Del Close discusses hipsters and comedy
BROADCAST: May. 15, 1970 | DURATION: 00:53:05
Del Close discusses hipsters, what is hip, and comedy. Includes a clip of Del Close and his colleague John Brent from the beatnik satire "How to Speak Hip".
Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.
Del Close The loose wig. One interesting fact about the hip language seems to be that quite often you'll say one thing when you mean exactly the opposite. For example, you will use a word such as "crazy" or "nutty" to indicate approval.
John Brent Right. Like, you take a very freaked-out chick. If she grooves, and if she's got something happening for her, you'd say that chick is insane. What you mean is, like, she's a--what do you call it? You know, a good person.
Del Close Would you say the hipster's preoccupation with insanity would indicate a rejection or at least a deep questioning of the traditional separation of normal and abnormal, sanity and insanity? In other words, a deliberate reassessment and re-evaluation of the bourgeois standards of morality and
John Brent No, no, no. I wouldn't say that. No, I would never say that, man. Dig. Say you're talking about this cat. Say he's a musician and he really makes it, you dig? I mean, he's into something, he's free and he swings. Then you say that cat has got a loose wig. Because it's very important to work on your brains. Smash your brains. You know, crack them! Yeah? That's when it can start happening for you.
John Brent She did, that's very hip. Saint Theresa swings, so does St. John of the Cross. I mean, you know, the Spanish one. But dig: you see all these cats running around desperately afraid they're going to flip, you know? And they're running around holding themselves together with scotch tape and chicken wire and 18 martinis for lunch. Juice heads are the lowest, man. They're all afraid they're going to crack and explode all over their friends and it would be very messy and embarrassing and they're going to blow their gig at the agency, and the finance company is going to come and repossess the children and it's going to be the end of the world, you know. Much hipper just to relax and flip. You know, groove with it. You know, you begin to go, you know? And you spew, you spew the immortal, the ever-word pudding. You know, you can chew the scenery, you can run around, you can, you could wail up on yourself, dragging yourself round and round and about inside your own head, you never move. You sit there quiet, your face, your face in a complete smiling groove, and internally you're on the loose wig! You're--oh, ah! Yes. I dig it. It's too much. Too much. Ah. Yeah.
John Brent I'll get you a glass of water. Now dig, baby was that so bad? The sky did not darken, any of the Earth did not open. Everything's a groove. You ought to flip out once, you know? Then at least you wouldn't have that to worry about anymore. Dig: once you get used to it, insanity can be the most normal thing in the world, you know?
Studs Terkel This may, this is rather remarkable, I think. Del Close, who is our guest this morning, and his colleague at the time, John Brent, were talking. That was 1960 and that's the remarkable aspect of it. It was 10 years ago, which could be a century ago. And at that moment these two performers, that's Del I'm thinking of particularly, who is so fast, so quick and the crazy way, crazy in the good sense, prophetic, Del, it's hard to believe this was 10 years ago, and hard to believe that so much has happened in 10 years that makes what you said, you and Johnny, so contemporary.
Del Close Well, it's hard to believe that in 10 years I've grown 10 years older. That's a disgusting fact. But the thing is, a great deal of the scene--at the time that was written about a rather small number of people in Greenwich Village. Bobby Zimmerman, who later changed his name to--
Del Close Bob Dylan and we know it was a rather smallish, the hardish, core-ish number of people, and we were kind of like--I used to claim that this record was underground Buddhist propaganda, and we had no idea that it would sell as few copies as it did when it first came out, and amazing that in ten years later that Mylan Melvin on the West Coast, who sort of led a drive to reissue the thing, and it's kind of in one sense it's very exciting to know that the parts of it that do stand up still stand up, but I think that anybody who is familiar with the scene whatsoever will recognize the fact that it's very dated. There's no reference to psychedelics in the thing at all. There's--in the liner notes here, one of the weird things that--this was written as a satire on the Berlitz language instruction records. This will give you an idea just how, really, how dated this is, let me read this little hunk of thing it from you. It's--this is cool in theory and practice and hipsters and stuff, this is a section called "Politics and Hip". It says there's nowhere in the world is there less political activity or political consciousness than on the hip scene, with the possible exception of the Laotian Buddhists. Occasionally a voice will be raised against police brutality in public parks or in favor of legalization of marijuana or hospitalization rather than jail sentences for narcotics addicts, but these sporadic bursts of activity are rare. Perhaps this stems from the hipster's basic distrust of authority in any form. Most hipsters believe, for example, that a person must have serious psychological problems in order to become a policeman. It would be absurd to attempt to organize hipsters into anything resembling a pressure group. The single instance that comes to mind of political action in concert will serve as an example. During the 1960 Republican National Convention in Chicago, there appeared on the floor of the convention hall an odd assortment of people carrying signs and placards reading "Independent Republicans for Stevenson" and "Draft Stevenson Now." They were summarily ejected. The demonstration was of course a put-on. Well, dig how dated that is. If we had done that, this was Severn Darden and a guy named David Margolies and I who did that particular demonstration on the floor of the convention hall.
