Funniest One in the Room by Kim "Howard" Johnson

April 3, 2008 12:24:59 PM PDT
The Funniest One in the Room recounts the life of improv comedy icon Del CloseJohn Belushi. Chris Farley. Tina Fey. Mike Myers. Bill Murray. Steven Colbert. Joan Rivers. Amy Poehler. Nicholas and May. Lenny Bruce. For the past fifty years, some of the best and most recognized comedic talents have been profoundly influenced by Del Close, "the guru" of improvisation. The Funniest One in the Room: The Lives and Legends of Del Close (Chicago Review Press, April 2008) by Close's longtime friend Kim "Howard" Johnson, explores the stranger-than-fiction life of this seminal performer, teacher and director. This definitive biography of one of improv's founding fathers contains recollections garnered from Johnson's exclusive interviews with more than 80 of the comedic giant's closest friends and colleagues.

The Funniest One in the Room details Close's profound influence on contemporary American comedy, including co-creating the Harold; directing for companies including Second City and the ImprovOlympic; and coaching the comedians on NBC's legendary Saturday Night Live. His students also went on to implement his techniques as they founded famous comedy troupes including the Groundlings in Los in Los Angeles, the Upright Citizen's Brigade and Annoyance Theatre in Chicago.

The Funniest One in the Room also thoroughly recounts Close's sensational personal life?which played out with the absurdity befitting an improv comedy master. A small-town Kansas boy, his early life included stints as a carnie and traveling horror show assistant. Close hung out with a pre-Scientology L. Ron Hubbard, and also became the embodiment of the Beat Generation. He overcame alcohol addiction using an extreme form of aversion therapy and gave up cocaine with the help of a banishing ceremony performed by a Wiccan coven.

Johnson says of his personal relationship with Close and research into his life, "It didn't take long to start collecting Del stories. The picture that began to emerge was confusing and sometimes contradictory, occasionally unflattering yet larger than life in a way that transcended show business hyperbole. If he was not quite a cultural touchstone, he had a finger?or possibly a hand?in much of the great comedy of the latter half of the twentieth century."

The Funniest One in the Room reveals the complex man behind the powerhouses of improv comedy. Exploring rumor and fact, legend and truth, this intimate biography is an essential guide to comedy in America today. Johnson was a longtime friend of Del Close, a personal assistant to John Cleese, a newspaper and magazine writer, and is the author of several books on Monty Python. He coauthored the improv classic Truth in Comedy with Del Close and Charna Halpern. He lives in Ottawa. Johnson was $250,000 winners on the TV quiz show "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire;" his winnings were largely responsible for him being able to take the time to write the book.

Funniest One in the Room is available at bookstores everywhere and through Independent Publishers Group, 814 N. Franklin St., Chicago, IL 60610. Toll-free number for orders only: 1-800-888-4741. Check it out online at www.ipgbook.com.

The last will and testament of Del Close

From The Funniest One in the Room

The provision Del is remembered for is "I give my skull to the Goodman Theatre, for a production of Hamlet in which to play Yorick, or for any other purposes the Goodman Theatre deems appropriate."

The Goodman Theatre artistic director Bob Falls showed up to accept the bequest. Charna Halpern [Close's partner] gave him a skull resting on a red velvet cushion inside a Lucite box. Falls quipped that he had recently won a Tony Award for Death of a Salesman, and thought nothing could be cooler than that?until today.

"Falls opened the box and picked up the skull," said Halpern. "What happened next brought tears to my eyes and joy to my heart." Falls held out the skull in his right hand and spoke. "Alas, poor Del! I knew him, Horatio: A fellow of infinite jest . . ." He continued with the soliloquy.

"It was just what Del wanted," said Halpern. "I was so glad I didn't have [my actor] there, because that's exactly what I wanted to have happen, and it wouldn't have happened had I had [the actor] do that first. It was so much more powerful that Bob did it himself. And Bob was really the only one who had the right to take that skull out. It's his! It was just beautiful, it really was. It was a lovely ceremony."

