Del Close Close Up, by Mike Gold
Well, it’s about time.
Author Kim Howard Johnson, former comics newsman (the late, lamented Comics Scene), occasional comic book writer (Superman: True Brit, with John Cleese and John Byrne), and frequent ComicMix commenter, has written the definitive biography of his mentor, collaborator and friend, comedy legend Del Close.
It’s called The Funniest One In The Room: The Lives and Legends of Del Close (Chicago Review Press, $24.95), and I’ll admit right off it’s impossible for me to not absolutely love a book in which I am mentioned in the second paragraph. I could have titled this column “Me and My Ego” but, no, this one’s about Del’s ego.
Comics fans may be familiar with Del’s work in collaboration with John Ostrander on Munden’s Bar during its original First Comics run, and/or their work together on the even-more-over-the-top Wasteland, the one we did at DC Comics. In fact, it was Del who suggested the title.
Students of American cultural history know Del as a Shakespearean actor who also performed on television and in movies and plays by Steve Martin, Jules Feiffer, William Saroyan, Judge Julius Hoffman, and Kaufman and Hart. But he is best known for his work as a director, teacher and mentor to – to name but a very, very few – John and Jim Belushi; Brian Doyle, Joel, and Bill Murray; Howard Hessman; Rob Reiner; Joe Flaherty; Harold Ramis; Betty Thomas; George Wendt; Tim Kazurinsky; John Candy; Chris Farley. Tim Meadows; Andy Richter; Stephen Colbert; Steve Carell; Kim Yale… and literally hundreds more. Oh, yeah… he was also rehearsal director of Saturday Night Live for a couple years and he created the format for SCTV.
The title for Howard’s preposterously well-researched book comes from Del’s doubtlessly inventoried “last words.” Del checked out of this plane with the phrase “I’m tired of being the funniest one in the room.” He was that; he was also the most dangerous one in the room. He mastered the philosophy of “always affirm,” always go with what’s going on and turn it into something brilliant. He encouraged actors and writers to work with their excesses, to take their personal extremes and mold them into the needs of the story. There were never any barriers when Del was involved; that’s why he was rehearsal director ofSNL but not involved with the tightly-controlled on-air production.
Del Close was a true genius, and I am proud to say I was among the legion of mere humans who regarded him as our mentor.
Kim Howard Johnson, old pal, you did him well.
I would like to point out that tomorrow, April 29th, at 6:00 PM there will a tribute to Del and a book party for Howard at The Second City e.t.c. Theatre, 1608 N. Wells Street, in Chicago. I’ll be there, as will Tim Kazurinsky and many others of Del’s minions. The author, certainly, will be there. So will Del.
And he’ll still be the funniest one in the room.
Mike Gold is editor-in-chief of ComicMix.
"Students of American cultural history know Del as a Shakespearean actor who also performed on television and in movies and plays by Steve Martin, Jules Feiffer, William Saroyan, Judge Julius Hoffman, and Kaufman and Hart."Mike, did something get left out of that sentence? Or did Judge Julius Hoffman indeed write a play? I know nothing, which is why I ask.What I know of Del Close comes from comic books and the occasional bits here and there about Second City. Which years was he the rehearsal director for SNL?I think this is a biography I need to read.
Julie might have written a play, but Del played in the stage version of the Conspiracy Trial (BTW, I was on the Trial's staff back then) at Chicago's prestigious Steppenwolf Theater. Del played pacifist hero Dave Dellinger. It was a great play, although it confined itself to what happened in the courtroom. That was barely half the story.Amusingly, I'm writing these words right now from Sweet Home Chicago.