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Del Close Oh yeah, like Abbie Hoffman, who was doing much less aggressive stuff and in many respect, not that I'm not trying to like, say that we were hipper than Abbie, that's simply not true. Abbie is hipper than us. But if we had attempted to gain entrance to the convention hall and stage a demonstration on the floor, we really would have--
Studs Terkel Are you telling us something here--by the way, Del Close is a member with Paul Sills' group the Body Politic that is, as you know, Paul is always a pioneer in a sense, an innovator, and others of his group graduate and become more celebrated figures perhaps. But nonetheless, Adele and he are rejoined. They were both key members, of course, of Second City.
Del Close Right.
Studs Terkel The quote unquote establishment, whatever that phrase may be, toward the put-on artist today than there was in '60, is it because there is more and more, particularly among the young questioning and challenging, and therefore it's more and more, more seriously to be taken?
Del Close Well, I meant that when I read this whole long thing here, none of this is true anymore. For one thing, the quote hipsters unquote, or the hip elements of society are no longer disorganized, they are a force, and secondarily the Laotian Buddhists, that's, you know, [that sit?] here, that they have no more political consciousness than a Laotian Buddhist, talk to a Laotian Buddhist today and see what kind of political consciousness he's got. Nobody is out of it anymore. If today you're a thinking person you can't just sit back and, you know, one has to get involved.
Studs Terkel So in these 10 years, some and perhaps we can come to Del Close, you--by the way, Del is as far as I'm concerned as a member of the audience watching him any number of times, in London by the way as well as in Chicago, one of the most, one of the fastest guys on the intellectual draw I've heard, very quick. But coming back to this, for a long time the hipster is an old-time word, hippie a contemporary word, were considered those who dropped out and therefore were apolitical. You are saying now there's been a fusion.
Del Close There has been a--I think a transformation. Now people do not drop out into an apolitical underground like in the days of the beatniks. Like, Dwight David Eisenhower is my second cousin, I grew up in Republican Kansas. You know, I had my first taste of, like, political thought when I ran into your old friend Professor Paul Schmidt, and suddenly
Studs Terkel Should talk about this, an old, old friend of mine from long, long time ago, still a friend who was a teacher of Del Close at Kansas State in Manhattan long, long, long ago it would seem. So the teacher played a role
Del Close Oh, boy, in 1957 I came back to visit my mother and I wanted to see Professor Schmidt and I was telling him some of the terrific stuff we were doing. I thought I was brand new to improvisation at the time and it never dawned on any of us that we were anything resembling a social force or even the political commentary, we were just improvising and we did a scene called borrowing a car in three countries, like Mike and Elaine's, you know, adultery in three countries. And Mike and Elaine were in the company at the time, so we were doing these trilogies of scenes and there was the borrowing the car in France where the father decides to go out with the son finally, and they're like, make a double date out of it, I forget the one in America, and there was one in Russia. "Papanchka, can I have the car the tonight?" "Who has a car?" And I told that to Paul Schmidt, he looked at me and he said, "Don't you think that's a politically irresponsible joke?" Like, what are you doing? You know, it suddenly dawned on me that we were capitalizing on anti-Russian feelings in America simply for the sake of getting a laugh. And at that moment my head sort of went 'boing" and if anybody has ever done an about-face, it was that particular moment, because from that moment as a comedian naturally I was searching for the responsible joke.
Studs Terkel The phrase you just used, the "responsible joke," I think is very interesting. We think of humor as in a vacuum, and you're saying, if I figure you out correctly now, you're saying that humor connected with life in the moment is even more rich.
