Monday, May 12, 2008

Slightly more than mid-point review.

So while I was on the road (in the air, whatever), I zipped through The Funniest One in the Room: The Lives and Legends of Del Close. (Side note: Something Wonderful Right Away author Jeffrey Sweet put me in touch with the author to tell a few stories, but we never were able to connect—it was right around the deadline.)

The good news: It's fascinating. Kim "Howard" Johnson interviews Del and his friends, fellow performers and dozens of other associates—and the book is full of compelling (and disturbing) stories. 

The bad news: If you're a nit-picker like me, there are things about the structure and the narrative that will make you a little nuts. Johnson editorializes quite a bit, which makes him come off more as fanboy than objective observer—and a switch to first-person in the last third of the book is a little jarring. What seems like an effort to include all points of view and pieces of information makes it feel more like transcription than journalism—and an attempt to tie everything back to Hamlet feels a tad manufactured. 

I was Del's driver at the first Big Stinkin' Improv Festival in Austin—because everyone else was afraid of him—so I got to spend a few hours every day with him. (He liked to tell stories; I liked to listen.) We chatted on the phone a few times; he's the only person who ever guessed that my cat is named Argo for the Argo Off-Beat Room, early home to the Compass (predecessors of Second City). I got to hang out with him a little during his trips to our KC festival—and he invited me (along with Ed, Jared and our pal Jason) to see him in Picasso at the Lapin Agile in St. Louis. (We attempted a tour of his old Compass stomping grounds, and I feel damn fortunate to have been along for the ride). 

I was lucky enough to hang out with Del a few times, but it'd be disingenuous to say I knew him. He told great stories, gave wonderful gifts, offered effusive compliments and only completely freaked me out once. Johnson's book made me feel like I knew him a little better...and put some stuff into much clearer context...and made me deeply grateful to Charna Halpern for helping Del become someone who was accessible to people like me. 


  1. Yeah, totally agree. Charna does not get enough play. I thought that after reading Guru.

  2. I know there are plenty of folks who have issues with her...and I'm not saying she's perfect. But here's my experience with Charna:

    I went to that first Big Stinkin' at their request—to help out with logistics, trouble-shoot, advise and consult. The producer told me he'd cover my expenses and make sure I had housing if I'd come down a week early. I got there and realized there was no lodging and no plan. A year later, I still hadn't been reimbursed for about $180 in travel costs—which was a ton of money to me at the time.

    I found out from Keith Privett that Charna told the Big Stinkin' guys no ImprovOlympic troupes were allowed to participate until he paid me back. And several of them called to confirm I'd gotten a check before they applied.

    Needless to say, I got my money. She showed that kind of generosity to Lighten Up more than once, and I'll never forget it.

  3. Hmm. That's some unclear commenting. The guy who asked me to come to BS and didn't pay me was the Austin Festival guy.


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