Bernard Sahlins

Founding father of improv

Bernard Sahlins was a small-time theater producer in Chicago in 1959 when, with director Paul Sills and actor Howard Alk, he opened a new vest-pocket theater in a former Chinese laundry and called it the Second City. It was an instant success, pioneering a new style of comedy: not one-liners or knockabout skits but understated, naturalistic sketches based on cast improvisations. Their comedy was smart, politically aware and sharply attuned to the rhythms and neuroses of Cold War--era America.

The theater was the breeding ground for generations of American comics, from Alan Arkin, Robert Klein and Joan Rivers through practically every...

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