Del Close Absolutely. Humor is a significator of understanding. Only a snob will laugh at something he doesn't understand, and then he will generally laugh on cue, but Jesus used humor in the Bible or, like, the Bible records Jesus' use of humor, the wonderful moment where Nathaniel and somebody rather are meeting him on the road and they're going to come tell him he's the Messiah, as if he didn't know, right? So--
Studs Terkel And of course Lord Buckley. We talk of Del Close, we have to think of Lord Buckley, too, the master of hip who was so magnificent when he was alive. Now once upon a time, there's something interesting, Del, I want you to talk and--
Del Close Well.
Studs Terkel As you will, but you are a second cousin of Dwight David Eisenhower you said, and there you were from Kansas, Lord Buckley now dead some years once upon a time was a wild brawling emcee in nightclubs and something happened to him, and burlesque, and something happened to him along the line and a new guy. In a sense he was almost newly born, to use an overused phrase, and out of it came this magnificent observer and performer.
Del Close Well, he stayed a complete human being. He was absolutely as vicious and rotten as he was brilliant and loving. Lord Buckley was I think possibly the only total person I have ever met. He was--whereas most people have their lives the tops and the bottoms are cut off, there's no ecstasy and there's no agony. You know, the egg and I and Exodus are old jokes, but Lord Buckley was climbing the peaks and plumbing the depths every given moment, and you'd never know when he was going to switch and he was dying of a cerebral hemorrhage when we knew him here most recently in Chicago and he would fly into these irrational rages that he knew it was a result of this disease, but he certainly was amazing.
Del Close Well, since Samuel Beckett, the tragic and the humorous have been allowed on the stage to link arms as it were. I'll never forget seeing, say--like in the first week I believe it was--of "Waiting for Godot", which is a terribly funny play, incredibly funny and then all of a sudden Bert Lahr, right after getting one of the laughs, big heavy laughs from the audience, he "We give birth astride a grave," pow! The hardest--and I began to discover that the hardest laughs come from our deepest pains. In improvisation that's particularly true, and in a sense, like as I was saying before, laughter is a significator of understanding, you can't really laugh without understanding. You can't understand without sharing. And so when someone laughs at a pain of yours, it is not necessarily--it's--I mean, if you take that slight mental adjustment, it's not that you're holding yourself up for ridicule anymore, you're--the audience is saying, "Yes, me too. I feel that too."
Studs Terkel Well, it's a question. So we come to you now, your improvisation, you and Paul and your colleagues at Body Politic here in Chicago up above the Oxford Pub are going--improvisation. The nature of improvisation. We think of it--I think of improvisation for me personally, I think of it because of my interest in jazz very much, and there's a beginning, a middle and an end and the rest so a person creates as he performs.
Del Close It still is a group on the West Coast. I'm on a leave of absence from the Committee now, this is my sabbatical year. I developed a case of what Alan Myerson, my boss, called tunnel vision. You know, you could only see what was directly ahead of you, and so I had to get out, and the idea of to come back to work with Paul was a kind of an obvious one. It had been boiling up in my head for a long time. So Alan Myerson, my boss in the West Coast, and I called Paul together, and so that there would be obviously no feeling of betrayal leaving one theatre for another. But I spent most of the time out there on the West Coast attempting to make sense out of these insane directions they used to get from Paul. Like, I remember Paul one time said to Dick Schaal, "When Del says that to you, that cuts through the thing to the bit where the cheese is, you follow me what I'm saying?" And Dick says, "What?" And Paul says, "Swiss Cheese with holes in it!" Dick said, "Oh, I get it." You know, it takes a long time.
Studs Terkel We can talk about that London experience. I was a member of the audience during one moment there when there was an exchange between the Establishment, the London comics who were so brilliant with Eleanor Bron and Johnny Bird and John Fortune, the others and then the Second City and Jeremy--
Del Close Geidt.
Del Close Paul.
Studs Terkel Paul.
