Thirteen years ago today Improv Teacher and director Del Close (known for his creation of The Harold and founder of iO Chicago along with having a lot of legendary students) died.
If he was still alive on March 9th, (this upcoming Friday) he would have been seventy eight years old.
Someone made a comment in my improv circles that there should be a "Del Close Life/Death Week" Being absolutely snarky and very much like Patton Oswalt (who I believe, never studied under Del Close) The first thing that came to mind was "You think about this on an Off Birthday/Off Death. Call me at 80/15 I'll light a Pagan candle eat Cake made with Black Frosting and play the Del Close game:
1) Something you would never consider a doable drug as a drug
2) Someplace obscure, or a person probably never want to be
3) A name of obscure film or television star. The more B Star…the better.
4) Do this sentence in a raspy deep Shakespearean Voice with some hacking thrown in.
So, (COUGH) I was snorting Diet Coke under the New Jersey Turnpike with (COUGH) Claude Akins…
I don't consider myself a descendant of Del Close. I consider myself a descendant of Viola Spolin and credit to Johnstone (as the first improv book was Impro via John Berman for the Mask Work). But I knew Del. Yes. I knew him. So I will contribute to his 13 years of being dead and the 78 years if he was still alive.
There are many things that have been said about Del. He is worshipped by many, many improvisers and comedians as the founder of the current style of improvisation that we currently see on the stages of improv establishments around the country.
So if you are a new improviser who is standing there confused trying to remember the first scene of three in the Harold Structure? You can give that to Del Close.
There is a lot said about the man in the terms of his creative contribution to improvisational theatre. But I respectfully put in my opinions that I know is about to piss off a lot of "Del-ites" (as I have lovingly called all of you over the years). As Del would say: There is truth in comedy. Here is what I think about the improv Legend that was Del.
Del Close was simply, a hot holy mess.
If Del never created the idea of Harold (named after a poor guy in San Francisco along with a bunch of other Committee Members not getting the well deserved credit of this format), He would be the creepy guy at the theater that you are too afraid to fire for fear he will somehow get his hands on an object to kill everyone there. It wouldn't even be a gun. He would come in with a sword or a big jug of burning acid.
I did not meet Del Close in improv originally. He came into mine and Hans Comic Book Store with Kim Howard Johnson (who was a subscription member). That was 1987. I was twenty two years old.
He wondered in first. He looked like a hot holy mess. Homeless people were better kempt than what Del looked like in his crazy Santa beard, a rope for a belt over filthy pants, a shirt that did not fit him and track marks up and down his arms and a reek that could only be described as "Take all of your oldest books and magazines. Wet them. Let them half dry…take a shit on them and let that sit for a day. Smear on body."
So there Del was "Touching things" in our store. Kim was still outside and there Del was fondling the underground books.
I was ready to ask the New Homeless Guy of Lincoln Avenue that he needed to leave the store because he was leaving a trail of reek behind him. That was until he came up to the desk and in this amazing Shakespearian voice asked me if we had any Ranxerox. I told him they were there, he nodded his head and ambled into the store…"touching things
That is when Kim came in. It was now obvious they were together. In my basic disbelief of Kim (who at that point got John Cleese to do his voice mail) hanging out with this tragic looking figure, I asked him: "Kim who the hell is that?"
Kim nonchalantly said "That is Del Close"
I have been doing improv for a while at that point and have only heard of this man. With my mouth agape I said: "Wait a minute. The "My Mother the Car", Second City doing, Del Close?"
Kim said yes. I just paused mouth still agape and said "What the fuck happened to HIM??"
I don't think anyone had ever audibly said that about Del at that time. A lot of people didn't. With all the respect in the world: Men in Comedy can trash a chick in 0.2 seconds….and yet they cannot even see the crazy stinky white dude that they idolize in front of them that they are enabling instead of putting him in some serious therapy. Not just for drugs. But for whatever was ailing his mind through all of his life.
He was an idol to many. Hell. With all the respect and "love" that was given to Del by the improv community…why didn't anyone tell him that he smelled like shit? That is the actual truth. Which…is pretty funny in actuality.
The man hated. With all of his heart.
There is a line that is quoted by Del. Lord knows if it is true or not? But here it is:
Well, She's pretty enough to kill.
Del Close was notorious for not digging on women much in comedy…was pretty homophobic and just really did not know how to deal with black people too well. He would make women cry their asses off in classes.
