It’s true. I’m a fan of biographies. Not all biographies, but I do love a well-written one. By “well-written” I do not mean that the person’s entire life is dissected down to the minute. I certainly do not care to know the name of an actor’s great-aunt’s Sunday school teacher, nor do I want to know how adept she was as crocheting doilies which looked like animals. No, a well-written biography is one where the story flows effortlessly. When the author brings out those subtle nuances that made the subject truly unique and worthy of writing about. It is disheartening to me that so many of the individuals whom I am the most interested in, never put pen to paper to tell their own story. Some of these people I had barely heard of until I read the biographies of their friends and colleagues. For example, Del Close in the “well-written” memoir, “Guru – My Days With Del Close” by Jeff Griggs.
I wished him a happy holiday and walked down the stairs. The door opened, and I turned and looked up toward the third-floor landing. Del bellowed down the stairs, “Don’t eat too much and get fat. I’m oh for three with fat, funny guys. Belushi, Farley, and John Candy–three fat funny guys and all three of them dead.’” Then he added, “I was pretty fond of that fat bastard.’” it was quick, it was quiet, and it was devoid of emotion.
What I discovered upon reading this insightful and humorous book is that Mr. Close seemed to live his life as if he were involved in one, unending improvisational exercise. His habit was to not merely to push the envelope. Del first had to design the envelope, determine where its weaknesses were, and only then would he push that envelope anywhere he wanted it to go. For approximately two years, Jeff Griggs was that envelope.
Woven amongst the flashbacks to Del’s tumultuous and varied career are the day to day interactions between the guru and his reluctant assistant. Mr. Griggs masterfully propels the reader into this relationship with his honest and vivid writing. Taking a wry and sarcastic view of a legendary comic genius and unearthing a deeper meaning to the stories and myths which have surrounded Close for decades. In essence the reader discovers not only Del’s humanity, but a view of what life would be like to be thrust into a companionship with a man who is both feared and admired.
“You there, on the stage. What were you doing? Why did you make that girl turn into a hooker?”
Joe answered, “I thought she was playing the part of a hooker.”
“I don’t believe that’s true. I think that it’s very rare that a female improviser takes the stage with the intention of being a prostitute. Usually they’re forced into those roles by inexperienced young men who have little imagination,” Del said.
“Actually,” he continued, “I think it was very clear to all of us that she was working in a garden until you barged in and called her a whore. Isn’t that right?”
The girl nodded sheepishly.
“She obviously was working in a garden, which you completely ignored. So tell me, young man, why did you force her to play the part of a hooker?”
“I don’t know,” Joe answered. “I thought it would be funny.”
“Well that blew up in your fucking face, didn’t it?” Del asked him.
The story unfolds with Griggs agreeing to chauffeur Close with his errands in exchange for tuition to the Improv-Olympic Training Center, and concludes with Del’s death in March of 1999. As a reader, I was mesmerized not only by the mechanics of the world in which Close lived, but the measures he would take to determine if a person was worthy of occupying space in his life. And so it appears that Griggs proved he was not only worthy, but he demanded a welcoming party when he arrived. By drawing on his wit and his intelligence, he was able to turn his job into his own private tutoring. Not only for the world of theater, but his life lessons as well.
Perhaps the strongest aspect of this book is its conversational ingenuity, because it is not merely a biography of Del Close, it is also a memoir of Jeff Griggs’. The banter is rapid and razor-sharp. At times it is a constant tug of war to see how far Griggs can be pushed and embarrassed, but in other instances it comes across as dialogue written for an offbeat summer comedy. Whether in personal conversations or in those interactions that the author was able to observe, Del’s voice comes across loud and clear. He is offensive, he is abrasive and above all else he is a destructor of social conformity.
It was astonishing to discover that this irreverent and antagonistic man was the compass which led so many of our iconic comedians to the upper echelons of their careers. I firmly believe that if I had the power to cross barriers of time and space and could ask such comic icons as Bill Murray, John Belushi, Dan Akroyd, John Candy, Harold Ramis or Chris Farley who taught them to bring out the brilliance that they were yearning to attain, I would get the same answer from each one of them; “Del Close.”