Iconic comedy troupe has morphed from a collection of colorful
Chicago characters to the home of some shrewd entertainment entrepreneurs
December 6, 2009
It was born of University of Chicago nerds at the end of McCarthyism,
back when cutting-edge comedy meant jokes about your mother-in-law.
It fed on the slow Chicago burn of 1960s counterculture, even though
the demons of drugs and alcohol took down more than a few of its
brilliant, misfit stars. It gave a tough Midwestern city its own
colorfully indigenous, endlessly malleable art form -- satirical
sketch-comedy, created through improvisation. After some 35 years in
the business, it deftly transformed itself into a self-aware farm
team for "Saturday Night Live" and the newly expansive world of
television comedy, a market that The Second City itself helped create.
Second City, which celebrates a splashy, star-studded 50th
anniversary next weekend, always has danced a delicate pirouette
between light and dark, polish and heart, business and art, slickness
and spontaneity, expansion and retraction, function and dysfunction,
maternal nurturing and patriarchal practicality.
The dangers of the drugs and the booze have mostly been replaced by
the perils of personal ambition. But it is a dance that gets ever trickier.
"Second City has changed, the way the NBA has changed," says alumnus
Tim Kazurinsky. "We used to have blackouts between the scenes -- wine
to clear the palate for what comes next. Now it's more run and gun,
fun, fun, fun. You used to get an Alan Arkin and Barbara Harris
sketch that would bring a tear to the eye. Now you kill yourself laughing."
Such dichotomies, and a perennial feeling that the older days were
always the purer days, are built into the theater's DNA. Over the
years, Second City has morphed from a collection of colorful Chicago
characters to the home of some shrewd entertainment entrepreneurs.
When John Belushi finally got his posthumous star on the Hollywood
Walk of Fame in 2004, his brother Jim affectionately and aptly
referred to him as a "hairy brick." It is a long way from a hairy
brick to Tina Fey.
Indeed, Second City now finds itself a stable, profitable Chicago
business with $30 million in annual revenue, a licensed offshoot on
cruise ships, various multimedia deals and a new raft of midcareer
celebrity alumni -- the likes of Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert --
that any Ivy League school would covet. Its 62-year-old owner, Andrew
Alexander, says he is in negotiations to buy a lot at the corner of
Wells and Division streets, and build his company a new home -- with
theaters, a training center and headquarters -- from the ground up.
Yet the very name of The Second City -- taken from a snotty 1959
article about Chicago in The New Yorker -- embodies the same
insecurity that bedevils its hometown. Over the past 50 years, there
have been plenty of offbeat but competitive individuals fighting to
run this weird joint in their own image. And for all the celebrity
alumni ready to gush about how they had the time of their young lives
doing eight mainstage shows a week at what alumnus George Wendt likes
to call the "Harvard of comedy," there are always scores of bitter
rejects from its profitable classes and workshops ready with sad
stories of how their talents were egregiously overlooked.
"We've made our share of mistakes," Alexander says. "But our art has
shown it can survive for 50 years. We've gone through every political
and social change imaginable and we are still sold out almost every night."
"We are a business," says Kelly Leonard, Second City's vice
president. "And yet the talent and the environment here have always
been anti-commercial, anti-corporate and challenging of authority.
That's the paradox that sustains this place."
Paradoxical as it may be, it's tough to argue that this beloved
Chicago institution has lost any of its impact or cultural
centrality. On the contrary. It is more powerful than ever in the
media landscape. Even though it has never abandoned a hometown
hundreds of miles from the entertainment centers of New York and Los
Angeles. Even though? Maybe because.
"For this Second City thing to work," says Mick Napier, one of its
most talented and innovative directors, "it cannot ever be about a
manager, an agent, a product or a proposition. It always has to be
about a show done in the middle of winter in the Midwest. That keeps
everything real. That keeps everyone honest."