I was at the Kansas City festival. It was the last time I saw Del alive. There was a man onstage who was chosen to do his what was dubbed a "One Man Harold" So there was this poor man doing his one person Harold…and it was a struggle for him. Del was in the booth. In full Shakespearian voice (with the light booth window open) Del's voice echoed through the house the effect of "THIS IS NOT GOOD END THIS SHOW."
An audible gasp came from the audience….and the look on that man's face onstage was one of sheer and complete devastation.
Del hated, with all of his heart. And, even with his own "creation" had no quips or qualms about destroying an actor. Even…while performing.
This was also the same festival he decided he wanted to lay "The Smackdown" on me. I have never fared well with Del Close's sort of insanity. It leaps and bounds in my family. All I see standing before me is an enabled heroin addict. Whose nuts that once could act and now is just a shell of him. But he wanted to smackdown with me all the same.
I played an Evil Rodent with Super Rodent powers. An actor shot me…and in classic Horror Film Style I kept coming towards him (of course hoping for the actor to run out of bullets and helplessly throw the mime gun at me…which of course I would have died from…because THAT is what kills the Rodent. Anything thrown at it)
Del Close, was livid.
You see in his world if someone points a mime finger gun at you…you fall down dead. This "bit" (the kind if you saw in a bar now at iO West folks would be all "Oh shit…didn't we say this was a bit free zone") was one of his favorites. You are sitting at the bar…he points a mime finger gun and shoots you, and you flourish a big Sam Peckinpaw like death off your bar stool.
He was not having a superhuman rodent not die from a finger mime gun onstage. Mostly due (in his mind) that the rodent was human.
So Del was furious. I was teaching a class and a student came up to me who had taken Del's class and apparently he went into a nonstop Skeed of what a shitty improviser I was because my Super Rodent did not die from a finger mime gun.
How long did the rant go on? I smirked. "A good long time" he said. Sweet, I thought to myself. He just made me legend.
The last big night of the festival three shows went up by the guest directors who were asked to come with festival participants being in their cast (Mick Napier, Armando Diaz and Del). We actors had our options before we got there. I went with Armando mostly due to the fact that he was really new and that was exciting at that point…Hans wanted to work with Mick…and well…I really did not wish to deal with Del.
With all the respect in the world in regards to those shows: Mick's show was beautifully directed and he did a serious theatrical Greek Chorus Sound and Movement that was just delicious. Our show we actually deconstructed down the William Shatner's Twilight Show episode and that was just fun…
And Del's show tanked. Hard. That is the nicest thing I could say about that show.
In my show…I ended up in limbo with an actor. I was sent there as I had lost all perspective (as I was the stewardess who could not see the Gremlin outside of the plane)…there we had this conversation of the idea of the word "Hep" when he asked me what it meant. As a Cab Calloway fan. I explained the origins. In Limbo. Onstage.
After the show, Del was surrounded by his idolizers looking pretty glum about the whole thing. It was one of the few times he could remember my name. He called me over:
Del: SHAUN! SHAUN!
Me: (walking over) yea, old man?
Del: That thing you did. Loss of perspective. Explaining the word Hep. You know I did…
Me: Yes. I know. "How to Speak Hip". You know our store was named Hep Cat.
Del: (A synapse reconnected. NOW he remembers the store) OH YES. YES. LOVED THAT STORE!
Me: Thanks, Del.
Del: (him making a flourish of sound and movement…his very odd way of apologizing to me in front of everyone) Shaun. Let me just say you are one very smart, talented actor.
Me: Thanks Del. I really appreciate the compliment (pause and smirk) So Old Man…when are you going to die?
And there (while everyone was horrified by what I said) was when I got Del Close to laugh so hard…I thought his lungs were going to collapse there. He seemed to appreciate that someone…ANYONE would give him the amount of shit and hate he threw out…back at him.
That I will give to Del Close and thank him for. In that moment in time and space it was not the compliment that gave me the dubious "Street Cred" that he was trying to give out. It was me sarcastically asking when he was finally going to die and him laughing at it. He was all about the hate.
Final party of the festival….man was bumming smokes off of me.
Del: (like a test to see how hip I was) You wouldn't happen to have a fag?
Me: Do you want me…or a cigarette, Del?
(Laughing mixed with coughing)
I think he forgot that I was Black, a woman and did not die from a finger mime gun. I was just one of the boys who were more than happy to enable this guy with something he should not have been doing in the first place in his condition: Smoking.
