…Been too long since I hung out with Joel Murray, but every time I do, it’s like we’re right back at the Improv Olympic, waiting to jump on stage for Del at Crosscurrents.
Mick Napier, as many know, is the founder of The Annoyance Theatre, which has just re-opened at its space at Clark and Belmont in Chicago, a stoned throw away from the one-time site of Crosscurrents Cabaret, where so many of us started out.
I had been studying and performing at Crosscurrents for a while when Mick Napier came along in the mid-to-late 80s. We were all working with Del Close and Charna Halpern, who had started the ImprovOlympic not long before that. My team, the Baron’s Barracudas, was the first house team of what later became the iO, and Mick moved up through the ranks quickly.
I remember coaching one of Mick’s early teams. I also remember directing a show called “Children’s Hospital” ay nearby Sheffield’s (which is one of the few places that’s still there today), which also featured Andy Dick, among others. And Mick was one of the few non-Baron’s Barracudas (Rich Laible was the other one) to appear in “Honor Finnegan vs. the Brain of the Galaxy,” the first scripted show directed by Del after he left Second City.
Mick eventually approached me about a new project he was doing for a new theatre he was creating. He called it Metraform, and he was going to stage an ambitious, messy show he was calling “Splatter Theatre,” in the upstairs space. He wanted me to present, between acts, what we lovingly referred to as “Meat Puppets.”
It was a subtle as it sounds. I was the host, a Frazier Thomas figure to pieces of raw meat that were manipulated from below by my puppeteers (who included, if I remember correctly, Dave Pasquesi and Tim Meadows. Wonder whatever became of them?…). The storylines, as they were, usually involved some sort of infidelity between a chicken, a pork chop, and whatever other cuts of meat happened to be on sale that day. They all ended violently.
It was one of my more dangerous shows. Every night before the show, I would have to prepare the various meats (and thaw out the whole chicken–for some reason, the chicken was always at least partially frozen). The water upstairs at Crosscurrents was always as cold as the chicken, so I could never truly disinfect my hands, and salmonella was a real possibility. After each show, I tried to get to the water before the “Splatter Theatre” cast. They were all covered with chocolate syrup dyed red to look like blood, so I didn’t blame them for wanting to clean up. But I was trying to ward off salmonella, so we all jostled with each other for access to the icy water. I guess it was a draw. They got clean, and I didn’t get salmonella.
And now, many years later, after decades of success doing it his way, The Annoyance Theatre has re-launched. I don’t know what they’re going to be doing, but I know it’ll always be worth checking out. So even though you’re undoubtedly uncomfortable about all of the attention you’re getting, deal with it, Mick. It’s what comes of doing things your own way for so long. And long may you annoy.
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.
And even though that’s also the title of my book, it’s a particularly appropriate day to recycle it.
He was just five days short of his 65th birthday, way too young to leave us without imparting more of his improvisational wisdom, and sharing his genius with yet another generation of performers.
Of course, Del never thought he would live anywhere near as long as he did, and anyone who knew him in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s might agree. (Much later in life, he encountered one of his cronies from that period, and began rattling off his list of performing and directing accomplishments. The man gasped “My God, Del–you’ve gone sane!”)
He left behind a legacy that anyone would envy.
The Improv Olympic, now the iO, turns out hundreds of students every year, thanks to Charna carrying on his dream of “Theatre of the Heart.” Whether they know it or not, everyone that climbs on a stage and improvises today probably owes a debt of gratitude to Del. His students are on stage, screen, and television, and establish their own theatres across the country and around the world. And for those of us who knew him and were lucky enough to be his friend, he left us with memories.