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.”
Possibly quite sick, certainly a chronic druggie.
(Until, he claimed, a coven of Toronto witches cured his heroin addiction.)
It’s no wonder John Belushi became Close’s “beloved disciple.”
Which worked out awesome, of course.
Until one of the two (!) Close biopics in the works get greenlit, or the top-secret documentary about him ever gets wide release, the closest we poor, uninitiated non-gnostics can get to watching the master at work is the scene below, from the beyond-horrible Belushi-life-story disaster, Wired. (Language warning.)
Next time you buy a movie ticket or tune into any number of TV sitcoms, bear in mind that about half the people up on screen revere that man as their guiding light.
Then wonder (or not) why Hollywood can be such a sick place.