Del Close

Del Close Marathon

Del Close (1934 – 1999) is one of the premier influences on modern improvisational theater. He was also an actor appearing in a number of films and television shows.

He was a co-author of the book ‘Truth in Comedy,’ which outlines techniques now common to longform improvisational theater and describes the overall structure (he named ‘Harold’) which remains a common frame for longer improvisational scenes. His favorite framework for comedic storytelling was the structures of Wagner’s ‘Ring Cycle.’

Close was born and raised in Kansas, the son of an inattentive, alcoholic father. He ran away from home at the age of 17 to work on a traveling side show, but returned to attend college at Kansas State. At the age of 23, he became a member of the Compass Players in St. Louis. When most of the cast – including Mike Nichols and Elaine May – moved to New York, Close followed to perform stand-up comedy, appear in the Broadway musical revue ‘The Nervous Set,’ and perform briefly with an improv company in the Village with Mark and Barbara Gordon, who had appeared with the Compass Players in Chicago. Around this time, Close also worked with John Brent to record the classic beatnik satire album ‘How to Speak Hip.’ The album became a prized record for DJs worldwide, and was one of Brian Wilson’s favorite comedy albums.

In 1960, Close moved to Chicago – which was to be his home base for much of the rest of his life – to perform and direct with Second City. Close was fired due to his substance abuse and spent the latter half of the 1960s in San Francisco, where he was the House Director of The Committee theater, toured with the Merry Pranksters, and made light images for Grateful Dead shows.

After returning to Chicago in the early 1970s, Close was hired again to direct at Second City. He also performed and directed the Second City show in Toronto in 1977. Over the next decade he helped develop many of today’s leading comedians. Many of his protégés have gained prominence in the field of comedy; at any given time, roughly a quarter of Saturday Night Live’s cast has been composed of his former trainees, notably Bill Murray. Close spent the early 1980s in New York, as ‘House Metaphysician’ at SNL, coaching the cast in the wake of producer Lorne Michaels’ departure. He spent the mid-to-late 1980s and 1990s teaching improv, collaborating with Charna Halpern in Yes And Productions and Improv Olympic.

In March of 1987, Del mounted his first scripted show created by members of Close and Charna Halpern’s Improv Olympics, from a scenario by Close entitled ‘Honor Finnegan vs. the Brain of the Galaxy’ (a sci-fi comedy epic with music), at CrossCurrents in Chicago. Running concurrently at the same theater  Del was featured in ‘The TV Dinner Hour’ written by Richard O’Donnell of New Age Vaudeville which included a spectacular running routine by Del Close as ‘The Rev. Thing of the First Generic Church of What’s-his-name.’

Despite suffering from emphysema, he continued to consume pot brownies, and use various tobacco supplements. During this period, Close acted in several movies, including portraying a corrupt alderman in ‘The Untouchables’ and an English teacher in ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.’ He also co-authored the graphic horror anthology ‘Wasteland’ for DC Comics with John Ostrander, and co-wrote several installments of Grimjack’s backup feature ‘Munden’s Bar.’

Legend has it that his last words were, ‘I’m tired of being the funniest person in the room.’ Before he died, Close requested that his skull be given to the Goodman Theater for use in Hamlet productions, with him being duly credited in the program as portraying Yorick. Charna Halpern, named by Close as the executor of his will, delivered a skull to the Goodman Theater, claiming it was Close’s. However, a 2006 front-page ‘Chicago Tribune’ article by Robert K. Elder revealed that the donation of Close’s skull was a hoax, a fact which was then publicized nationwide. Halpern claimed that she had been unable to fulfill Close’s wish due to pressure from the morgue, and was forced to instead purchase another skull from a local medical supply company.

To memorialize Close, his former students the Upright Citizens Brigade created ‘The Del Close Marathon.’ Del’s voice can be heard narrating in the opening credits for the first two seasons of the television show ‘Upright Citizens Brigade,’ which features a group of his former students. Notable students include Dan Aykroyd, James Belushi and John Belushi, John Candy,Stephen Colbert, Andy Dick, Rachel Dratch, Chris Farley, Tina Fey, Wavy Gravy, David Koechner, Shelley Long, Adam McKay, Tim Meadows, Bill Murray, Mike Myers, Bob Odenkirk, Amy Poehler, Gilda Radner, Harold Ramis, Andy Richter, Horatio Sanz, Amy Sedaris, Dave Thomas, and George Wendt.

In 2005, Jeff Griggs published ‘Guru,’ a book detailing his friendship with Close during the last two years of his life. Due to Close’s poor health (in part caused by long-term alcohol and drug use), Halpern suggested that Griggs run errands with Close. Guru gives a particularly detailed and complete picture of Close based on those shared hours. At the beginning of their relationship, Griggs was a student of Del’s, and the book includes several chapters in which Griggs depicts Close as a teacher. The book has been adapted into a screenplay, and as of 2006 Harold Ramis was attached to direct the script. Ramis would like Bill Murray to play Close.

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