In the pantheon of comic geniuses, it may take some digging until you find the name Del Close. You will, however, find a staggering amount of successful comedians who studied improv under Close’s tutelage that include the likes of Bill Murray, Amy Poehler, and Tina Fey, among many many others. In this new documentary, director Heather Ross explores the depths of Close’s influence and the wild mind of a troubled genius.
For Madmen Only
Director: Heather Ross
Release Date: TBD
In the ‘80s, Close worked with his friend John Ostrander on a comic for DC called Wasteland, which picked and pulled exaggerated events from Close’s personal life. Ross references the comic uniquely throughout the documentary, establishing and reminding how connected Wasteland is to Close’s partners and those he viewed as enemies. He had a paranoia around success and would fight anyone trying to reign in his ideas. He held resentment towards his students who went on to become wildly successful while he toiled in keeping his improv class alive. The drugs also didn’t help.
Like most who view things on an entirely different level of consciousness, Close wasn’t easy to work with. After getting ousted of a promising comedic group that included Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Close learned a valuable lesson in looking out for himself. Creating a new idea, especially around improv comedy, is a tough road. He lived the idea that improv should be long-form and constantly flow, while not necessarily being focused on one funny aspect. Instead a single short scene, an elongated take is given and characters are introduced and recur as scenes connect to each other. This model became known as Harold Improv.
Close bounced around from theater to theater as he continuously butted heads with managers and entertainment executives. Ross pieces together footage from his various classes that pronounce his fits of rage alongside interviews with various execs. Regardless of his run-ins, he held the attention of many young comedians who would go on to bigger things. Though he had the knowledge, he at times lost control (again, the drugs didn’t help) and would push his students a little too far or attempt to make a joke that was beyond edgy. In an archived interview, Tina Fey talked about how his classes felt like a cult. As Close’s students consistently found success while he remained a teacher, his personal grudge grew amidst his own missed chance of the spotlight.
The documentary draws into the world of improv and the star power is simply bewildering. The young jovial faces of eventual screen legends laughing together feels like entry was granted into some secret club. Ross ensures to include a vast array of former students across multiple decades to show the generational aptitude of Close’s abilities. In an attempt to make recorded conversations more entertaining, Ross chose reenactments as a way to translate audio to visual. The idea is solid, as opposed to looking at a picture while a recording plays, but it never feels like it fully fits with the flow of the movie. However, it does provide further insight into Close’s unique thought process.
Throughout the documentary, a handful of Close’s former students and colleagues talk about their time with the improv guru. Bob Odenkirk and Tim Meadows recount stories of Close’s greatness and his struggles while clips of legends like Chris Farley, John Belushi, and Robin Williams steal scene after scene during improv sets. When we watch comedic actors perform, it’s all too easy to forget the training nearly all of them have gone through. For Madmen Only takes Close’s oft-exaggerated self-narrative (he used to tell an inconsistent story about the death of his father) and uses a slew of former students and recordings of brainstorming sessions to establish credibility around who Close was both as a person and a teacher in a way that provides insight into the mentor of a generation of comedians. Aside from the reenactments that come across more goofy than an inclusive necessity to the story, For Madmen Only opens a world of comedic curtain-peeking for anyone who wants to get a sense of the comedy scene before the biggest stars became the biggest stars.