Del Close And what I spent three and half years doing on the West Coast was trying to make sense out of Paul's directions so I could pass them on to other people. And I began to realize that the sense was not in the words, that the words were like--here we are speaking on the radio, we have a carrier wave going out that is carrying the words, well, when in dealing with Paul and probably in dealing with anybody, the words are a carrier wave for the meaning. You say, "Good morning. You know, how are you? Fine." And we can tell what the other person is feeling just by, you know, you'd say, "Oh, blah blah, blah blah blah blah blah." I would work just as easily. So that was, this seems to be kind of like a madly brainless non sequitur, but the thing is that we learned something about improvisation on the West Coast that in fact a number of things that we're now beginning to apply. What we're doing--Paul is into story theatre, which we can talk about in a minute or two. Also, which is quite different from improvisation. We are, we finally learned some of the basic structural rules about improvisation so that we can learn them and teach them rather easily. On Tuesday nights what happens is we get a group of people together at the Body Politic and we rehearse for three hours, and then at nine o'clock we go up to the Kingston Mines Company Store and we perform for three hours. That may be a record, I think, in the history of the American theater that a company has been formed in three hours and then, but last Thursday night at
Del Close Ultimately we will perhaps be performing at the Body Politic on one of our off nights, but the Kingston Mines Company Store is a terrific little coffeehouse, for one thing, and another thing is that--I would like very much--excuse me, this cigar--my own--I'd like very much to see as much of a coalition develop in Chicago and particularly the North Side theater scene as possible. I saw you on television the other day down in the bar at Diamond Jim's, right, and there you were going on about the time for the grand coalition and you were speaking of, you know, the demonstration in the park and the various factions, the Blacks and the this, and the Young Lords and so on, and, you know, I agree with you wholeheartedly. Yet in this theater, and the theater is the place that political recommendations are constantly being made from the stage, are constantly saying, "Well, this, you know we should get out of Vietnam, we should do this, we should do that." However, the only valid method of teaching is by example. And so if we in the theater cannot get our own scene together to the point that we can indeed form a coalition, we have got nothing to recommend to anybody. So this is a little kind of a gesture in that direction to try to bring the theater people in Chicago together in some way so that we can learn how to work in improvisation.
Studs Terkel This is very funny. As this conversation is occurring with Del Close, you're listening Del is my guest, a call came from a member of the Kingston Mines this morning, earlier before the program began. A member of Kingston Mines asking about interviewing the director June, and I thought to myself, "How about June and Paul and Stuart Gordon of the Organic Theater and the idea of tributary theater having a panel," and of course this is what you're talking about, really, you know. So we're both on
Del Close Pyskacek.
Del Close Yeah.
Studs Terkel The
Del Close Anyway, panel schmanels. The thing is, I would rather work with--Paul both loves to and hates to talk, like as you know, he will mystify you and enlighten you at the same time. June I haven't known her since she was 18 years old and we were in stock together in Williams Bay, Wisconsin and we just had a horrendous argument over the telephone in which she told me she wasn't going to let us rehearse in her theater and I said we're going to do it anyway, and so, like, rawr-rawr-rawr, and somehow or other the top level of these things always tend to kind of, like, be creepy. But if the people learn to work together on a more rational way just down there where the work gets done, you know, out there in front of people, then these--the taking of positions and the business of--it was something we could never get together in San Francisco because everybody was so committed to their own company, it felt like we needed an embassy where people can be on neutral
Studs Terkel People
Studs Terkel Basically people are in agreement that certain things are cockeyed and crazy and stupid when things are going, and that all the possibilities and the energy is here for a wholly different life, wholly different way of looking at things. And yet people, because of their own individual hangups or groups split and fall apart and the brutes win,
Del Close What?
Studs Terkel I think Del's beginnings. Who is, who is Del? First of all, for those who don't know Del, during other days of Second City he was one of the key figures in a very marvelous sketch that reminded me of Ring Lardner. The family, meeting, it was tremendous and Del as emcee in London and there were beautiful, swinging and jetset people who came to see the Chicago group because it was a thing to do. There were some good young people, old people there too, but there were the others and Del was remarkable one night in really letting them have it, and he was beautiful. Kansas you said, suppose we go back. How you got to be, think the way you think and create the way you create, how'd this happen. Where do we begin?
Del Close Where do we begin? Well, the sketch that you mentioned, the family, the family reunion scene that we did at the Second City was possibly the most maddeningly painful thing I ever got involved in in my life, because as we went into rehearsal. Well, dig, Paul has always had a Jewish company, all right, a very Hamish kind of--and so we thought we decided to do a, we'd do a WASP scene. I was the company WASP, White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, so we did this scene about a family, the youngest son of whom was a homosexual and living in Chicago and the family had come in for the funeral of another member of the family from downstate Illinois, and we chose the name Blinder, Illinois from simply due to the fact that these were people that tended to shut out those things from their lives that they could not tolerate. I was playing my own father in the scene. John Brent was playing his brother, Ann Elder was playing her mother, and Jack Burns was playing some uncle of his I believe. And my father committed suicide by drinking sulfuric acid. Consequently, I was, among other things, attempting to be as unlike this man as possible, because if I was like him that fate lay, that possibility of that particular horrible death was mine. But until we did this scene on the stage, I did not realize that I really was first and foremost, you know, my father, and then until I solved his problems in my head I wasn't gonna be able to get around to solving my own. So that's really where my life began was on the stage when that realization finally dawned and I proceeded to go crazy for a couple of years afterwards, and this was like, you know, '65 and my prehistory is so boring to me by now that it's foolish in comparison to what's happened afterwards. I went to San Francisco and Alan Myerson, the director of the Committee, was someone whom I had fired when he was director here. It was one of those "Okay, Paul, let's humor me" numbers. And they were able to kick him upstairs and send him to New York to direct the New York company. So I asked him for a job out there as an actor, my hat in my hand style, and he said, "Well, you can have a job as an actor if you'll take a job as director, too." In other words, he hired me for the same job that I fired him from. So having come through this particular trial by fire of the, you know, the paternal crisis and figuring out that, okay, I have to go ahead and be my father and then be me, too, strange thing happened. My father was a jeweler and an optical engineer.
