Editor’s Note: The following review is part of our coverage of the 2016 South by Southwest Film Festival. For more information on the festival visit sxsw.com and follow SXSW on Twitter at @sxsw.
It’s kind of amazing just how ubiquitous improv has gotten. I remember growing up on the British Whose Line Is It Anyway? and thinking that this fun bit of acting games was endlessly entertaining. But this was a time when improv was more ice breaker than craft building, when the thought of a town with one established improv troupe, let alone multiple, was kind of hard to fathom. Now it’s hard to start a conversation about modern comedy without the word improv being dropped left and right. When dialogue feels fresh or jokes seem to come from every direction in a film or television show, you can bet that the entertainment journalists have their improv questions queued up. So how did we even get here? Todd Bieber’s documentary Thank You, Del: The Story of the Del Close Marathon may have some answers.
Improv wasn’t the path to the thing, improv was the thing.
Del Close is name that goes mumbled in crowded black box theaters. There is a mythical quality to the name. I fully admit to having heard and known the name well before I had any clue what the man looked like. Hell, until this film I still wasn’t entirely sure who the guy was. Even in our time of improv recognition it is still something of a parlor trick to be mocked more frequently than it is celebrated. But Del saw it differently. Improv wasn’t a way to improve one’s acting abilities or a tool to write sketches. Improv wasn’t the path to the thing, improv was the thing. Bieber doesn’t go out of his way to prove the strength or credibility of improv, rather he lets the legend tell you himself.
But this isn’t only about Del. This is about the legacy of Del, the lives he changed and the torch carried in his honor. With this as the film’s end, it is largely successful. It is hard not to become enamored by the skilled groups’ performances. To see the founders of Upright Citizens Brigade on stage and having what appears to be a fantastic time is something that brings a special kind of joy to the heart of any comedy fan. Unfortunately, there needs to be more to the proceedings to be deemed a worthwhile documentary.
Thank You, Del succumbs to many of the same problems of improv itself. The film is endlessly scattered, hopping along from subject to subject as it feels the audience becoming bored and pulling away. The phrase “yes and” is held up as one of the few rules of improv. It begs the player to not only support his teammate but continually add to the ongoing story. As Bieber assembles his film he continually builds but without any idea of the bigger picture. This is a film about Del Close. Yes, and it’s a film about improv as an art form. Yes, and it’s a film about the Del Close Marathon. Yes, and it’s about an aspiring improv troupe from Missouri. Ultimately, it becomes so muddled in its need to abide by “yes and” that it ends up pretty hollow.
Ultimately, it becomes so muddled in its need to abide by “yes and” that it ends up pretty hollow.
As anything becomes popular it is going to be ridiculed. So maybe it is something of a victory that The Onion will poke fun at the often inherently sad nature of local improv troupes. Sure they are laughing at you but at least they are paying attention. Thank You, Del is great at showing the audience just how far improv has come and is quick to celebrate its spiritual founder. Del Close was a man that saw improv for what others thought to be ridiculous. He was an outsider. That’s why it feels oh-so-appropriate to have a group like Upright Citizens Brigade as its standard bearer.
Overall, Thank You, Del: The Story of the Del Close Marathon as a documentary is something of a muddled mess. It lacks direction, focus, or a consistent sense of purpose. Nevertheless, it captures the spirit of improv fantastically. Like improv itself, the misses can be frequent to the point of demoralization, but when it hits, it’s something of surprising genius. I just wish the genius happened a bit more often.
Overall, Thank You, Del: The Story of the Del Close Marathon as a documentary is something of a muddled mess. It lacks direction, focus, or a consistent sense of purpose. Nevertheless, it captures the spirit of improv fantastically.