“Watching people struggle to create something on the spot is as much the joy as the joke.” —Todd Bieber
Chances are you’ve never heard of Del Close—and if you have, it’s probably a fair indication that you spend a lot of time watching, practicing, or thinking about improvisation. Not the kind where you have to quickly make up an excuse for your boss about why you’re late for work, or invent the name of a non-existent dive bar to throw your bestie off the scent of what you really did last night—no, we’re talking “improv,” the word bandied around to apply to a collection of theatrical training games that has become an entertainment form in its own right and made millionaires out of many of your comedy favorites. Some of them, including Bill Murray, Tina Fey, Mike Myers, John Belushi, and Chris Farley, studied, at one time or another, under a man named Del Close.
Thank You Del, The Story of the Del Close Marathon, premiering at SXSW, traces one installment of the 52-hour marathon of improv held by the Upright Citizens Brigade at multiple venues around New York, while telling the story of Del Close. Through talking head interviews mixed with surreal monologues by Del appearing from behind a fog of TV static, we learn about Del’s role in the development of long form improv from The Committee in San Francisco, and spreading the gospel at Improvisation Olympics in Chicago. A gang of IO alums moved to New York in 1996 to form the UCB: Ian Roberts, Matt Besser, Matt Walsh (now on Veep), and Adam McKay (who was just nominated for an Oscar for directing The Big Short after a career of making Will Farrell vehicles), later replaced by Amy Poehler (who, we learn in the film, can do a hilarious French accent, only bested by her own faux French).
I caught up with director Todd Bieber on the phone before he bounced down to Austin. Bieber was formerly the Creative Director for UCB Comedy, and also worked at the Onion News Networks. He admitted that he never met Del—Del died in ’99—but said that he heard the stories, the “Legend of Del.” While few people on the scene seemed to actually have met him, Bieber said he was “definitely a Jesus figure in the improv community.”
It’s nice that your documentary doesn’t flinch from the idea that Del Close may not have been the nicest or the most stable guy. What was your strategy in how to present him as a character?
A lot of people who are our heroes, that we respect, aren’t necessarily always good. As much as we love them and recognize them in some light, they’re flawed, they’re flawed individuals. Their flaws are maybe what led to part of their genius. Looking at him and just thanking him and [getting] into only the good things wouldn’t do justice to how he struggled and how he both succeeded and failed at life. The part [in the film] where he talks about himself, the monologue that got very powerful— I’m curious to see what other people thought about it. When I saw that, I thought it was heartbreaking, to hear a guy who wanted so much out of life, but drugs and alcohol and other stuff got in his way, and that’s as much the story of who he is as being part of creating an art form. I thought it was fascinating to hear. When you hear just the legends, that’s cool, that’s nice, to hear the quotes from him. But to know the struggles of the guy I think show the humanity of him and show how we’re all maybe a little closer to our heroes than we think we are.
We have to talk about Amy Poehler. She’s crossed over fully to the mainstream—she’s capital “F” Famous—but still has obvious chops in the improv department. Is she like the mascot for the power of improv? Or has she become more like an ambassador?
What’s stunning is that you’re right—she is a famous person, but when she walks into the backstage of the UCB theater, she puts herself on equal level with everybody in that room, and I think that’s also makes her the coolest and most powerful person in that room. Because when she steps on stage—she is fantastic. And we recorded something like 100 hours of improv to include maybe what ended up being 15 or 10 minutes of improv that you see in the actual film. And repeatedly, Amy is amazing, and she’s great, she’s an ambassador, she’s famous, and you think, “should we include this? Versus this?” But it was repeatedly, [in] the funniest scenes, somehow she contributed something to, even in a small way. Some things like, you see her come off the back line just to contribute a single line of edits. It kills, it’s so funny. What do I think of her? I think she’s the shit—she’s so fucking funny and cool and nice. And I also think she’s so incredibly talented.
I think the people who hold similar traits are the ones that are most successful, because they’re the ones who are great to work with.
This film makes an argument—and I think definitely Del wanted to argue—for “long form” improv being an entertainment in its own right. But we keep seeing people like Amy and Adam McKay and the other co-founders who have gone on to have some nice careers and probably in any one gig making more money than they ever made doing long-form improv. Isn’t the goal to graduate? If you get into UCB aren’t you hoping for at least a guest role on Broad City?
It is an art form. It is an art form and it’s valid. And it’s still relatively new. I think we’ll see in our lifetime—it won’t be so much exclusively graduating from the stage and going to TV and film, where you’re not doing much improv, or you’re integrating some of the things that you’ve learned. But I think it’s such a newer art form. Theaters are popping up all over, all over the country, and we’re going to see it translated into something that’s more mainstream than it is [now].
Yeah, it’s an art form, and it seems like people leave it to go off and do other things. But you also see, the ones who are passionate and love it, they all come back—you see Amy come back Sunday evenings to the basement and perform for $5 shows.
It’s such a new art form. Yeah, maybe it’s 25 years old. But 25 years is nothing compared to film, TV, or theaters in general, and I think we’re just starting to see the potential of it. It’s an exciting place to be.
Speaking of popping up all over, how did you decide to focus in on Hi, Let’s Be Friends, the group from Missouri? [SPOILERS FOLLOW]
I sent out cameras to 10 groups all over the world to follow them. Briefly you see that footage. So I had a very broad spectrum of teams that I was actually following as closely as we followed the Missouri team. But in the edit it became very clear that the Missouri team had the most “fish out of water” [experience]. Navigating the underground comedy scene from an outsider’s perspective, the Missouri team lent this look of what stepping into the theater for the first time [is like], to ask the questions of how does this work, why does this work. From a storytelling perspective, they were the most interesting to watch. And also they had a very fun story—and I don’t want to ruin it in an interview, but over the course of 3 days, they get to see what it was like to be part of an improv group, fail, and ultimately find success, in small tiny ways.
This interview has been edited and condensed.