Del Close Yeah, he was a--and I got into the light show racket out in Los Angeles. And suddenly in the middle of doing the light shows with The Grateful Dead and The Mothers Of Invention, I realized that what I had done was I had synthesized my father's career and mine. I was using the same types of instruments, optical interferometers and devices, and of course projection of crystalline structures and so on. He was an expert in identifying peculiar offbeat minerals and gemstones. And here I was taking slices of these same things projecting them on the wall behind a rock band. So it was like, in a sense, through that particular scene in which I was forced to recognize who I was by dint of the fact that, you know, in action one can't deny it, then going through the synthesis, then back to work again and this time since I was working for a guy that I had fired from the same gig he hired me from, either I had to do a really good job or else I had to screw it up right away. And people were waiting out there for about a year to see, okay, what kind of a dirty plot has Close got up his sleeve out here? Turns out what I did was an excellent job and finally I learned to work for somebody else for his sake, not for mine. And at that point a little freedom dawned, and you know, the previous public relations releases, including "How to speak hip" and that sort of thing is really--like I said to George when [unintelligible] just before the interview started I said, "Oh my God, here comes history again." You know, the leaden tongue of history wags on.
Studs Terkel Wait, Del, there's something interesting here. You said it illuminates only the past and I have a feeling that knowing what you were and where you were and who your father was illuminates the present, too, because you were talking about you and the light show, do you see?
Del Close I was working with Walt Rostow down at the University of Texas. I'm sorry, I didn't--I forgot that was a name that would just drop with a heavy thud. A quick parenthetical interjection: one time I was living in an apartment in New York and there was a guy downstairs who was very curious about my affairs, and I would see him, like, peeking around the corner as I'd come home at night, so I thought I'd give him something really to think about. And I'd sit down on my creaky bed and I'd take off a shoe and I'd drop it, then take off another shoe and I'd drop it, and then I'd wait about ten seconds, I'd take off another shoe and I'd drop it. After about two months of this, the guy moved out. But speaking of dropping things, Walt Rostow--
Del Close A few months ago. This Is January, February. I had got some weird invitation to go down and participate in a social science convention at the University of Texas which I accepted and wound up involving working with Rostow, who is a very, very nice man that I wish would pay more attention to his son, perhaps he would emulate him. His son is one of these wild-haired hippies on the street that is like confirmly [sic] revolutionary.
Del Close Yeah. And--but Rostow is a historian of the past alone. These days history has to predict what, you know, like it's--oh, how to phrase this? I'm not the scholar that this particular concept demands, but, you know the concept of the self-fulfilling prediction. History is--there's got to be a little more creative than just justifying or explaining what went down. I used to have these long arguments with Rostow, and I'd say, "Dr. Rostow, you know, we now have an entire planet. We've got to think in terms of planetary perimeters. What kind of government would you invent for the situation that is coming up? Now, like, enough of this justifying this Lyndon Johnson bleep bleep bleep bleep bleep." If I had said what I felt you would have had to bleep out about 10 seconds. But he justified his own position admirably, and he kept--I was rapping about it sort of like a creative optimism. That one assumes oneself into a position of competence quite often, or assumes someone else into a position of competence, like if I, if you and I were to do a scene on the stage improvising, I would just have to assume that you would be able to do it, and you'd have to assume me into the same position. Well, Rostow claimed to understand that particular point and then he reached to the bookshelf and he said, "Here, you know I made that same statement in 1928 when I" and he pointed out how he made a statement about dynamic ongoing creative optimism, and there it was frozen on the page when he was, like, a student he'd written this, and he was showing this to me as if to justify his position as an optimist, and I think he's a traitor.
