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Del Close Marathon Ignores Improv Guru’s Occult Obsessions

The father of long-form improv, and a demi-god to generations of comics, was a pretty messed up guy.

Kathy Shaidle


July 5, 2013 - 1:00 pm
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The Del Close Marathon is the Coachella of comedy.

The 15th annual blend of performance and partying recently wrapped after 56 consecutive hours of long-form improv on seven stages:

UCB founders and Close disciples Amy Poehler (Parks and Recreation), Ian Roberts (Arrested Development), Matt Walsh (Veep) and Matt Besser launched the Marathon 15 years ago to honor the memory of [Del] Close, a comic and teacher widely regarded as the father of long-form improvisational theater. (…)

The Marathon concluded with C.K., Poehler and the ASSSSCAT cast sitting cross-legged, watching never-aired broadcast monologues from the festival’s namesake, the man we have to thank for much of the landscape of modern entertainment.

Yeah, about that…

I’m a bit of a comedy nerd.

(Most girls stuck pictures of the Bay City Rollers in their high school lockers. Mine had Woody Allen.)

But I’ve always hated improv.

If you’ve ever squirmed in your seat, thinking, “Man, there’s nothing more painful to sit through than a bad stand up comic,” then you’ve clearly never endured an even-worse improv show, which multiplies that raw, naked awfulness — bad jokes, missed cues, drunk patrons — by at least three, depending on the number of performers.

There’s a conformist cultishness about improv, though, that’s far more troubling than anything you see onstage.

Close is still revered as a demi-god by many comedians, who slavishly recite his “rules” like a bunch of Manson Girls.

From the 1960s until his death in 1999, Close taught improv at Second City, and worked (behind the scenes) at Saturday Night Live from its inception.

In other words, most American comedians you’ve seen in movies and on TV since the Nixon administration either studied under Close or one of his disciples.

What most of these famous folks brush past while dutifully praising and quoting the guy on WTF or at events like the Marathon is that Del Close was a self-described warlock who cast spells on stage:

In the definitive biography of Close, one student complains to a Second City producer that “Del is invoking the Devil” in class. His creepy “invocations” remain legendary in the improv community and are featured in his classic textbook.

In one exercise, students “invoke a ‘god’ that they create themselves from their own group vision,” usually an object they are supposed to “worship.”

“It’s not as frightening as it sounds,” the authors insist rather unconvincingly, describing a sample invocation:

“Thou hast taken control of my good sense. When thou art with me, I am debased and dishonored.”

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All Comments   (12)
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OK, it's official. I've insulted Mohammed and had FEWER hate tweets, emails and comments then I did for daring to point out that the guru of improv was a weirdo.

I just came out of a 15 hour city wide power blackout to see that THEY ARE STILL TWEETING ABOUT ME.

Thanks for making my point for me, you cultish unfunny weirdos. Consider getting a life, please.

Also? Work on your reading comprehension skills, and grow thicker skins.
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
Guys! Chill out! This chick knows her comedy! She worshiped Woody Allen, and he slept with his step-daughter AFTER she turned 18....SO ITS COOL!

Worshiping the devil= bad. Sleeping with your step-daughter who you've known since she was 10= good AND FUNNY
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
OK I realize you went into the arts because math is hard. Please try to think:

I admired Allen in high school. He slept with his stepdaughter 25 years LATER after which I never watched another movie of his again.

But thanks for coming out. Try harder next time. PS: BOTH things can be wrong.
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
No. Please.

Don't think.
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
As a performer, student, and frequent audience member at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, I promise you that no one is forcing his or her lifestyle choices onto anyone. In fact, it has nothing at all to do with Del's methods.

This invocation that your describing is much less a Wiccan ritual in this context as much as it is a vehicle for premise/idea generation. Really very harmless. Wouldn't worry about it.

As far as the "conformist cultishness" of improv, I'll admit that it's difficult to want to do anything else but comply with Del's methods when they've, time and time again, consistently proven to be successful:

I mean, you know. You've acknowledged that fact at several points in your article.

Also, if you had been around even for a minute of the Del Close Marathon, you'd know that it was just as beautifully weird as Del would have wanted!
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
This doesn't surprise me. Comedy, for me, started getting not funny in the early 70's. The old style comics used to use the common experiences in life for their routines. Their style was uplifting. I never even bother to waste my time with the modern comics. Boring to say the least and downright depressing most of the time.
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
Improvisers NEVER hide Del's eccentricities, it just not all that the man was but if you as any of us we are glad to let folks know of the dark side that went hand-in-hand with his amazingly creative work.
Yeah Del is known as a mad genius but many geniuses are touched with fire in a way that makes them stand out. These are the people who innovate, who take risks to change things because they don't see the world in the same way "normal" people do. I have spent almost my entire life as a professional entertainer and as such have taken studio classes in every facet of the world of theatre; the principles that have evolved out of the development of Long-form improvisational theatre are far greater than the comedic style it tends to inspire and that too comes from the seed Del planted and which companies like iO and the Upright Citizens Brigade have nurtured.
Artists often live on the fringe of people's understanding and Del was a living example of that. Any performing artist in today's world would be sorely lacking if they were to not have experienced these teachings I will even add that when an actor lacks this training they are quite often passed over for those who do.
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
Yeah, that's the excuse everyone gives for the nastiness of famous "great" men like Rousseu, Sartre, Picasso. I'm glad you've been amused by some pretty pictures up on the screen. Was it worth making a lot of crazy people even crazier, driving them to drugs and suicide, and planting a seed of sickness in the culture? If Charles Manson had been a slightly better singer/songwriter, would that make everything OK?
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
So conform or else no work for you. How unsurprising. I don't believe this is on the fringe of anybody's understanding.
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
Wow. Good thing my daughter is studying the Meisner and Alexander techniques instead...
41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
Sandy Meisner was no saint and in most major universities and reputed independent acting studios much of Del's work has been integrated right into Meisner lessons as they compliment each other very well. And speaking as a Browdway Actor who was featured in over 30 national television and radio commercials, if your daughter plans on any type of professional acting she better get some long-form Improv training on her resume right quick... regardless of the this website's contributing writer's quite uninformed and imbalanced opinion.
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
Why are you commenting anonymously? Pretty cowardly. Yeah, as long as a technique "works" then who cares if it is abusive or based in the occult? Just smoke some more weed and have fun!

Question: if someone you hated -- like George Bush? -- had "invoked the devil on stage" and seen a large number of his "disciples" end up dead, would you be sticking up for him or using that as proof of his criminality.

Take your time.
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
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