“For Madmen Only: The Stories of Del Close,” a new documentary now on VOD, is about the best-known funny man you’ve probably never heard of. Tina Fey says he taught her to be bold in life. Mike Myers says he learned the connection between comedy and bigger ideas from him and Robin Williams campaigns for a Church of Del. Del Close is called a living legend by Amy Poehler and yet, as the movie says, this Zelig of comedy has the same name recognition as a third-tier fast food chain.
As one of the pioneers of a new kind of theatre called improvisational comedy Close, along with a handful of others like Elaine May (who close calls a supernatural figure) and Mike Nichols, created the form and the rules of performing comedy without a net. Some were intellectual. “Always work at the top of your intelligence,” and “Don’t deny, respect the other person’s reality.” Others practical. “Remember where the object are,” and “Don’t do mime.” Most important of all, “You’re not locked into this like an actor with a script.”
Using recorded interviews with Close, who died of emphysema at age 64 in 1999, and newer interviews with many of his friends and students, like the names I listed above and Tim Meadows, George Wendt, Bob Odenkirk among others, plus recreations, (which have a “Closeness” about them because director Heather Ross based on Close’s autobiographical comic “Wasteland”), and archival footage and photographs, a story emerges of a self-destructive rebel who put human nature onstage in an attempt to explore why we behave the way we do.
By the end of the film, it’s a portrait of a complicated man whose window into human nature was both a gift and a curse. He was, as Dave Thomas describes him, “a delicate basket of eggs destined to break at any moment.” He was brilliant, but as Adam McKay points out, also a “bit of a baby sometimes.”
What remains is his pioneering work teaching improv (with a big leg up from Charna Halpern). His “Harold” teaching method, the structure used in longform improvisational theatre, is both rigid—there are a set of strict rules—but also freeing in a way that made his students, as Myers says, “get in touch with their higher selves.”
“You have a light within you,” he would tell them. “Burn it out.”
You can draw a straight line from Close to most folks who have made you laugh in the last thirty years. He was a guru, who never reaped the rewards or the recognition many of his students enjoyed but the film aims to correct the latter.
As often happens in biographies, the legend sometimes looms larger than life. Did he really give L. Ron Hubbard the idea to start a religion to circumvent taxes? Did he really volunteer to have his dreams monitored by the US government while high on LSD, leave the project early and then sent a letter saying he owed the government one more dream?
Who knows? They’re good stories though. Fact and fiction, it seems are the two sides of the coin that inform the legend of Del Close.