Hot Docs 2016: Thank You Del: The Story of the Del Close Marathon
Improv as a type of comedic delivery and actor training has exploded in the past decade. Often on the sets of comedy films and television shows, it is now encouraged as a way to collaborate with the director and other cast members, and to generate unexpected material. Many comedians who started as improvisors have gone on to rewarding careers and great acclaim in Hollywood. A lot of the teachings being used for this success can be traced back to Del Close, one of founding pioneers of what we now identify as improv comedy. Thank You Del: The Story of the Del Close Marathon delves into the history of the art form and the legacy he left, as well as being a behind the scenes look at one of the most prestigious improv comedy festivals in America.
Many great names in comedy have come from an improv background, trained by Del Close. Bill Murray, Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Robin Williams, Chris Farley, Ian Roberts, and director Adam McKay to name a few have all come from Del’s school of training. Combined with the story of Del’s time working in San Francisco and his tumultuous career in Chicago is the story of a troupe of comedians called the Upright Citizens Brigade. These actors came from working with Del and started their own club shortly before his death in 1999. To pay tribute to him, they started the Del Close Marathon in New York City, a weekend-long festival celebrating improv with performances from the original group as well as troupes from all over the world. During one of these weekends, the film follows a start-up group trying for their big break.
Del Close lived a storied life. His alumni praise the methods he taught and their experiences working with him. On the flip side, he suffered greatly in his personal life, battling addiction and mental health problems. He also tended to have an abrasive, and at times offensive, personality. As a result, there are many wildly varying opinions of the man. The film attempts to document his career, good and bad, but at times is light on substance. Often there are long stretches of showcasing performers during the festival that feel a bit like filler material. A greater allotment of the film’s real estate should have been spent examining his career with finer detail, with more emphasis on the troubles he had. It would have been a more interesting and balanced look at his life.
For those who may not know a lot about improv, one of the strengths of the film comes from the explanations of the various forms it can take. There are discussions about the different kinds you can learn–“long form”, “yes and”, “word suggestions”, and “scenes from a play”. It was a delight to watch the masters at work tackling these variations with ease during their performances in the marathon and offered some of the biggest laughs of the film.
There’s a moment when archival footage is shown of Del improvising a monologue about his life, describing himself as a messenger, and as the platform from which these students emerge. The realness of this honesty is one of the most poignant scenes in the film and gives a momentary glance of who this man really was. As a complement to this,
the subjects of the film talk about how Del must have been feeling seeing so many of his students go on to great success while he continued to struggle to get the recognition he thought he deserved and to fight against his own inner battles. These emotionally truthful moments should have had a greater presence in the film. It would have given it a larger emotional resonance.
Despite the differing opinions and his personal turmoil, there’s no denying the influence Del Close had on some of the biggest names in comedy and the legacy he left.