“It was a place where you were allowed to experiment and allowed to fail,” says Alan Arkin, an Academy Award–winning actor whose recent memoir, An Improvised Life, recounts his time in the comedy incubator. “The audience came knowing that a third of every evening was not gonna work. They were fine with that.”
“You never knew what was going to happen next,” adds Dave Thomas, best known as Doug McKenzie, the “eh”-spouting Canadian stereotype who partnered with Rick Moranis on SCTV. “One night, Dan Aykroyd tells me we’re doing a skit entirely in French. I knew very little French. The next night I’m playing a marriage counselor, and Catherine O’Hara comes out playing both the husband and wife in turmoil.”
This magical element of surprise onstage stokes the fire of performers and gives them the necessary adrenaline to do eight shows a week. Yet it’s the possibility of creating something new in the moment while collaborating with an ensemble cast that has lured many of these comedians away from more traditional stand-up comedy where one sits on that stool alone, either leaving the crowd in stitches or dying onstage. This was especially true in the late 1950s when borscht belt comedians like Milton Berle and Henny Youngman were en vogue. In a revolutionary manner, Second City turned its back on stand-up. So it’s somewhat surprising that the new theater will showcase stand-up comedians four nights a week.
“We felt that there weren’t enough venues in town for stand-up comedians to do their work,” says Second City president Diana Martinez, adding that the new stage will also feature comedic performances for children.
Just down the hallway in the Piper’s Alley campus, a popular thoroughfare for hippies in the late 1960s, teenagers stream in and out of an improvisational camp. On any given week in Chicago, there can be close to 2,000 students in training. According to Alexander, they’re from all walks of life, “from people looking at comedy as a potential profession to lawyers trying to improve their presentation skills.” Indeed, Second City has seen an increase in demand from corporate executives wanting to sign up for improvisational training.