For Madmen Only chronicles the life, career, and mythos of Del Close, one of the teachers and innovators of improvisational comedy. Close’s genealogy of students spans from John Candy and John Belushi, to Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and many more. The film follows Close from his early days on the theatre scene, his work with Elaine May and Mike Nichols, his tenure at Second City, eventually leading the founding of the ImprovOlympic and his quest to bring “The Harold,” long-form, teachable improv comedy to life. Throughout the film, we hear from former students of Close as well as comedy historians and scholars about how Close changed the game of improvisational comedy, while also walking the line between genius and insanity as he battled mental health issues throughout his life.
Director and writer Heather Ross, along with co-writer Adam Samuel Goldman craft a documentary that is unique and versatile. This is fitting considering that Close himself balked at convention in virtually every aspect of his life, whether it be his approach to comedy, writing, or spirituality. It is truly fascinating to see improvisation, an artform so associated with spontaneity, be carefully analyzed and dissected.
While For Madmen Only does feature the familiar format of having interviewees share insights and anecdotes regarding Close, ranging from retellings of stories Close told them of his youth, to reminiscing about their experiences at his workshops, Ross and the crew complement these testimonials with a variety of different techniques and formats.
These formats span from conventional archival footage and the use of Close’s own tape recordings to panels from Close’s semi-biographical comic book Wasteland, all the way to dramatic reenactments of certain moments of Close’s life performed by actors, with James Urbaniak playing the fictionalized version of Close. Editors George Mandall and Tova Goodman cut between these various styles in a way that paradoxically works to create a cohesive film, while also creating the sense of spontaneity and sincerity that Close constantly chased after in his improv work. In a similar eclectic vein, Jacques Brautbar’s score for the film features everything from soft piano to more surrealist electronic sounds.
One of the more fascinating insights gathered from this film is seeing how many iconic and influential talents were taught by Close, and by extension, the far-reaching and diverse careers that originated from one man. The likes of Belushi, Farley, Poehler, and Fey helped sketch comedy enter the pop culture with their stints on SNL, while other Close students like Adam McKay and Jon Favreau started in comedy, but went on to direct some of the most acclaimed dramatic works in recent memory. A thread throughout the documentary investigates and theorizes on the complexity Close must have felt having trained such a vast amount of influential artists, while he himself never reached a significant level of notoriety outside of comedy circles.
For Madmen Only is required viewing for anyone who considers themselves a student of comedy. Featuring great insights from some of the most impactful performers of the modern era, diverse and engaging storytelling formats, and thoughtful meditations on the balance between insanity and genius, as well as inspiration and care for craft, this film should not be missed.
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