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article imageReview: Hot Docs makes ‘em laugh Special

By Sarah Gopaul     May 8, 2016 in Entertainment
Hot Docs lightens the mood with a couple of comedic selections in its “Special Presentations” section, featuring innovators from the screen and stage.
Documentary is typically considered a relatively serious genre of film, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for laughter. In the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival’s “Special Presentations” programme, there are two films dedicated to men who brought humour to generations of performers and audiences. These films are: Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You and Thank You Del: The Story of the Del Close Marathon.
A scene from  Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You
A scene from 'Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You'
Hot Docs
Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You
Television was a revolution in the entertainment industry, which presented an immediate threat to film studios that has continued to evolve to this day. But this was only possible because the quality of the made-for-TV content was able to rival the bigger budget, big screen narratives. Suddenly, people were no longer obligated to leave their homes to be amused and there were certain pioneers that made that possible. Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You documents the contributions of such an innovator.
Writer/director/producer/actor Norman Lear launched his career in the ‘50s, providing jokes for Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis on The Colgate Comedy Hour. Honing his skills on a number of variety shows, Lear eventually went on to create some of TV’s most memorable and influential series: Sanford and Son, Maude, Good Times, The Jeffersons and, most notably, All in the Family. Lear discusses the challenges he faced as these shows pushed the envelope of what could be portrayed on television, defined the direction of future shows and put a strain on his family life.
Lear is such a great and experienced storyteller, there’s little reason not to have the 93-year-old relate his own tale as he does so with such eloquence. Nonetheless others provide their testimony as well, including Bea Arthur, John Amos, BernNadette Stanis, Carroll O'Connor, Rob Reiner and Amy Poehler. Some of the most prolific moments arise from the interviewee watching a scene from their past projected on a white sheet draped nearby; it spurs their memories and emotions to recount their experiences with moving detail. In addition to these conversations, directors Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing splice in rarely seen archival footage of rehearsals and show clips, which further articulates their accounts.
A scene from  Thank You Del: The Story of the Del Close Marathon
A scene from 'Thank You Del: The Story of the Del Close Marathon'
Hot Docs
Thank You Del: The Story of the Del Close Marathon
The practice of a screen actor honing their talents on the stage is well-documented; however, less attention is given to the manner in which some comedians sharpen their skills. Stand-up is the best known method, but the other is improv. Del Close was one of the best improv actors and teachers, training many of today’s most recognizable comedians. Upon his death, those same students organized a tribute show that became an annual tradition chronicled in Thank You Del: The Story of the Del Close Marathon.
The day before he died, Bill Murray threw Close what would be his last birthday party for which his students and friends attended from around the world. Unable to go as they were filming their TV show, Close called his students (Amy Poehler, Matt Besser, Ian Roberts, and Matt Walsh) in the Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB) and asked them to carry on his work of spreading the love of improv. Thus was born The Del Close Marathon, an annual 52-hour long-form improvisation comedy festival held at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York that attracts troupes from around the world. Director Todd Bieber chronicles UCB’s continued involvement through the 15th year of the festival and their mentorship of up-and-coming acts.
Via interviews and archival footage, Bieber traces Close’s history with improv as well as the careers of his students with whom most audiences will be more familiar with from movies and sketch shows such as Saturday Night Live and MadTV. The documentary shares a little bit of a number of stories, giving viewers an overview of various aspects of improv without ever providing in-depth details of any one facet of the craft or its top personalities. Still the film crew has adequate access to its famous and non-famous subjects alike, creating a relatively amusing if not exceptionally informative account of the festival.
Showtimes and ticket information can be found on the festival website.
More about hot docs 2016, Documentary, special presentations, Norman Lear Just Another Version of You, Thank You Del The Story of the Del Close Marathon
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