Del Close And to the country. I think he's also attempting to--you know, just through ignorance or through the lack of belief that the role of the historian can be a creative and socially corrective one. I think he's betraying his son, he's betraying Lyndon Johnson, you know. Here's a fantastically weird thing that just fractured my mind when I heard about it down in Austin, is that the Lyndon Baines Johnson School of Public Affairs which they're building on the fifth floor is going to have an exact replica of the Oval Room in the White House for Lyndon to play in. Now, whatever you think of Johnson, you've got to think more of him than that.
Studs Terkel No, what I'm trying to say is how come you came to be what you are and think the way you are and do what you do? This is the point. You're Kansas, you see. Abilene produced Dwight David Eisenhower--
Del Close Yeah.
Del Close Yeah. Now, it used to be Kansas State College of Agriculture and Applied Science, where I had a music scholarship to play the bass drum in the marching band, and that's not a joke. I really did. I was the only one who was willing to carry the
Del Close That happened around that same time, but, like, Kansas to somebody who is a potential leavee, right, like a too tightly-gripped watermelon seed, it just squirts you away. Inger Stevens was a high school classmate of mine, who just died last week as you probably know, and her name was Stensland at the time. And she hadn't had her teeth fixed yet, and we were in each other's first play. And anybody who was going anywhere knew it at the time. Not necessarily going anywhere to the top or to--but we knew that we couldn't stay. I left home and two days after leaving home my allergies cleared up and--376 of them--and my asthma stopped. So, like, what do you want to know?
Del Close Oh, well, dig, we all go into theater for different reasons than we stay in theater. Quite often people become actors because they can't stand who they are or they can't stand their circumstances and must escape into fantasy. Occasionally an unlucky person like that will become an artist in the process. He then has various obligations. The lucky ones just stay fantasists. I feel that there's somehow inadvertently without meaning to do so in the least became an artist, and but nonetheless that was there like the beginning of the, you know, the second stage of the rocket [unintelligible]. Of--there are people that--I met a high school classmate of mine not too long ago who was a doctor, a surgeon at that. And I realize I'm not answering your question, Studs, I'm just circling around it. As I said to an interviewer one time on the West Coast, I'm never going to answer with pinpoint accuracy, but I can surround your question.
Del Close So anyway this cat was, he's now a member of the American College of Surgeons, and apparently he's a reasonably good neurosurgeon, and run into him out there on the West Coast, and he was attending the convention of the College of Surgeons, and he invited me out for a drink, and we started talking, and he says, "Hey do you remember so-and-so?" No. "Do you remember when we?" No. Like, I had lived like nine or ten lifetimes, I had lived in a number of cities. He was still living not in Manhattan, Kansas, but in Kansas City, but there was a direct continuity between his high school decision to become a doctor and his 36-year-old present time position. The only difference between us, and I'm not saying the one is better than the other by any means, is that in the theater change is forced upon you by the very nature of the business. In summer stock, you form firm, solid relationships and then, you know, you know in advance they're going to deteriorate, and you learn to accept change a little more easily perhaps. And then after a while you discover that you've not lost any of the people that you've thought you've lost, that you keep, they keep coming around the great lazy Susan of karma. Like you, here I am, talking to you again after ten years.
Del Close You, like, dig, by the way, Studs, when you first interviewed me backstage at the Gate of Horn when I was first playing there, you were still trying to get at the real Del Close, and you were--
Del Close Well, everybody leaves home. I mean, but there's nothing unusual about that. The--like, dig, after five and a half years of psychoanalysis, I still can't tell you very much about myself, because you know me better than I do, and I know you better than you do. Like, 'cause you got a better view from the outside, right? You know, any stranger knows you better than you know yourself, and so you could tell me more about myself, like what do you think the secret of the Gypsies are? You know, they happen to know that. They just trust their senses, and look.
Studs Terkel [unintelligible] you mentioned Gypsies now, said this, you know, since we are freely associating anyway. I want to know--because a while back I had this book. Later on I'll be interviewing a guy named Arthur Lewis, a good man, wrote a book about carnivals.