My recollections is that Del was "house metaphysician" — probably his term — at SNL. My recollection of titling our comic WASTELAND was that the idea was mine; Del wanted to call it "Mysogynist Funnies" which he justified as an allusion to another work by a woman writer (whose name I forget). We had to explain to him that the concept was to alienate the reader AFTER they bought the book, not before. He grumped but eventually went with it. Del was a fire-eater — literally. Did it during his carnie days. On a radio talk show he and I were on, he revealed the secret to fire-eating — "Heal fast". He said you always got burned. That describes Del to me.He was also the only individual I have known personally who i would truly describe as a genius. It wasn't just his intelligence, which was ferocious, but his perception.And he loved comics or, at least, the POSSIBILITY of comics. He told me the story, and it worked its way into a WASTELAND story, of how when he was a young man he went into an empty field one day and shouted, "SHAZAM!" He said he KNEW nothing would happen but he had to say it once with all the force, all the conviction, all the belief in his soul behind it. He needed to make it into an invocation — just to know for sure.He didn't turned into Captain Marvel. He simply remained something pretty amazing in itself — he remained Del.He was, IMO, one of the biggest and least known or understood influences on American comedy in the last half century. The list of people he influenced and who will in turn influence others is astounding.And you can tell folks I said so,
I did a bit of Googling Research on Del Close this morning. What I found out. Hmm. Del Close created an long form improv structure called, "The Harold." He said, "Probably my most significant contribution and it's got that stupid name." Thank goodness "Wasteland" was not called "Misogynist Funnies." Maybe Del just wasn't so good with names.I ended up at the iMDb and found out that Del Close played a role on the short-lived TV Show, "Sable," featuring Rene Russo as Eden Kendell!Del and his skull show up in ComicMix's Munden's Bar #1.http://www.comicmix.com/comic/comicmix/mundens-ba…It was nice to see Del again. He had made frequent appearances in "Wasteland." And I'm hoping to see more Munden's soon.
Del did not name The Harold. After creating the format of improv (an assortment of exercises and sketches in a set order), one of his compatriots asked what this format should be called, and another immediately said "Harold". Keeping with the rule of "always affirm", the name stuck, much to Del's eternal frustration.
That's wild. I've never seen a picture of Del, but I recognized him immediately from the Munden's Bar tribute.
I've said all this before, but I don't care.Genius.Successfully created a new form of comedy. Took the idea of making things up, applied RULES to it, and somehow made it better.I made my wife name the comedy relief character (who appears three times) in her first novel "Harold". And in her second book, the gag character is named "Delbert Farr".And no matter what anyone says…that's Del's skull playing Yorick. Even if they prove it's not with DNA, it's Del's skull, because it SHOULD be be Del's skull.
I'm sorry I missed him. You guys must have had some real times together. I promised myself I wouldn't buy any books until my reading pile was totally depleted but I kind of have to make an exception for this one. I know I am far from it, but I used to think as kid that I would grow up to be a metaphysician myself. I'm sure now I must have gotten it from you all in The Wasteland and Master Close…
A preview of the book, complete with video of Del's going away party, is available at:http://www.chicagoreader.com/features/stories/del…
I can't believe the sheer amount of BS that some folks posted online following that article! The Internet at its WORST!
WOW! I am so glad that people are actually talking about Del again. I had the fortune of being in his last clas at I.O. Unfortunately, he passed away a few weeks before we were supposed to graduate. I was at the "Skull Presentation" ceremony and also at his memorial when Matt Besser completely, verbally thrashed everything that was "Second City". It was a classic speech, and I am sure Del appreciated it. I'll tell you what, even in his "weakened state" while he taught the class, everyone respected what he was about as soon as he made his way into the room, and lit up one of his "Al Capone" cigarellos. It always went dead silent. One of my favorite moments was when I actually got to talk to him for the first time during one of our breaks. He re-emphasized how he hated the name "Harold" and told me that after he is done with our class (which he conceeded would probably be his last) that I "should use the name Del Close, and being in his last class for all it's worth. Milk it til it's dry!" he said. I really wish that they would release some sort of documentary about him. The rumor was that one was filmed. In any case, thank you for bringing back Del and I'll be sure to spread the word.
Wikipedia has it that THE Harold Ramis was tapped to direct a screenplay about Del Close, based on the book "Guru," by Jeff Griggs. Ramis would like Bill Murray to play Del.Yahoo Movies says that Del Close had at one time procured drugs for both Lenny Bruce and John Belushi! He was also a mentor of Chris Farley. I couldn't find any connection between Del Close and Mitch Hedberg.Obviously, Del Close had a very dark, self-destructive sense of humor if he was smoking cigarillos while he was dying from emphysema. Or he was just addicted.
Del was Chris Farley's teacher at the IO. I saw both him and Mike Meyers onstage there. Both were far more exciting and dangerous than anything I've seen them do after. Both have been FUNNY — but at IO they were funny and dangerous.
A quick note.I just returned from this evening's fantastic tribute to Del, joining Max Allan Collins and his family, Barry and Holly Crane, and Ken and Mary Levin. We had an amazing time, laughed our asses off, had two hours of wonderful conversation with Howard, Tim Kazurinsky and a whole bunch of others. Our deep, deep thanks to Kim Howard Johnson and his publisher and the folks at Second City for a wonderful time.Oh, and Howard's book indeed has been optioned for the big screen.