The Need to be King of The Freaks
Del's need to be the Funniest Man in The Room was created in his mind (in my opinion) by actively searching out the weirdest freaks he could find so in theory he actually looked like a Rock Star. Anyone in the world that is currently on any of the stages at iO or UCB or doing any sort of Harold work would be stunned to meet Del Close at this point. The rambling stories would have them wondering what the hell was going on. The consistent name dropping would have even iO West actors thinking they have reached the final rung of Los Angeles Hell. There is nothing more depressing than seeing the guy who just taught you deconstruction in a heroin nod.
Hans recants his story of being invited to the home of the owner of The Psychotronic Film Society in Chicago. Del was a member. He became a regular in our comic book store and he would come in and would clear us out of HIS OWN BOOK Wasteland. When I asked him why he didn't just get them from DC Comics Del would cough out: "I get a better discount with my Psychotronic Film Society Discount here"
So we were invited to parties. I did not want to have anything to do with them as these parties were nothing but an excuse to get really fucked up and watch shitty B Movies and Bettie Page Spank Movies with guys who would do stupid shit like deface dollar bills with pagan writing.
But Hans tried to be nice. So there he was at the owner of PFS Chicago with a bunch of freaks wearing chin beards way before chin beards were fashionable…doing coke and heroin and Del at the lead of all of this "Holding Court". Del was in element according to Hans. Spinning whacked drug tales along with the casual use of derogatory terms for women and black people while watching Bettie Page tied up in the background. Hans was there for about forty five minutes, found a beer that did not have a cigarette butt in it…drank that and left.
His need to be The King of Freaks worked well for Del, even when he wasn't around anyone.
At the Austin Improv Festival Del was there doing a class. I walked into Esther's Follies as I wanted to grab a left item. And there was Del. By himself. With a tape recorder. I stood there without him seeing me for about five minutes…and into his tape recorder he was putting on tape the most nonsensical ramblings I have ever heard in my life. Complete non sequitur s were rolling out of his mouth.
Amazing violent images mixed with splashes of quotes from Warhol and Shakespeare…back into hatchet work and crisscrossing into obscure movie references. I left when he started tribal screaming the word WHY? over and over again.
For the normal to the slightly quirky, that is unstable pattern crazy. For someone with a more "expanded mind" it is the quotes from a Madman but there might be some corn knowledge in the crazy shit pile.
For the freaks? This man was a genius of whom I'm sure they would understand every word he was saying…or at least believe they understood and be completely wrong, which is always generally the case with people blindly idolizing anyone.
Freaks are the general makeup of blind idolizers. Ultimate Freaks who followed the King of The Freaks.
You are Not as Funny as Del Close. Just ask Del him on his Deathbed.
I was in Denver with Oui Be Negroes doing a show at the end of Black History Month 1999. I got back to Chicago and in the Chicago improv world "All Hell Had Broken Loose" I was thirty four years old. I had known Del Close at that point for twelve years.
You see…Del Close lungs had collapsed on him. After knowing him for well near twelve years at that point the inevitable happened. Del Close sounded like he was going to die at any moment for well near those years I knew him. And now…it *was happening.* Someone asked me if I was going to try to see him at the hospital. I replied: I think he will be surrounded by enough of his close friends without him trying to remember the comic book girl who he dissed a while back asking for fags while trying to get oxygen.
He officially had Emphysema. It has been said it was the cigarettes that did it. Really? Really? It wasn't all the Opiates and booze that man consumed over a lifetime? Really? Cigarettes? The man barely had any teeth. I really think a little more happened there. His Life happened there.
Even Del would have called this out if he wasn't hooked into enough equipment that kept him alive those final days. At the funeral of Don DePollo, Del Close lumbered up to the Second City ETC stage and in a short and surreal eulogy he said "No one has mentioned all the drugs" He lumbered off the stage and Frances Callier did something I will always thank her for. She got up on that stage after Del and said in a good clear voice at Del "WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT?!?" I will always thank Frances for that.
So the Chicago Improv world stopped for those final days of Del's life. Chocolate Martini's were made. Famous stars flying home to say their final goodbyes at the live wake videotaped for all of posterity with Del saying surreal shit in the camera. Like his final public joke about the great wise woman: Leni Riefenstahl. Yup. He picked the woman who made Adolph Hitler a god in films and Africans nothing but physical specimens to gawk at into a wise woman. Not as funny as well…Del's respect for women.
Kim Howard Johnson and Keith Privett (the true freak among the freaks and was my light man numerous times for Negro Shows) were on what was being called "Death Watch" I liked Privett and of course Kim enough and knew these were long stretches of time they were going to be there with Del.
