Documentary unravels the mystery of the guru of American comedy
When South By Southwest made the wise but painful decision to shut down last week, many small films lost their best chance at a large audience and an appreciative press. SXSW has made some of those films available, and other filmmakers are doing their best to get the word out during this hellish pandemic. It’s not easy. At BFG, we’ll be spotlighting as many as we can.
First up is For Madmen Only, billed as an “Adventurous Hybrid Documentary” about influential improv-comedy guru Del Close, who died in 1999. I took classes from Close in Chicago in the early 1990s, so this film had some personal resonance. Though I don’t have a lot of stories about him, I do have a couple of good ones, which I’ll share at the end of this review.
The King Of Comedy
The movie takes as its framing device the production of Wasteland, a bizarre and mostly unsuccessful horror anthology comic series that Close co-produced for DC in the late 1980s. It presents fictionalized scenes, taking place in Close’s Chicago apartment, featuring James Urbaniak doing an uncanny and effective Del Close impression. Matt Walsh also appears in a mostly straight-man supporting role as Close’s editor. There are a few other fictionalized scenes, including an out-of-place scene at the DC offices, with a hilarious turn by Lauren Lapkus as a wry receptionist.
But most of the movie hews more closely to a traditional documentary format, with plenty of talking-head appearances from Charna Halpern, Close’s business partner at ImprovOlympic, as well as more recognizable figures, and Del Close students, like Tim Meadows and Adam McKay. Director Heather Ross deploys, maybe too much, plenty of scenes from Wasteland to illustrate various periods of Close’s bizarre life as the “Zelig of comedy.” But she also very effectively uses original animation to fill in the gaps, most effectively to tell the story of Close’s abortively tragic love affair with Elaine May in the late 1950s. There are also lots of original audio recordings of Close, including a great one that Bob Odenkirk made when he was a college student. Those recordings, and Odenkirk’s telling of the stories behind them, comprise one of the film’s highlights.
For Madmen Only covers all the Del Close highlights. We learn about his time with St. Louis’ Compass Players, San Francisco’s The Committee, his checkered career at the Second City, and his late-life resurgence with ImprovOlympic. The movie doesn’t have to go far to prove the case that without Del Close, American comedy as we know it wouldn’t exist.
But the movie suffers from the same syndrome that improv does. When you see a good live version of The Harold, Close’s signature long-form improv invention, it’s like no other experience in theater. But in retrospect, it doesn’t make sense. For Madmen Only has some similar drawbacks. Close has an interesting life story, and this stuff is manna for comedy nerds. But as a film, it sometimes suffers from you-had-to-be-there syndrome.
And though Urbaniak is uncanny as Close, most of the fictionalized segments fall sort of flat, and the film loses its commitment to them in the second half. A segment featuring Patton Oswalt as a cowboy lands with a particular thud and probably should have stayed in the editing room.
Also, let’s face it, Del Close isn’t the most sympathetic character around which to wrap a film. When I attended his memorial service at Second City in 1999, one of his star pupils referred to him as a “scary prick.” Discussion of his years at Second City Toronto make him sound like a dangerous lunatic. Dave Thomas, who consented to an interview, cannot mask his utter disdain for Close. Adam McKay, probably his most successful disciple, refers to him as “kind of a baby.” He comes across as bitter and weird, and, as the film reveals at the end, he lied his entire life as about his father’s suicide.
An Unparalleled Legacy
That said, the film certainly gets across Close’s cultural importance. You can’t discount the vast influence he’s had on American comedy, from McKay’s films, to the work of Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert, John Belushi, Chris Farley, Amy Poehler, and so many more. He certainly influenced me. In turn, my humor writing has inspired dozens.
Two quick stories from the old days: When I was first taking classes with Close, one night he had us run through a bunch of improv exercises. We were terrible as usual. And then on a break, I got into a huge argument with a guy about health insurance. This was 1993, so I don’t even remotely remember what the health insurance debate was like in those days. But as it proceeded, Close moved us up on stage, asked to continue, pulled up a chair, turned it around, and leaned over it like he was watching Lincoln and Douglas decide the fate of the Union. When we were done, he said, “That was a lot more interesting than all the other bullshit I’ve seen up here today.” That’s stayed with me.
About a year later, I’d graduated to a Harold team. Charna Halpern had assigned me to literally the worst team in the entire Improv universe, the players with whom no one else wanted to perform. We were the no-hope sandlot team of improv. ImprovOlympic had recently suffered a fire at its facilities, and it was still a couple of years away from opening its own theater. They held classes at a makeshift variety of venues.
One night, my team and another team met with Close at a theater on North Avenue. They were in the middle of a theatrical production, and the stage resembled a medieval castle, with a floor that looked like a chessboard. Close gave us no instructions other than to do a play based on our surroundings. So we did. For an hour and a half, the worst improvisers in Chicago performed a bizarre play that we made up on the spot. I don’t remember a single line or character. I don’t even remember any of the names or faces of the people involved. But I do remember the feeling of being totally in sync with my fellow performers, and that the play we made was magical and hilarious. We had an audience of one: Del Close.
When the play was over, the theater was silent for a few seconds. And then Del Close applauded and roared with laughter.
He said, “That was the best goddamn thing I’ve ever seen in my life!”
RIP, you scary prick.