Speechless co-founder Scott Lifton talks 24-hour comedy marathon

Olivia Staser/Staff

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If 24 hours of nonstop comedy performances sounds like a challenging feat to organize, that’s because it is. But somehow, comedy-based company Speechless pulls it off — and perhaps even makes it look easy.

Speechless exists at the intersection of the entertainment industry and business sectors. Co-founded by actor/comedian Sammy Wegent, producer Scott Lifton and improviser/director Anthony Veneziale, its mission is to bring comedy and improv techniques to companies looking to enhance the creativity and spontaneity of their employees’ presentations.

“I would say to make public speaking less scary and more fun, that’s at its base,” said Scott Lifton in an interview with The Daily Californian. “I think we started with a funny show, and then it turned to training, so our mission statement has changed, and since the election last year, I think we’ve had a mission also of using it to give people a voice.”

With this vision in mind, Lifton and the executive team at Speechless soon expanded, and last year hosted a 24-hour comedy marathon. The fun didn’t stop there — they’ve brought the marathon back for a second beat, this year taking place at the Folsom Street Foundry in San Francisco from 8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 29 to 8 p.m Saturday, Sept. 30.

The biggest question potential attendees may have is whether this event, given Speechless’ business-focus and the marathon’s Prezi sponsorship, will be an all-out comedy extravaganza, or something akin to a business summit. The answer, it would seem, is neither — or rather, a bit of both. The marathon encompasses a veritable smorgasbord of events, ranging from performances by Bay Area improv teams (including Endgames Improv and BATS Improv) and stand-up comedians to scientist-lead panels and Adobe-sponsored improvised Photoshop competitions. There will be art exhibitions, wellness services and virtual reality demos.

And that’s the short list.

The marathon’s freshman outing was even more tightly packed, perhaps, according to Lifton, over-ambitiously so.

“Last year, we probably tried to do too much. We were doing voting registration, setting a record, also March of Dimes, also 24-hour shows, all kinds of different things,” said Lifton. “This year, we’re not trying to do too much, we’re trying to keep it basic.” This change is accompanied by a larger organizational staff and bolstered security, in response to palpable lack thereof in the previous year — according to Lifton, “people would just sneak into our green room and take the performers’ beer and food.”

Though Speechless isn’t letting their simpler approach limit the types of fun available, Lifton added, “There’s a really interesting variety this year. Last year [the improv groups] were doing mostly our improv powerpoints, but this year that’s only a part of it. So I think going from an improv comedy show, to a scientific researched-based show, to a talk, to the pun-off, it’s a real variety.”

Now in its second year, the Speechless Marathon is building upon the lessons of its first go-around. As it continues to grow and expand, it also continues to narrow its focus, emphasizing the aspects of Speechless that set it apart from similar organizations. Speechless, after all, isn’t the first business to capitalize on the marketability of improv as a skill, nor is it the first to host a 24-hour comedy marathon.  

“A lot of these different companies are using time-tested or more old-fashioned techniques, and we’re really approaching it from the mind of an improv thinker — there’s the concept of ‘yes, and’ in terms of that and being present and open, and that is definitely revealed in a lot of the exercises that we do,” Lifton said.

It speaks to the unique space Speechless occupies — improv and business may not initially seem to go hand in hand, but they can interact in a number of surprising ways.

“Even if you’re doing Skype in your pajamas, you’re still a performer,” explained Lifton. “We’re trying to reset your synapses — there’s a crystallization of your preferred pathways that happens, things that you’re used to — and you get out of that comfort zone and think differently, sometimes you can open up.”

All in all, attendees of the Speechless Marathon have a lot to look forward to, so long as the breadth of their interest is wide and their love of comedy passionate. And, Lifton adds, you can never be totally certain what unplanned moments might take place in the twilight hours.

“What was interesting last year — and what was one of the challenges — was what happens from 4 a.m. to 8 a.m.,” said Lifton. “ Weird things happen. And for us that’s where things get the most interesting. When the lack of sleep kicks in in the middle of the night, who stays around?”

Shannon O’Hara is the arts & entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected].