Half a century after first making audiences laugh, Second City is thriving — and expanding.A line starts to form outside the North Wells Street theater an hour prior to the 11 p.m. show
on a Friday. Folks snap photos of the Second City banner that hangs down over a facade of four wizened faces, sculptures of German opera writers that were taken from a Louis Sullivan–designed opera house after it was torn down. The doors open and the flood of people walk upstairs past posters of performers who have graced this Chicago stage. It’s a veritable who’s who of modern comedy: Alan Arkin, Joan Rivers and Fred Willard in the 1960s; the trio of John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd and Gilda Radner that was poached to start Saturday Night Live in the 1970s; and the latest batch of stars, including Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert and Steve Carell.
Scenery is sparse on the main stage — merely their signature wooden chairs backed by white walls. Then the six performers appear and the crowd is soon bellowing with laughter, fed a heavy dose of political satire mixed with physical humor. The six- to seven-minute sketches are strung together with little or no transition, infused with an irreverent wit that may reference Roger Clemens one moment and Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel the next.
With the advent of YouTube, the comedy sketch, once marginalized to the rare television shows like SNL, Second City Television (SCTV) and MADtv, has blossomed into a popular art form. Anyone with a video camera, a group of friends and a concept can instantly have a fan club. So it should come as no surprise that the great incubator of improvisational comedy, Second City, is also thriving. This month, it opens a fifth theater in its Piper’s Alley complex in the Old Town neighborhood of Chicago. That’s in addition to its Toronto stage, which has produced such talent as John Candy and Mike Myers since it opened in 1973. Second City’s training centers teach the art of improv to 15,000 students a year in Chicago, Toronto and Los Angeles. There are currently three touring companies soon to appear near you in North America, in addition to the seven troupes performing on Norwegian Cruise Line ships. Its corporate development team works with 400 companies a year to stage performances at business meetings. And, not missing a beat, it has a large presence on the Web, attracting 80,000 subscribers to the Second City Network.
Not bad for a group of University of Chicago graduates who performed their first show on Dec. 16, 1959, just down North Wells Street atop a Chinese laundry. One of the original cast members was a Fulbright scholar named Paul Sills, whose mother used improvisational games to help immigrant children assimilate into American culture during the 1930s. Sketches might be shorter and political references have moved on from Dwight Eisenhower to Barack Obama, but the original technique of using the collaborative process to write a scene is still Second City’s cornerstone.
“Improvisation for us is the methodology to get material,” says Second City chief executive and co-owner Andrew Alexander, a former performer on the Toronto stage. The first two acts of the show are scripted from previous improv sessions with the cast behind closed doors, while the last act, dubbed “the set,” is the opportunity for the actors to work with a blank slate and invite audience participation. This can lead to comedic gold — or a worthless lump of coal.