‘For Madmen Only’: Film Review | SXSW 2020

Heather Ross’ ‘For Madmen Only’ gets inside the head of the man who taught generations of comedians to think on their feet.

[Note: In the wake of SXSW’s cancellation this year, The Hollywood Reporter is reviewing select fest entries that elected to premiere digitally.]

A few years ago, SXSW presented a film called Thank You Del, which introduced newbies to the tremendously influential improv teacher Del Close via an annual tribute hosted by the Upright Citizens Brigade. Now we get a fuller portrait in Heather Ross’ For Madmen Only, which pairs testimonials from the late Close’s big-star students with material capturing some of the strange ways in which he tried to tell his own story over the years. An eye-opener for anyone unfamiliar with this family-tree of improv — in which Bob Odenkirk, Adam McKay and Amy Poehler are all related to Elaine May and Bill Murray — it’s a funny and poignant look at a man to whom comedy nerds owe an incalculable debt.

The Bottom Line

‘Colorful’ hardly does it justice.

Even those who know Close well may be unaware that he briefly had his own DC comic-book series. Around the time it published groundbreaking works like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, DC hired Close and comics veteran John Ostrander to write an anthology series called Wasteland. The film may overplay the extent to which this series was autobiographical, and some uses of the series’ art to illustrate interviews are a bit off-target; but the focus gives Ross an excuse for reenactments featuring an inspired casting choice: In scenes imagining long, whacked-out brainstorming sessions for the comic, James Urbaniak makes an excellent Close, stepping boldly out on the ledge of sanity.

Those who knew him seem to agree that Close took great liberties with the stories he told about himself, even when he wasn’t under the influence of some unwise combination of drugs. So we may never know if Close really was inadvertently responsible for the birth of Scientology. But others who crossed paths with him are more trustworthy: Odenkirk recalls how he contrived to interview Close for a college publication while nursing his own performing dreams; Dave Thomas tells of a time when he refused to say “yes, and” to one of Close’s less tasteful suggestions.

Interwoven with more playful or out-there material is a reasonably straightforward account of Close’s origins and path to influence. He ran away from home in Kansas to join a sideshow, where among other things he performed as a human torch; he joined the Compass Players in St. Louis, where he met a couple of nobodies named Mike Nichols and Elaine May. Eventually, May helped him formulate some of the rules that would give his brand of improv its own shape. (Sadly, Ross doesn’t get May on camera.)

While Nichols and May found fame in New York, Close “went temporarily nuts”; after hospitalization and some other adventures, he found a San Francisco performing group called The Committee. That’s where the much-used improvisational structure The Harold was born; though Close’s version wouldn’t completely gel until years later, as he and Charna Halpern developed a “Teaching Harold” at Chicago’s improvOlympic.

The doc explores the difficulties that come with longform improv — the “built-in failure rate” that, as with free jazz, means that moments of genius will usually be outnumbered by challenging or outright boring passages. Close clashed to varying degrees with many colleagues, like Bernard Sahlins at Second City; Ross gently acknowledges that not all of this friction can be chalked up to mere artistic differences. You’d get grumpy too if, when you finally hit your stride directing performers perfectly suited to your vision, the best of them left to become famous as the first cast of Saturday Night Live.

But Close’s most loyal acolytes — Tina Fey, the UCB and so on — found him after John Belushi & co. left. Fey and others discuss the fine line between a visionary artistic teacher and a cult leader, recalling how easy it was to get sucked into Close’s single-mindedness. No one doc could make room for all the Close disciples one would love to hear from, at least not without losing the narrative thread of his pre-guru years. But For Madmen Only conjures the messy, candle-burning spirit still recognizable at the heart of so much of today’s most exciting comedy.

Production company: Sincerely Films
Director: Heather Ross
Screenwriters: Heather Ross, Adam Samuel Goldman
Producers: Jennifer Pike, Adam Samuel Goldman, Helen Hood Scheer
Executive producers: Charlotte Matityahu, Eldad Matityahu
Director of photography: Steven Poster
Editors: George Mandl, Tova Goodman, Sean Jarrett
Composer: Jacques Brautbar
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Documentary Feature Competition)

85 minutes