Nichols and May. John Belushi. Bill Murray. Chris Farley. Tina Fey. Mike Myers. Stephen Colbert. For nearly a half century, Del Close—cocreator of the Harold, director for the Second City, San Francisco’s the Committee, and the ImprovOlympic, and “house metaphysician” for Saturday Night Live—influenced improvisational theater’s greatest comedic talents. His students went on to found the Groundlings in Los Angeles, the Upright Citizens Brigade in both New York and Los Angeles, and the Annoyance Theatre in Chicago. But this Pied Piper of improv has gone largely unrecognized outside the close-knit comedy community.
Del was never one to let the truth of his life stand in the way of a good story—and yet the truth is even more fascinating than the fiction. In his early years, he traveled the country with Dr. Dracula’s Den of Living Nightmares, knew L. Ron Hubbard before Scientology, and appeared in The Blob. Del cavorted with the Merry Pranksters, used aversion therapy to recover from alcoholism, and kicked a cocaine habit with the help of a coven of witches. And when he was dying, Del bequeathed his postmortem skull to the Goodman Theatre for use in its productions of Hamlet—a final legend that lives on, long beyond the death of the father of long-form improvisation.
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About the Author
Kim “Howard” Johnson was a longtime friend of Del Close, a personal assistant to John Cleese, a newspaper and magazine writer, and is the author of several books on Monty Python. He coauthored the improv classic Truth in Comedy with Del Close and Charna Halpern.
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The Funniest One in the Room
The Lives and Legends of Del Close
By Kim "Howard" Johnson
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2008 Kim "Howard" Johnson
All rights reserved.
Manhattan, Kansas: Setting the Stage
"I knew there was a great darkness at the heart of America. My hometown of Manhattan, Kansas, was nine miles from the geographical center of the United States. The CENTER — the heart-was in Fort Riley, Kansas — a military base. I always found that ominous."
Del Close arrived in this world six minutes past midnight on March 9, 1934. The night was cold, but it was warm inside Park View Hospital, which overlooked City Park in Manhattan, Kansas, population ten thousand.
Manhattan had been founded seventy-nine years earlier, in the rich agricultural valley where the Blue River and the Kansas River meet and flow eastward into the Missouri River at Kansas City. Ringed by the rolling Flint Hills, the area was often referred to as the Kaw Valley, "Kaw" being a nickname for the Kansas River, named after the Kansas Indians. The residents soon helped to establish the college known in 1934 as Kansas State College of Agricultural and Applied Science (now Kansas State University). Several miles west of Manhattan was Fort Riley, established before Kansas became a territory to protect travelers and settlers from Indians.
Del's father, Del Close Sr., was born in Belleville, Kansas, on October 6, 1900, one of four children. After attending Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, Del Senior lived briefly in Abilene and Salina before moving to Manhattan in 1927, where he found work in a jewelry store. Two years later, he established Del Close Jewelers, located in the 100 block of South Fourth Street in Manhattan. Del Senior's strong work ethic was fueled by the economic problems of the Great Depression. The pressure to remain competitive was continuous. He preferred to be his own boss, which drove him to spend the long hours at work that he believed were necessary to succeed.
To help his business grow, Del Close Sr. became involved in community activities. He was a president of the local Kiwanis Club, a director of the Manhattan Country Club, and for a time served as chairman of the City Planning Commission. He and his family belonged to the First Presbyterian Church.
Mildred Madeline Etheringten Close was born on December 24, 1898. Two years older than her husband, she stayed home, like so many wives at that time, and the family relied on her husband's income. Unlike many, she seemed to hold performers in some regard long before her son joined their ranks.
Many years later, Del Junior claimed that Mildred had been fond of reciting a carnival spiel promoting an acrobatic act that she had first heard at a fair in Abilene in 1914: "Dainty, determined Demona, daily defying death as she takes her own life in her hands and loops the loop in a hollow ball." Her son would often recite this himself in his later years, and speculated that such imagery may have provided the impetus for his own career. "She was the funny one of the family," he would proclaim.
* * *
Manhattan was located 125 miles west of Kansas City, but residents knew what was going on in the world. Manhattan had its own daily newspapers, the Mercury and the Nationalist, where residents got their local news. The Topeka Capital and the Journal plus the nationally recognized Kansas City Star and the Times provided broader windows on the nation and world. The only radio station in Manhattan was KSAC, an educational operation at Kansas State College, but residents of the town could easily hear network radio affiliates from the larger cities.
