In the documentary Thank You Del: The Story of the Del Close Marathon, the thesis of the film is mercifully clear. There existed a man named Del Close who taught longform improv to the people who write and star in our most beloved comedies, and the people who made this film feel it is important for his name and legacy to be known. The film also tells the story of the Del Close Marathon (DCM), a weekend of improv performances and workshops at the Upright Citizens Brigade theatres in New York City. During the Marathon, cameras follow a beginner’s team from Poplar Bluff, Missouri, who are performing for a comedy audience for the first time that weekend. The film presents these three threads, revealing the depth of Del Close’s impact on comedy. These threads are unified by the fact that this film is also, quite simply, a tribute – to a respected teacher, and to the joy of creating something with other people.
Close performed and taught comedy for most of his life, and is a pioneer for his insistence that longform improv is an art form in its own right. Originally a behavioral and teaching tool for children, improv was used by the 1970s at The Second City as a writing exercise to develop full-length sketch shows that were scripted and meant to be performed in front of paying audiences, like any stage play. After a difficult working relationship with The Second City, Close collaborated with Charna Halpern at the Improv Olympic (now iO) in Chicago, to teach young comedians how to improvise comedy for its own sake. One of the founding members of the UCB, Ian Roberts, recalls a class during which Close had students do nothing more than chant, for forty-five minutes. Amy Poehler remembers him as an “irascible teacher” in the years when she worked with him. His students, many now Hollywood stars and comedy powerhouses, reminisce throughout the film about his teaching, his troubled and substance-addicted life, and his lasting impact on the method and madness of comedy at present.
The first DCM was held in 1999 by the founding members of the UCB in honor of their mentor. It was a celebration of longform improv as an art form in its own right, and today has exploded into a wilder, splashier, and more high-profile event, while retaining its haphazard and grassroots spirit. Three levels of storytelling – the man, the Marathon, and the Missourians – make up the narrative of Thank You Del. The director, Todd Bieber, loosely based this structure on the Harold, a technique of longform in which a team of improvisers creates three stories, which are then woven together over the course of a show. Bieber spoke with me about how he and the documentary team made meaning out of archival footage and interviews: “When you have 450 hours of stuff, it’s almost like an improv scene, you could go anywhere, you could do anything. A documentary tells you what it wants to be.” Bieber, whose interests lie in the “strange Venn diagram of comedy and documentary” noted the slightly paradoxical task of recording improv for a film. For something that is meant to be fleeting and only exist afterwards in the memory of the audience, is it a perversion of the art form to film it for people who could never fully understand what it was like to see it in the room? The alternative would be to fill a documentary with second-hand accounts of what improv is and why it is funny, which, as Bieber pointed out, wouldn’t be as helpful than to just present scenes in their entirety for viewers of the film to see for themselves.
The film also includes interviews with some of Close’s critics. His former collaborators in the group The Committee remark that Close did nothing more than “create an army” out of the techniques pioneered by the co-founder of The Second City, Paul Sills, and his mother Viola Spolin. Andrew Alexander, the executive producer of The Second City, emphasizes his difficult relationship with that theatre, his tendency towards violence, and the ever-present addiction that eventually ended his life. These accounts of the people who knew him sit side by side with what improvisers at the Marathon remember or have heard; the segment fades out after a young woman pauses, and deadpans, “I mean, he was kind of a prick, wasn’t he?”
It is almost fitting, then, that the history of a medium that emphasizes the power of the collective, such as improv does, has managed to smooth over the genius of one man. Close made everyone else look so good (and led the sort of life that self-destructs early) that the executive producers and UCB co-founders Matt Besser and Matt Walsh felt they needed to tell his story now. The film’s narrative is buoyed by its singular mission – telling comedy fans about this man and his work. Close survives in the memory of those who studied under him, and now, in this film. The particular struggle of telling a single, convincing story with a documentary is more pointed here, because Thank You Del seeks to ground something that has wide-reaching cultural significance in the remembrance of a handful of people.
Despite this, or perhaps because of it, the most memorable thing about this film is the joy that leaches through the screen any time people perform together. The team from Missouri arrives in New York nervous and new, but leaves having performed twice in front of their peers, with a firm handshake apiece from Ian Roberts. Throughout the documentary, we are treated to snippets of people we’ve never heard of side by side with our favorite actors. They are all having a blast with their friends, making up stories and characters through the alchemy of creative collaboration. This is that rare documentary about something a bunch of people really love, just for the sake of showing others how it came to be. This is storytelling with fun and invention as its driving force, even as the audience watches a mentally ill man and lifelong addict say goodbye to his friends from a hospital bed.
The film closes with a ten-minute improv performance by these more familiar faces, many of whom we saw as students in the earlier clips. Just as she did in 1999, Amy Poehler shouts a welcome for the monologist Louis C.K. This makes a more convincing case for the importance of Close’s legacy than the hours of archival footage and interviews that were no doubt left out of the film. There is a frenetic excitement in seeing these minds work in real time, and a finality to the way the ten-minute closing segment of the film is left for the viewer, with little comment. The pensive final moments of the film show the performers sitting sprawled on the floor of the theatre, their faces bathed in bluish light, as they watch with their audience one of Close’s famous monologues. He muses on death and dying, and finishes calmly: “I’ll see you around.”