The Second City
Awesome Improv: Five Dollar Burgers
Five Dollar Burgers doin’ it, and doin’ it, and doin’ it well….on the main stage at Second City-Chicago; Here, performing: “Superheroes.”
The Second City Theatre opened on December 16, 1959 and has since expanded its presence to several other cities, including Toronto and Los Angeles. The Second City has produced television programs in both the United States and Canada including SCTV, Second City Presents, and Next Comedy Legend. Since its debut, the Second City has consistently been a starting point for comedians, award winning actors, directors, and others in show business.
The Second City was the first on-going improvisational theater troupe in the United States. It evolved from the Compass Players, a 1950’s cabaret revue show started by undergraduates at the University of Chicago. The troupe chose the self-mocking name from the title of an article about Chicago by A. J. Liebling that appeared in The New Yorker in 1952. In 1959, the first Second City revue show premiered at 1842 North Wells Street, and the company moved a few blocks south, to 1616 North Wells, in 1967. Bernard Sahlins, Howard Alk and Paul Sills, son of teacher Viola Spolin, founded the theater as a place where scenes and story were created improvisationally, using techniques that grew out of the innovative techniques Spolin developed and taught, later known as Theater Games, with Sills as its director. The cabaret theater, comedy style of the Second City tended towards satire and commentary of current social norms and political figures and events. In 1961, the theater sent a cast to Broadway with the musical revue, From the Second City, directed by Sills and earning a Tony nomination for ensemble member Severn Darden. Eventually, the theater expanded to include three touring companies and a second resident company, and now fosters a company devoted to outreach & diversity. The style of comedy has changed with time, but the format has remained constant. Second City revues feature a mix of semi-improvised and scripted scenes with new material developed during unscripted improv sessions after the second act, where scenes are created based on audience suggestions. Another Second City innovation is the inclusion of live, improvised music during the performance.
A number of well-known performers began careers as part of the historic troupe and later moved to television and film. In 1973, Second City opened a theater in Toronto. By the mid-1970s, both venues became a source of cast members for Saturday Night Live and SCTV, which borrowed many of the writing and performing techniques pioneered by Second City and other improv groups. In 1983, the adjoining e.t.c. theater became the second resident stage in Old Town, Chicago location, handling overflow crowds and increasing the number of resident company members. Co-founder Bernard Sahlins owned the theater company until 1985, before selling it to Andrew Alexander and Len Stuart.
Along with its theaters, training centers, and television shows, Second City also produces improv and sketch shows forNorwegian Cruise Line. In the 2000s (decade), Second City began producing “theatrical” shows, bringing their brand of social and political satire to regional theaters around the country in revues that featured sketches written for and about each location, including Phoenix, Boston, Baltimore, Dallas, and Louisville.
SCTV: Second City Television
The basic premise of SCTV was modeled on a television station in the fictional city of Melonville. Rather than broadcast the usual TV rerun fare, the business, run by the greedy Guy Caballero (Joe Flaherty) sitting in a wheelchair only to gain sympathy and leverage in business and staff negotiations, operates a bizarre and humorously incompetent range of cheap local programming. The range included a soap opera called “The Days of the Week”; game shows such as “Shoot the Stars”, in which celebrities literally are shot at in similar fashion to targets in a shooting gallery; and movie spoofs such as “Play it Again, Bob” in which Woody Allen (Rick Moranis) attempts to entice Bob Hope (Dave Thomas) to star in his next film. In-house media melodrama also was satirized by John Candy‘s vain, bloated variety star character Johnny La Rue, Thomas’ acerbic critic Bill Needle and Andrea Martin‘s flamboyant, leopard-skin clad station manager Mrs. Edith Prickley. Also never to be forgotten are Catherine O’Hara’s all washed up, formerly hot, alcoholic, ultimate narcissist leading lady, Lola Heatherton and Joe Flaherty’s incredibly crass talk show host, Sammy Maudlin. Martin Short originated his incredibly dorky and dweeby Ed Grimley character here—the one he later brought to Saturday Night Live. The show’s creators focused particularly on character work, and the show was renowned for it.