Three theaters presented Hollywood's latest offerings, usually weeks after they were first released.
All of these facets of Manhattan appealed to the Closes. They valued respectability, and they appreciated the value of a college education. By all accounts they were typical of the business-oriented residents in town. They were churchgoing, Republican, middle class — not demonstrative in their affections, but that was not unusual for the era. Del Senior devoted his attention to his business, and it was rare to stop by the Close house and discover him at home.
The Closes remained childless until Mildred was thirty-five. As it was apparently her first and only pregnancy, and her son would remain an only child, there were whispers that he might have been unplanned. Of course, with Del Senior spending so much time at work, away from home, Mildred might have wanted a child to fill the empty space. But such is speculation.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about young Del's childhood is that it was, to all outward appearances, unremarkable. But he felt the paternal neglect early in his childhood, and whether it was caused by business worries, alcohol, a chemical imbalance, or simply his own upbringing, didn't matter. How much Mildred compensated for his father's distance is unclear, but Del Junior always felt close to his mother.
There were signs from a very early age that Del was drawn to performing. It may have been an attempt to gain his father's attention, earn his mother's approval, or simply an effort to get attention from anyone, because he quickly learned that people who performed got noticed. He once claimed that his theatrical career began as a lobster in the "Lobster-Quadrille" from Alice in Wonderland. Another oft-told story recalled his performance at four years old as the troll under the bridge in The Three Billy Goats Gruff, when he refused to die and instead ate all the billy goats. The guilt troubled him even at that young age; he knew he had violated some unspoken principle. Looking back, he realized it taught him that "sometimes it's more heroic to lose."
While his mother may have contributed to his sense of humor, young Del, like so many comics, may have developed or honed his wit as a defense mechanism, a way of staving off ridicule as a child. He was "a chubby kid, hair sticking up, Coke-bottle-thick glasses, ears sticking up," according to grade-school classmate Ron Young, who referred to him by his childhood nickname, Pickle.
Del himself agreed with that assessment.
I was a fat kid with thick glasses, for a while I wore braces on my legs, and I have a potentially funny name — "Del" is very close to "dill pickle" — and also asthma; whatever skin disease was available I had it aplenty, like dermatitis — which is a wonderful disease; it means "skin disease." I suffered from poison ivy, and they gave me anti-poison ivy shots and I was, like, immobilized for a long time, watching for flying saucers out of the corner of my window ... yeah, so, ah, I had to get funny before they did because it hurt less when I got the laughs.
But there is evidence to contradict his own description. Existing photos of Del as a baby reveal no evidence of excessive weight, aside from slightly chubby cheeks. Even photos of his adolescence show little that could be construed as heavy, and his complexion likewise appears normal. Although he claimed he was once tied to a tree while other boys threw firecrackers at him, such pranks were apparently rare.
Whether his health problems made him feel inferior and a worrying responsibility to his parents is a matter of conjecture. Because he was often sick as a child, and his father was emotionally distant, it would be easy for a child to imagine cause and effect. In adulthood, Del would have no use for children, at least in public. Friends felt it stemmed from his own youth, which taught him that children were burdens.
One day in kindergarten, the children were all required to make a train, but young Del could not find it in himself to finish the assignment. Decades later, when he decided to dedicate a notebook to various writings, he recalled:
I have a bad record, completion-wise, with beginnings in kindergarten. I never finished my train. The guilt, the fear! There was the unfinished train at the back of my cubical wooden locker and I dreaded its discovery by the teacher because you weren't allowed on to the next project — what was it? Boring a hole in a piece of plywood? — until you'd finished your train! Why I didn't want to finish it, I don't know. Perhaps after I'd built the engine and a passenger car, the caboose held no mysteries for me. No challenge — no revelation. Just more wood, glue, and screw eyes. But I assure you the degree of paranoia my cheating caused me — I went on — without finishing! — was, in its childlike excess, equivalent to that experienced by the Rosenbergs before their arrest. I would be found out, denounced, and sent back! And I so wanted to get on — and I did. I was never discovered — nobody ever gave it a second thought. But me. To me, this was a horrible lesson to learn — "You don't have to finish stuff!"
