The Second City

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Frank Polich / Reuters / Corbis

Stephen Colbert, left, and Paul Dinello perform in a skit as part of the 50th anniversary of Second City in Chicago

For a club that's been hailed as the temple of satire — its alumni list reads like a Who's Who of modern comedy, from John Belushi and Alan Arkin to Tina Fey and Stephen Colbert — you wouldn't know it to look at its interior. The small, intimate club's black walls and stark stage are meant to keep the focus on the talent; the only signs of its pedigree are the photographs and signatures of the stars who once trod its boards on the walls backstage.

The coffeehouse's décor has received few updates since the day it opened 50 years ago — Dec. 16, 1959 — in a former Chinese laundry on North Wells Street in Chicago's Old Town neighborhood. The club, and the troupe that shares its name, was opened by three theater veterans and University of Chicago grads, Bernard Sahlins, Paul Sills and Howard Alk. They took the name from the condescending title of a New Yorker article about Chicago by A.J. Liebling, and the idea — an improvisational comedy show — from theater games developed by Sills' mother, actress and theater teacher Viola Spolin.

Sills, a Fulbright scholar and former merchant marine, honed the Second City formula — an ensemble ethic and a focus on audience participation — with previous performance groups the Playwrights Theater Club and the Compass Players. Sills and Sahlins' professional relationship began while producing shows at the Playwrights Theater Club, and Alk had worked with Sills at Gate of Horn, a folk-music club in Chicago. When the three came together to build Second City, they stepped into an uncharted territory of comedy: improv did not exist outside of Sills and Spolin's projects. Comedy shows of that era were mostly rehearsed stand-up.

They stepped out on a limb, and they were met with critical acclaim. Almost immediately, Second City set a standard for smart social and political satire. In March 1960, TIME wrote, "The audiences keep coming back to the Second City, on Chicago's North Wells St., where the declining skill of satire is kept alive with brilliance and flourish."

Second City co-owner and chief executive Andrew Alexander attributes this to the intelligence expected of cast members: "Respect your audience. Keep the bar as high as you can. Don't talk down to your audience, and don't go for the obvious joke." The troupe — whose early members included Mike Nichols, Joan Rivers and Del Close — became known for its brainy wit as seen in sketches like "Football Comes to the University of Chicago." The routine shows a coach's unsuccessful attempt to teach four students the rules of the game. But they can't seem to operate outside of academia, referring to the football as a "demi-poly-tetrahedron."

In 1967, Second City moved down the street into a bigger venue. While its décor and ethos remained intact, the late '60s and early '70s brought a number of changes. The new generation of comedians — including Belushi and Harold Ramis — was coming in and bringing with it a style of comedy that reflected the radical attitudes of the time. Belushi performed six nights a week, perfecting the physical gonzo style of comedy he would later make famous.

In 1973, Second City opened a second theater in Toronto. When Sahlins scouted the city, he found not only an extensive talent pool, but also considerable local support. Sahlins enlisted Alexander, a Canadian entrepreneur who had briefly worked at a Chicago theater, to run it. The new venue "struggled for a while" as he remembers, but soon the outlook for Second City — and its brand of satiric comedy — changed forever. On Oct. 11, 1975, Lorne Michaels, along with fellow NBC employee Dick Ebersol and president of the network Herb Schlosser, launched Saturday Night Live, a genre-defining mix of music and sketch comedy whose cast was stocked with Second City alums like Dan Aykroyd and Gilda Radner. In large part thanks to SNL, Alexander says, "comedy became the rock 'n' roll" of the 1970s.

As the likes of Aykroyd, Radner and Belushi started to appear on SNL, Second City got a reputation as a breeding ground for up-and-coming comics. Sahlins would sometimes refuse entry to poachers, including Michaels, because it distracted the actors and changed their motives for performing at Second City.

With SNL a breakout hit, Second City executives decided to develop a sketch-comedy series of their own, launching SCTV in 1976. In its early days, SCTV was aired only on Canadian television. The cast included standouts from the troupe's Toronto branch such as John Candy and Eugene Levy. The series introduced the stereotypical, "eh"-saying Canadian brothers Bob and Doug McKenzie, played with aplomb by Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis. The McKenzie brothers hosted The Great White North, a commentary show with topics ranging from Canada's geography to tutorials on how to trick beer companies into giving you a free case by stuffing a mouse in a bottle. The McKenzie brothers went on to star in commercials for Pizza Hut and, not surprisingly, Molson, North America's oldest brewery.

SCTV, says Alexander, began as a defensive response to SNL, under the assumption that other networks would follow NBC's lead, launching sketch-comedy shows of their own and draining Second City's talent. But by 1983, SCTV had won two Emmy Awards for outstanding writing (1982 and 1983) and was being broadcast in the U.S. on NBC; it was canceled in 1984, after eight seasons.

The end of the show didn't mean the end of Second City's empire. The next year, it opened its training center at Second City in Chicago, where its principles of improv technique were formalized and taught. (While all actors are chosen only after a rigorous audition, most of the troupe's younger stars are products of the training center; Steve Carell, Rachel Dratch, Chris Farley and Fey are all former students.) But not all attempts at expansion worked out. Second cities in Pasadena and Santa Monica, Calif., and Edmonton, Alberta, soon shuttered, while theaters in Las Vegas and Detroit meandered along for years without attaining the fame of the Chicago and Toronto venues.

But the success of Second City has always been measured by the depth of its talent, and for 50 years it has provided the first stepping-stones for some of comedy's leading lights. Shelley Long and George Wendt were cast in leading roles in the legendary Cheers. Alums Ryan Stiles and Colin Mochrie further showcased the improv art form on the show Whose Line Is It Anyway? Amy Poehler formed the Upright Citizens Brigade comedy group, starred on SNL and got her own sitcom, Parks and Recreation. And four Second City alumni either write for or act in the multi-award-winning NBC comedy 30 Rock. These successes, as Alexander puts it, are "our legacy."