at their Hollywood theater to celebrate the 6th Annual Del Close Awards, which, according to the event planners, honors “achievements — both valid and dubious — in the field of comedic improvisation.” The normally casual actors trade their ironic t-shirts and practical ponytails for blazers and designer heels. But formalwear is just the beginning of the similarities.
“[We call it a prom] based on the goofiness, alcohol and hooking up,” jokes John Conroy, executive producer of the award show, during a pre-show interview. As chairman of the event, Conroy acknowledges both its earnestness and the absurdity.
“The Dels were always intended to lampoon award shows,” he adds. “This isn't the Oscars. It's not even the Westminster Dog Show. It's comedy, and the best comedy comes from poking yourself in the eye. Our categories are a balance of sincerity and self-mockery. Despite the jokes there are warm and fuzzy moments. It feels good when your peers give you a paperweight, even when it's a backhanded compliment.”
The “paperweight” is a joke itself. Each trophy is topped with a fake skull, a nod to iO founder Del Close for whom the award is named. Close always joked about wanting to play Yorick in Hamlet, and after his death he allegedly willed his skull to Chicago's Goodman Theater to be used as a prop in future productions of the play.
But the award commemorates more than Close's morbid sense of humor. It honors a comedy legacy that makes iO a unique institution.
“Our shows deliver something closer to an improvised play than a bunch of bits,” Conroy explains. “To me the biggest difference [from other theaters] is the sense of community at iO West. We're a family of nerds and misfits who genuinely love and support each other.” He quickly adds, “We also have a bar. Bars are comedy gas stations.”
The influence of $4 PBR is evident in the silliness of the ceremony. The evening is dominated by schtick, innuendoes, and plenty of inside jokes. Nerds and misfits of every professional level are in attendance, including local funny gal Artemis Pebdani (It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia) and up-and-comer Echo Kellum (Ben and Kate). Alums Stephanie Weir (MadTV) and Craig Cackowski (Community) phoned in pre-recorded cameos.
“In our effort to turn the theater into a youth soccer league, everyone gets a trophy,” one presenter half-jokes. For example, the improv team Freedom Snatch won for “Worst Name.”
“Hey, a win's a win,” jests cast member Mark Gagliardi. “You bet your ass we're gonna call ourselves 'Del Close Award winners Freedom Snatch.'”
At the other end of the spectrum, Dels were doled out to performers for genuine merit. The musical improv group Opening Night received the Vangard Award, as well as a standing ovation, for its 14-year run.
“We are really lucky to perform the same show for this long,” gushes cast member Shulie Cowen.
“Its great doing a show that would impress our 20 year old selves,” adds her fellow Opening Night-er Norm Theoming.
Other significant wins included King Ten for Best Harold (a popular improv format), Quartet for Best Non-Harold, HMS Death for Best New Team, Pilot for Best Sketch Team, and Cherry for “That Other Show” award, which honors improvisors that perform in iO's smaller black box theater. During a post-awards interview, the various winners embrace the prom theme and speculate which lunch table they'd be sit at if iO were an actual high school.
“We'd be in the snack line,” jokes Cherry's Jaime Moyer.
“I'd be right next to the cool kids table. Almost there, guys!” says Pilot's Sean Cowhig.
But, HMS Death's Colin Hughes nails the iO sensibility perfectly:
“Here at this theater, everyone of us would be sitting at the nerd table. Every single one of us.”
Check out some of these winners yourself: Cherry on Mondays, 10:30 p.m.; King Ten, Wednesdays, 10:30 p.m.; Quartet, Thursdays, 10 p.m.; Opening Night, Fridays, 9 p.m.