The Second City, the world’s flagship of satire and improvisational theater, celebrated its 40th Anniversary with a gala celebration that included the launching of two revues, the reuniting of classic casts, a film festival and discussions with some of its most famous alumni.
Harold Ramis and Joe Flaherty were members of the cast known as “The Next Generation,” whose ensemble also included John Belushi, Gilda Radner and others. In 1976, Ramis and Flaherty were scooped up by The Second City’s producers to develop the cult sketch comedy series SCTV which launched the careers of John Candy, Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Dave Thomas, Catherine O’Hara, Martin Short and Rick Moranis, as well. Ramis went on to become one of the most important comedy directors of the last twenty years, while Flaherty starred in movies like Back to the Future, Part II and Happy Gilmore. Currently, he is a series regular on the outstanding series Freaks and Geeks.
Over the course of the anniversary festivities, Ramis and Flaherty shared anecdotes about the theater (and Belushi) and discussed the importance of the work and training at The Second City and how it continues to relate to each new project.
On the Second City philosophy…
HR: There were two mottoes when I worked here. One was from (producer) Bernie (Sahlins), which I believe (director) Del Close was a big advocate of, which was “Always work from the top of your intelligence,” which is critical. And the second one, Del said, “If you concentrate on making everyone else onstage look good, you will look good.” Even if the scene bombs, even if it totally sucks, at least the audience will get the message that cooperation and respect for each other is possible. And if nothing else, you can maintain your dignity with that awareness of each other. And to this day, I believe that.
On “The Next Generation” cast…
HR: Del was there to direct, I think, the third show I was in. John Belushi and Flaherty were in the show. Brian Doyle-Murray. We had become known as “The Next Generation” when we took over because we were the first hippie cast. We were the first long-haired cast. I wouldn’t say we were the first political, of course, but our cultural references were different. Anyway, the climate had changed. We were political in a different way. We weren’t really in the streets, but we looked like the guys in the streets. And the language changed. John Belushi introduced a whole new language to the stage here with the classic line “Eat a bowl of f*ck.” I still don’t know what it means.
On directing at The Second City…
HR: Most people think of directing as a control function when really, at Second City, it’s more of a facilitative function. Traditionally, we think of a director as taking material, interpreting it and finding actors who fulfill his vision of it. That’s not Second City. You have people who are constantly firing new ideas out and you help them catch the best ones and shape them and then you give them a kind of polish.
On the transition from stage to screen…
HR: Belushi and Gilda brought all their characters to Saturday Night from here. And we had the privilege of making our transition through SCTV, which was a very literal exploitation of what we learned here, with people who already had the same training, a common language and a common history. So, it was kind of painless, in fact. The show had the feeling of a kind of televised Second City revue in that it just made the most of everyone’s individual skill and we were allowed to explore our imaginations without restraint. We had no sponsors, no time slot, no network. We were responsible to no one but ourselves. We were the authority. We got to do what we wanted and operate the same way we did onstage just in a different medium.
On using improvisation in films…
JF: With Stripes, I got a call and Ivan (Reitman) said, “Joe, are you interested in playing a part in this movie, Stripes?” And I said, “Sure!” You know, I knew Harold was in it and John and Billy. And they said, “We want you to improvise in Czechoslovakian…” And I said, “Yes, of course. Yes. I’ll do that.” And then I got there and said, “How’s Russian?” We had a two-shot and the great thing about that two-shot, you can improvise and basically, we just did gibberish. “Ah, Chicago. Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang.”
HR: There’s two kinds of improvisation in a film and I use it all. One is where the dialogue may change, but which will have no bearing on the coverage. The scene is still the scene, intentions are the same. And then, the coverage will be fine and you know it’s gonna cut.
There’s another kind, something I’ve done most of all with Bill Murray, which is what I call a “guided improvisation.” In Caddyshack, 90% of Bill’s part is improvised. But that doesn’t mean it’s just free ad-libs, like “Bill, go wild.” No, we discuss what’s gonna happen, we lay it out in beats, just the way you do with a Second City scene, Bill gets to do a take, and we’ll say “Oh yeah, first beat’s good, the opening’s good. Second beat’s a little weak. Try this here and rearrange this.” Just like we do on stage here. And by the sixth take, it’s working great. And you cover it the way you would anything else. You know, as long as you establish it in one kind of shot, then you just go in and cover it tighter. You know, when it works, it works good. The audience feels the spontaneity of it and they really respond to it.
My philosophy has been if something in the script is not working why do six takes of the same dialogue trying to make it work as opposed to “Well, that didn’t work, let’s try different words. Let’s look for something else”? The spontaneity that informs improvisation on the stage here can be easily lost in television and films by what I call “over-rehearsing.” You can set it, you can rehearse it in a room, you can tape out the set, but nothing compares to being there, on the set, in front of a camera that’s rolling. Which, in fact, produces the same kind of energy an audience produces.
The audience is not a passive thing. It extends the energy back toward the performers and that’s the energy that really feeds what performers do. The camera has that same potential energy. You take all the error out in a rehearsal, nothing new is going to happen. The best you’ll get is exactly what you saw in rehearsal.
The corollary to that is you need actors who can do it. There’s no point in using improvisation if the actors can’t make it work.
