Del Close played Polonious once in Hamlet, and won a Joseph Jefferson Award for it. But the role he really wanted to play was Yorick. He had to die to do it, but now he may get his wish. Under the terms of his will, Close, who died March 4 1999, has left his skull to the Goodman Theatre.
Del Close was born and raised in Manhattan, Kansas and attended Kansas State University, after touring with a side show act for a period of time in his teenage years. In 1957, at the age of 23, he became a member of the St. Louis branch of the Compass Players, the direct precursor of The Second City, which opened in December, 1959. Most of the St. Louis cast went to Chicago, but Close chose New York and a budding career as a hip, young stand-up comic in competition with Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Bob Newhart, etc. That same year he also appeared in the Off-Broadway musical, The Nervous Set, of which an original cast album exists.
Close came to Chicago in 1960 and more or less made it his home for the rest of his life, always gravitating back there after a few months or even years elsewhere. Close directed and performed at The Second City until he was fired (major substance abuse problems) in 1965. He spent the next five years in San Francisco eating acid and touring with the Merry Pranksters on their famous psychedelic bus, creating light images for the Grateful Dead, and working with The Committee, a North Beach equivalent of Second City which Close helped organize. It was at The Committee that he first began seriously to develop his ideas and techniques of long-form improvisation, although Second City had experimented with long-form as early as 1962.
Close returned to Chicago in 1970, and set up a free, open-to-all workshop at the Kingston Mines Company Store, the cafe attached to the Kingston Mines Theatre Company on Lincoln Avenue (where the parking garage of Children’s Memorial Medical Center now stands). He drilled his students – everyone from acid-dropping love children to a vice-president of the Foote, Cone and Belding advertising agency – in the basic principals of improv and theatre games, and in the specifics of “The Harold”, a long-form improv technique developed by Close.
At a time when most improvisation mainly focused on creating single scenes, Del devised the Harold as something not unlike a sonata form. Several themes would be established, a community of characters would be introduced, and then the resulting scenes would play off each other in comedic counterpoint – characters from one environment moving to another and phrases and images recurring, each time accruing new meaning. Going to this from conventional sketches was like going from arithmetic to calculus. (Why was it called the Harold? When he introduced it, one of his students said, “Del, you’ve invented something, you get to name it.” Del said, “Well, the Beatles called their haircut Arthur, so I’ll call this Harold.” He later regretted the flipness. “Probably my most significant contribution and it’s got that stupid name.”)
The weekly public performances at Kingston Mines sometimes had as many as 20 performers participating. After a few months, Close hand-picked a dozen of his best, and moved operations down the block to the Body Politic for twice-weekly workshops and Sunday night performances. He named the company the Chicago Extension Improv Company, as an extension of his San Francisco work. The best-known players to emerge from the troupe were “Broadway” Betty Thomas, Dan Ziskie, Brian Hickey and Jonathan Abarbanel.
Before leaving Chicago again in 1972 to perform for Paul Sills in a Story Theatre production at the Mark Taper Forum in LA, Close and the Chicago Extension had begun to explore scenario improvs based on dreams. The techniques the Extension developed after Close left became Dream Theatre, which continued at the Body Politic over the next five years, although with different personnel.
Close returned to Chicago in 1973 as resident director at The Second City, a position he kept until 1982. It was during this decade that he taught and directed a long list of TV and film comedy greats including John Belushi, Bill Murray, John Candy, Don DePollo, George Wendt, Audrey Neenan, Eugenie Ross-Lemming, David Rasche, Shelly Long, Anne Ryerson, etc. Upon leaving the troupe, Close pursued legitimate acting opportunities with a number of theatres, including Wisdom Bridge, Remains, Goodman and Steppenwolf. He won his Joseph Jefferson Award in 1985 in a radical Hamlet directed by Robert Falls at Wisdom Bridge. Close also did TV and film work, appearing in “The Untouchables” and “Ferris Beuler’s Day Off” among others.
It was during this period that Close finally beat his long heroin addiction (although he continued to smoke cigarettes and marijuana), in part truly shocked by the excesses and death of John Belushi, and in part because, as he told Jonathan Abarbanel, “I’ve decided I want to live.”
Close was enjoying his new theatrical vistas, as well as a successful professional partnership with Charna Halpern and ImprovOlympic, which allowed him to concentrate on further development of The Harold, and on team improv. Close was 64 when he died of complications due to emphysema the evening of March 4, 1999, just five days shy of his birthday. He left no survivors, although he claimed to have fathered an illegitimate child by a woman in Minneapolis sometime in the late 1950’s. His body was cremated, as he wished. His skull is expected to be given to the Goodman Theatre to await the company’s next Hamlet.
