Friday, May 19, 2006

harold beta

Yorick's skull to be (or not to be).

"Hey look, a signed picture of Del Close!" gets said as facetious aside in the basement of the Upright Citizen's Brigade, awaiting another brewski on a Sunday night, when the Assss Cat ensemble headed up by Amy Poehler takes its 'coke' break. Blurry-eyed already, drunk on some sort of mixed concoction called a "Mad Russian," squinting reacquaints me with one of the most hallowed man in improvised comedy, the man behind the men that laid the foundations of Second City and SNL.

Close was a student of Mike Nichols and Elaine May's comedy school and in NYC a cronie with fellow comics like Lenny Bruce and George Carlin. Substances helped the spiral spin further downward and by '65 he was out West, guzzling Owsley's juicy juice with the Merry Pranksters, doing lights for the Grateful Dead, stringing speakers up in the trees. During that time, as the Dead were doing their long-form improvisations of country, folk, r&b, and feedback, Close began to experiment with long-form comedic improvisation himself, working with The Committee, the North Beach equivalent of Second City.

As the sixties died out, Close was back in Chicago, teaching comedic improv and honing a new form. It involved spontaneous creation of themes (generally from an audience suggestion to keep its players from getting any pre-conceived notions or riffs) and characters would be created, with resulting scenes playing off each other in comedic counterpoint. Phrases, images, riffs would recur, doubling with meaning with each reappearance as they unfolded over time, interconnections between disparate ideas being made as the improvisation continued, mutated, open-ended. Like any improviser, there's a quest for seeking and maintaining "truth."

Del Close dubbed such an improvisational technique 'The Harold.' "Probably my most significant contribution and it's got that stupid name."It was an affirmative style of improv, saying "Yes" to new ideas, topics, all-inclusive, neither exclusive nor reductive, always building so as to have invisible connectors revealed and made tactile out of the air between audience and performer. Drunk and buzzed from laughing the rest of the night as riffs on marinara and Russian immigration somehow twine together, I can't help but think of the open-ended improv scene that came out of Chicago in the early nineties, taking in Krautrock, musique concrete, rock, jazz, bossa nova, dub, grabbing at it all and building upwards from it. Aside from his work in comedy with the likes of Belushi and John Candy, could Close also be a secret force behind post-rock's assimilation of disparate ideas, too?