SXSW Movie Review: “Thank You Del: The Story of the Del Close Marathon”

"Thank You Del"

“Thank You Del”

In 2016, most comedy nerds know who Del Close is — the visionary, troubled sage of Second City in Chicago, then Improv Olympic Theater, the long-form improv guru who trained such world-beating comedians as Amy Poehler, Matt Walsh, Bill Murray, Harold Ramis and dozens more. But most regular people do not know him and this doc does a solid job introducing Close and his worldview.

But it’s just an introduction, as “Thank You Del” splits its time between archival footage of the charismatic Close and and spotlighting the Del Close Marathon, a yearly, 52-hour tribute to Close started by his students in the Upright Citizens Brigade after Close’s death in 1999.

Close’s is a fascinating career.  Born in 1932, Close started in theater and stand up before  doing time as the house director of avant-theater troupe The Committee in 1960s San Francisco (Howard Hessman was a colleague and isn’t wild about Close getting the credit for inventing stuff that was a group effort).

Armed with the improv technique the Committee developed, he returned to Chicago to become a legendary coach of comedians, training generations in the use of the long-form improv technique known as “the Harold,” first at Second City and then at the ImprovOlympic.

The cosmic punchline, of course, is that Close, hobbled by drug habits he could never shake,  never broke through or became a wealthy man. “Thank You” features an extraordinary monologue from Close: “I am not what he expected to become,” Close says of himself. “I am the door through which you will pass but he may not, but he understand.” It’s a pin-drop moment, a hypnotic admixture of pretension, sadness and brilliant talent.

Elsewhere in the film, his disciples in the Upright Citizens Brigade, one of the last big-name troupe he coached before he died, discuss the marathon they started. UCBers such as Matt Besser, Amy Poehler, Ian Roberts, Matt Walsh and Adam McKay (whose movies are impossible without Close’s training) all take turns discussing Del and the fest. Dozens of troupes attend,, including one from Missouri performing in public for the first time and another made up of three African-American woman, a rare sight in a for a form which struggles with diversity. Neither entirely a performance film nor a bio-doc about Close, it’s a nice introduction to the man and his legacy.

Other screenings: 3:15 p.m. Sunday, Alamo Slaughter; 9:30 p.m. Tuesday, Rollins Theatre at the Long Center.


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