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Second City's first-rate legacy

Marking 50 years, the satirical Chicago troupe can claim a legion of star alumni and a major impact on the world of comedy.

December 06, 2009|By Chris Jones
  • Steve Carell (films and NBC's "The Office"), left, and Stephen Colbert (Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report"), second from right, hone their skills in 1993.
Steve Carell (films and NBC's "The Office"), left, and… (Snowbound )

Reporting from Chicago — It was born of University of Chicago nerds at the end of McCarthyism, back when cutting-edge comedy meant jokes about your mother-in-law. It fed on the slow Chicago burn of 1960s counterculture, even though the demons of drugs and alcohol took down more than a few of its brilliant, misfit stars. It gave a tough Midwestern city its own colorfully indigenous, endlessly malleable art form -- satirical sketch-comedy, created through improvisation. After some 35 years in the business, it deftly transformed itself into a shrewdly self-aware farm team for "Saturday Night Live" and the newly expansive world of television comedy, a market that the Second City itself helped create.

Second City, which celebrates a splashy, star-crusted 50th anniversary next weekend, has always danced a delicate pirouette between light and dark, polish and heart, business and art, slickness and spontaneity, maternal nurturing and patriarchal practicality.

The dangers of the drugs and the booze have mostly been replaced by the perils of personal ambition. But it is a dance that gets ever trickier.

"Second City has changed the way the NBA has changed," says alumnus Tim Kazurinsky. "We used to have blackouts between the scenes -- wine to clear the palate for what comes next. Now it's more run and gun, fun, fun, fun. You used to get an Alan Arkin and Barbara Harris sketch that would bring a tear to the eye. Now you kill yourself laughing."

Such dichotomies, and a perennial feeling that the older days were always the purer days, are built into the theater's DNA. Over the years, Second City has morphed from a collection of colorful Chicago characters to the home of some shrewd entertainment entrepreneurs. When John Belushi finally got his posthumous star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2004, his brother Jim affectionately and aptly referred to him as a "hairy brick." It is a long way from a hairy brick to Tina Fey.

Indeed, Second City now finds itself a stable, profitable business with $30 million in annual revenue, a licensed offshoot on cruise ships, various multimedia deals and a new raft of midcareer celebrity alumni -- the likes of Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert -- that any Ivy League school would covet. Its 65-year-old owner, Andrew Alexander, says he is in negotiations to buy a lot at Wells and Division streets and build his company a new home with theaters, a training center and headquarters from the ground up.

Yet the very name of the Second City, taken from a snotty 1959 article about Chicago in the New Yorker, embodies the same insecurity that always bedevils its hometown. Over the last 50 years, there have been plenty of offbeat but competitive individuals fighting to run this weird joint in their own image. And for every celebrity alumnus ready to gush about how they had the time of their young lives doing eight mainstage shows a week at what alumnus George Wendt likes to call the "Harvard of comedy," there are always scores of bitter rejects from its classes and workshops ready with sad stories of how their talents were egregiously overlooked.

"We're made our share of mistakes," says Alexander. "But our art has shown it can survive for 50 years. We've gone through every political and social change imaginable, and we are still sold out almost every night."

"We are a business," says vice president Kelly Leonard. "And yet the talent and the environment here have always been anti-commercial, anti-corporate and challenging of authority. That's the paradox that sustains this place."

Paradoxical as it may be, it's tough to argue that this beloved Chicago institution has lost any of its impact or cultural centrality. On the contrary, it is now more powerful than ever in the media landscape. Even though it has never abandoned a hometown hundreds of miles from the entertainment-industry centers of New York and Los Angeles.

Even though? Maybe because.

Born on Wells Street

"For this Second City thing to work," says Mick Napier, its marquee director, "it cannot ever be about a manager, an agent, a product or a proposition. It always has to be about a show done in the middle of winter in the Midwest. That keeps everything real."

The group's impact on the national comedy business has been well documented in books and articles -- "SCTV," "Saturday Night Live," "30 Rock" are just a few of the projects born in large part on Wells Street. The list of alumni, both from Chicago and the Toronto based spinoff, is long and familiar. Mike Myers. Adam McKay. Chris Farley. Nia Vardalos. Shelley Long. Bill Murray. Gilda Radner. John Candy.

But Second City has always insisted that it be viewed and treated as a theater (it has a contract with Actors' Equity) as distinct from a comedy club. Although many people think that its shows are wholly improvised, they are actually shaped, honed and tightly scripted.

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