In an odd series of events that would have delighted Del, the upper-left-hand corner of the July 21, 2006, Chicago Tribune, just below the flag on the newspaper's masthead, was a color photograph of a skull sitting on a piece of red velvet. It accompanied a story that called into question the authenticity of the skull at the Goodman Theatre.

Seven years after his death, Del Close was front-page news. Tribune reporter Robert K. Elder reported that the skull in the office of the Goodman Theatre's Robert Falls was not Del's. There had been rumors ever since his death and Halpern herself admitted that Del's final request was not an easy one to honor. But Elder interviewed paleopathologist Anne Grauer of Loyola University and Jay Villemarette of Skulls Unlimited International in Oklahoma City, as well as Charles Childs, the president of the Illinois Funeral Directors Association, and Gerald Sullivan, the president of the Cremation Society of Illinois.

Grauer and Villemarette both determined that the skull had been purchased. They cited such evidence as rusty, decades-old screws in the skull, autopsy marks (his death certificate stated that Del did not have an autopsy), and eleven teeth remaining in the back of the mouth.

Halpern continued to defend the authenticity of the skull, though she could not explain the screws and the autopsy marks. She maintained that she couldn't speak about precisely what had happened in order to protect the person or persons who removed and cleaned the skull.

Further clouding the issue was a period of time in which the skull may have gone missing. Former ImprovOlympic actor turned film director Jon Favreau was preparing to shoot the Will Farrell comedy Elf, when the idea arose to use Del's skull to help decorate a set.

"Scott Armstrong [a former iO guy and uncredited writer on Elf ] suggested it, and it did indeed appear in the final draft of the shooting script as a piece of set dec in the doctor's office," noted Favreau. "I was told by either the prop dept or producer on the film (I cannot recall whom) that the skull was unavailable as the Goodman was unable to locate it."

Whether the skull was actually lost or stolen was unclear, noted the director, but it did raise yet another possibility. Was Del's skull removed from the Goodman at some point, and then, to cover up the loss, replaced by a skull purchased elsewhere?

Favreau never followed up with the Goodman. "I thought at the time that the theater was saying that to blow me off , or perhaps the call was never made at all and my own team was blowing me off , as it was a big pain in the ass to fly a human skull up to Vancouver for an inside joke between myself and a writer!" noted

Favreau. He admitted that his near-experience with the mysterious skull could help illuminate the truth, or could spawn a new urban legend, but "I would guess that Del would be proud to be a part of either."

The skull continued to make Goodman stage appearances, though the theater did not stage a production of Hamlet in the intervening years.

Still, questions remained. Did Halpern donate Del's actual skull or a substitute? Or could the real skull have disappeared in the intervening years, replaced by one from a medical supply house?

Halpern finally confessed the truth in the October 9, 2006, issue of The New Yorker. After Del died, the hospital personnel laughed at her request to remove the head, but suggested that she contact the Illinois Society of Pathologists. They ultimately refused, apparently afraid of charges of exploitation, which could have affected their funding. After two days, she reluctantly had the body cremated in its entirety. She then went skull shopping at the Anatomical Chart Company in Skokie. She purchased a similarly shaped skull, and she and her sister pulled out as many teeth as they could manage before turning it over to the Goodman.

The truth doesn't seem to matter to most of those who knew him. Robert Falls keeps the skull on his bookshelf, ready to be cast in another upcoming production. (After all, don't many of the most successful actors have doubles?) For so many, what is important is Del's intention, and that is what the skull honors. He taught his students that contradictory truths sometimes exist, that some things are only true at the moment, and that as artists and poets we must learn to discern when contradictory truths may apply.

Most of Del's friends have adopted a simpler attitude: if it wasn't originally Del's skull, it is now.

The book is available on Amazon.com or at IPGBook.com

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