Saturday, January 13, 2007

A Brief History Of The Second City 12.22.99

Spawning an extraordinarily talented and successful roster, The Second City Theater may very well be this century’s most important well of comic talent. It’s downright scary to think of the laughs we would have missed without them.

With sit-down comedian Mort Sahl and “sick” comic Lenny Bruce leading the charge, The Second City, their predecessors in The Compass Players and their contemporaries in The Premise and The Committee, changed the face of comedy in the late Fifties and early Sixties. One-liners and slapstick vaudeville went the way of limericks and mummer’s plays as political observations and social satire based in storytelling and the rhythms of jazz music and Beat poetry became the flavor of the day.

The Compass Players formed at the theater department-lacking-University of Chicago in 1953, a group of Eisenhower-era intellectuals who shared strong leftist leanings and a mutual love of theater. Paul Sills and his mother Viola Spolin introduced the troupe to her seminal theater games, which became the foundation of the improvisational techniques employed by The Second City for decades.


Nichols & May, comedy team (An Evening With Mike Nichols & Elaine May)
Mike Nichols, director (The Graduate, Catch 22, The Birdcage, Primary Colors)
Elaine May, writer (Ishtar, Heaven Can Wait, The Birdcage, Primary Colors)
Alan Alda, actor (M*A*S*H, Crimes and Misdemeanors); director (Four Seasons)
Ed Asner (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Lou Grant, The Satan Bug, JFK)
Shelley Berman, stand-up (Inside Shelley Berman, Outside Shelley Berman)
Barbara Harris, actress (Who Is Harry Kellerman…?, Nashville, Freaky Friday)
Jerry Stiller, actor, Ben’s dad (Seinfeld, Hairspray, The Taking Of Pelham 1 2 3)
Anne Meara, actress, Ben’s mom (The Out-of-Towners, Reality Bites)
Ted Flicker, director (Barney Miller, Andy Griffith Show, Dick Van Dyke, The President’s Analyst)

The Second City opened its doors on December 16, 1959, born from the ashes of The Compass Theater and a few abortive attempts at a similar theater. The first few casts were comprised of a handful of former Compass Players, but also introduced Chicago, and soon the world, to a wellspring of brilliant actors, writers, directors and stand-up comics.


Alan Arkin, actor (Catch 22, Glengarry Glen Ross, Bullets Over Broadway)
Paul Mazursky, writer (The Monkees), director (Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, Winchell)
David Steinberg, stand-up (The David Steinberg Show), director (Seinfeld)
Joan Rivers, stand-up (What Becomes A Legend Most, The Joan Rivers Show)
Severn Darden, actor (The President’s Analyst, Conquest of The Planet Of The Apes)
Burns & Schreiber, comedy team (The Burns & Schreiber Comedy Hour)
Jack Burns, writer (The Muppet Show, The Muppet Movie)
Avery Schreiber, actor (The Monitors, Caveman, Robin Hood Men In Tights)
Henry Jaglom, indie director (Sitting Ducks, Eating, Last Summer At The Hamptons)
Alan Myerson, director (The Larry Sanders Show, The Bob Newhart Show)
Del Close, mad genius (How To Speak Hip) actor (American Graffiti, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off)

They times they were a-changing around the country and across the world and certainly in the working-class city of Chicago, Hog Butcher to the World. The events surrounding the Democratic National Convention, the subsequent conspiracy trial and the maelstrom of violence that erupted along the lakefront infected the work being done onstage, where Yippie agitators like Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin were known to sit in on improv sets. The theater itself became a makeshift hospital during the riots. The material being developed at that time not only reflected the zeitgeist of revolution, but also the influence of psychedelia.

THE TRIP (1965-69)

Peter Boyle, actor (The Candidate, Young Frankenstein, Everybody Loves Raymond)
Paul Dooley, actor (Breaking Away, Slap Shot, The Player, Waiting for Guffman)
Robert Klein, stand-up (Child of the ‘50s), actor (The Owl and the Pussycat)
Fred Willard, actor (Fernwood 2-Night, This Is Spinal Tap, Waiting for Guffman)
Valerie Harper, actress (Rhoda, The Mary Tyler Moore Show)
Linda Lavin, actress (Alice)
Philip Baker Hall, actor (Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia)

By 1969, a paradigm shift was underway at The Second City. High-brow Intellectualism gave way to a more gut-level Pop sensibility. Television and rock music became the stuff of scene work on the stage. The Second City was once again at the forefront of a new movement in comedy, writing the playbook alongside “head” humor and anti-comedy creatives like Richard Pryor, Lily Tomlin, The Firesign Theater, TVTV, Steve Martin, Andy Kaufman and the National Lampoon Magazine.

When the National Lampoon was in the process of developing a radio program and national touring company, they looked to The Second City for talent, plumming writer/performers like John Belushi, Bill Murray, Joe Flaherty, Brian Doyle-Murray, Gilda Radner and Harold Ramis.

