Tag Archives: longform

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.

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Committee Report

Before the Python reunion floodgates were opened a couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that I was working on a book on The Committee, the legendary San Francisco Improvisational Theatre. It’s a fascinating story about a theatre that should be remembered and celebrated, if only for a couple of reasons.

First of all, it was Ground Zero for the San Francisco counter-culture during the ’60s, and the San Francisco counter-culture was, arguably, Ground Zero for what we all know today as the ’60s. As one of them put it, “The Sixties walked through our door.” If you hung out in San Francisco at all during that era and had any interest in the music scene or counter-cultural events, you likely spent a little time at The Committee. And if you did, you may have rubbed elbows with Lenny Bruce, or the Byrds, or the Jefferson Airplane. Because none of the hotels he stayed at had a piano, Bob Dylan used to stop by in the afternoons to practice playing piano. The Grateful Dead played their first gig there, when they were known as The Warlocks.

And that only scratches the surface, and doesn’t delve into any of the political figures or the social events of that time.

The second reason that improvisers today ought to remember it is because The Committee gave birth to The Harold and longform improvisation. There’s a lot of misinformation out there, but I was able to track down the real story and speak to many of those involved. The details are in my book The Funniest One in the Room: the Lives and Legends of Del Close. The Committee made a couple of attempts at a longer montage format, but it was after Alan Myerson, Del Close, and Bill Mathieu, conducting separate workshops, got together and compared notes, that they began working with The Committee members to develop what they later named The Harold.

There’s a lot more to the story, of course. Del brought The Harold back to Chicago with him and the world of improvisation was never the same–but it all started at The Committee.

I mention this not because my own book on The Committee is finished (don’t I wish), but because there is also another Committee project under way. Jamie Wright and Sam Shaw, who do a terrific job running the San Francisco Improv Fest, are working on a documentary film telling the story of The Committee as this, their 50th anniversary year, draws to a close. They’re interviewing as many folks as they can for this very worthwhile project, and they ran a successful Kickstarter campaign not long ago. Even though that has ended, I’m sure they wouldn’t mind if other folks decided to support them as well. Their Facebook page is here, and you can learn lots more about it. BTW, we’re not competing with my book. We’re working together and pooling resources so that they can turn out the best film, and I can turn out the best book possible about The Committee. Not because we owe them–but because they’ve earned it.