You may not know the name Del Close, but you are undoubtedly familiar with the comedians he taught. Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Stephen Colbert, Rachel Dratch, Mike Myers, Gilda Radner, Bob Odenkirk, Amy Sedaris, Chris Farley and many more all received improvisational comedy training from Del Close, but in a rather unconventional way.
For Madmen Only is a new documentary that chronicles the life of Del Close as he goes through the process of creating a DC Comics title called Wasteland, a horror anthology series that took cues from Close’s life, but exaggerated them into gnarly, surreal tales of terror. But perhaps more importantly, it follows his never-ending ambition to turn long-form improv into an art form that was not only accessible to audiences, but could also be taught to generations of comedians. Oh, and you should probably know that Del Close is absolutely insane, and everyone who knew him confirms that here.
Director Heather Ross uses a mix of archival footage, talking heads, dramatic (or rather comedic) reenactments, comic panels, and animation to tell the story of Del Close. The result is an entertaining, insightful, fascinating and truly unique documentary that shines a light on the man who many comedians saw as the personification of what comedy could be beyond simply making someone laugh. It’s a warts-and-all chronicle of his life that included alcoholism, casual drug use, angry outbursts, creative clashing, practice of witchcraft, and much more.
The documentary starts back in the early years of Del’s life, which (apparently) included the horrifying experience of watching his father kill himself. He asked an 8-year old Del to bring him a glass of water he left on the counter. But after drinking the water, Del knew something was wrong. His father began convulsing and died in front of his eyes. It wasn’t water. It was battery acid. It’s a dark beginning for a man who would influence countless comedians who bring us so much joy. But it gives you some insight into why Del Close was the way he was, especially when you find out that this story he seemed to tell everyone might not even be true.
For Madmen Only takes us through the origin of Del’s comedy career, which began with the creation of the first ever improv comedy troupe in St. Louis, known as The Compass Players. The four-person performance group just so happened to include future filmmakers Mike Nichols and Elaine May, who started their career as a comedy duo. It would seem that Del Close sparked a romance with Elaine May as the group found success in this new kind of comedy showcase. But when Nichols and May went to New York in an effort to lock down a nightclub deal for The Compass Players, it was only for the duo, leaving Del out in the wind and without direction.
The documentary follows Del as he tries to recover from this betrayal and build his own comedy career with a new kind of improv comedy. It’s a long-form, free-flowing approach to storytelling, one that doesn’t necessarily require the presence of something funny. This version of improv would come to be called Harold, and it was an obsession of Del’s that created rifts between him and those who just wanted him to create a funny show that got butts in theater seats. But Del thought improv could be so much more that.
We journey with Del as he jumps around various theaters after collaborators would tire of his eccentric antics, including both the Chicago and Toronto locations of Second City, not to mention Improv Olympic, which he co-founded with Charna Halpern, a place where his improv aspirations finally found firm footing. Comedy coinessieurs will drool over the archive footage of Del teaching Harold improv, as well as footage of some of the aforementioned comedy greats doing their earliest work on these stages. Some of their perspective on Del’s teachings as well as the time they shared with Del is provided in older interviews, though I wish some of these famous faces would have sat down to provide new material too.
At the same time, not unlike Harold improv itself, this documentary stands out from the usual documentary formula of countless talking heads by using the comic book art of Wasteland to create links between this fantastical autobiographical comic book and Del’s real life. The metaphors from the comic come alive as they are linked to details and insight from those he taught and knew him best. One particular bit from the comic features Del inquiring a fire breather how he pulls off such a stunt without getting burned, to which he replies, “So, how do you not get burned? You don’t. You get burned every time… don’t you get it?” Del himself was even a fire breather for a time, which is an interesting choice when you think about the story of his father’s suicide. But it’s that kind of philosophy that clearly drove a big part of Del’s psyche, and comic panels throughout the movie offer some of the best insight into how Del viewed his mad life.
A little less insightful are dramatized interludes featuring James Urbaniak playing Del Close as he works with editor Mike Gold (Matt Walsh) and writer John Ostrander (Josh Fadem) on the Wasteland comic. Though everything Urbaniak spouts as Del comes from archived recordings of creative meetings while writing this comic, it’s not nearly as impactful as the interviews and comic itself. However, they do offer some interesting bits of comedy with other bit parts played by the likes of Lauren Lapkus, Patton Oswalt and Paul Scheer. Interestingly enough, these sequences play out like a thread that you might find in a Harold adaptation of Del Close’s life, which may very well be intentional.
The most captivating thing about For Madmen Only is that so much insight comes from Del himself by way of the semi-autobiographical comic at the center of it. That’s mostly because Del isn’t the most reliable lens through which to view his life. In fact, as the documentary unfolds, you begin to realize that Del’s entire life is basically one big Harold show, as he moves through his career without much rhyme or reason. But somehow it all makes sense in the end once Del finally establishes long-form improv as a legitimate performance art.
For Madmen Only provides incredible insight into the backbone of comedy as we know it today. It’s deep, comedy nerd stuff, but it’s presented in an extremely accessible package thanks to the focus director Heather Ross brings to the insanity that was Del’s life. General comedy fans will learn a lot about the man who made the careers of those who cut their teeth at Saturday Night Live, Second City, Improv Olympic, and more. Comedy nerds will get an even deeper insight into Del Close and his never-ending passion for improv. And Del finally gets what he seemingly always wanted: to be the star of the show.
/Film Rating: 8 out of 10