Their work with the National Lampoon Radio Hour and on the new Second City stage in Toronto caught the eye of a young Canadian stand-up and producer. Lorne Michaels was putting together a latenight television variety show that tapped into the vibe of a disenfranchised youth audience. He adopted and adapted the Second City format to create Saturday Night Live, hiring a cast of mostly Second City actors. (He continues to hire Second City actors and writers--the current cast features 2City alums, Horatio Sanz, Rachel Dratch and Tim Meadows and writers Tina Fey and Adam McKay.)


John Belushi, actor (Animal House, Blues Brothers, Neighbors)
Dan Aykroyd, actor/writer (Blues Brothers, Ghostbusters)
Bill Murray, actor (Meatballs, Caddyshack, Stripes, Tootsie, Ghostbusters, Rushmore)
Brian Doyle-Murray, actor (Waiting for Guffman, JFK), writer (Caddyshack)
Gilda Radner, actress (Bob & Ray, Gilda, Larraine & Jane, Gilda Live)

While Michaels was developing SNL, producers Andrew Alexander and Bernie Sahlins were working with directors Del Close and Joe Flaherty and a cast of talented young actors up in Canada. The show they were creating in improvisational workshops became SCTV.


John Candy, actor (Stripes, Vacation, Splash, Planes, Trains and Automobiles, JFK)
Joe Flaherty, actor (Freaks and Geeks, Stripes, Stuart Saves His Family)
Catherine O’Hara, actress (Waiting for Guffman, Home Alone, Beetlejuice, After Hours)
Andrea Martin, actress (Wag the Dog)
Martin Short, actor (Father of the Bride, Three Amigos, The Big Picture)
Dave Thomas, actor (Stripes, Follow That Bird), writer/director (Strange Brew)
Eugene Levy, actor (Vacation, Splash, American Pie), writer (Waiting for Guffman), director (Once Upon A Crime)
Harold Ramis, actor (Stripes, Ghostbusters, Groundhog Day ) writer (Animal House, Meatballs, Caddyshack, Stripes, Ghostbusters, Groundhog Day) director (Caddyshack, Vacation, Groundhog Day, Stuart Saves His Family, Analyze This)

Back at The Second City, the performers were living in the shadow of the successes of their friends on television. The work began to closely resemble the sketches on television and vice versa. For the first time, The Second City was not merely perceived as an elite training ground, an end onto itself, but as a launching pad, a springboard, even a factory of comedy writers, directors and actors.


Jim Belushi, actor (Wild Palms, Salvador, About Last Night)
Betty Thomas, actress (Hill Street Blues) directress (The Brady Bunch Movie, Private Parts)
Shelley Long, actress (Cheers, Night Shift, The Brady Bunch Movie)
George Wendt, actor (Cheers, Outside Providence, Fletch, House)
Tim Kazurinsky, actor (Police Academy II-VI), writer (My Bodyguard)
Peter Torokvei, writer (WKRP, Caddyshack II, Armed & Dangerous, Back to School)
Steven Kampmann, writer (WKRP, Back to School)
Dan Castellaneta, actor (The Tracey Ullman Show, The Simpsons)
John Kapelos, actor (The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, The Late Shift)
Richard Kind, actor (Spin City, Mad About You, A Bug’s Life)
Bonnie Hunt, actress (Beethoven, Jumanji, Jerry Maguire)

In the late Eighties, the postpostmodern generation, raised on MTV and an increasingly public fickleness for novelty, came-of-age at The Second City. This group of actors and the talent who followed them often had the benefit of training at The ImprovOlympic, where they studied and performed the Harold, a long-form improvisational form steeped in Jungian synchronicities and Del Close’s drug stories. Later, many would also work with The Annoyance Theater, an improv commune responsible for pop culture parodies like Co-Ed Prison Sluts and The Real Live Brady Bunch Show.

These X-generation performers formed their own troupes while they trained and workshopped at The Second City. They created their own comedy forms, forms which echoed the refreshing spins of the “alternative comedy” scenes of San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles.

SECOND CITY 4.0 1986-2???

Chris Farley, actor (SNL, Wayne’s World)
Mike Myers, actor/writer (SNL, Wayne’s World, Austin Powers)
Kevin McDonald & Dave Foley (The Kids In The Hall)
Bob Odenkirk, (SNL, The Ben Stiller Show, Mr. Show)
Steve Carell, (The Dana Carvey Show, The Daily Show)
Stephen Colbert, (The Dana Carvey Show, The Daily Show, Exit 57, Strangers with Candy)
Paul Dinello, Amy Sedaris & Mitch Rouse (“Exit 57”, “Strangers with Candy”)
Amy Poehler, Matt Besser, Ian Roberts & Matt Walsh (“The Upright Citizen’s Brigade”)

While other venerable institutions are being boarded up and replaced with mega-plexes and coffee chains, The Second City is still going strong. And if the current revues at the theaters in Chicago are any indication, the tradition of creating the best and brightest comic minds will continue--perhaps for another hilarious forty years.

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