Andrew Alexander took the reins of Second City Toronto in 1974 and formed a partnership with Len Stuart in 1976, starting The Second City Entertainment Company. Its first television production was SCTV. Alexander co-developed and executive produced over 185 half-hour shows for the award-winning comedy series, and produced over 150 hours of award-winning television comedy. Alexander has had co-production deals with MGM Television, Imagine Films, Disney Studios and United Artists, and has developed television programming for CBC, NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox, Comedy Central, HBO, Showtime, and A&E. He has produced movies and television with such notable talents as John Candy, Dan Aykroyd, Bonnie Hunt, Mike Myers, Chris Farley, Rick Moranis, Catherine O’Hara, Martin Short, Harold Ramis, Dave Thomas, James Belushi, George Wendt, Edward Asner,Andrea Martin, Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert and Tina Fey.
In 1985, Alexander and Stuart became owners of Chicago’s Second City. He has produced or executive produced over 200 Second City revues in Canada and the United States. Most recently, Alexander has expanded The Second City TV & Film Division with offices in Los Angeles and Toronto and was executive producer on the recently released feature film Intern Academy.
Alexander has received numerous awards including The Canadian Comedy Awards’ Chairman’s Award, Gilda’s Magic Award from Gilda’s Club, The League of Chicago Theater’s 2009 Artistic Leadership Award and named 2009 Chicagoan of the Year by Chicago Tribune.
The Second City has been awarded several Equity Joseph Jefferson Awards, including for the 1997 ensemble in the “New Work” category for Paradigm Lost. The show featured Tina Fey, Scott Adsit, Kevin Dorff, Rachel Dratch, Jenna Jolovitz, Jim Zulevic and was directed by Mick Napier. Stephnie Weir received the “Actress in a Revue” Jeff Award for Second City 4.0 in 2000. In 2009, as the company was celebrating its 50th year, the Second City was awarded an honorary Jeff for the milestone, as well as three awards for the e.t.c.’ s 33rd revue Studs Terkel’s Not Working, recognizing director Matt Hovde and actress Amanda Blake Davis and naming it Best Revue. In 2011, the e.t.c.’s 35th revue Sky’s the Limit (Weather Permitting)won the Jeff for Best New Work (Musical or Revue), as well Best Revue and Best Actor, for ensemble member Tim Baltz. The following year, the e.t.c.’s 36th revue We’re All In This (Room) Together won for Best Revue and Best Director of a Revue (Ryan Bernier), while ensemble member Edgar Blackman took home the Jeff for Best Actor/Actress in a Revue for his work inWho Do We Think We Are? on the Second City mainstage.
Toronto’s Second City mainstage troupe has won ten Canadian Comedy Awards: “Best Improv Troupe” (2001), “Best Sketch Troupe” (2001), “Best Sketch Troupe” (2006) “Best Sketch Troupe” (2009) and “Best Comedic Play” winners Family Circus Maximus (2002), Psychedelicatessen (2003), Facebook of Revelations, Barack to the Future (2009), 0% Down, 100% Screwed(2010) and Something Wicked Awesome This Way Comes (2011).
The Second City on Film
- Goldstein (1964) – The directing debut of Philip Kaufman (The Right Stuff, The Unbearable Lightness of Being) featured several members including Severn Darden, Jack Burns, and Del Close, as well as teacher Viola Spolin. A modern-day interpretation of the story of Elijah, it won the Prix de la Nouvelle Critique at the Cannes Film Festival, and Jean Renoircalled it the best American film he’d seen in twenty years.
- The Monitors (1969) – A satirical alien invasion film in which earth’s invaders run the planet as though they were 1950s hallway monitors, featuring members Avery Schreiber, Alan Arkin, Fred Kaz, and Peter Boyle.
- Second to None (2001) – A documentary by Matt Hoffman and Scott Silberstein about the process of writing Paradigm Lost, following the cast and director Napier from the initial rehearsal through opening night. Originally narrated by alum Jim Belushi, the film was reworked, with rehearsal footage added, ten years after its initial release.
- The Second City: First Family of Comedy (2006) – A documentary by Sharon Bartlett and alum Dave Thomas in three parts, focusing on the origins of The Second City in Chicago, the life of SCTV, and the success of notable alumni, including Tina Fey, Mike Myers, Ryan Stiles, Patrick McKenna, and Martin Short.
- I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With (2006) – An independent film starring, written, directed and produced by Jeff Garlin, himself a former Second City actor, features scenes shot within The Second City’s Chicago theater, and features several of its alumni, including Mina Kolb, David Pasquesi, Amy Sedaris, Richard Kind, Dan Castellaneta, Tim Kazurinsky, and Bonnie Hunt.