“Saturday Night Live” (SNL) debuted on NBC in 1975. The initial cast of “Not Ready For Prime Time Players” featured many “improv comedians.” Del Close, the Improvisation Guru, trained almost half of them.
Over the years Close trained comedians including John Belushi, Chris Farley and Stephen Colbert. Many of modern improvisational techniques were designed by Close, who believed improv was an art form unto itself.
Close was born in Kansas in 1934 and performed comedy from New York to San Francisco. In the early 1970s, Close returned to Chicago where he remained for the majority of his life. He worked as the director of the Second City Improvisation Theater before he was fired and moved to the ImprovOlympic Theater. His teaching technique was based off of fear and intimidation, or as Tina Fey put it, “insulting everyone.”
For example, one incident occurred when Fey was practicing a basic doctor and nurse scene for improv class. At the end of the scene, Close asked what the scene was about. After Fey and her partner floundered with an answer, Close said it was about bad improv.
Improv comedy can be broken down into short form and long form. Short form consists of games based off of audience suggestions. This can be seen in “Whose Line is it Anyway” or UCSB’s Improvability. Close is known for pioneering the Harold technique, which is long form. The Harold is a fluid long form improv based off a single suggestion, running around 40 minutes. The improv team receives a suggestion from the audience and creates a monologue from the suggestion that is then interrupted by group scenes. The monologue/scene format is repeated back-and-forth to the end of the show.
Improvability member and third-year theater major Dom Olivo said when one performs improv, one “creates something that can never be repeated. You create something to draw emotion out of us and the audience.”
Close often argued with producer Bernie Sahlins often over improv theory during his stay at Second City. Close argued that improv was an art form and Sahlins argued that it was a tool to develop sketch comedy. For example, Cheri Oteri once stomped a beat on the ground during an SNL improv game. Will Ferrell joined in on the beat. This was later refined until it became the Spartan Cheerleader sketch, adding to the argument that improv is really a tool.
According to the cast of Improvability, improv is an art form. Cast member and fourth-year theater major Trevor Wade describes improv as “based in truth” and defines art as “anything that expresses the truth.”
Tyler Wilson, fourth-year political science major, describes improv even more bluntly.
“Improvisation is the art, and comedy is a side effect,” Wilson said. According to Wilson, performing improve needs a clear mind, honest responses and trust in one’s on-stage partners.
Close and Sahlins never resolved their argument. Even when Close was on his deathbed, Sahlins could not be convinced. When Close saw Sahlins again, he screamed, “It is an art form.” Sahlins responded with “Tonight it is an art form.”
Close’s last words were “I am tired of being the funniest person in the room.” Humorously, his final request was for his skull to play Yorick in Hamlet , though it never came to fruition.