Second To None | The Second City

“There are some pretty basic philosophies within this. Success begets success is one of them. The very best people are hired in, the very best meaning that they have certain qualities or standouts—but that’s not necessarily what our goal is. Our goal is to create solid, interesting ensembles, but they seem to feed off one another that way,” says Kligerman.

 

 

What do Alan Arkin, Dan Ackroyd, Gilda Radner, Mike Meyers, Tina Fey, and Steve Carell have in common? If you said they’re masters of comedy from the last 50 years, you’d be half right. These bright, shining stars also have one very important common thread: they are all alumni of the Second City.

Borne out of the ashes of the Compass Players—the legendary Chicago comedy theater troupe founded by undergraduates from the University of Chicago—and the fledgling socio-political comedy scene of the mid-1950s, the Second City opened its doors in 1959. Including some hip, young bohemian types with names like Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Alan Arkin, and Paul Sills, the company took its name from an article in The New Yorker by writer A.J. Liebling, who christened the Windy City “the Second City” after living there for a year. The tongue-in-cheek reference garnered the ire of many residents, but the comedic minds behind the newly formed comedy troupe took the name and ran with it.

Forty-six years and countless revues later, the troupe has grown to include five theaters across North America, three touring ensembles, a training center for young writers and actors, and a training center for corporate and public speakers. The roster of famous names who have sprung forth from the ranks of Second City theaters is almost too long to list, but if names like Castellaneta, Levy, Murray, O’Hara, Odenkirk, and Sedaris strike your fancy, keep reading.

First a misconception needs to be cleared up: The Second City—contrary to popular belief—is not an improvisational comedy outfit. “Sketch comedy is what we do here at the Second City. Certainly we expect that our actors know how to improvise, but sketch comedy is the crux of the art form of what we do here, and it’s what we’ve been doing since 1959,” says one of Second City’s producers, Beth Kligerman. Kligerman is managing the schedule for the touring ensemble that will be bringing The Best of Second City tour to cities nationwide. Among her many jobs with the troupe is acting as a liaison for the ensemble and the venue in which they’re performing, as well as assembling the actors and understudies for the tour. “The Second City hires people into the touring company, and they become understudies to the touring ensemble. And then possibly from there—if they’re lucky—they become members of the three touring ensembles. Once they do that, they hopefully stay together for a period of time when they work together.”

Working together for an extended period of time is partially what fuels the art form of sketch comedy; working within an ensemble, the actors have to know that they can count on their fellow players to get their backs, and that comes through working together for more than just a few shows. Good sketch comedy also comes from producers being able to recognize top-notch talent.

“There are some pretty basic philosophies within this. Success begets success is one of them. The very best people are hired in, the very best meaning that they have certain qualities or standouts—but that’s not necessarily what our goal is. Our goal is to create solid, interesting ensembles, but they seem to feed off one another that way,” says Kligerman.

The show currently on tour culls material from the 46-year history of the company; sketches written in 1959 might be juxtaposed with sketches written in 1999. Kligerman explains, “The Second City touring ensembles work with a director, and that director helps craft, create, and shape the sketch show. In doing so, that director may select scenes from the 46-year archive, or an ensemble actor may bring one in and say, ‘Hey, let’s try this one out; it makes sense to do right now.’ Or, ‘I’d like to try this theme right now.’”

As for the material, nothing is off limits. “The nature of our material is adult, social, and political satire. So we are very interested the human condition and in examining all the hot buttons between relationships, sex, politics, and, of course, religion,” says Kligerman. Still, the Second City is notorious for presenting smart and witty satire that doesn’t rely on raunchy words or situations to elicit a laugh (not that there’s anything wrong with that), and the current political climate is, no doubt, providing a bevy of source material for the ensembles.

Kligerman also notes that while its is not the Second City’s intention to make any one person a star, that is exactly why a lot of people audition. “People who want to work in live sketch comedy revues, if they’re looking to participate in this work to get known, it’s probably not a good idea. It’s a long, tiresome, arduous process full of a lot of great, healthy competition with the very best actors and improvisers in the country. So often there’s the perception that, ‘If I do this, I’m going to be seen by Lorne Michaels and I’m going to be on Saturday Night Live and I’m set forever!’ But it’s got to be about the love of the work and making people laugh and making people think.”

Whatever the reason that actors and writers seek to present themselves to the Second City—and possibly the world—we can take comfort in knowing that the end result is something that will make you laugh your ass off. And in these politically, economically, and socially depressing times, that’s precisely what we need.

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