On Friday the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York posted the artwork for its upcoming Del Close Marathon, a weekend-long improv festival celebrating the comedy luminary who mentored UCB’s founders. The post has since been deleted from UCB’s Instagram, but here is what that poster, by New York-based artist Symin Adive, looked like:
Let’s just mull over the image for a moment. So, that’s Del Close right there with the big face and glasses. He appears to be embedded in the side of a mountain, Mount Rushmore-style. Or maybe he’s lying against it, the rest of his gargantuan body out of frame. There’s the Statue of Liberty atop his head, for some reason, and a neanderthal at the bottom, gazing quizzically upward for some other reason. Then we have everyone either ascending to the top or celebrating there, men and women and some guy wearing salmon-colored shorts. And then there are the faceless masses approaching in the darkness.
And then, to the side, two words: “The Wokening.”
What is The Wokening? Is it Del Close? Is it the Marathon? Is Close literally saying “The Wokening,” and it’s, like, a speech bubble, perhaps signified by what looks like a megaphone to his right? Has he just shouted “The Wokening” and everyone’s streaming toward him so they don’t miss The Wokening, which reads sort of like it may be a reference to “The Happening,” or maybe it’s just its own thing and not a reference at all?
Comedians reacted swiftly to the image across social media. The general sentiment was that it’s more than a little insensitive of UCB, an organization with famous diversity problems, to celebrate its diversity by declaring itself “woke.” (I would agree with this critique). Here are a few such posts.
From comedian Mamoudou N’Diaye:
From comedian Otter Lee, in a public Facebook post:
And from comedian and Paste contributor Irene Merrow:
This selection excludes discussions in private Facebook groups, where, I gather, the backlash was much more heated.
I reached out to UCB for comment on Friday and was promised that the artwork would be withdrawn and a statement on the matter would be issued this week. Today, UCB NY’s artistic director, Shannon O’Neill, posted that statement in a closed Facebook group, UCB Worldwide New York.
On Friday I posted our DCM19 Poster and received necessary and important feedback on it. You can find the thread below (I can’t link because of the private group).
I took a huge misstep with approving the name “The Wokening” and I apologize. This realization is an important milestone of education for myself and the theatre. It is also an error to try and simplify a theme by using the term “Diversity.” If you heard anyone else saying it, it’s because it came from my mouth and vision for DCM19.
Del Close has always been a focal point of the marathon, he was an inspiration to the UCB4 and so many comedians. He was a provocateur, anti- establishmentarian and someone that truly cared about the misfits and weirdos.
After the election I wanted to do more and one of the more immediate actions I could take would be updating the mission of DCM. While Del’s contributions can not be overrated what we are attempting to highlight are other voices empowered by this art form.
DCM needs to be inclusive and requires a visible shift in the balance of voices represented at DCM19 and beyond. What I can promise with DCM19 is you will see a change in representation. What I can not promise is that it will be perfect.
We are providing financial support to help diverse talent from UCBTLA fly out, and I will be reaching out in the coming weeks to NY & LA performers to help me organize panels, jams and shows that will bring together the different voices joining us from around the country and globe for DCM19.
If you are up late enough, you will still see grown men in diapers though, I can’t change that. They are the DCM ghosts that will always haunt us.
“The Wokening” will be removed from our official graphic. There was some questioning of what the design itself means, so the artist we commissioned gave us a quote to share what it means to her.
“There’s a reason why the representation of Del Close is static while everyone else is active. We know he wasn’t “progressive” and that the comedy institution here, including UCB, is fairly homogeneous. This is a given. Every overarching system in our lives is meant to be immovable and unclimbable. Just as many would rather have things stay the way they are through force or simply indifference, so will the rest of us fight to keep inching forward.” – Symin Adive
Your voices and this discourse are important for the UCB Theatre and its community to progress forward. We know we don’t have all the answers but we also want to address the need to be vocal about the need for greater diversity in the art form we love in a time of prejudice and fear.
I truly fumbled this one, but I want you to know I am listening and I’ve got your back,
UCBTNY Artistic Director
This statement has elicited largely positive reactions, both online and from comedians I’ve spoken to about the issue. N’Diaye, whose tweets I embedded above, sent me these comments, adapted from a Facebook post he wrote on the matter:
I think the official response to the poster backlash was super real and all encompassing. Shaun Diston [a UCB performer, writer and teacher] is right in the respect that we don’t applaud when people do the right thing and that could be because so much is wrong with the world and we’ve got to hold each other accountable. I have to give a shout out to Spo [O’Neill] for being frank, honest, transparent, and vulnerable in what must have looked like a minefield of comments and concerns. Also, the artist was never thrown under the bus which gives me hope because most contracted promotional artists who take an L like this often get blamed for the whole thing and I didn’t see that here. While it may not be the response some people wanted, it was respectful and most of all listened to what the students said rather than sweeping it under the rug like other places might have.
And that would seem to be that—for now, at least. My analysis? The poster was pretty dumb and tone-deaf, and people were right to be upset. Even putting aside UCB’s history of diversity problems, the Del Close Marathon is a celebration of a near-spiritual figure whose teachings UCB has transformed into a profitable business model. None of those profits go to comedians who perform at the theatre or in the marathon; artists also had to pay to apply to perform in the festival. To corporatize an artistic movement and then celebrate it is already low-key fucked up. To then praise your celebration of yourself as somehow progressive? That’s another level of disrespect for people who are already marginalized by UCB, comedy and society at large.
UCB’s response, however, was quick and appropriate. Granted, I question aspects of the artist’s statement: I don’t quite understand the assertion that “every” system is immovable by design; the problem of UCB’s homogeneity is sadly far from a given; and the continued L. Ron Hubbard-esque idolization of Del Close is, frankly, disturbing—if you know a guy isn’t progressive, why make him the centerpiece of a poster honoring progressive values? But O’Neill’s larger commitment to remedying UCB’s shortcomings is heartening. All things considered, this seems like the best possible outcome.
Oh, and the 19th Annual Del Close Marathon will take place June 23rd-25th in New York.
This post has been updated to remove a statement made off the record.
Seth Simons is Paste’s assistant comedy editor. Follow him on Twitter.