Second City Comedy: 50 Years of Funny
It’s a typical scene: three co-workers sitting at work discussing politics over coffee. The conversation begins to grow more heated. Suddenly, at the pinnacle of awkward tension, one of the men morphs into a Velociraptor in time with the Jurassic Park theme song and dashes about wreaking havoc. Perhaps the funny doesn’t translate quite as well on paper, but trust me, it was hilarious. I was crying. This is an example of one of the many, many sidesplitting skits written and performed by the people of Second City.
For the past fifty or so years, this comedy troupe and school, with their main focus on improv-based sketch comedy routines, has been grooming some of the funniest comedians of our time, along with a handful of renowned dramatic actors, as well. Second City, which sprung from the University of Chicago’s Compass Players, is truly a Chicago original, with the first theatre opening on December 16, 1959 in Old Town.
Second City was not always the comedy behemoth it is now, though — it has evolved dramatically over the years. Training centers, which host workshops for people wishing to hone their craft, were founded in the mid-1980’s. With theatres in Chicago and Toronto, training centers in Chicago, Toronto and Los Angeles, 11 full time touring ensembles (including shows on Norwegian Cruise Line), and forays into television and film, it comes as no surprise that the New York Times dubbed Second City “a comedy empire”.
Beginning in the 1970’s, Second City became a prominent feeder troupe for Saturday Night Live, and with a never-ending litany of famous alumni (notable Chicago alums include Alan Arkin, Chris Farley, Steve Carell, and Tina Fey), Second City has become known as an ideal starting place from which comedians, actors, writers, and directors can launch their careers.
The element that has always set Second City apart is the raw talent of cast members and their ability to improvise. Jim Fisher, Chicago class of 1969, explained, “At one point, we were saying the trouble with the other company is that they were so good, the audience sometimes didn’t believe they were improvising on their feet. We were good, and we wanted the audience to know how good.” (from the book The Second City: A Backstage History of Comedy’s Hottest Troupe by Donna McCrohan). This prompted the cast to invite audience members up on stage during intermission to write down specific suggestions, which the cast would then spin into hysterical improvised skits.
Several weeks ago, a group of friends and I had our first Second City experience when we went to see its 34th revue entitled “The Absolute Best Friggin’ Time of Your Life”. The theatre is set up cabaret style, with people sitting at tables in close proximity to other show-goers and alcohol flowing as freely as the laughs. The format of the show was similar to all of Second City’s performances: it began semi-scripted with improv interspersed throughout and ended with the cast completely improvising from audience suggestions.
The scripted show, which included the Velociraptor anecdote mentioned above, was entertaining, of course, and very funny. However, the best part of the show, hands down, was the improvised segment following the mainstage show. After each mainstage show there is a 30-minute improvised segment that is free and open to the public, so if you can’t grab tickets in time to see a real show, just grab some friends and go to the improv segment at 9:30.
Second City cast members truly are the best of the best (or the funniest of the funniest, as the case may be), and love sharing their talents with the people of Chicago. For more information about classes, shows, and anything else you might ever wish to know about Second City, visit their website at secondcity.com/.
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