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"Guru: My Days With Del Close"
By Jeff Griggs
(Ivan R. Dee, $24.95, 277 pages)

It’s a coming of age story, a history of improvisational comedy, a cautionary tale and a how to guide all rolled into one. Jeff Griggs’ unconventional biography of Del Close, the inventor of Harold long-form improvisation, “Guru: My Days with Del Close,” recounts the two years Griggs spent with Close near the end of his life as his driver, personal assistant, metaphoric punching bag and unlikely friend.

Griggs weaves together the history of improv comedy, Close’s contributions, bits of biography documenting Close’s wild behavior and reckless substance abuse, and a memoir of their time together.

All of Close’s quirks and eccentricities come to life in Griggs’ tales of their time together -- and some are laugh out loud funny, as when Griggs sets up Close with e-mail, and gets Close’s first e-mail sent to him: “Dear Firecracker, You’re quite the douche bag. Del.”

Griggs tells readers the tales of Griggs chaperoning Close to his first Cubs game, incidents where Del plays dead in a supermarket during their errands and where Del blows up at impound lot employees after Griggs’ truck gets towed.

From these, readers can better understand the eccentricities that came along with Del Close’s brilliance in improvisation. Close could be very hard on students in his classes, loudly berating those who played too much for laughs rather than character, failing to connect with scene partners onstage. Griggs wisely doesn’t criticize this, just observes it as one more part of what made Del who he was.

On their outings, Del takes to introducing Jeff as “my little retarded friend,” emblematic of their strange friendship, until Jeff finally trumps Del by introducing him as his “grandpa who drifts off sometimes.” This weird rapport, as Griggs relates it, like many of Del’s shocking or off-putting behaviors, elicits laughter from readers and ends up making Del’s layers compelling. These tales spark curiosity about what made Del tick, if that could ever truly be identified, and keeps you turning the pages.



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