Nichols and May. John Belushi. Bill Murray. Chris Farley. Tina Fey. Mike Myers. Stephen Colbert. For nearly a half century, Del Close—cocreator of the Harold, director for the Second City, San Francisco’s the Committee, and the ImprovOlympic, and “house metaphysician” for Saturday Night Live—influenced improvisational theater’s greatest comedic talents. His students went on to found the Groundlings in Los Angeles, the Upright Citizens Brigade in both New York and Los Angeles, and the Annoyance Theatre in Chicago. But this Pied Piper of improv has gone largely unrecognized outside the close-knit comedy community.
Del was never one to let the truth of his life stand in the way of a good story—and yet the truth is even more fascinating than the fiction. In his early years, he traveled the country with Dr. Dracula’s Den of Living Nightmares, knew L. Ron Hubbard before Scientology, and appeared in The Blob. Del cavorted with the Merry Pranksters, used aversion therapy to recover from alcoholism, and kicked a cocaine habit with the help of a coven of witches. And when he was dying, Del bequeathed his postmortem skull to the Goodman Theatre for use in its productions of Hamlet—a final legend that lives on, long beyond the death of the father of long-form improvisation.