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Review: For Madmen Only: The Stories of Del Close

July 29, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Del Close himself may have never achieved household name status, but odds are you’ve heard of Bill Murray, John Candy, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, and any number of the other Saturday Night Live and SCTV stars who were trained in his school of long-form improvisational comedy.

Close is the subject of director Heather Ross’s new documentary For Madmen Only: The Stories of Del Close, which explores both his troubled life and the immeasurable impact he had in shaping many of the most beloved comic voices of the past few decades.

The film uses Wasteland, a semi-autobiographical comic book that Close was writing for DC Comics in the 1980s, as the entry point to exploring his life, and features reenacted scenes of Close (played by James Urbaniak) working on the comic, with dialogue lifted directly from actual recordings. Like Close’s style of improv comedy, For Madmen Only is somewhat freeform in its construction, mixing these reenactments with panels from his comic book, alongside the expected archival footage and new interviews.

The result is a somewhat unpredictable and always engaging documentary that does a good job showing how Close created a comedy pipeline that flowed directly to Saturday Night Live, while also not shying away from the darkness of Close’s life. Despite being a giant in the world of comedy, his own personal life was a mess, as he struggled with drug addiction and bouts of mental illness that put him in and out of the hospital. His dark sensibilities are best emphasized in a story he often told about his father’s grotesque, traumatic suicide that became one of his go-to bits.

Close pioneered a form of improv comedy dubbed Harold, which Ike Barinholtz describes in the film as “performance art meets improv,” getting a troupe of actors to perform onstage completely unscripted, sometimes for a couple of hours at a time. But, as Close’s behaviour became increasingly erratic, and many of his apprentices moved on to SNL, there was some question of whether his comedy empire could survive without the likes of stars such as Murray and John Belushi in his roster.

This was eventually proven wrong when he co-founded and started running ImprovOlympic in Chicago with his partner, comedian Charna Halpern who is prominently featured as one of the film’s subjects, attracting a slate of new talent like Fey and Poehler. This would also give way to the formation of the offshoot group the Upright Citizens Brigade. We hear testimonies from other alumni like Bob Odenkirk and Adam McKay as well, with McKay talking about how Close’s Howard discipline directly inspired Anchorman, with the actors doing hours of riffing for each scene.

The film also notably focuses on Close’s time teaching at The Second City in Toronto, working with great Canadian talent like Candy, Rick Moranis, Martin Short and Catherine O’Hara, before his abrasiveness proved too much. Despite his volatility at times, and the fact that many of his students surpassed him in fame and recognition, Close was still a beloved figurehead in the comedy world, which is exemplified by a touching story told in the film about how Halpern and Bill Murray helped stage a farewell party for him at the end of his life.

If you are a fan of these comedians and improv comedy in general like I am, then you are bound to find the anecdotes, stories and psychological portrait of Close offered in For Madmen Only: The Stories of Del Close to be pretty compelling and entertaining stuff.

For Madmen Only: The Stories of Del Close is now available to stream via the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema. It’s being distributed in Canada by Vortex Media.

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