Folks in the Chicago area who appreciate comedy and improvisation are outrageously lucky to have so many great opportunities to see first-rate work. The three pillars of Chicago improvisation, Second City, the iO, and the Annoyance Theatre, are all brilliant in their own slight different ways (there are many others, of course, such as Dave Sinker’s Comedy Shrine in the suburbs, which deserves a column all its own). Second City is the best known though it does less improvisation than the other two. The iO is the home of longform, and near and dear to my heart thanks to the work of Del Close and Charna Halpern. I was with the iO (then the ImprovOlympic) at nearly the beginning. I was involved with the Annoyance (then Metraform) before the beginning. The latter two are going to be opening up in brand new spaces this summer, and both are worth much more space than I have to devote to them at the moment. But, I saw this very nice article in this weekend’s Chicago Tribune about the Annoyance in general and Mick Napier in particular, so I thought I’d pass it along. I am a huge fan of Mick, and am particularly delighted that he’s become an institution, and am even more delighted that I know how uncomfortable he undoubtedly is at that particular thought. Don’t fight it, Mick. Just enjoy, and keep on doing what you’re doing.
Fifty-first anniversaries are never quite as flashy as 50th anniversaries, but it’s always worth remembering the opening night of The Committee on April 10, 1963! Scott Beach, Hamilton Camp, Garry Goodrow, Larry Hankin, Kathryn Ish, accompanied by Ellsworth Milburn, stage managed by Dick Stahl, and directed by Alan Myerson, took the stage at 622 Broadway in San Francisco.
(The Dick Cavett Show appearances, including the one with Janis Joplin, above, didn’t come until much later.)
Since that evening, a lot of talented folks took the stage as part of The Committee, and they influenced countless others, most of whom don’t even know it. Hopefully, Jamie Wright, Sam Shaw, and I will be able to change that in the next couple of years. Jamie and Sam, who do a terrific job producing the San Francisco Improv Fest every year, are producing a documentary on The Committee, and I’m working on my Committee book.
Anyone who has ever performed The Harold (or any other kind of longform improvisation), or been to the iO, UCB, Groundlings, The Annoyance, or so many other theatres and schools, or enjoyed the work of some of their alumni (including the much-in-the-news iO and Second City alum Stephen Colbert), owe an awful lot to these pioneers, and the upcoming documentary and book will tell you why.
It was 80 years ago, March 9, 1934, that Del Close was born in Manhattan, Kansas. During the nearly 65 years he was with us, he taught us, directed us, appalled and entertained us, amazed and enraged us, enlightened us, and, most of all, made the world a better place for his having been here.
Del could be a walking contradiction, capable of surprising even those closest to him. He was a contrarian, a philosophy that informed much of his work and his life. He was also one of the few true geniuses I’ve ever known, with the ability to process information and observations and present them in new ways.
His life story has taken on legendary proportions, in part because Del believed that legends were often more truthful than facts. He was traveled the country with Dr. Dracula’s Den of Living Nightmares, knew L. Ron Hubbard before Scientology, appeared in The Blob remake, cavorted with the Merry Pranksters, used aversion therapy to recover from alcoholism, kicked a cocaine habit with the help of a coven of witches, became a very talented stage and film actor, helped to develop and became the greatest champion of long form improvisation, and bequeathed his skull to the Goodman Theatre for their productions of Hamlet.
Del directed John Belushi, Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, John Candy, Chris Farley, Tina Fey, Mike Myers, Amy Poehler, Stephen Colbert, and many others. He was co-creator of the Harold, director for Second City, San Francisco’s The Committee, and the ImprovOlympic (now iO), and “house metaphysician” for Saturday Night Live. His students went on to found the Groundlings in Los Angeles, the Upright Citizens Brigade in both New York and Los Angeles, and the Annoyance Theatre in Chicago.
I researched all the claims and rumors about his life while I was writing his biography The Funniest One in the Room. And although I discovered were some exaggerations and fictions, I learned that the most unbelievable stories were the true ones.
His ashes, along with a few photos and other memorabilia, are on display at the iO Chicago, and I’m sure he’ll be making the move when the iO moves to a new building later this year. Stop by and say hello. Del would like that.