[22 July 2008]
Over several decades, the Chicago comedy scene has produced talents such as John Belushi, Bill Murray, Chris Farley, Mike Myers, Tina Fey, and Stephen Colbert. While all of these stars famously worked and trained at Second City, fans may not realize that one particular mentor influenced them all: Del Close. Close, the mercurial genius, is renowned among comedians for the workshops he taught at Second City, as well as at the Committee Theatre in San Francisco, and his own ImprovOlympic (iO) in Chicago.
Close developed long-form improvisation, a performance genre now practiced in comedy clubs and theaters around the world, and thus helped legitimize improvisation as an art form unto itself (rather than a mere means to improving scripted scenes). But he was also a prolific actor and comedian in his own right whose impact extends well beyond the improv community he helped establish.
Drawn to the theater by his boyhood fascination with Hamlet, Close crisscrossed the country from one gig to the next, witnessing and influencing some of the most memorable happenings of 20th-century America before his death from emphysema in 1999—think Forrest Gump on acid or, in Close’s case, cigarettes, cognac, and cocaine. Had his battles with substance abuse not repeatedly derailed his career, Close could easily have risen to the fame that his pupils ultimately achieved. Indeed, a new biography of Close demonstrates why he may be, in the words of former student Matt Besser, “the most unrecognized and yet most influential comedian in the last 50 years.”
In The Funniest One in the Room: The Lives and Legends of Del Close, improviser and Monty Python chronicler Kim “Howard” Johnson traces Close’s journey from childhood in small-town Kansas to cult status in the United States and beyond. Living on the edge between New York, San Francisco, and Chicago, Close was counseled by L. Ron Hubbard, toured with the Kingston Trio, jammed with the beats in Greenwich Village, and shared a California crash pad at various points with Rob Reiner, Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, and Tiny Tim, among others.
He moonlighted at various points as a fire-eating carnival performer, an LSD test subject for the US military, a film cameo artist (most notably as Sloane Peterson’s English teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), and a producer of psychedelic light shows. Some of Close’s more whimsical experiences—real and imagined—were depicted in Wasteland, the horror anthology he co-authored with John Ostrander in the late 1980s for DC Comics. In this biography, Johnson weaves a chronological context for these encounters and many more, introducing readers to a culture hero whose twisted odyssey will delight and disturb anyone interested in the history of comedy, improvisational theater, or 20th-century counterculture.
The Funniest One in the Room is not the first Close biography (Guru, a memoir of the last year of Close’s life by another former student, Jeff Griggs, was released in 2005), but it is the most comprehensive account of his life published to date. Mentored by Close, Johnson draws judiciously upon news clippings, archives, and interviews with students, friends, and collaborators to temper the “truths” that Close often stretched for dramatic effect, and to flesh out chapters of his mentor’s life that Close chose not to discuss—such as a five-year relationship with a woman his friends knew only as “George”, or the true circumstances of his father’s suicide in the late 1950s.
For comedy fans, Close’s biography provides a cogent example of the cross-pollination between the cultural ferment of the 1950s and ‘60s and the rise of televised sketch comedy in the United States. Of particular interest here is Close’s liason with Elaine May, which led him to befriend Lenny Bruce and hone his own routine as a “mildly ill” stand-up comic (as opposed to the “really sick ones”). Improv enthusiasts will enjoy reading about his tenure with the Compass Players in St. Louis, where he performed alongside May, Mike Nichols, and Ted Flicker, among others, and worked with May and Flicker to codify the “rules” of improvisation as it is performed today.
Equally interesting are Close’s years with the Committee, where he and fellow performers first created the “Harold”, now considered to be the elementary framework for long-form improvisational performance, in 1967. Chapters on Close’s work at Second City (punctuated by hirings and firings due to his myriad addictions), Saturday Night Live, and his final partnership with Charna Halpern at iO furnish a veritable roll call of comedy luminaries with whom he worked to perfect and legitimize the Harold and improvisational comedy at large.
While Johnson’s affection for his subject is palpable, he does not sugarcoat Close’s shortcomings. Instead, he plumbs them for insight into his brilliant yet self-destructive mentor. At the same time, Johnson avoids melodrama when delving into Close’s dark side, approaching the more abject aspects of his existence from an ironic perspective that seems on par with Close’s own worldview. Unfortunately, the book suffers early on from Johnson’s efforts to convince his audience that Close’s self-destructive behavior probably stemmed from his childhood in an alcoholic home. Johnson would have been better off simply describing those circumstances and allowing the reader to draw his or her own conclusions. This analytical bent, however, only drags down the first section of the work. The rest is rich, biographical detail.
Some of the most humorous (and touching) moments of the text are anecdotes in which Close’s disregard for convention or hygiene (sleeping under the stage, for example, or wearing roach-infested clothing) actually endears him to those who might have been inclined to avoid him, bringing him into Tennessee Williams’s favor or, more literally, into Cary Grant’s lap. Much more than Johnson’s occasional forays into psychoanalysis, stories such as these demonstrate how a man riddled with self-loathing and abusive tendencies came to create one of the most inclusive and collaborative schools of performance today, a genre which Close himself called the Theater of the Heart, “where people cherish each other to succeed on stage.”