Del Close

A man of infinite jest

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Del Close died this week.

If you have laughed out loud anytime in the last thirty or forty years, chances are Del touched your life.

The world will not be as cool without him.

Del Close was one of the early performers and directors who helped create the venerated Second City improvisational comedy troup in Chicago. And as a creative guru to various “Saturday Night Live” casts, Del influenced entire generations of performers, from John Belushi and Bill Murray to Chris Farley and Mike Myers.

You may not recognize his name, but Del was at least partly responsible for a large percentage of what you probably think is insightful and funny.

The name of Del’s textbook was “Truth In Comedy.” Convinced of an abiding and inherent human compassion, he taught that your richest, finest connection with an audience comes not when you go for an easy joke, but when you mine the deepest parts of your soul, wrestle with your emotions, and speak with total candor.

Whether playing a character in a scene or engaging in direct monologue, Del taught militant, unflinching honesty, believing that audiences would recognize their own frailties and fears and react accordingly — with a laughter every bit as deep and honest as the performance itself.

This was a revolutionary idea thirty years ago, when live comedy consisted largely of guys named Shecky doing set-up, punchline, set-up, punchline, thank you, drive safely.

If you think about it, that kind of comedy — which as the 1980s demonstrated, capuchin monkeys and Andrew Dice Clay can do passably well — is inherently conservative. It’s not easy to engender empathy and challenge prejudices in ten words or less, so stand-up tends to play to the audience’s assumptions. Which is why so many comics play to base impulses and obvious stereotypes.

Del would throw you out of class for that. Del would rather see you work through a half-dozen honest moments — even uncomfortable ones, which are often still amusing as hell — for one insightful laugh than get a score of Shecky laughs.

I went through the Calendar section of my Sunday paper to see how much Del’s influence is felt in film comedy today.

Analyze This was directed by Harold Ramis. Rushmore features Bill Murray. Both are Second City alumni who readily acknowledge Del’s influence. And consciously or not, Julia Sweeney’s God Said Ha! and 20 Dates by Myles Berkowitz also exeplify Del’s guiding principle of trusting honesty and openness to lead to a deeper laugh.

Ironically — given that Del’s own film career was little more than a series of bit parts, sometimes in surprisingly cheesy movies — literally half of the comedies onscreen right now (or anytime), including pretty much all the cool ones, would not be what they are without Del Close’s influence.

He also had a phenomenal resume of countercultural contacts. Beyond knowing half the comedy world, Del did experimental theatre in San Francisco in the late ’60s, ran with Timothy Leary and Ken Kesey, and produced light shows for the Grateful Dead.

But more than just a gadfly, Del was a genuine subversive, in the best sense of the word.

Del didn’t consciously try to change anyone’s political ideas in the way you or I normally imagine such things: protests and placards and parades in the street.

Instead, and to much greater effect, Del’s work simply liberated the creative spirits of his students and audiences. The cardinal rule of improvisation is to “yes, and” — which means to agree with any premise, no matter how absurd, and then follow and amplify it, working with fellow players who will “yes, and” any idea of yours.

Implicit in this exercise is the obliteration of the superego, a voluntary abolition of internal authority. It’s a magnificent creative tool. And as a side-effect, it teaches self-reliance, tolerance of others, and disrespect for rigid totalitarianism, either emotional or political.

If you’ve ever sensed that the richest comedy is inherently anti-authoritarian, that’s the deal.

Spending time with Del Close is the reason I eventually came to read Noam Chomsky.

I studied with Del for a couple of years. I can’t say I liked him, exactly. What I felt was more like awe, like a boy feels toward a father he both fears and admires.

When Del was at full speed, he was amazing.

I once saw him play Polonius in a production of Hamlet. The character is often played as a rather boring blowhard, but Del found beats and inflections in the lines that sounded both honest and marvelously funny. His playful rendition of the “brevity is the soul of wit” speech, transforming Polonius’ mundane blithering into an ever-building symphony of self-importance, should be studied in every college theatre department in America.

(In a final, quintessential act of playfulness, Del has willed his skull to the Goodman Theater — so next time they do Hamlet, he can play the part of Yorick.)

But Del was human, too, and his unpredictable mood swings made his tutelage a sometimes harrowing experience. I learned later he had been through a lot of hell over the years, some of it his fault, some of it not. I suspect the personal stuff is part of why he never landed more prominent film or television roles for himself, which is a loss for all concerned.

Sometimes Del’s classes were high-impact learning experiences. Sometimes they were meandering sessions of name-dropping, retelling the lore of his unusual life. Sometimes he would lash out at a student who broke the rules of improv with an intensity that was deeply ironic for a man who truly believed in acceptance and toleration. I think his passion for good theatre often conflicted with his passion for understanding.

You really never knew which Del you were getting, although most of them were cool as hell.

One day I had time to kill, and I found myself actually writing a poem about the man, trying to capture the strange and powerful impact he had on those around him.

I share it here not because I’m much of a poet. I know I’m not. Really, you don’t need to write in and tell me. It’s just what I wrote at the time:

Two fingers clawing the air
A cigarette burning between them
“The muses,” Del muses,
“Are with us.”

Legend-teller, tale-maker
Cougher-up of flame
Eases himself to the floor.

“I remember when Burgess Meredith and I were filming The Blob with Larry Hagman. Otto von Bismarck was just a gaffer then. That was right after I directed the stage production of the Monroe Doctrine with Mike Nichols and Elaine May.”

Mephistopheles jazzman
Eyes dancing fire

“And Stonehenge–that was Avery Schreiber and myself, standing rocks on their sides to entertain the druids. Paul Sills had mixed up some excellent meade that day.”

Candles at tables
Smoke floating low
Kennedy dead from a headwound
Cocktail dresses and narrow black ties
“I damn thee, convention, indicted!”
APPLAUSE snapping fingers
High priest in a hipster’s cathedral



Runs his free hand through thinning gray hair
Eyes like ball lightning
“Move the scene forward. Describing what’s done leads to nothing!”

The lawyer and bartender quiver onstage
Smiling meekly at thunder
Nodding at teacher
An eye out for muses nearby

I wrote the above shortly before leaving Del’s classes. The stand-up boom was on, and I needed to pay the rent. Besides, I knew the rules of improv, and I didn’t feel that there was much more I would get from his classes.

I realized only later that what you learned from Del came not from any specific thing he set out to teach, but from his singular example. As he was for many others, Del was a major influence on both my personal and professional life.

For all his faults, Del lived with a higher level of personal and creative freedom than anyone I ever knew. And that, more than any scenework instruction, is what will endure.

“Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy…”

Bob Harris is a radio commentator, political writer, and humorist who has spoken at almost 300 colleges nationwide.

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