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‘For Madmen Only’: Like the man himself, doc on improv guru Del Close offers little that’s conventional

Comic-style graphics, dramatizations help tell story of the dark but esteemed sage from Second City and iO.

Improv legend Del Close is the subject of the documentary “For Madmen Only.”
Utopia Media

In 1981, a Southern Illinois University student from Naperville scored an interview with Chicago-based improv legend Del Close for the SIU radio station, and lucky for us, that student kept the cassette tape all these years and we hear snippets from it and recollections from the SIU student in the fascinating documentary “For Madmen Only.”

Says the former student: “He had just quit Second City the day before, and he had just quit cocaine a few weeks before and he’s changing his life now, and he would love to talk about that.”

With the tape rolling, Close says, “You got any dope by any chance” and the student says no and Close says, “F---. Oh well, bleep that out,” and off we go, with Close revealing he went to a witch’s coven to quit coke and, as always with Del Close, the story might be true or could be utterly false or most likely it was somewhere in between.

Oh, and by the way: That college student was one Bob Odenkirk, who along with Tina Fey and Tim Meadows and Jane Lynch and George Wendt and many, many others sing the praises of the mercurial madman who has influenced generations of comedians and actors with his revolutionary takes on improvisational theater. The director Heather Ross implements a variety of bold and creative tools to tell Close’s amazing story, including the use of comic-book-style graphics and staging some scenes with actors, with James Urbaniak doing a fabulous job of portraying Close and talented comedic performers such as Patton Oswalt, Matt Walsh and Lauren Lapkus contributing sharp supporting turns. The result is a comprehensive doc-biopic that works as an introduction to Del Close for those who might not know the name — but the comedy nerds who revere Close will certainly be geeking out over this deep dive into the man’s life and times.

As the late Robin Williams puts it in an old clip, “The cult of Del, it should be the church of Del.”

With the wonderful character actress Michaela Watkins providing narration, “For Madmen Only” takes us through Close’s troubled childhood in Kansas, with Close telling the story of how when he was just a boy, his father told him to hand him a glass of water and dad downed the entire glass — but it wasn’t water, it was battery acid. As with so many of Close’s stories (he claimed to have told L. Ron Hubbard to form a religion), that wasn’t exactly how his father committed suicide, but throughout his adult life, Close indulged in hyperbole as well as every drink and drug imaginable.

James Urbaniak (right) portrays Del Close in a “For Madmen Only” re-enactment featuring Patton Oswalt as Western movie star Lash LaRue, said to be briefly Close’s boss.
Utopia Media

We follow Close’s career he teams up with Mike Nichols and Elaine May and the Compass Players improv group in St. Louis in the 1950s, moves to Chicago in 1960, spends time with the San Francisco-based improv team the Committee later in the 1960s — and then settles more or less permanently in Chicago in 1972, where he worked at Second City for years before teaming up with the great Charna Halpern at ImprovOlympic, later iO. (Halpern is a wonderful interview subject in the doc, adding sanity and humor and perspective to the story.)

“For Madmen Only” chronicles Close’s breakdown and his stay at the psychiatric ward of Cook County Hospital — not the first time Close “went temporarily nuts,” as he puts it. And for all of Close’s breakthrough success as an improv pioneer and the incredible roster of greats he mentored, he lamented, “I’m the one that stays behind while the others go on to do movies and television.” As with so many comedic geniuses, Close was a dark and deeply troubled soul — but some 20 years after his death, his acolytes still have us laughing.