SXSW Review: For Madmen Only
Del Close is the man you’ve never heard of behind the biggest names and faces of the last 40 years in comedy. Murray and Belushi; Fey and Poehler; Colbert, Candy, Farley. Every one of Del’s students achieved international fame because they moved on from being “just” improvisers. Del Close, on the other hand, reached cult-like status within the insular improv community precisely because he never left. For Madmen Only is his turn in the spotlight. Using Del’s quasi-auto-biographical foray into comic book writing as its centerpiece, For Madmen Only is less an attempt to understand the madman-genius, and more an effort to show him for everything he was and everything he believed. It tracks the man as he wades through the ups and downs of life like he taught his students to grind through an improv scene: following the fear. From his surprisingly orthodox childhood to his time as a carnie and human torch to his romantic and comedic partnership with Elaine May, the documentary briskly summarizes the events that created Del’s lifelong obsession with improv as an artform unto itself. Though it disguises itself by intercutting recreated scenes of Del’s creative process during the writing of his comic book, the documentary follows a mostly straight-forward timeline, straight from cradle to grave. That’s for the best; Del provides so much propulsive energy on his own, the movie hardly needs to manufacture additional momentum through structural ingenuity. Del is variously described as “insane,” “crazy,” and fueled by drugs - all of which landed him in rehab more than once. For Madmen Only makes various attempts to be as creative as its subject, mostly through comic-inspired visuals, cut-out figures, and tape-recorded audio laid over recreated scenes from his life. They aren’t ineffective, necessarily, just not as groundbreaking as they might want to be; in fact, the movie’s strength isn’t in any flashiness, but in its ability to find the heart in a man who would be only too easy to judge, to mock, and to caricature. It’s as dogged in its commitment to Del as Del was to improv. And it’s that commitment that remained the guiding light for Del. He didn’t always know the how or the why of long-form improv, and the details were fuzzy for decades, but he never stopped believing in this unique form of art. The details emerged every time he refused to give up. They came when Murray and Belushi brought energy and wit and stage intuition, and they came with Charna Halpern, Del’s eventual comedic partner whose genius and stabilizing presence helped turn his amorphous ideas into a teachable form of comedy. Del liked to tell his improvisers that “you have a light within you. Burn it out.” For better and for worse, he lived his life that way. It’s easy to see that many of his students followed Del’s lead, even when it led to the same dark alleys. For Madmen Only illuminates this path without glamorizing or chastising. It peaks backstage at the man behind the curtain, unafraid of what it may see. In short, it finally casts a light on Del Close.