On the improvisational actors versus actors with more formal training…
HR: Well, every actor speaks a different language. I was directing Robin Williams once in a film and I said, “Robin, can you do that faster?” and he looked at me and said, “Faster’s not a direction.” And I said, “Okay… I think your character would be feeling urgency at this moment.” And he got that. He said, okay fine I can do that. In the same movie, Eugene Levy had a little improvised scene and I said, “Eugene that was a minute twenty. Do you think you can do that in a minute?” And he said, “Sure.”
On the line and when to cross it…
HR: There is a theory about comedy that most actors and comics subscribe to that by portraying certain taboo acts and thoughts to the audience and making them public, it releases the audience in certain ways. You get your best laughs when you stop the audience with something they’ve been thinking but were never able to verbalize or express. But somehow it’s a secret thought or embarrassment that they understand. To simply insult them or abuse them without context or relevance or resonance doesn’t really work. So when I got stuck in a National Lampoon show--they had hired a bunch of us away from the Second City to do a show in New York--we did a revue and it sort of had this Belushian spin all over it. Which was really to grab the audience, shake them and slap them around. John would get very vocal and ugly and responsive. Neither of us were very comfortable with it. But John could get away with it to a large extent.
JF: We opened the show with underwear on our heads singing “You’re The Pits” to the audience! To the tune of Cole Porter’s “You’re the Tops.” We always ended up in--Belushi took us to places where there were a lot of bikers out there.
HR: In that show, there was a scene that was like a parody of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Gilda played Mary Tyler Moore… but blind. John plays her date who comes over and he exploits her blindness to look up her skirt and do all kinds of obscene things to her. So, of course, you come to that night where “Oh my god, there’s a blind person in the audience.”--Knock, Knock. Unfunny--What? Do you pull the scene? No, you have to go ahead and do it.
JF: Louisville, Louisville.
HR: Louisville, Kentucky. Apropos of bad taste. In 1969, not only did we have a lot of anti-war material, which didn’t play well anywhere, we had a lot of anti-religious, anti-Christian material. And we were doing a pitch. Like a TV pitch for a lifesize plastic Jesus, it could, you know, ride next to you in the car…and the part of the pitch where he says, “What do you think of that, folks?”… there’s dead silence in the audience and one person says, “It makes me sick.” Then we could make out the unmistakable sound of a cocktail glass hitting the back of the actor’s head and we all squished into the wings right away. We thought it was pretty funny actually.
JF: We didn’t take suggestions that night.
HR: No, no.
JF: We offended the audience pretty much. Belushi reveled in it. “The audience loves it. They love it when you tell them they’re shit.” That’s not my sensibility at all. We ended up in this dance club in Toronto one night. Remember that night, those guys? Oh, Jesus. The Swami, right? You were doing the Swami… what was the character’s name?
HR: Don Juan.
JF: Don Juan.
HR: Named after Castaneda’s. A man with a mysterious past answers questions.
JF: Then we had to throw it out to these people. Aw. “It’s the first question, everybody. Any questions for Don Juan?” And some guy in the back, just a little creepy, yelled out “Uh, yeah, is it true that Pakis…”--in Toronto, that’s a derogatory term for East Indians-- “…actually are the illegitimate children of apes and (racial slur deleted)?” And then the scene just turned to hell, turned to all hell.
HR: What do you say?
JF: Well, at that moment I said, “I’m not doing this show anymore.”
HR: The bottom line is sometimes the audience has worse taste than we do.
On the current crop of “R” Rated comedies…
HR: When the Farrelly Brothers started to hit, I was ambivalent about the kind of press they were getting because every article about them in Premiere would have a little box that talked about Animal House, Caddyshack and Stripes. They grew up on those movies, as did Adam Sandler--and Adam Sandler’s talked to me about that, how he was a kid and how he watched Caddyshack. That doesn’t make me feel too old, but everyone thought Animal House was so shocking when it came out. In fact, the studio when they read it said, “Oh, these guys are the heroes? They’re disgusting.” And we said trust us, our whole generation will like this.
So, every time I see a Farrelly Brothers movie now I think, “There are only a limited number of orifices we have, and they only produce a few substances, and then where do you go?” I think that what will happen is that the Farrellys will get tired of it and the people doing that will eventually get tired of it themselves and the audience that really likes it, eventually moves past it. I mean, it still exists there in their formative consciousness and it allows everyone to say “pooh-pooh” and run around making fart jokes and it’s great until we all get over that little embarrassment of these bodily functions. But it’s certainly not literature, and there’s no expectancy for it to be. But every generation will have that.
On ratings and censorship…
HR: Son, when I started making comedy, they didn’t have ratings. In films, you know that in a PG-13 movie you can only say the f-word once and not in a sexual context. It’s only used as an adjective or an expletive, not to describe the act of love, which is its meaning. You can say, “F*ck me!” but not “I’d like to f*ck you.”
We had a pool on it when we were editing Analyze This on how many times the word “f*ck” appeared in the movie. I had guessed 270. Because it seemed like it was being said every five seconds. It was actually only 87 times. The studio production person came on the first day, in the scene where Robert De Niro interrogated the guy, trying to get information. He’s saying, “You tell this f*cker, ‘I’m gonna whack him, you motherf*cker’.” And the woman from the studio asked, “Do you have any (television) coverage where he doesn’t say motherf*cker?” I said, “Don’t worry. I got one where he says c*cksucker.”
On knowing when you have a hit on your hands…
Twice in my life. When we did Animal House and when we did Ghostbusters, we were saying to ourselves as we did it, “These are gonna be the biggest comedies ever.” Of course, we were stoned, but…