SCOTT SIMON, host:
Chicago's Second City Theater is an upstart that's become an institution. Today, the theater that was founded on the shell of a Chinese laundry on Wells Street in 1959 has even become a local landlord. The likes of Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Alan Arkin, Alan Alda, Joan Rivers, John Belushi and Dan Akyroyd, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, John Kenny, Mike Myers, Martin Short, Bonnie Hunt and David Schwimmer and many more all made their names on a simple black stage with theater that was irreverent, improvisational and avant-garde. Today, Second City has bought much of the block that it occupies in Chicago's Old Town where it runs three theaters as well as companies in Toronto, Detroit and Las Vegas. Second City has become one of the major tourist attractions of the city. Buses from trade show conventions pull up outside, see the show and leave with Second City souvenirs. Satire often mocks institutions. How do you continue to perform satire when you've become an institution?
(Soundbite of vehicle)
SIMON: Matt Craig is a member of the Second City company who leads people around tours of the Old Town neighborhood. He finds a lot of tourists want to see the scenes of old stories they've heard about the likes of John Belushi and Dan Akyroyd misbehaving.
Mr. MATT CRAIG: So they rented this space right here and they ran it as an illegal tavern. The story goes is that there was a bar in there that they basically just kept stocked with coke and...
SIMON: But you don't mean the rival to Pepsi when you say coke.
Mr. CRAIG: No. I mean...
Mr. CRAIG: ...cocaine. I mean cocaine. So that much being said, they gave keys to all their friends and they basically let anybody come over here and party 24 hours a day. When this particular tavern was existing, for about two years, was that every morning, when they would come into Second City, they would have to send over a few people to come over and get most of their chairs, ashtrays, tables and everything back because when the stages let out at the end of the night, people knew that they wouldn't be able to find a seat, so they brought everything that they needed from Second City. So there was this constant influx of stuff going back and forth from the theater.
SIMON: But Mr. Craig says these stories often distract from the true story of how Second City has become such a successful and prosperous enterprise.
Mr. CRAIG: And the theater itself is very much become exactly what it used to fight against. You know, it had to adapt to stay in this neighborhood. You know, if it was still an opium den place where everyone was, like, `Keep the taps open and party all night long,' we wouldn't be able to meet the demand of what people expect from the theater anymore.
SIMON: One of the signature personalities who made the Second City into an institution probably belonged at one. That's the kind of joke he would have made himself. Del Close who died in 1998 was the house metaphysician of the Second City. Now the mention of his name doesn't snap on the bright lights of recognition that Nichols and May or Belushi and Akyroyd do, but he was the director, teacher and provocateur of those talents and scores more. He'd grown up in the college town of Manhattan, Kansas, the son of an alcoholic father. He used to tell his students he had learned how to improvise so that he could shock some kind of attention out of a father who seemed consumed with his own self-inflicted miseries. By the time Jeff Griggs came into Del Close's life, drugs and decades of disappointment had bent and blunted him. And yet even in his shell, people could see a spark of genius flaring. Jeff Griggs is one of his students who was hired to drive him around Chicago on his weekly errands. In his new book, "Guru: My Days with Del Close," Mr. Griggs recalls that by that time of his life, Del Close couldn't even remember the name of his only wife.
Mr. JEFF GRIGGS ("Guru"): Right. He said he didn't admit to knowing it, but I sort of felt like he had some sort of recollection. He just didn't want to try to remember it.
SIMON: He also couldn't remember, or at least pretended not to, the names of his students. He concocted vulgar, often demeaning titles for them instead like The Fat Chick or Mr. Clueless. Broken friendships, missed opportunities and forgotten promises had made Del Close bitter and yet he still drew the devotions of talented people.
Mr. GRIGGS: It was more of a fraternity where you celebrated working together as a group and people flocked to it and they loved the mythic sort of aura that he had around him.
SIMON: He would sometimes tell people--I'm thinking of Chris Farley--don't always go for the laugh.
Mr. GRIGGS: And he was so true to that. He would always tell us, `Humor is in the recognition and the honesty of what we see on stage.'
SIMON: Mr. Griggs was hired by friends in Chicago's improvisational theater community who worried that Del Close had become so insulated by his legend and ailments that he was no longer breathing fresh air.
Mr. GRIGGS: They felt that he needed company because he'd sit in his apartment six days out of the week just watching television and smoking marijuana and they needed someone to get him out to do things, and he wasn't always receptive to me showing up every Thursday to hang out with him.
SIMON: What was his apartment like?
Mr. GRIGGS: There was garbage everywhere, cat feces. I dreaded walking up those stairs to his apartment every Thursday.
SIMON: You helped him clean up the apartment and you in some small way helped him clean up himself, too.
Mr. GRIGGS: I told him that he needed to try to clean up before we would take our visits. I told him it wasn't myself who needed it but society in general who was asking for it.
SIMON: What you describe, people just tuning in now, will have all the earmarks of depression.
Mr. GRIGGS: Oh, yeah, he spent a great deal of his life attempting to commit suicide. They even, Second City, would bring him in from the psychiatric ward for their shows at night and then take him back so he could sleep there overnight so that the doctors could keep track of him.
SIMON: Let me share a story with you. It's toward the tail end of a workshop and Tim Kazurinsky was on stage, a short guy. He was supposed to play an ogre.
Mr. GRIGGS: Sure.
SIMON: And he said, `Damnit, Del, I just don't have it in me to be an ogre.' And Del said, `Damnit, do you think ogres are born? Ogres think they've been hurt worse than anybody else. So you don't play the hatred. You play the hurt.' And I just sat there and thought, `Oh, my God, I think I've just learned something about life.'
Mr. GRIGGS: His question into acting was not how do you make it funny. It is why is that funny.
SIMON: I want to talk about the scene at his deathbed, 63, began to fail in a serious way and he'd taken so many drugs over the years, the doctors said he was more or less impervious to morphine and other painkillers.
Mr. GRIGGS: Yeah. It took quite a bit for him to feel anything. As I knew him, he was dying and a lot of the friends that he had had grown. And they went on and had families. So he was left alone. And that's the person I knew who was at the end of his life and dying and who was just grateful to have someone to come and share dinner with or go to a movie with not as this mythic teacher but as a true person.
SIMON: He did get a last word off, which, I think, as you tell it in the book, competes with `dying is easy, comedy is hard.'
Mr. GRIGGS: Right. He said, `Thank goodness. I'm tired of being the funniest person in the room.' Just too perfect. I think he probably sat up at night thinking, `OK. This is the one.'
SIMON: Perhaps not surprisingly for someone who had so often contemplated his own death, Del Close had a plan. Today at his instruction, his bleached skull sits on a pillow under a glass case in Chicago's Goodman Theatre. Every year or so, Del Close's skull makes an appearance in Hamlet or some other play in which a human skull is featured. For a man of the theater, that's almost immortality.
To read an excerpt of Jeff Griggs' book, you can come to our Web site, npr.org.
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.