There were no penalties for failure to finish what you started. The unfinished toy train was a lesson that would cause problems throughout his life.
The modest, white, two-story Cape Cod-style house, with twin gabled dormers overlooking the street, was situated on a small lot at 1726 Poyntz in a quiet residential neighborhood. It was typical for its time, with an unfinished basement, a living room, sitting room, and kitchen on the first floor, and two bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs.
Though he would come to be considered a loner, Del liked to play games like hide-and-seek with the neighborhood children, and was particularly good at hiding. But his favorite game was army. It was more fun to shoot him than anyone else, and Del always wanted to be the one who got shot. Young recalled, "It would take him twenty minutes to die."
Del and the neighborhood kids used the lilac bushes in the yard outside the Close house as their secret clubhouse, where the nine- and ten-year-old boys would play poker and discuss activities more illicit. At one point, Del and two other boys, James Bascom and Billy Harms, formed a club, and Del learned another way to get his father's attention. The three of them would go to Duckwalls, the local five-and-dime, and pocket small items. Then they would gather under the lilac bushes and show off their ill-gotten gains. But their shoplifting club would not last long. Harms's parents found out and alerted the other parents. The reaction of Del Senior to his son's petty larceny is unrecorded, but the activities of the shoplifting club immediately ceased.
Young Del attended Eugene Field Elementary School, viewed at that time as an elite grade school, attended by the children of doctors, professors, and other professionals. Unlike many of his fellow students, Del never skipped a grade, but he grew up feeling the peer pressure of over-achieving classmates.
Del was not interested in team sports, and it was his love of performing that occasionally revealed a competitive streak. He put on a play in the basement of his house, while another unnamed friend put on another play in competition. During the other boy's play, Del heckled him mercilessly, ruining the other play.
The Close family was comfortably middle class, and did not want for material possessions. During World War II, Pickle had an allowance of 25¢ per week, an amount unheard of in the neighborhood. One of the more ostentatious displays of his prosperity was the pile of comic books he had amassed. Classmates like Gary Wilson and Young would visit Pickle to trade comic books. His collection included eclectic titles, with war comics, Classics Illustrated, and even some horror titles. The other boys would collect soda pop bottles to buy traditional superhero titles like Batman, Green Lantern, and Blackhawk, but they were always happy to trade with Pickle. He had so many that he would often brazenly trade two or three of his comics for one of theirs.
Del was a voracious reader of all manner of literature. Another friend, David Dary, shared with Del a keen interest in magic, and for a time they checked out all of the magic books in the Manhattan Public Library. One book in particular, John Northern Hilliard's Greater Magic, was a favorite; because there was only one copy, the two of them attempted to keep it checked out so that no one else could get it. But Del did not have the patience or discipline to learn the subtleties of coin or playing card manipulation. He was much more interested in shocking illusions like cutting off heads or sawing a woman in half.
The neighborhood children considered Mildred Close nervous and fidgety. When they arrived at Del's house to play, she would be waiting in order to inspect their shoes for mud. Only when assured they wouldn't track anything into the house would she show them down to the basement.
Another impressive show of opulence awaited them downstairs. There on the workbench was the largest chemistry set any of them had ever seen. Young Del's interest in magic waned when he received it, and he focused his attention on the Gilbert Chemistry Set, which opened up and telescoped out, then opened again, until it covered the tabletop. In front of it were chemicals, beakers, flasks, and two Bunsen burners. His friends assumed that his parents would buy him anything to keep him out of trouble.
Instead, the chemistry set provided new methods of mischief. One day, when several boys were playing with Del in his basement, he showed them the handle of a hammer missing its head. "So what?" asked the others, unimpressed.
Del immediately grabbed a small packet of potassium permanganate and sulfur made with his chemistry set, and ordered the others to the bare concrete stoop just outside his back door. He put the packet at one end of the stoop, and cautioned the others to step back. Del then ducked and hit the package with another hammer. The resulting explosion convinced the other boys. The head of the hammer was never found.