So…as a gift to the caretakers (and final goodbye to Del) I got on 1-800-FLOWERS and got a huge standing tin they had with an assorted amount of healthy and completely unhealthy snacks to get everyone through. I asked them to put black balloons in the tin with a card that read:
Dear Del. I hear that you are dying. Man. That must suck. Hope there is a Chocolate Martini in hell. Safe travels, Shaun and the Negroes.
Didn't think they would do this. Until I explained to the Representative that Del Close was a pagan. Suddenly the word Negro was cool to put on a "Death Card"
After he died I went to iO Chicago. Charna graciously thanked me for what she was officially calling "The Bucket of Nutrition" She also informed me that even Del had a piece of candy.
I'm completely convinced to this day that something like an M&M got stuck in his collapsed lung and killed him. I'm convinced *I killed Del Close*
Now that time has passed there have been a few retellings of his last words. Some are convinced that his last words were "Thank God. I'm tired of being the funniest person in the room" From the accounts of Kim Howard Johnson himself it was painfully obvious he wanted those to be his last words, which of course makes a fine title for a bio movie.
In actuality it is really horribly tragic, especially those in that room who claimed they loved him and took tutelage under him. The mean realization that everyone around him that is there before he death rattles away is self admittedly "Not as talented as he is".
Walk out of any improv establishment and ask anyone who is the funniest person they know. It won't be the name Del Close.
You can actually walk into an improv establishment and ask this now. You will 8 out of ten not get Del Close's name. You will quite possibly get the same people who were in that room when he was "Live Waking" and Death Rattling. You will get the name Bill Murray (who sent beautiful flowers when Josephine Forsberg passed), or even Harold Ramis. You will get the name Susan Messing. These are the names you will get. Not Del Close. Best drug stories in the room? Best Hacking Lung Cough in the Room? Best Misogynist quote of The Year? Sure. Del Close.
In my mind if someone said that to me before they died after I spent days (or years) nurturing and supporting this guy sitting under his training at his guru feet and he told me that I still was not or never will be as funny as he was? That everyone is not even on even keel with him? I would just think to myself "Holy shit. What a jackhole."
…I would have just said "You know…Fuck You, Del Close. Right now you are only the Most Likely to Die in a Few Seconds in this Room. Oh. That one man Harold you directed in Kansas City DID SUCK. Happy travels!" He…would have laughed heartily at that. Someone called him out on his death bed.
But alas. These were not his last words. From the account of Kim a phone call interrupted his big sweeping Last Words. His friend Coven tried to make him comfortable afterwards with no such luck:
Coven: We're doing the best we can, Del.
Del: You could have done better.
Those were his last words. You could have done better. To his friend trying his best to help him. What a dick. He hated. With all of his heart right to the end.
Del Close more loved in Death than life: You too can be an Improv "Meme"
With everything I said I love the environment at iO West. Why? Because:
1) There are many amazing improvisers who reside there.
2) Most of them have never stepped foot in Chicago and met Del Close
3) Most of them were anywhere from 10-13 years old when Del Close *died*
But it is so easy to idolize someone in death when you are fed a continual stream of glowing artistic history of someone you have never met. And you realize they were not that great of people. The same way you realize that maybe…just maybe the people I idolized after death were hot messes. Like Joplin. Or, Hendrix. Or Morrison. The truth hurts with talented people.
People actually ask me what I thought of Del Close. And I tell them my truth:
He was an actor with a hardcore drug problem who was a good actor and amazing teacher when he wasn't fucked up which was rare. He was insane. He had people around him who kept him together just enough to get him to accomplish good things. If he was here right now, everyone would be afraid to talk to him…or would wish to get away pretty quickly once you got a good whiff of him. He probably would not talk to you especially if you were pregnant. He had this "thing" about pregnant women.
If you wish to give any credit on how improvisational theater came to be in its current stage? Well. That sort of goes to Charna Halpern because, it was her and the choice few who kept him mobile and not committing suicide or overdosing. You can also throw in the folks from Second City who brought him back to Chicago when he was living in a bus stop in Los Angeles. Give props and take classes from his direct descendants who had the fortitude to actually sit through his crazy shit to dig for the Comedy Gold. Miles is standing right there. Take a class from him. Now.
He was basically Andy Dick before Andy Dick was born sans the bisexuality. For me meeting Del Close, bumming smokes from me and hearing him do a surreal spew in a tape recorder? Showing his track marks with pride in the comic book store? Him being shot up with so much morphine at the end the doctors thought they were shooting up a horse? The fact that his name replaced Andy's on the back of the studio space at iO West because Andy Dick became too extreme?