Second City's impact on the national comedy business has been
well-documented in numerous books and articles over the years --
"SCTV," "Saturday Night Live," "30 Rock" are just a few of the
projects born in large part on Wells Street. The list of celebrity
alumni, from Chicago and the Toronto-based spinoff, is long and
familiar. Mike Myers. Adam McKay. Chris Farley. Nia Vardalos. Shelley
Long. Bill Murray. Gilda Radner. John Candy.
But Second City has always insisted that it be viewed and treated as
a theater (it has a contract with Actors Equity) as distinct from a
comedy club. Although many people think that its shows are wholly
improvised, they are actually shaped, honed and tightly scripted.
"We use improv as a tool," says co-founder Bernie Sahlins, "not a
performance form. Material rises out of improvisation, but it has
been written, tried out and tested before it goes into the show as a
finished piece. The improvisation is basically public rehearsals."
That always-contentious view infuriated many improv gurus, most
notably the late Del Close, another quixotic Second City figure. A
legendary story has the pair repeating the argument at the hospital,
as Close lay on his deathbed, with Sahlins finally conceding that
improv could be considered an independent art form. For that day only.
Leonard argues that there are many misconceptions that work in Second
City's favor. "We get people who are prejudiced against going to a
theater," he says. "And if they come in thinking that everything is
off the cuff, then they always are going to get blown away."
Indeed, Second City's influence on American theater, especially
Chicago theater, is arguably even more profound than its influence on
TV comedy. For example, the early plays of David Mamet, who once
swept the floors at Second City, were structured almost entirely like
the troupe's staccato sketches. And an excellent case could be made
that Second City was the first true Chicago theater.
In 1959, when Sahlins and co-founders Paul Sills and Howard Alk first
stuck about 120 cane-backed chairs in a storefront once occupied by a
Chinese laundry, and offered a cabaret-style collection of topical
sketches, Chicago theater was little more than a collection of shells
booked by touring shows. That first cast of unknowns -- Eugene
Troobnick, Severn Darden, Mina Kolb, Howard Alk, Barbara Harris,
Roger Bowen, Andrew Duncan and more -- changed all that.
"Those names had no Broadway or Hollywood credits attached to them,"
says former Chicago Tribune chief critic Richard Christiansen.
"Second City was not an import. It was indigenous. It featured young,
inventive Chicago talent. It was ours. And, most important, it was a success."
With Second City establishing Lincoln Park as a creative hub, other
theaters such as the Organic and the Body Politic were soon to
follow. "The entire Chicago theater movement was influenced by Second
City," says Dennis Zacek, the veteran artistic director of Victory
Gardens, another of the theaters that grew up in its wake. "Without
them, we would not have the exploratory rehearsal style for which we
For all its aesthetic explorations and reinventions, Second City's
secret to longevity can surely be found in its shrewd retention of
certain signature ways of doing art and business.
First and foremost, it always hired young (cheap), smart, funny,
creative performers, kept them around for two to three years,
insisted on ownership in perpetuity of the material created while
they worked on one of its stages, and then took a benevolent,
proprietary interest in their careers.
By co-opting the language of alumni more typically associated with
universities than competing entertainment businesses, Second City
ensures that audiences consider it a place to see the stars of the future.
Conversely, these alumni -- scores of whom are returning for the
anniversary weekend -- tend to retain warm memories of the stage
where they probably got their break. They think fondly of the place
where they got to perform their own material in an ensemble-based
setting without the other, more detestable trappings of a
hierarchical entertainment business that rarely lets performers be themselves.
There are other keys to 50 years of success. Second City has kept
ticket prices low and thus snagged young audiences. You have always
been able to get a drink at your seat. It has tried new arenas but
resisted dilutions of its brand. It figured out long ago that it
didn't work in New York or Los Angeles, where it was tough to keep a
cast together. It has never allowed its countercultural tendencies to
alienate its core audience of suburbanites and tourists, yet it has
rarely shied away from blowing up its formula and risking failure.
And it has never forgotten that Job One is being smart and being funny.
In the here and the now.