Studs Terkel Carnivals that 200 million Americans have patronized last year. It's hard to believe. Carnivals in towns that people in Chicago don't know about, and nature of carnie life. You wound up somewhere there, too. Gypsies made me think of it. You became a fire eater,
Del Close Right. I became a fire eater, and that, there might be an interesting kind of a WASP association there for you. I was like a crash rider in a thrill show, Murphy's Hell Drivers, I was the one that they strapped on the hood of the Buick and drove through a flaming brick wall, and the fire eating, sword-swallowing. I think that all this was an attempt to demonstrate that I could feel nothing whatsoever.
Del Close Right. And really that entire syndrome came to a head in that scene that you mentioned, the family reunion scene, in which I literally fell apart on stage when I discovered that this somewhat belatedly I was in the process of doing this scene mourning for my father.
Studs Terkel You know, as you're saying this I might as well say something personal. In all the years of Second City, the one scene that I remember best, most vividly and most overwhelmingly is a scene that Del Close is talking about. I said Ring Lardner because to me Ring Lardner is one of the underrated remarkably perceptive creative spirits of America, capturing a certain air, a certain feeling of a certain kind of life that many of us know about, feel about, and yet don't understand. And the scene you're describing then, it was almost autobiographical.
Del Close It was an agon, it was a struggle between the young man to try to force the father to see who he was, and the father absolutely refusing to do it. That would be--and it was a comic scene, in the same sense that "Waiting for Godot" was. The--I remember one little, tiny little moment in it, where the father sitting back and relaxing, saying, "Well, everybody misses you back at home. You remember George Murphy." John Brent, who was playing my son, says, "No." I look at him, "Well, he remembers you." And the audience cracks up because they recognize this guilt production mechanism in action. "Remember George Murphy?" "No." "Well, he remembers you." As if he's betrayed.
Del Close By not remembering, just that, and a generation, I'm told by popular magazines these days, is about five years long, and each one of these generations is another generation further away from the Victorians. And in case you wonder why the younger people are freer in many senses, the Victorian hooks are really out. They look at somebody like me with the tail end of what would be referred to as psychological problems, and but, you know, psychological problems, that's--Freud is passe, Marcuse is pretty hip now because he's taking the Freudian thinking out into the political arena. And that's what today's people, citizens, you know, like citizens from 12 to, like, 25 are interested in, is action, improvement, like, concrete demonstration of their power and their vision. So Marcuse is more their man than, like, a simple diagnostician, and yet Marcuse also demonstrated that Freud was a great social revolutionary.
Studs Terkel Don't you also feel with the generation gap becoming narrower and smaller, that is, not the gap, they get the chasm is as wide as ever, but I mean that a generation was 25 years, generation generally is father, son, mother, daughter. Now you say, here's the sister of 20 saying, "Oh, my kid sister, who is 15, is of another generation." But don't you feel--that's why I came back to you and, painful though it be, your father and the light show that you talked about, he being the jeweler, that the air of continuity is terribly important, that if we break history, we in a sense break ourselves, you see.
Del Close Yeah, well, one can't avoid it. The--the debt will come, but, like, the funny thing is that, like, kids today, many kids I know are not alienated from their parents in a sense that they do not, are not reacting against. It's a truism that, you know, the conservative parents will produce the radical children and radical parents will produce the conservative children. I think that that is a lie, frankly, because most old Commies that I know, children are now young radicals.
Studs Terkel Well, that's--you're pretty close. It's a common--there is no rule to be drawn, but the old cliche of conservative parents radical children is nothing more than a cliche. There's been a breakthrough in every direction,
Del Close I had conservative parents and I became slowly and painfully radical without intending to at all. But I now see kids today whose parents are no more nor less radical than they, they are carrying on directly. There's a guy in our company who's Jonathan Pearthree, Pearthree, what a fantastically interesting name, but his father is an actor and a musician and he's, you know, like, worked with his father and he's--feels like he's carrying on right, you know, in the same thing. There's not to say his father is a flaming radical, but kids today I think are not nearly as so embarrassed by their children. I mean, if kids today are not nearly so embarrassed by their parents as we were.
Studs Terkel Maybe they under--maybe the fact they're not nearly embarrassed by their parents who may by their standards seem a little out, a little straight, a little funny, is because, perhaps they're more intelligent. Perhaps--intelligent in a good sense of the word, more understanding, more aware,
Studs Terkel Del, you know we began, we have about five or so minutes left and we're talking. We began, the original idea with coming here was talking about improvisation, and yet I knew I knew, and I would guess that you did, too. There would be far more about that would be about you and about theater and the nature of the Body Politic where you are with Paul. You speak of story theater.
Del Close Yeah.