On occasions when Del was caught and talked back, Mildred literally washed his mouth out with soap. One day, Del was leading Young and Wilson into the house, and the other two boys insisted on taking off their muddy shoes. Del scoffed and insisted they keep their shoes on. "The old biddy won't know —" he began, then looked up to see his mother standing directly in front of him. In one motion, and without looking, he automatically extended his right hand to the kitchen counter; he grabbed a half-used bar of Ivory soap, took a bite out of it, and spit it back into the sink. The other boys and even Mildred couldn't resist laughing at Del's mechanical response.
Summers were for vacations. There was a major trip in summer 1946, which saw the family motor to Yellowstone National Park, Salt Lake City, the Grand Canyon, and even as far as Los Angeles. Young Del utilized his new camera to document the trips.
* * *
By junior high school, Del had taken an interest in photography, fabricating a makeshift darkroom. It soon became clear that Del had found a way to combine his photographic hobby with his growing curiosity about girls. He surreptitiously showed some of his studies to classmates; they were nude photos of a female classmate, whom Del had somehow managed to talk into posing for him.
Del now found himself in social situations involving the opposite sex. A number of seventh-grade boys, including Del, had signed up for a social dance class, and Del often found himself partnered with Donna Fearing (then known as Donna Joan Morine). Del stuck with the dancing class (which was not affiliated with the school) but when dance recital time came, all of the boys had dropped out but Del. The couple attended dance parties in basement rec rooms and local halls, with Del's father driving them, and Del sitting next to his father in the front seat. While he was not uncomfortable around girls, he could be a bit shy or self-conscious, noted Fearing. When a local newspaper reporter once asked him what it was like to be the only male among a class of leotard-clad females, Del replied that it was a lot of fun.
They were purely platonic, their relationship largely confined to group dances, although Del and Fearing had similar backgrounds and interests (she was also bright and an only child). Their physical relationship was limited to a lone kiss on the cheek. There was no fight or breakup; Del simply quit asking her out during the eighth grade.
Those who consider him a counterculture icon might be shocked to learn that Del was even a Boy Scout. Del's scrapbook includes photographs of and by a fourteen-year-old Del participating in the 1946 Boy Scouts camporee at Leonardville (about eighteen miles northwest of Manhattan) as a member of Troop 74. The troop met regularly at the Presbyterian church on North Eighth Street, where the Close family were members. But Del rose no higher than the rank of first class scout, and by the time he entered high school, in the tenth grade, he had lost interest in scouting.
Excerpted from The Funniest One in the Room by Kim "Howard" Johnson. Copyright © 2008 Kim "Howard" Johnson. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1 Manhattan, Kansas: Setting the Stage,
2 Dr. Dracula, Dianetics, and Death,
3 On the Road with the Barter Theatre,
4 Learning the Rules with the St. Louis Compass,
5 Broadway, Beatniks, and The Doors of Perception,
6 The Second City and the Spider King,
7 Stongehenge and a Skate Through the Sewers,
8 The Merry Pranksters and My Mother the Car,
9 Paying the Karmic Debt: With the Committee in San Francisco,
10 The Birth of Harold, Spidering, and a Pornographic Western,
11 Pretty Much a Blur,
12 Second City Redux: Belushi and the Bean Can,
13 Valium, Vitriol, and Ancient Egyptian Opium,
14 The Clockwork Orange Treatment,
15 "Junkies Give the Best Shots",
16 Saturday Night Live, Tennessee Williams, and the Cleanup,
17 The ImprovOlympic,
18 Roaches in the Dental Floss,
19 The Return of the Harold, the Baron's Barracudas, and Charna,
20 The Brain of the Galaxy,
21 Chris Farley, The Blob, and Farewell to Second City,
22 Workshops, Reunions, and the Family,
23 "Close, You've Gone Sane!",
24 The Party,
25 Curtain Call,
Appendix: Works of Del Close,
What People are Saying About This
If there were a Dead Sea Scroll concerning comedy, Del Close would have been the prophet. Howard Johnson has captured the mystic for us. (Dave Koechner, Anchorman )
Del Close is one of the most important men in modern comedy. Howard Johnson's book is an excellent introduction to this brilliant teacher and innovator. (Ian Roberts, founding member, Upright Citizens Brigade)
Johnson achieves the impossible-putting a semblance of order into the chaotic life and work of one of America's most extraordinary artists. (George Wendt, actor, Cheers)
Johnson's book allows the reader a glimpse into the presence of Del even though he is no longer physically with us. (Rachel Dratch, Saturday Night Live)