Tag Archives: Harold Ramis

More Del

 

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I’ve been thinking about Del Close a lot recently. This was the week he died back in 1999, and also the week he was born (in 1934). Also, ironically, this is the time of year that some of his prominent students passed away as well, students like John Belushi, John Candy, and, now, Harold Ramis.

But I’d rather dwell on his life and what he accomplished while he was with us. One of his accomplishments was a role in Ferris Buehler’s Day Off, where he portrayed Mia Sara’s teacher. The day he filmed this, he showed up at Crosscurrents, where we were then taking classes and performing The Harold, and told us about his day. He also told us “I snuck in a little commercial for us, in John Hughes’ big blockbuster comedy.” And he told us where to look for it when the film came out.

Sure enough, we were still performing Harolds about a year later when the movie opened. And, just as Del had promised, if you look on the blackboard, he left us a little commercial just above the word “prison.”

 

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Happy Birthday Del

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 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.

Bill Hicks:

I never knew Bill Hicks until after he died.

But whenever I see a list of the top standup comics of all time, I know I can disregard it if I don’t see Bill Hicks listed on it.

Whenever standup comics hang around talking about the great ones, Bill Hicks’ name eventually comes up.

When I was working for John Cleese, we were discussing the same matter. I had heard of him but somehow had never seen any of his performances, and told John that I didn’t think there was ever a full-length Bill Hicks performance on video.

“Oh, but there is! I’ve got it!” he told me, and retrieved the bulky videocassette, then insisted I watch it. And he was right. Like all great comics, he spoke truth to power, with a righteous indignation and anger that was also extremely funny.

Why haven’t most people heard of him? Well, Bill Hicks passed away on February 26, 1994, twenty years ago this week, of pancreatic cancer. He was 32 years old.

During a week when we’re all remembering the loss of another of our great comics with Harold Ramis’ passing, I was reminded of this equally sad anniversary (thank you comicmix.com).

A few months before he died, he performed on David Letterman’s show, but Dave cut it from the show before it aired. Then fifteen years later, he did something unheard of: he apologized for cutting it and aired it, with Bill’s mother Mary as his on-air guest. It remains fresh, undated, and funny. In fact, if Bill Hicks had lived, we might not have to be dealing with Miley Cyrus. But why am I telling you all this? See for yourself…

The Harold

 

Beginning improvisers often assume that The Harold, the long form improvisation developed at The Committee and refined by Del Close in Chicago, was named for Harold Ramis.

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I point out that it isn’t true, and The Committee was performing Harolds before Harold Ramis joined Second City (the detailed story is in my Del biography The Funniest One in the Room).

But maybe it should be. And that’s the way I’m going to start thinking of it.

A Little More

 

Stripes.

Ghostbusters.

Animal House.

Caddyshack.

National Lampoon’s Vacation.

Groundhog Day.

Anybody who made even one of those legendary comedies could be proud. Harold Ramis made all of them.

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But even more importantly, he did it by being kind. Open. Generous. Amazingly accessible. And a truly decent human being.

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When I was at the iO Chicago last week, I noticed this picture of Harold and Del Close at Del’s “living wake” hanging in the office, and thought about how, although Del was gone, at least Harold was still with us. Sadly, that’s no longer correct.

The internet is currently filled with people saying what a fine man Harold Ramis was. Believe me, they’re all true.

Snapshots of Harold

A few years ago, one of the classic Second City casts was going to reunite for a one-night-only performance. I asked a few of them about doing an article about the reunion, but a couple of them were reluctant. Harold Ramis was not one of them. I asked whether he thought there was a fear of failure after being off-stage for so long, but he assured me that wasn’t the case, at least with him. “I’ve failed way too many times,” he told me with a laugh. “I’m failed on a national level. I’ve failed on a worldwide level!”

We both laughed that day. I thought about reassuring him of his many successes, but I knew it wasn’t necessary. He already knew about them, and besides, the failures were funnier.

The list of Harold Ramis’s professional successes is long and well-known. It’s worth noting, however, what an all-around great guy he was personally; if he could do anything for you, he would. 

I certainly did not know him well, although our paths crossed a few times. I interviewed him for STARLOG magazine (when he directed Multiplicity–one of his lesser efforts). He helped me when I was writing The Funniest One in the Room (my Del Close biography).

He was in the midst of his publicity tour, promoting Analyze This!, when he got word that his director and friend Del Close was dying. He immediately flew back to Chicago and attended the now-famous “living wake” for Del the night before Del passed away. A very classy guy.

ImageAnd at the Second City 50th Anniversary in 2009, he gladly posed for a photo with my Ghostbusters-loving son.

I didn’t know he was ill, but I was very happy to hear that Bill Murray had been by to visit. The two of them had been estranged for many years, but it’s nice to know that they managed to put it aside when it counted the most.

And it should also be noted that Harold was a Chicago guy (admittedly, by way of the North Shore). But when he became successful, he didn’t pack up and move to L.A. Instead, he kept an office and a home in Chicago.

This is a huge loss to comedy, to Chicago, and to everyone that was ever lucky enough to know him. Rest in peace, Harold.