Del Close No, no, story theater is a fabulous invention or reinvention of Paul's. Paul has invented more theater forms, between him and--he and his mother Viola Spolin. Viola, by the way, did you know that she was engaged to a Buddhist monk, now to be married? It was an article in the paper about it the other day, and she's got a big part in the movie--an ex-Buddhist monk, apparently he's a nice guy in his 50s, that you know, that's what the columnist picked up on. And she's engaged. She said she's not quite ready to be married again. So they announce their engagement. She's also got a part in Paul Mazursky's new movie. Paul Mazursky, who wrote--who directed, beg pardon, "Bob, Ted, Carol and Alice", and produced by Larry Tucker and the role is apparently a starring role, I would guess. It's for a Jewish mother who makes chicken soup and at one point rides a white horse and wears a tutu and just plays all these fantasy characters. It's perfect for Viola I would think. But story theater. Well, it enables us to use all of Western literature. We're using the Brothers Grimm and Aesop at the moment, and the last time Aesop--well, and I don't know if this is the last time, but at least we know the first time Aesop was mounted on the stage, it was directed by Socrates, and Paul said, "Well, you know, we're in good company anyway." Story theater. Paul feels that the theater of psychology, the theater of feeling, the theater of--or I feel that Paul feels this, is very much on the way out, say like the writings of F. Scott Fitzgerald are primarily self-revelatory rather than really, you know, universal story. And it's only through action that we understand someone, not through what they tell us about themselves. No soliloquy is going to reveal nearly so much about what the guy does as what he does after the soliloquy, what's the guy's like, [really?]. And that's what I'm trying to get through an improvisation as well. So Paul and I are once again like termites chewing on the opposite ends of the same yardstick, we're gonna meet in the middle sooner or later. I want to get a structured form into improvisation so that we can play theater like a football game, and Paul wants to get story into the theater and get the whole creepy method acting self-indulgent thing away so you can be like a window to the story. The actors speak not only lines of dialogue, but also descriptive phrases. Del reached over and pulled Studs' red necktie and Studs looked a little strange.
Del Close When is the Body Politic open? We're open Wednesday through Sunday, Sunday the shows at seven-thirty, we do two shows on Friday and Saturday that's eight-thirty and ten-thirty, and on Wednesday and Thursday we have shows at eight-thirty, and soon Thursday nights there will be free jazz concerts after the show starting at ten o'clock, and on Tuesday John Guth, our former guitarist, does jazz and folk concert there at the place.
Studs Terkel Very much a live area right now in Chicago, anyway where Body Politic is, "Rising Up Angry" is the young, quite militant underground paper. And here is the reaching into some apparently some extent has of young blue collar, young blue collar kids.
Del Close Well, what they're doing is they're turning neighborhood gangs into social organizations that need not necessarily be revolutionary, but boy, the neighborhood is infinitely groovier to live in than it was back in the days when the gangs had it. Now, you know, you go by and the Young Lords, you know, give you the fist and, you
Del Close The Latin Kings used to be a gang. The Young Lords used to be a gang. Neither the Latin Kings nor the Young Lords are a gang anymore, they are a revolutionary organization dedicated to freeing their people and keeping the neighborhood cool.
Studs Terkel Paul, this is the way we--the way I don't usually do it, I ask you, I said Paul, [unintelligible] Paul Sills, Del Close, since they both worked together closely, closely, not punnily meant but closely in a very good sense. Del, as we're ending our conversation now, which is improvisational, obviously improvisational in nature, we found out, I think I found out more about you than I knew, yet I'm still looking for that, for that thing I looked for 10 years ago and perhaps will never find, like El Dorado, but thoughts that you--something you wanted to say you haven't said, anything, during this conversation. About Body Politic, about yourself, the time, the young.
Del Close Well, there's an interesting thing that Che Guevara once said, and I always wondered why he was, why he phrased it in the way he phrased. He said, "At the expense of seeming ridiculous, the feelings of, revolutionary feelings are motivated by a profound sense of love." And I've often wondered why even such a fantastic person as Che Guevara should have to be embarrassed over admitting that he loved the people he was working for.
Studs Terkel Embarrassed by the idea that you feel deeply, and I suppose we come to something now, and this is probably Del's story. I think maybe I gotcha. In a way, it's just that we have a tendency, all of us, to be embarrassed by feeling. And maybe that's the thing that has to be overcome, and if that could be overcome, maybe we're close to something, perhaps some form of salvation or redemption or survival.