Doing comedy again has forced me to reconsider the mechanics and philosophy behind it: What is funny? Why is it funny? Why is bad comedy so unbearable to watch? Why do I feel the compulsion to jump on a stage and try to make people laugh?
I recently hosted a comedy open mike here in Busan, something that I'm making a regular occurrence. I tried out a few minutes of new material, and it went over really well. After the show my good buddy Sam - who has seen me onstage a jolly shitload of times - pulled me aside to give me his rundown of my set. While rolling his eyes at some of my tired, old jokes, he lit a smoke and said, "Your new stuff was great, because you were just telling the truth."
Truth in Comedy.
This got me to think of Del Close, who co-authored a book of the same name. Del had a massive impact on me as an improvisor and comedian (and subsequently, a writer). I hadn't thought about him in a while, but just hearing the phrase "telling the truth" made it all come back to me.
Del Close was an improvisor, an actor, a comic, and most importantly, a teacher. He is considered to be the godfather of improvisational theater in America. He was a member of the Compass Players, who went on to form the famous Second City Theater in Chicago. He performed in a lot of shows as well as several big films, and was a notorious drunk and drug addict. His impact as a teacher of improv was his greatest, however. He trained John Candy, Bill Murray, Mike Meyers, Chris Farley, Stephen Colbert, Gilda Radner, Harold Ramos, and John Belushi, among many many other famous comedic actors. Belushi said that Del was his "biggest influence in comedy."
In the 90's, I was part of the ensemble at Unexpected Productions, a terrific professional improv comedy theater in Seattle. In '92 I was new to the company, just an "apprentice" at the time, taking classes, training, and performing in the Sunday night show - kind of the Junior Varsity Squad (I didn't join the main ensemble until '93). That summer, Randy Dixon, our artistic director, managed to get Del Close to come out and do a full two-day workshop. I didn't really know who Del was at the time, but Randy told us all the big names that Del had taught, and as a young improvisor and actor with big aspirations, I was understandably stoked. This dude trained the top guys in the biz and could really make careers.
The first day of the workshop was on a Saturday. That morning we gathered in the theater, sipping coffee, and this older guy in a black sweater, glasses, and grey beard took the stage. At first he just told stories, dropping names like bowling balls. In lesser hands it would seem pretentious, but Del had no one to impress. He just had an arsenal of terrific stories involving himself and some really fucking famous people, and he told them expertly. He was HILARIOUS, and one of the most darkly cynical human beings I had ever met. This holds true to this day.
These stories were great because they were obviously so true. He talked of his love for pot brownies. He told of his days as a junky, how he sported his track marks at Second City like "badges of honor." He talked about buying a loaf of bread at a convenience store in Chicago, while on the TV above the register, actress Tyne Daily thanked him during her Emmy acceptance speech, while the uncomprehending Middle Eastern clerk stared at him, waiting for the cash. He mentioned how Chris Farely reminded him so much of John Belushi, and how "if he doen't reign in his drinking, he's headed straight to the grave."
We spent the rest of the day doing scenes. We especially worked on "The Harold," a long-form improv format developed in the 60's at Second City. My original improv teacher at Cornish, Roberta Maguire - herself a late 60's Second City alumn, told us that the form was named after the theater's piano player.
Del was the biggest lie detector I've ever seen. At the slightest hint of bullshit on stage - the tiniest whiff of forced crap or phoniness - he'd call you out. He was RUTHLESS. He had no regard for feelings or touchy-feely Seattle liberal-speak. His sole determination was to get his improvisors to play with truth. That was it. When he saw it, he'd praise it, but if you were bad, if you didn't could't get it - watch out. The worst was this awkward, pathologically skinny young guy with geeky red hair and thick glasses. He was truly awful. He had no natural comedic sense at all - the timing of an epileptic. Everything was winking, mugging, and indicating, and at one point Del had enough: He told him to get off the stage and go home, that he just didn't have what it took to be funny. The kid was CRUSHED. I thought he was going to burst into tears and pee his pants.
After that first day, I was charged. I felt like I'd finally found someone who could articulate all of this shit whirling around in my young, angsty head about truth, comedy, and anger. Del Close was my hero. I didn't just want to be like him. I wanted to BE him.
* * *
In those days I used to frequent the coffeeshops of Seattle, where I'd read, write stories, and take in all the hot young hip girls who could invariably be found drinking coffee, looking irritated, and smoking hand-rolled cigarettes. My favorite was the Espresso Roma, on the main drag of the University District, knows as "The Ave." The Roma was truly a great coffeehouse - pretty grungy inside and out, with cheap, strong coffee, and a mixed clientele of students, musicians, artists, hard lefties, and always a smattering of burnouts and casualties from the 1960's. Among the latter was Russ, an obese overalls-wearing man with glasses, a mossy grey beard, and no teeth, who could always be spotted by his trademark blue beret. Russ was in his early 60's I believe, and was an aging beatnik. He was from New York and claimed to have owned a Greenwich Village coffeehouse where Jimmy Hendrix once played.
"That was when he was known as 'Jimmy the Blue Flame,'" Russ would always clarify to his table of fellow misfits and me, who soaked in every word from this counterculture Santa Claus. I had just recently read Keruac's "On the Road" and fancied myself as some sort of neo-beat. Russ was my guru.
