Del Close

Working with Del Close

I am so grateful that there are so many schools, teachers and methods of improvisation. It’s the best thing for the art form and is one of the reasons it keeps growing.

That was not the case when I started taking improv classes back in the late ’80s in Chicago. In those days, you had three places to study: The Players Workshop, Second City, and The Improv Olympic (now called iO). It was like the Bermuda Triangle of improv classes. I started out at the very gentle Players Workshop, and then went on to the more competitive Second City Training Center. When I got there, all I kept hearing from the other students was: “You’ve got to study with Del Close.”

At the time, Del was teaching at The Improv Olympic. They did not have their own space at the time, so when I started taking class with Del, the location kept changing. My first class with him was above a Swedish restaurant. We would move around from back of an old, stinky German bar, to a theater, to a classroom space. Sometimes you didn’t know where you going to meet until the day of the class.

Though I made some life-long friendships and learned a lot there, there was something cult-like about the place back then. Del was the guru, with his deep booming voice and his intimidating presence. There was myth surrounding him and all of the famous comedy legends he had worked with. So it didn’t take much for a fat, insecure twenty-something like me to buy into it. I worshiped Del, and so desperately wanted his approval and validation.

Del Close was brilliant, and a genius — someone who’s ideas I still respect to this day. But I think one of the reasons I got better in his class was out of fear. All you needed to do was watch him rip into someone, to the point of tears, and decide quickly that that was not going to be me.

I was terrified. Scared shitless. My fear manifested into a nervous habit I did not even realize I had. I would rehearse dialogue when I was standing in the back line of a Harold. I was a nervous wreck.

This could all change in the matter of a few seconds when Del would give you a compliment. It was a drug. You could feel your body chemistry change, endorphins kick in, and suddenly you were high. If you’ve ever heard drug addicts talk with excitement about going into dangerous neighborhoods and almost getting shot, just so they could get high, you know what Del’s class was like for me.

I made Del my guru, my father, my higher power. I swore that his way was the only way, and I became judgmental of other people’s brand of improv. I would jealously put down people who got hired by Second City for the touring company because they where not trained “the right way” like myself – and by doing that, I limited by learning and my opportunities. I was like the improv version of an Ivy League snob.

Over the years, I’ve done the same thing with other teachers, performers and directors. I have always had this problem with putting other people on a pedestal and using it to put myself down. I lose myself  by trying to get in their head and figure out what they wanted, what would please them. Never asking myself, “What would please me? What makes me laugh?”

I recently interviewed Jill Soloway, the creator of Transparent, for an upcoming episode of Improv Nerd, and I admire her because she is someone who never seemed to have this problem, but always trusted her own voice and her own instincts. If she thought something was funny and would make her friends laugh, she would put it up on stage. And that is what improv, or any of the arts, is really about: finding your voice and trusting your instincts.

Today, no one teacher is going to have all the answers for you, not even me. Thank God. You may love working with me and you might get a lot out of my improv classes, but I don’t have all the answers. You need to be constantly working with other teachers, directors and coaches so you don’t fall into the trap of thinking that there is only one right way to improvise. The best way to approach improv is to realize is there are many approaches, and it’s your right to borrow from whatever school or style works for you. So please work with as many people as possible.

Don’t miss a chance to study with Jimmy Carrane! His next Art of Slow Comedy Intensive is April 25 from 12-4 p.m. Sign up today!

7 replies
  1. Alan Baranowski
    Alan Baranowski says:

    Jimmy, you once again speak the truth. I was always the same way. Why study under anyone else when Del was haled as the top of the chain. However now my eyes are open and it has taken me life time plus 30 years away from improvisation to figure that out.

  2. Christie
    Christie says:

    OMG, I worship Jill Soloway. When can I see that interview? I keep hearing about Del Close as I read about the early careers of SNL cast members. I definitely would have worshipped him. Kind of how I worship my therapist now. GOod times.

  3. Ismael Alfaro
    Ismael Alfaro says:

    Great advice Jimmy. I can totally relate to what you shared. The teachers that I learned improv from early on are the ones I revere. But, after spending time with other teachers and programs, the direction and perspective change are always a growth experience.

  4. Gregor
    Gregor says:

    Transparent was on my binge-wish-list after watching the Golden Globes and catching the speech by Jeffrey Tambor – talk about a “comedy guru.”

    There are so many different ways to fall in love. One is to fall in love with someone elses approach to killing a room with comedy. It’s seductive.

    Over the years, I’ve heard so many people talk about Del Close. It always struck me as though they were talking about a crazy ex-girlfriend who turned them on to smack just before dumping their ass or a fucked-up ex-boyfriend who stole their heart, and then on the way out the door, ganked their shit.

    It’s fun to romanticize the past, especially the people we left behind. To my ear, since I didn’t actually know him, Del sounds like someone who needed help but eveyone around him was too busy mining his diseased mind for comedy gold instead of taking a look around to see the bigger picture.

    Here’s some truth in comedy…

    Most of the people I’ve met in the comedy clubs strike me like the kids in Transparent, too fucking caught-up in themselves to see what’s really going on.

    Speaking of playing dress-up well into the 3rd act of adult life, so you can finally shed the overrated obligation of fitting-in, I can’t wait for Season Two of Transparent (here’s hoping it’s more about the mother & father, to hell with their selfish kids).

  5. A
    A says:

    Although Del Close was obviously extremely talented and helped inspire and start the careers of many, much of what I have read about him sounds eerily similar to J.K. Simmons’ character in Whiplash – down to the throwing things at students when he didn’t like what they did on stage, a rumor I have heard about Del which I am not sure is true. There is a line between a teacher pushing you hard so that you become a better artist and a teacher who is just abusive. Craving the attention and admiration of the teacher who is border-line abusive has parallels to any abusive relationship. This is why I have grown tired of the deification of Del Close – he may have churned out results, but at what cost? And his method is by no means the only way to churn out results – and for all the results he did get from people, how many other people did he just break?

  6. Mike Flores
    Mike Flores says:

    The CIA did not understand what a “mic” or microgram was when they placed an order for MILLIONS of hits from Sandoz, who were actually phasing the drug out as not many therapists were not using it.. When they realized they had millions of hits they decided it would be fun to use on the general public. Albert Hubbard, a CIA man I actually played in the play THE ACID TEST 1967 use to dose the coffee machine at CIA which everyone thought was hilarious. Not much work done on those days! The Army began doing tests with the excess LSD on REM, rapid eye movement during sleep. They dosed Tim Leary, almost all of the Grateful Dead – and Del. The army wasn’t having people fall asleep to watch the eye movements, they were dosing the paid guinea pigs with LSD and then watching their eye movements! Del was to be paid $200 for 3 acid tests, a huge sum in those days, but after the second trip he got an audition call on the coast to be in a fabricated folk band, PETER, PAUL AND MARY. He didn’t get the gig and was running out of money when he wrote to the Army to request payment for the 2 trips they gave him. The Army wrote back that he could not be paid until he took the 3rd trip, and that he owed the US Army “one dream”. He had that letter framed on his wall for many years until 2 students banged him one night and took it with his blessing as a souvenir. Must have been a great night.

  7. Stuart Green
    Stuart Green says:

    Hey Jimmy,
    It’s amazing how many “Gurus” there are in Improv, Acting and any other Artistic classes you can think of. At the end of the day, it all comes down to what works for you. Playing Candy Land in Guru-ville is only good insomuch as you find your sweetest way of playing.


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