Close was born and raised in Manhattan, Kansas, the son of an inattentive, alcoholic father. He ran away from home at the age of 17 to work on a traveling side show, but returned to attend college at Kansas State. At the age of 23, he became a member of the Compass Players in St. Louis. When most of the cast -- including Mike Nichols and Elaine May -- moved to New York, Close followed to perform stand-up comedy, appear in the Broadway musical revue "The Nervous Set," and perform briefly with an improv company in the Village with Mark and Barbara Gordon, who had appeared with the Compass Players in Chicago.
Around this time, Close also worked with John Brent to record the classic beatnik satire album How to Speak Hip. The album became a prized record for DJs worldwide, and was one of Brian Wilson’s favorite comedy albums.
In 1960, Close moved to Chicago – which was to be his home base for much of the rest of his life – to perform and direct with Second City. Close was fired from Second City due to his substance abuse and spent the latter half of the 1960s in San Francisco, where he was the House Director of The Committee theater, toured with the Merry Pranksters, and made light images for Grateful Dead shows.
After returning to Chicago in the early 1970s, Close was hired again to direct at Second City. He also performed and directed the Second City show in Toronto in 1977. Over the next decade he helped develop many of today’s leading comedians. Acolytes of Del Close have gained prominence in the field of comedy with astounding frequency. At any given time, roughly a quarter of Saturday Night Live’s cast has been composed of his former trainees.
Close spent the early 1980s in New York, as "House Metaphysician" at Saturday Night Live, coaching the cast in the wake of producer Lorne Michaels' departure. He spent the mid-to-late 1980s and 1990s teaching improv, collaborating with Charna Halpern in Yes And Productions and Improv Olympic. Despite suffering from emphysema, he continued to consume pot brownies, and use various tobacco supplements. During this period, Close acted in several movies, including portraying a corrupt alderman in The Untouchables and an English teacher in Ferris Bueller's Day Off. He also co-authored the graphic horror anthology Wasteland for DC Comics with John Ostrander, and co-wrote several installments of Grimjack's backup feature Munden's Bar. Finally, Charna Halpern invited him to join her at the ImprovOlympic Theater, which she had founded and briefly run with Compass Players producer David Shepherd. When Shepherd and Halpern parted company, Halpern decided Close would make a more appropriate partner.
Legend has it that Close's last words were, "I’m tired of being the funniest person in the room." Before passing away, Close requested that his skull be given to the Goodman Theatre for use in Hamlet productions, on the condition that he should receive credit in the program as Yorick. However, in 2006 it was revealed that an alternate skull was given to the Goodman instead. In honor of Del after his death, his former students the Upright Citizens Brigade created The Del Close Marathon.
Del's voice can be heard narrating in the opening credits for the first two seasons of the television show Upright Citizens Brigade, which stars a group of his former students.
"It is easy to become deluded by the audience, because they laugh. Don't let them make you buy the lie that what you're doing is for the laughter. Is what we're doing comedy? Probably not. Is it funny? Probably yes. Where do the really best laughs come from? Terrific connections made intellectually, or terrific revelations made emotionally." -Del Close (Truth in Comedy 25)
"What we do is too enchanting to be quantified" - Del Close
"Del Close is my biggest influence in comedy" - John Belushihttp://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/obituary-del-close-1083014.html
In 2002, Cesar Jaime and Jeff Pacocha produced and directed a film composed of interviews with former students, friends, and collaborators of Del Close. The film documented not only Del's life and history, but the impact he had on the people in his life and the art form he helped to create. It is not sold on DVD and was made as a thank you and a tribute to Del, "as a way to allow those that never got to meet or study with him, a chance to understand what he was like."
The Delmonic Interviews includes interviews with: Charna Halpern (co-founder of Chicago's iO), Matt Besser (iO's The Family; Upright Citizens Brigade), Rachel Dratch (iO; Second City; Saturday Night Live), Neil Flynn (iO's The Family; NBC's Scrubs), Susan Messing (iO; Second City; Annoyance Productions), Amy Poehler (Upright Citizens Brigade, Saturday Night Live), and Miles Stroth (iO's The Family; Del's "Warchief"). The film was shown at several national improv festivals, including the 2004 Chicago Improv Festival, the 2004 Phoenix Improv Festival, the 2002 Del Close Marathon in New York City, and the 2006 LA Improv Festival.
Close is featured in an extensive interview in Something Wonderful Right Away, a book about the members of the Compass Players and Second City written by Jeffrey Sweet. Originally published in 1978 by Avon, it is currently available from Limelight Editions.
In 2005, Jeff Griggs published Guru, a book detailing his friendship with Close during the last two years of his life. Due to Close’s poor health (in part caused by long-term alcohol and drug use), Charna Halpern arranged for Griggs to spend every Thursday afternoon with Close and run errands with him. Guru gives a particularly detailed and complete picture of Close. At the beginning of their relationship, Griggs was a student of Del’s, and the book includes several chapters in which Griggs depicts Close as a teacher.
The book has been adapted into a screenplay, and as of 2006 Harold Ramis was attached to direct the script, although it does not appear that the movie will soon be made. Ramis would like Bill Murray to play Close.
In 2008, Kim "Howard" Johnson's full-length biography of Close, The Funniest One in the Room: The Lives and Legends of Del Close was published. Johnson himself was a student of Close, and remained friends with Close until his death. In 1994, Howard co-authored Truth in Comedy: The Manual of Improvisation with Close and Charna Halpern.