Carla Taylor Interviews Matt Besser, Matt Walsh, and director Todd Bieber about their documentary Thank You Del: The Story Of The Del Close Marathon


Even if you don’t know who Del Close is, he is a very quotable man.  In THANK YOU DEL: THE STORY OF THE DEL CLOSE MARATHON, which world premiered this year at SXSW, we get to see Close’s wide-reaching influence in the acting and comedy communities (he mentored talent like Tina Fey, Bill Murray, John Belushi, Chris Farley and Bob Odenkirk). We caught up with producers Matt Besser and Matt Walsh, also founders of the Upright Citizen Brigade, to talk about this unknown legend who inspired this annual improv festival.

Carla:  What is the Del Close Marathon? And who the hell is Del Close?
Todd Bieber: The marathon is 52 hours of improv. People coming from around the world. So it’s a convergence of some of the best improvisation coming together to celebrate Del, and celebrate improv. Really it’s a party. It’s a chance for everybody to meet and hang out.

Treat your audience like poets and geniuses and that’s what they’ll become.” – Del Close

Matt Besser: But it was intended to let people know about this guy, Del Close. It started right after he died and even at Second City at that time, his face wasn’t up on the wall, which I was very disappointed in. But we felt that people need to know about this guy because he did feel underappreciated when he was alive. We wanted to make sure that his name didn’t die, along with his body.

Matt Walsh: I think the festival for me is kind of a concept that it’s a lot of friends and talented people we know that have a passion for this hobby, which is improv. You don’t really make money doing improv but every year they come from all over the world and it’s a great way to reconnect. And also, you do feel like you are practicing this art form in a very pure way. It’s for purists, people who appreciate it in a very passionate way.

Carla:  What made you decide to follow the first-time team from Missouri?

Todd Bieber: We sent our cameras to ten different teams. Covered all ten of those teams but the film focused on only one of those teams because they were the ‘fish out of water’. They were the new team that had never experienced this before, so I think it was fun. I remember my first time going up on stage being just as hard as what you see in the movie. And also it was fun to juxtapose. Being an improvisor is an art and I think the goal was to show that this is an art form. That you have to practice and grow. I think it showed these two different versions of it: the starting point and then going up. It’s also a special chance for me as a storyteller because it’s not a regular documentary.For example, it’s not about baseball. There’s no common ground where everyone knows what we’re talking about. So the ‘fish out of water’ theme kind of allows you to get into that world through a character’s point of view rather than just a lecturer’s.

Matt Besser: And also the movie is about the growth of improv. As much as we did reach out to other countries, like Finland, Japan, it’s almost more relevant to see the team from the really small town in Missouri. I’m from Arkansas myself. Where I grew up, I remember that I’d never heard of the word improv. Well, I probably heard it in relation to jazz, but I’d never heard of it in terms of comedy until I moved to Chicago. So I can relate to that. I can also relate to being from not a big city, where things are happening, and wanting to do that art form in a small town.

Carla:  So what make Del’s techniques so unique? 

Matt Walsh: I can speak to the comedy scene in Chicago when we started. Second City was like a mecca. It was literally an antenna that drew people, like ants to the mothership, because people knew Bill Murray and John Belushi. And it meant that you could possibly make a living with a career in comedy. So there’s a lot of rough human talent; forces of nature like Chris Farley. They require someone like Del to hammer out the rough edges and encourage them that you’re not playing a fool. You’re actually a professional satirist. He would give you reading lists in the classroom. He made it a legit proposition and gave value to what you were trying to do. He was always that person. For a city like Chicago, that had newcomers with their suitcases and backpacks right after college, not knowing what to do with their lives, they found Del through Second City. I think his role for a lot of those people was to legitimize what they were pursuing. He started to put structure to it. He started putting rules to the long form. His notes were invaluable. He’d give you notes like ‘Nobody wants to see you be cute when you’re thirty-five so get rid of the cute jokes.’ So I think that was Del’s role with good talent: to form them, to give them discipline and to get them to treat it seriously.

Matt Besser: You know, he was an actor as well. He started out with Mike Nichols, Elaine May; guys who went on to be big actors. He did want to be in big movies but instead he started a whole genre. I think he created a bigger legacy by not acting even though it might’ve been frustrating for him.

Carla:  Is there a favorite Del quote or mantra that you draw from?

Matt Besser: I mean there’s ‘Follow the Fear,’ but even that is overused. I think he might’ve said that in one class and someone wrote it down.

We always referred him to being like a religious prophet. People take his quotes and his words and take their own meanings and build churches, like we have. His quotes really have become the rules of improv, like ‘Play at the top of your intelligence.’

That’s always at the back of my head.It means not to go up on stage and be a smarty pants, or show everybody how much knowledge you have of the world. It means, go out and play like a real human being, which is really saying, be a good actor. Just react normally to the thing the other person is saying. It seems simple enough but it’s not a natural instinct. When people get up on stage, there’s this pressure to be funny or say something witty, not be natural, and not play at the top of your intelligence. And when everyone’s doing that, it’s all unnatural. It’s not entertaining. It’s like children improvising on the playground.

Carla:  Who will continue the Del tradition?

Matt Besser: Who’s the next Jesus…hmmm. I don’t know. People say, ‘well you guys are the next Del,’ but he was truly an artist. We’ve sort of codifed stuff that he had brought from invention. We put words and rules to it. That’s what our book does, basically, and what our classes do. You know, but he would never settle, as a teacher. He never was doing the thing he did last year. When we left and came back to Chicago, he was teaching something like ‘ and now we read a poem at the top of this show and we all become a lyric.’ So, I don’t know if there is a next level. There are different variations on what he did. I guess when we all leave our meat forms and improvise as…

Matt Walsh: Artificial Intelligence?

Matt Besser: There you go. That’s when we’ll know.


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