I was still reeling from Del Close's pure blast of headbuzz when I popped into The Roma to see Russ. We had made an appointment earlier in the week to hook up. I had recently gotten my hands on a couple of hits of acid, and Russ, being a psychedelic old salt, was keen to ride into the ether. So we boarded the bus number 73 and headed up to the rental house I lived in in Wedgewood, a neighborhood on the northern fringes of the University Area. I shared the house with three other guys - my bandmates, actually. We had a band called "Naugahyde," and practiced daily in the moldy basement of the house. We were flailing our way through the bottom-feeder circuit of what was then known as the "Seattle Scene," and between our day jobs, girlfriends, and practice, we spent our time smoking copious amounts of dope and watching "Star Trek: Next Generation."
You can imagine their surprise when I entered the house, followed by a 300 pound elderly hippy with lax standards of personal hygene (he smelled). I introduced them to Russ, who insisted on constantly referring to my friend Markus as "Markus Orelius." They seemed skeptical, as no one over 30 had yet to step foot in the house, and I doubt that their fears were assuaged when I informed them that I had brought this strange, hulking man home for the sole purpose of FEEDING HIM ACID.
He ate the paper tab willingly, as did I, and within an hour we were shootin' into the atmosphere. We retired to the rotting wooden deck in the back yard, where Russ recited an old beat poem of his that was a force of pure beauty. "The Rain," he called it. To this day I've never been so moved by a poem, but I was really fuckin' high on LSD...
At one point Russ began to admonish me for "workin' for the man." I had a job as a busboy at a yuppie restaurant on Lake Union, and Russ openly scoffed at me for "wearin' a monkey suit." He suggested that I "hustle," instead. This fucked me up, because then I thought he was hitting on me. When I objected to the thought of selling my body to creepy old gay guys, he insisted that he just meant "hustle work." He told me to purchase a bucket and a squeegy and go door to door offering to wash windows... That was freedom, in Russ's acidy mind. We ended the night in my room. I let him have my bed and lay on the floor, looking out of my skylight (it was a cool room) while Russ went on for two hours how much he wanted to eat a giant, greasy hamburger, which, in my state, I found extremely disturbing.
* * *
I was still pretty high when I turned up for day two of Del's workshop. Russ had trudged off a bit after dawn, and I hadn't slept a bit. I was a bit worried about how I'd do in such a state, but it turned out that I was in the PERFECT state of mind to take in what Del was dishing out.
We started the morning doing an improvised "ritual," basically a group exercise in which anything goes. Ours evolved into a lot of group chanting and repetition of gesture. Pure spontanaeity is the name of the game - kind of like Grotowski's "Bee Hive" described by Andre Gregory in "My Dinner with Andre." This is a terrific way to start any group rehearsal or workshop: not only does it get everyone warmed-up physically and vocally, it connects the group and makes the improvisers open up and listen to each other more keenly. After the ritual, Del spent another hour telling more stories. I listened with rapt attention, focusing purely on him. The LSD and the ritual had opened me up, and every word Del spoke shot straight into the center of my being. At one point his body disappeared, and he became just a disembodied head. I should have been concerned, but it seemed perfectly natural at the time, like he had transcended his body, and I was listening to the man's spirit.
Later that afternoon, I did a two-person scene with Bruce Oberg, another apprentice. We played two guys taking bonghits and channel-surfing. It was a very simple scene with no comment on the weed-smoking; there were no "munchies" jokes or forced "Oh man, I'm paranoid." It was just a funny little existential improv with two slightly-spaced out dudes. It got tons of laughs and Del LOVED it.
"That was perfect. I have nothing more to add. Just perfect."
To this day, that's the best praise I've ever received for a performance. And I still consider that scene one of the finest improvisations that I've ever taken part in. I bet Bruce Oberg (a Chicago native himself) would say the same.
I remember shaking Del's hand at the end of the workshop, and desperatly wanting to tell him about my adventure from the night before, but something held me back. I still think he would have strongly approved.
* * *
Del died in 1999 from emphysemia, no doubt the result of so many years of hard living. He hosted a "living wake" at the hospital three days before he went. A big party was thrown in the basement. Del was wheeled down and wished off by luminaries such as Bill Murray. Randy Dixon, our artistic director, was there as well. It sounded like a good time. That's how I want to go out.
In his will, Del Close left his own skull to the Goodman Theater to be used as Yorik in any upcoming productions Hamlet, or however else they see fit.
* * *
I only talked to Russ one time after that night. I noticed that he had been avoiding me at The Espresso Roma. One day I saw him sitting down with a couple of the other old wasters, and I approached the table:
"Hey, Russ. What's going on?"
I was met with a hostile stare.
"What? Did I do something," I said.
"You know what you did," he replied.
"Know I don't."
"Yes you do. You DO." He pointed at me for effect.
"Well, can you tell me, at least?"
"There were signs on the sidewalk. Signs on the sidewalk! You know. Oh, yes, you know..."
Maybe I shouldn't have given him the acid. He didn't appear to have come down, three weeks later.
* * *
It is only now, as I push 40 and consider my life in comedy, truth, and drugs, that I see the similiarities in Del and Russ. Both were about the same age. Both came out of the early counterculture scene. Both were gurus, of sorts.
I was obviously searching for something... wisdom, I suppose. I was young and adrift and full of passion, and wanted to drink from the well of all those old beats and hippies and freaks who lived in that time when everything was said to be so cool. Not so long after I realized that NOW is the coolest time, always.
I'm still trying to remember that, but it ain't easy.