The definitive biography of an improvisational comedy guru.
If not for an unassuming, Kansas-born stand-up-comic-turned-actor-turned-director named Del Close (1934–1999), there would probably be no Saturday Night Live, SCTV or Animal House—in fact, modern film, television and stage comedy as a whole would be radically different. Soon after making his name with the 1959 album How to Speak Hip, Close moved to Chicago and became a key behind-the-scenes player at the legendary improvisational theater Second City. From ’65 to ’69 he lived in California, where he worked with San Francisco’s The Committee improv troupe, toured with the Merry Pranksters and made light designs for the Grateful Dead. Returning to Chicago in 1970, he co-founded ImprovOlympic, a legendary comedy breeding ground. John Belushi, Bill Murray, Chris Farley, Tina Fey and Stephen Colbert are among the dozens of comic actors who have since cited Close as a key influence. Sardonic to the end, his deathbed words were, “Thank God. I’m tired of being the funniest person in the room.” Johnson (Life Before and After Monty Python: The Solo Flights of the Flying Circus, 1993, etc.) presents an evenhanded look at his subject, who was a longtime friend. He heaps praise when it’s justified (most of the time), but doesn’t hold back when discussing Close’s drug addiction. Fluent in the language of improvisation, the author manages to translate many of Close’s concepts to the page, most notably the ins and outs of a long-form exercise called the Harold: Aspiring comedic actors are advised to study up. As an insider, Johnson was able to score revealing interviews with more than 80 Close acolytes, including Mike Nichols, Jim Belushi and Jon Favreau.
Entertainment-industry denizens are well aware of Close’s impact on the showbiz landscape, but this loving, honest portrait will help the rest of the world get hip to the guy who made comedy hip.