SXSW Film Review – Thank You Del: The Story of the Del Close Marathon
Thank You Del: The Story of the Del Close Marathon
Thank You Del: The Story of the Del Close Marathon (2015) highlights a yearly event that features long form improv comedy. Hosted by the company The Upright Citizens Brigade, the marathon brings other companies from around the world together to showcase their improv skills for fifty-two hours straight. The purpose of the marathon is to celebrate Del Close and keep his memory alive for new generations to discover.
I know what you’re thinking: who’s Del Close?
Del Close was the man who inspired many of the comedians that you and I have loved over the years. An opening montage has many famous stars – Robin Williams, Bill Murray, Tina Fey, and Louis C.K. to name a few – all describing how much Close meant to them and the development of their skills. He didn’t invent improv comedy, but he did nurture and sustain it to become the art form it is today. I’m all for thoughtful writing on stage and screen, but there’s something awe-inspiring to see performers go through a scene without a script and make it funny. In the documentary, a comedian mentions that the biggest compliment they get is when audience members can’t believe what they just saw was made up on the spot.
Director Todd Bieber makes no illusion over what he’s trying to say. This is a love letter to Close and the style of performance he helped bring to the limelight. The Upright Citizens Brigade – made up of members Matt Besser, Matt Walsh, Ian Roberts, Amy Poehler, and Adam McKay – were all students of Close. He helped to develop the “Yes, and…” technique of improv, where one actor acknowledges the reality of another actor, and then builds upon that in any way they see fit. It’s easy to see how much Close meant to each one of them. Besser and Walsh are credited as executive producers, so it goes without saying that the memory of Close is held in warm regard.
That connection may prevent us from seeing the entire picture of Del Close, however. Close died in 1999, his presence seen through archival footage. Bieber jumps through the years of Close’s life, starting with his earliest induction into comedy, working with companies The Committee and Second City, and of course the influence he had on the Upright Citizens Brigade. We learn how he crafted the art of long form improv (nicknamed “Harold” for some odd reason), but not much is made of him as a person. There’s little talk of his youth or upbringing. The documentary tells his story starting as an adult. There are interviews that describe him as difficult to work with, often combative, and had drug and alcohol problems. It’s another classic example of the “troubled genius.” But most of these darker shades are lightly touched upon and then pushed aside. We hear a lot about how brilliant he was, there are scenes of him giving monologues pulled out of thin air, yet there’s this darker layer that never gets fully explored.
That’s an avenue that Bieber and his team chose not to go down. The documentary honors Close and what he’s done for comedy, not to explore whatever ghosts haunted him. Footage of the marathon show companies all doing their thing on stage. It was nice to see the editing combine performances from well known stars to those still trying to get on their feet. A side story involves a group named Hi Let’s Be Friends. Based out of Missouri, the company had no experience whatsoever in improv. They’ve never performed in front of a large audience, in fact when we meet them they’ve never actually gone to a show. Everything they learned was from watching videos online and practicing amongst themselves or in front of family and friends. And yet, somehow they managed to be put on the list for the marathon. They go from being relatively unknown to being on the biggest stage of their chosen profession. It’s a nice parallel to Del Close’s story. We can actually see the trickle down effect from Close’s work and how young people are interested in something that was once considered quirky or offbeat.
Hardcore fans of comedy will enjoy Thank You Del. They’ll get a truncated history lesson about a figure most others don’t have a clue about, but will pique their interest to learn more. But above all, there are laughs to be had. The spontaneity of improv allows for hilarity to ensue, and there’s plenty of that. Bieber includes long improv sequences uncut. It was a pleasure to see these comedians working in their element. While I don’t know if this is going to win over the casual audience member, I commend Bieber and the participants for taking part in something that so noticeably comes from the heart.