By this point, real comedy nerds know the name of Del Close, the veteran of improvisational theater’s earliest years who went on to teach improv techniques to scores of up-and-coming comedians and influenced current stars ranging from Tina Fey to Bill Murray and Bob Odenkirk. Surely the most vocal champions of Close’s legacy are the members of the Upright Citizens Brigade, who since his death in 1999 have organized an annual Del Close Marathon devoted to improv comedy. Todd Bieber combines biography with a firsthand look at the festival in Thank You Del, a fond doc whose rough edges do little to diminish its atmosphere of creative joy. Given the proliferation of podcasts devoted entirely to comedy arcana, it should have a large audience on digital platforms.
People love to say that Close’s last words were “I’m tired of being the funniest person in the room.” But one thing he definitely said from his deathbed was a directive issued by phone to the UCB troupe, then shooting its Comedy Central series: As Matt Besser recalls, he told the group to “spread the love of improv.” So they put out a worldwide call, gathering teams from as far away as Japan and Norway; by 2015, the round-the-clock performances had stretched to three days and spread beyond the UCB’s Chelsea theater to seven additional venues. Bieber experiences the madness through the eyes of a young group from Poplar Bluff, Mo., who taught themselves about improv online and have only performed once before for an audience that wasn’t friends-and-family.
A rough but welcome tribute to an under-the-radar legend.
In addition to their fledgling sets, we also witness some killer improv moments in which core UCB members Besser, Amy Poehler, Matt Walsh and Ian Roberts are joined by guest VIPs including Zach Woods and Chris Gethard. (The latter co-stars in SXSW’s other love letter to improv, Don’t Think Twice.)
In between all this controlled chaos lies a fractured portrait of Close himself. Bieber talks to colleagues from San Francisco’s The Committee (including Howard Hesseman), some of whom feel Close gets too much recognition. Why, they wonder, isn’t this movie about improv developers Viola Spolin and Paul Sills? The answer, others argue, is that while Close wasn’t the first, he was the budding art form’s most passionate evangelist and the one with the most successful disciples.
Stories of drug- and booze-influenced “behavior issues” mingle with tales of how Close found his way through Second City to his influential perch at improvOlympics. Most welcome are clips of the man himself, which range from straight (well, straight-ish) interviews to eccentric monologues he designed for TV. Direct-to-camera address burning through an overlay of static, they’re visions of an alternative form of theater that still feels provocative years after the fact.
Venue: South by Southwest Film Festival (Documentary Spotlight)
Director: Todd Bieber
Producer: Julie Gomez
Executive producers: Matt Besser, Matt Walsh
Director of photography: Denis Cardineau
Editors: Denis Cardineau, Tessa Greenberg, Zach Goldbaum
Not rated, 88 minutes