Del Close's lasting impact on iO, and the rest of us

Legendary improv performer and mentor Del Close leaves a lasting legacy for iO Theater.

His shadow is a substantial thing, shading the increasingly active and ever-expanding Chicago comedy world in the same way that Louis Sullivan still influences young architects, Muddy Waters impacts bluesmen or Nelson Algren whispers to writers.

Del Close has been dead now for 15 years, but long before that he and I could be found sitting on the steps of The Second City on Wells Street. It was late night moving to early morning and this was during a time when the both of us were probably drinking too much. It was in the late 1970s, he employed as a director at Second City and I writing about comedy, theater and night life for the Sun-Times. We knew each other a bit and had for a few years. Most of what we talked about is lost.

But he did say this, "Chicago is the center of everything that matters, and there will be pain and trouble for you but if you ever leave here that would be a mistake that could destroy you." I remember that because I wrote it down when I got home and kept it. Like many things Del said to me over the years, I didn't fully understand its meaning, but there was weight to it — that I knew, and now, many years later, it makes a great deal more sense than it did when he said it. I am still here.

Close is not — he died in 1999 — and yet he is. A cornerstone of the city's improvisational scene for decades, he was a mentor and teacher and an imposing, sometimes difficult, but ever-memorable character. He was a creative force. A genius, some would tell you. A kook, others would say. There are still a few people around who studied with him, learned from him, loved him. To many, many more, the younger people who will fill the new iO space and the always expanding classrooms and stages of Second City, Close is but a legend, but his name will be heard and his influence seen.

I was not a student of Close's, not part of the stunning roster of talents that were influenced by him, a long list that includes Bill Murray, John Belushi, Harold Ramis, Chris Farley, John Candy, Mike Myers, Tina Fey, Adam McKay, Stephen Colbert … and hundreds, likely thousands of others, most of whom never tasted stardom.

But I did closely observe some of the manifestations of his art.

His life could fill a book. Indeed it has filled two books, both written by former students and friends: Jeff Griggs' 2005 "Guru: My Days with Del Close," focusing on Close's final years, and, in 2008, Kim Howard Johnson's full-length biography, "The Funniest One in the Room: The Lives and Legends of Del Close." He has been the subject of a film, 2002's "The Delmonic Interviews," by Cesar Jaime and Jeff Pacocha, featuring interviews with former students, friends and collaborators. His own book, written in collaboration with Johnson and Charna Halpern, "Truth in Comedy: The Manual for Improvisation," was published in 1994.

From these you can learn the many particulars and peculiarities of the Close biography: born and raised in Manhattan, Kan.; performs with the Compass Players in St. Louis and does stand-up comedy in New York; first arrives in Chicago in 1960 and begins working at Second City; San Francisco for a few LSD-splashed years touring with Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters and working with the Committee, a comedy gang; back in Chicago and teaching improv and theater games and starting the long-form technique that he calls "The Harold"; problems with various substances such as heroin (he would give that up) and cigarettes (never stopped); director at Second City from 1973-1982; starts working with Halpern to create ImprovOlympic (now iO); works in theater and film; dies at 64 of complications from emphysema.

Add to that these personal snap shots:

1985: I see "The Harold" for the first time at the bygone CrossCurrents, a club/performance space in Wrigleyville. It begins with Close giving a typically eclectic, intelligent and barbed 15 minutes in which he manages to hit a dozen topics, from the life of cats to Carl Sagan, whom he calls "the Barry Manilow of physics."

In what I call "a hipster's version of the grammar school Christmas play," three competing teams of Halpern-Close student-performers — Baron's Barracudas, Apocalypso and Pigwings — are given themes by audience suggestion, and each group explores those by means of such improv techniques as time dashes, monologues, musical spots and split scenes. At the conclusion of each group's 40-minute set, they are graded by the audience on a 1-6 scoring system in four categories: intelligence, theme, structure and teamwork.

I write: "This was a terribly precarious game, a hit and miss affair. Yet, on (this night), the hits far outnumbered the errors and, indeed, much of the work was stingingly fresh and funny. No two 'Harolds' ever will be the same. Teams will change, the games will alter. And therein lies one reason why this is and will remain among the most exciting, adventurous games in town."

1987: Barbara Harris, the Broadway actress and one of the most notable Second City alums, is sitting at the back of CrossCurrents watching "The Harold."

"They are very clearly in the moment," she says. "You can hear the minds working."

I tell Close what Harris has said and he says, smiling, "Barbara said all of the right stuff."

1987: Close describes his musical play and first scripted show, "Honor Finnegan Versus the Brain of the Galaxy," as "a light-hearted look at the end of life on earth."

He tells me: "Imagine Little Orphan Annie playing the Sigourney Weaver role in 'Aliens,' and you'll have some idea of the show. It explores such issues as the extinction of life on earth, the threat of alien invasion, life after death, the loneliness of heroism.

"Bad taste being used to good ends," he continues, mentioning such musical numbers as "a love song to Godzilla and a song called 'A Boy's Best Friend Is his Mother.' He directs, for the first time since 1982, and says, "I could never have done something like this at Second City. I couldn't do a play, except in the old days. I'm a theater man. It's time to be daring."

For all of his deep impact on the improv scene it is easy to forget that Close was also a powerful presence on screen and on stage. Even in small roles, he remains memorable in "The Untouchables" and "Ferris Bueller's Day Off." On stage, he performed in such shows as Steppenwolf's "You Can't Take It With You"; "The Time of Your Life" for Remains; "Hamlet" at Wisdom Bridge; and a number of plays at the Goodman.

So, a couple more snap shots, from that part of his life:

1987: In the restaurant just off the old Goodman lobby, sitting with the three clowns from the production of "The Tempest": John Mohrlein, Bruce Young and Close, playing Trinculo, Caliban and Stephano, respectively.

"We are not clowns," says Mohrlein. "We are drunks."

"Dangerous drunks," says Young.

"Ah, what a dreadful triumvirate," says Close.

Close lights a cigarette and starts fidgeting with his costume shop pince nez.

"Shakespeare is a brilliant comedy writer," says Young.

"We'd never do anything we don't think Bill would like," says Close.

"We do not seek to exploit," says Mohrlein, "but to illuminate."

"In some ways it's harder for us than for the straight actors," says Close. "We not only have to know where the poetry is but how to get a response from the audience. After all, what we are doing is a bunch of topical jokes from 1610, updating them for a modern audience."

"We know what's funny," says Mohrlein. "But what the audience thinks may be quite different."

"It'll be 700 of them to three of us," says Close. "We've got the whoopee cushions. Let us at 'em."

1988: Close and I are on stage, appearing together in the Goodman production of the musical "Pal Joey." Close is doing this because he is getting paid to play a character named Ludlow Lowell, a shady talent agent. I am doing this for a story about what it is like to be on stage at the Goodman. We are drinking "martinis" at a table in a scene set at a nightclub.

Close is talking to me quietly about how excited he is to have been cast in a $25 million movie remake of "The Blob," but when an actress playing a waitress comes to the table and places two more glasses in front of us he says, ever the teacher, "Always tip the waitress."

Good advice that, especially for all of you sitting and drinking during shows at iO and Second City.

So, one more memory from 1988: a young and funny comic named Bob Harris, who studied with Close, shows me a tribute to his former teacher. It is a poem. It is titled "Del."

It begins: "Two fingers clawing the air / A cigarette burning between them / 'The muses,' Del muses, / 'Are with us.' "

One way or another, one particular muse is with us still.

"After Hours With Rick Kogan" airs 9-11 p.m. Sundays on WGN-AM 720.

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