Close was one of three titans of improvisational theatre who put it on the map, refined it, and turned it into the fixture of comedic and acting technique which it has become. Close became the third titan of improvisation, after Spolin and Sills, and the only one to devote his artistic life and best theoretical thinking to it. He fully understood pain and suffering as a basis for comedy, as well as the nature and limitations of the comedic form. The Harold, the scenario, long-form improv – call it what you will – is his personal legacy to the field; while his own boundless, sometimes manic drive as a charismatic teacher and director have done more to establish improvisational theatre around the world than anything or anyone else.
The explosion of improv troupes and teams and classes (the Museum of Contemporary Art offers an improv class, for example), and the inclusion of theatre games and improv exercises in standard acting curricula, are the result of the work of Spolin and Sills and Close. With specific regard to long-form improv and Close’s own contribution, that legacy will grow even greater through the next generation, as his students and acolytes inherit the world of comedy.
More About “Del Close”
Close was born and raised in Manhattan, 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 moved to Chicago in 1959 to help form The Second City, Close instead moved to New York City to perform stand-up comedy, where he also performed in the Broadway musical revue “The Nervous Set” in 1959.
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 ofBrian 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 from Second City 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. Acolytes of Del Close have gained prominence in the field of comedy with astounding frequency. At any given time, roughly a quarter of Saturday Night Live’s cast has been composed of his former trainees.
Close spent the early 1980s in New York, as “House Metaphysician” at Saturday Night Live, coaching the cast in the wake of Producer Lorne Michaels’ departure. He spent the mid-to-late 80’s and 1990s teaching improv, collaborating with Charna Halpern in Yes And Productions and Improv Olympic, while slowly succumbing to emphysema. But he remained active, consumed pot brownies, and used various tobacco supplements. During this period, Close acted in several movies, including The Untouchables and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, where he played an English teacher. He also co-authored the graphic horror anthology Wasteland for DC Comics with John Ostrander, as well as co-wrote several installments of Grimjack‘s backup feature Munden’s Bar. Finally, along with Charna Halpern he co-founded the ImprovOlympic Theater.
Legend has it that Close’s last words were, “I’m tired of being the funniest person in the room.” Before passing away, Close requested that his skull be given to the Goodman Theatrefor use in Hamlet productions, on the condition that he should receive credit in the program as Yorick. However, in 2006 it was revealed that an alternate skull was given to the Goodman instead. In honor of Del after his death, his former students the Upright Citizens Brigade created The Del Close Marathon.
Del’s voice can be heard narrating in the Upright Citizens Brigade TV show opening credits.
“It is easy to become deluded by the audience, because they laugh. Don’t let them make you buy the lie that what you’re doing is for the laughter. Is what we’re doing comedy? Probably not. Is it funny? Probably yes. Where do the really best laughs come from? Terrific connections made intellectually, or terrific revelations made emotionally.” -Del Close (Truth in Comedy 25)
“What we do is too enchanting to be quantified” – Del Close
“Del Close is my biggest influence in comedy” – John Belushi
The Delmonic Interviews
In 2002, Cesar Jaime and Jeff Pacocha produced and directed a film composed of interviews with former students, friends, and collaborators of Del Close. The film documented not only Del’s life and history, but the impact he had on the people in his life and the art form he helped to create. It is not sold on DVD and was made as a thank you and a tribute to Del, “as a way to allow those that never got to meet or study with him, a chance to understand what he was like.” .
The Delmonic Interviews includes interviews with: Charna Halpern (co-founder of Chicago’s iO), Matt Besser (iO’s The Family; Upright Citizens Brigade), Rachel Dratch (iO; Second City; Saturday Night Live), Neil Flynn (iO’s The Family; NBC’s Scrubs), Susan Messing (iO; Second City; Annoyance Productions), Amy Poehler (Upright Citizens Brigade, Saturday Night Live). The film was shown at several national improv festivals, including the 2004 Chicago Improv Festival, the 2004 Phoenix Improv Festival, the 2002 Del Close Marathon in New York City, and the 2006 LA Improv Festival.
In 2005, Jeff Griggs published Guru, a book detailing his friendship with Del during the last two years of his life. Due to Del’s poor health (in part caused by long-term alcohol and drug use), Charna Halpern arranged for Griggs to spend every Thursday afternoon with Close and run errands with him. Guru gives a particularly detailed and complete picture of Del. At the beginning of their relationship, Griggs was a student of Del’s, and the book includes several chapters in which Griggs depicts Del as a teacher.
The book has been adapted into a screenplay, and as of 2006 Harold Ramis was attached to direct the script, although it does not appear that the movie will soon be made. Ramis would like Bill Murray to play Close.
In 2008, Kim “Howard” Johnson’s full-length biography of Close, “The Funniest One in the Room: The Lives and Legends of Del Close” was published. Johnson himself was a student of Close, and remained friends with Close until his death. In 1994, Howard co-authored “Truth in Comedy: The Manual of Improvisation” with Close and Charna Halpern.