That is sort of funny to me. Someone actually beat out Del Close in being too extreme. I guess in Del's last words: Andy could have done better. Or less, depending on your perspective.
It never sits really well for the people who ask me who preface it all by saying "I really wished I met Del Close" while staring longingly at a huge poster looming over the theater of him saying "Don't Do Drugs"
Del Close in death has become a Meme suitable for improv festival posters.
Like invocation…his name is invoked by anyone who wishes to be a little more edgy than the rest. He is the only "Dead Improv Guru" that you can pull up almost godlike pictures of online. You don't see too many pictures of Viola Spolin floating around on coffee mugs, and she wrote the book on improv.
And he would love this if he was alive. I mean the guy was part of a Club that idolized the Fake Meme of Bob Dobs. He wove tales of convincing L. Ron Hubbard to start a fake church now making billions and influencing hundreds of thousands. He would love the idea that people who have never met him have his picture emblazoned on Improv T-Shirts, misquoting things he once said while baked out of his mind. He created an environment in improv comedy that is to this day is considered in a lot of improv circles the ultimate of "A Clubhouse" an exclusive club where only the select can get to move to another "Level" and "Graduate".
Does it sound familiar? I mean he did supposedly influence L. Ron Hubbard…
Del Close is officially more hip in death than he was in life. I used to say "If you live long enough, you too can be an improv guru"
I take it all back: If you live a life that for all purposes is so severe and extreme filled with heroin, cocaine, misogyny, and homophobia with a healthy dose of crazy and you die?
You too will be an improv meme.
The Man who Taught The Man who Taught The Man Improv
For those who worked and taught under Del Close or feel some sort of "Mojo Bond" to him? Yes. You owe him all the respect in the world. Good on you. Celebrate his Life/Death Week. Just don't force others to.
For those who are not? You don't owe Del Close a thing. Especially if you are working in formats of other improv teachers just as vital as The Harold.
That is for those who have trained under the lineage of Spolin or Johnstone. That is for everyone sitting in a room and saying "Fuck. I'm sick of Harold. Let try this…"
They do not owe Del Close a thing. Even if they just happen to be in your class at a place that was influenced by him because, there are people in Del's house who have been influenced elsewhere. There is nowhere in the pamphlets of any place that teaches what Del taught saying "You must idolize him".
Nowhere in the pamphlets.
Those people do though, do owe a debt to *the people in front of them* for translating Del in that class. Those teachers nine out of ten worked with Del. Those teachers owe Del Close.
If your teachers teaches Del's work and never met him (like a boxer: The man who beat the man theory), they owe their teacher who might has learned under Del. Heck, in some cases they owe Kim Howard Johnson and Charna Halpern where they just read Truth in comedy. They might owe a huge amount of gratitude to Jason Chin for his book on Long Form Improvisation. You don't thank Del. You thank Jason. Jason in turn, is grateful to Del Close.
That is called in simple terms lineage or "Degrees of Separation". You don't skip generations to get to Del. You thank the lineage who taught you. For example…I thank every day of my improv life that I trained with Martin DeMaat. He was not lineage to Close. He was lineage to Josephine Foresberg who was lineage to Spolin. I thank Marty…who I know thanked Josephine who I know thanked Viola.
So, if iO or UCB wants to do celebratory shows around the life and death of Del Close? More power to them. The people who started those improv companies both owe a huge gratitude to Del.
Besides, who doesn't love another ironical improv meme of Del for this celebration? We need another "Del Event" because a marathon festival in New York, A festival with his face emblazoned and Skull Awards in Los Angeles named after him is just not enough yearly recognition.
How about a Life/Death Week too! I got a great idea for a poster: Del's Meme face up passed out in a sewer on roller skates with a rat holding his discarded BB Gun? Happy Del Week!
Just don't expect every patron in the house to be fully on board with you. You might see some apathetic shrugs with "Yea. Great. Will this be on the Mainstage or The Loft? "
For everyone else like me (that still considers herself lineage to Viola Spolin)…The moment they give Life/Death Weeks to Viola Spolin for her contribution to improv that got Del Close saying "Fuck this…I want to do something else" in EVERY improv establishment in this country where everything has pretty much spurned off of her?
I'm in. Just tell me if it is the 10pm Friday or Wednesday at 8pm show at Second City Hollywood.
Causes Shaun Landry Supports
The Alzheimer's Foundation, NAACP, Breast Cancer Foundation, Gilda's Club.